Friday, December 30, 2016

Easy Resolutions

It’s the end of another year; time to consider a few resolutions.  The trouble with resolutions is they take will power.  The dimension of discipline comes into play.  Why can’t there be some easy resolutions that are more about not doing something than about working hard.  That should make things considerably easier, and more rewarding in terms of that feeling of success.

A Christmas visitor directed me to this website.  The title of the article is “7 bad science and health ideas that should die with 2016.”  The authors write about how some wrong ideas just seem to stick around.  Friends tell friends.  Ideas become ingrained, and despite all the good science to the contrary, they just won’t go away.  According to the article, this particularly applies to seven myths “that were decisively debunked this year” or possibly debunked again in one more attempt to make them go away. 

This is one of my personal favorite subjects; the things people continue to believe and refuse to change their opinion despite overwhelming contrary evidence.  Instead they look to social media friends or their favorite echo-chamber news source for reassurance.  Throughout the last five and a half years I have brought up many of these subjects.  (For a few of my examples, just look to the history over the last six months where the title begins, “One More Time.”)

In this case though, since these are bad ideas, shown to be decisively incorrect, a good and easy New Year’s resolution would be simply to stop believing them.

The first myth – Exercise will help you lose weight.  Many studies show that “the extra calories you burn only account for a small part of your total energy expenditure, and that cutting your food intake is a much more efficient way to lose weight.”  

The actual myth should read "increasing exercise alone would lead to significant and lasting weight loss."  Exercise is really good.  It gets the blood pumping, which is good for the heart, and good for the bones and good for the brain.  It even helps reduce the chance of getting certain diseases.  But no one can increase exercise while maintaining the same diet and lose much weight.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Programs led by the NFL and the First Lady are not going to impact the childhood obesity epidemic unless diets change also.  We could all start running marathons and it wouldn’t help.

The second myth – There’s been no global warming since 1998.  They present several charts and graphs to point out that the temperature has increased over that period.  There have been ups and downs – not unusual for a small data set, in this case less than 20 annual observations.  These ups and downs have led some to doubt whether the warming has persisted.  But the temperature has been increasing for the last 400 years, so the fact that we have not had a dramatic flattening or change of direction should surprise no one.

This myth misses the key questions about climate change.  Warming is not the issue.  The major questions are: first, whether actions prescribed will have any measurable effect on the warming, and second, whether the change in climate will be catastrophic.  The assumed answer to both these questions is yes.  But the large consensus about warming does not extend to these assumptions.  The danger is that if the answer to either is no, we have wasted a lot of resources, resources that will be needed to adapt to a catastrophic change if it comes or resources that will be completely wasted.  In the latter case we will have sacrificed some our standard of living and deprived third-world countries of the ability to improve theirs significantly for nothing.  Of course none of that matters because debate is closed.

The third myth - Antibiotics cure colds.  This is simple.  Antibiotics kill bacteria.  Viruses cause colds.  Bacteria and viruses are not the same.  But people take antibiotics and the cold goes away.  People also take vitamin C, Echinacea, zinc and other products and the cold goes away.  Then they all swear by the effectiveness of whatever they tried.  Of course, some people take nothing and the cold goes away.

The particular danger with antibiotics is that “the more we take antibiotics – particularly when they're not necessary – the more we increase the chances of helping develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”  A second concern is that they can wipe out good bacteria in our guts.  A third problem is that it’s a waste of money.

Some good, easy resolutions would be to drop the idea that exercise alone will be an effective weight loss program, to admit the earth is warming but not to panic over every dismal prediction, knowing that dismal predictions drive so much funding, and to lay off the antibiotics unless prescribed for a bacterial infection.

Come back Monday for a few more easy resolutions.

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