Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Consider this a companion piece to my last bit on flat earth ‘theories’ (and I use that term very loosely). The idea of a flat earth relies exclusively upon belief in conspiracy, that NASA and countless scientists are not only wrong, but they’re actively lying to you. You’ll see stuff like this all over Facebook, Instagram, etc:

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Of course the interesting thing about memes like these is that there’s never a reason given for why NASA and the media would perpetrate such a massive hoax. We can assume that anyone who develops and perpetuates a conspiracy is doing it for some reason. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is rarely a motivation provided for these conspiracies. We’ll see why that’s not problematic for the believer in a moment.

Of course, the flat earth isn’t the only conspiracy out there. Climate change, vaccines, 9/11, cures for cancer or AIDS, weather control–take your pick. There are people out there who believe it and who disseminate that belief online via social media. The weather control one was a particularly new one for me, but I’ve seen it making the rounds lately:

Haap Patent Weather Modification Chemtails EMF

Well, at least here we have a motivation: military power. However, why would a secret government organization file a public patent for a top-secret weapon? That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Whenever I look at these kinds of conspiracies, I’m struck by one common thread: they contradict themselves at an incredibly basic level. They set up these shadowy corporations or institutions as entities that are simultaneously both immensely powerful and yet completely incompetent. Take the HAARP example. Here we have a secretive government organization that has all this power and money and knowledge–they can even control the weather!–yet they’re so stupid that they file public patents, let photos of their devices leak onto the internet, etc.

None of that matters to the conspiracy theorist, because these conspiracy theories aren’t meant to appeal to a sense of reason or logic. That’s why they never provide evidence and they rarely provide a motivation. None of that matters, because conspiracy theories are designed to do one thing:

Mollify a perceived lack of control in the believer.  

But don’t take my word for it. There’s been research into why people believe conspiracy theories. This article from Psychology Today has some real gems in it for explaining the conspiracy theory phenomenon:

“Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.”

To me, this makes perfect sense. When someone who values their independence see a lack of control or an erosion of that independence in their own life, they manufacture a scapegoat in these conspiracy theories. Research by psychologist Jean Twenge provides some empirical data for this:

“Twenge’s research examines how Americans’ personality traits have been changing over the past several decades, from the 1960s through the end of the century, looking at the personality scores for each year. For example, she finds that trait anxiety (or neuroticism) has been rising dramatically in both children and adults over this period. […] In another study, she shows that people have come to hold an increasingly stronger external “locus of control”; this refers to the feeling that external forces are determining what happens to you, as opposed to an internal locus of control, the feeling that you dictate your own outcomes. […] Individualistic values have also been getting stronger in our culture, with greater importance attached to personal freedoms and self-reliance. […] The rise in anxiety, individualism, and external locus of control may therefore underlie the rise in conspiracy thinking. This is somewhat troubling because these personality trends show no sign of leveling off. In fact, given the current pace of globalization and the “Americanization” of other countries, it seems likely that these personality traits (and conspiracy thinking) will be increasing elsewhere too.

That seems like a succinct and accurate representation of the people who I know that believe in conspiracies. In my last post, I featured a screenshot of a conversation on Instagram. Let’s take a look at it again:

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The bit about density is still circled, but this time let’s examine some of the other comments on the thread, starting with the one from mitch_and_tammy: “Who gives a fuck if the earth is flat or round. Either way, I’m still a middle class slave!” This comment doesn’t really tell us if this person believes that the earth is flat. But it does show a predisposition toward not questioning the conspiracy because of a perceived lack of power and control.

Then there’s the comment from bitabites: “I KNOW it looks flat I know about operation paperclip. I know not to trust anyone so I know not to believe anything…” I’m not quite sure what operation paperclip has to do with the flat earth. Nevertheless, let’s examine the other language. This person exhibits a high degree of individualistic values, with much emphasis on “I,” on what the individual “knows.” There’s a strong distrust of that external locus of control– nobody is to be trusted and nothing is to believed.

These two individuals, particularly the second one, exhibit the kind of anxiety and paranoia that psychologists commonly ascribe to conspiracy theorists. Their belief in a flat earth, therefore, are unsurprising.

It’s also unsurprising, therefore, that scientifically trained or inclined people seem less likely to believe in conspiracies. Science relies almost exclusively upon external loci of control–we need other scientists to independently confirm or refute our findings. And because science is a genuinely collaborative effort, there’s less emphasis on “I” and more emphasis on “we.” Science isn’t about the individual, it’s about the scientific community as a whole. Science as a collective body also tends to work toward the same goal, with mutual cooperation and respect. In short, science empowers people, groups of people, whole scientific communities.

So, what do we do to combat this? Well, from the research that’s been done the first and most obvious thing is to make individuals feel more empowered. We can do that on a political, social, and economic level. We can correct the massive income and wealth inequality that exists in this country for starters. We can stop moneyed interests and corporate lobbyists from influencing our political system. Those are probably the biggest causes of anxiety we currently face.

But we also have to do a better job educating people. Basic scientific understanding is floundering in this country. People don’t know how science works, and more importantly don’t know how to critically evaluate evidence or anything they read and see. Sadly, science has become one of those external loci of control, the “other” that’s trying to suppress you. Of course that’s farthest from the truth, but it’s the outcome of a society that doesn’t understand science and feels large amounts of anxiety and paranoia–we have a tendency to fear what we do not understand.

We in the scientific community need to do a better job of engaging with these conspiracy theories and their believers. If people feel a lack of control in their lives, what they really need is power. And I would argue that science is the ultimate provider of knowledge.

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How to end the flat earth argument

Apparently people still think that the earth is flat despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. This stuff is all over social media, and it infuriates me to no end because we’ve known that the earth was a sphere for thousands of years, and if ancient man could figure that shit out then I would expect that someone who has access to satellite photography would also be able to figure it out. But alas, people are ignorant as fuck and thus we have the flat earth theory. Everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently had to respond to an NBA star commenting that the earth is flat.

I had an exchange with someone on Instagram earlier today. Someone I follow posted something showing how the earth was curved, not flat. Well, cue the “woke” enlightened folk. So I asked how a flat planet could form in the presence of gravity. Well, apparently gravity is also a conspiracy. Here’s the response I got:

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See, guys, there’s no such thing as gravity because density! Duh. And no, I’m not blurring anyone’s name out on here because if you’re stupid enough to think the earth is flat and gravity isn’t real you deserve to be called out. And yes, I also realize that you all have my Instagram handle now.

But here’s why I asked about gravity.

I wanted to think of a proof or a thought experiment I could give a flat earther to get them to realize that they’re wrong. And I think I came up with one. And it all hinges on gravity. In order for a flat planet to form, gravity either 1) needs to not exist, or 2) not behave according to our current models. My response to good ol’ Jonathan there was this:

“There’s a very easy way to prove whether or not gravity is real. Pick an object, any old object will do. Next, find a place you can drop it from–a second story window, a tree, a rooftop–it doesn’t matter. Now, if you know the mass of the object and the height from which you’re dropping it from, then it’s a matter of simple math. Calculate the time it would take the object to reach the ground 1) by using the standard model of gravity and the equation time = √(2d/g) and 2) by substituting the value of g for literally anything else–like the formula for density. Then drop the object and compare the times to those given by your two equations.”

That’s really something any middle school student should be able to do. The response I got?

…total crickets. Nobody had a response. None of the flat earth geniuses, to nobody’s surprise, derived a new form of math to describe acceleration and motion that didn’t use gravity.

Because you can believe that the government lies to us about the shape of the earth and the ISS and moon landing are faked by NASA, but there’s one thing that doesn’t lie–GODDAMN MATH.

But just the fact that this needs to be explained to people is incredibly disheartening. It speaks to a broken education system. It speaks to a culture steeped in paranoia. It speaks to a political system wherein people are encouraged to openly deny evidence. People are so quick to latch onto conspiracy, but they can’t see that the way to to truly keep someone ignorant is to make them question observable, measurable, testable, repeatable evidence. THAT’S how you keep someone in ignorance. And the fact that this is happening speaks volumes about our social and political state.

So if you ever run into a flat earther, give them this proof and see what happens. My guess it that cognitive dissonance will be so great that their head will explode.

The marijuana condundrum

Well, election night wasn’t all bad news. More states legalized either recreational or medicinal marijuana! Woo-hoo! Take a look at the map now:

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However, no sooner than all this new legislation was passed did I read an article on Medscape about the dangers of marijuana use by a Dr. Melissa Walton-Shirley. The article is here if you’d like to read it, but I’ll be pulling out bits and pieces for the remainder of this post.

The crux of the article is this: there is some evidence that links marijuana to increased risk of certain cardiovascular diseases. The doctor who wrote the article cites a presentation that, “described an association between cannabis use and a twofold increase in the diagnosis of takotsubo cardiomyopathy.”

First of all, association isn’t causation. Walton-Shirley goes on to say,

“Seeing this uptick in apical ballooning in the young (and males to boot) is proof that manipulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is probably not a good thing for any age or gender unless those systems are producing pathology. Surely it’s predictable that inhaling substances never meant for human consumption doesn’t bode well for us, but it’s not the first time we’ve heard of pot’s potentially deleterious cardiovascular effects.”

There are a lot of things wrong here. First of all, a trend is not proof of anything. Second of all, and more importantly, the sample sizes of some of these studies are atrocious. Walton-Shirley even says in the article, “This article was lampooned due to its small sample size, but one must admit, where there is smoke, there can be fire (pun intended).” Hardy har, but you can’t just ignore the flaws and limitations of research to make a point or a pun.

I also find it very suspect that we’re never really given solid numbers about this “uptick.” Dr. Walton-Shirley gives some clues about it, saying that the rate of this cardiomyopathy is increased twofold by smoking pot. Well that’s all well and fine, but what does that mean in terms of naturally occurring cases? In other words, how many people are we talking about if we double the rate?

Well, we’ll have to do some detective work. Surfing the internet, I found an article from Circulation that states: “On the basis of recent analyses reported from several countries, this condition probably accounts for ≈1% to 2% of all cases of suspected acute myocardial infarction.” I think it’s also worth noting that the subtitle of the article is A New Form of Acute, Reversible Heart Failure. Turns out most people make a COMPLETE recovery. Anyway, the math.

 According to the American College of Cardiology, about 785,000 Americans have an MI every year. So we can say that in an average year, about 7,850-15,700 people suffer from TCM. But we also know what the prognosis for someone with TCM is: very good.  According to another Medscape article: “The prognosis in takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TCM) is typically excellent, with nearly 95% of patients experiencing complete recovery within 4-8 weeks.”

Well, let’s take those figures an apply them to our math above. We’re looking at a baseline mortality rate of 78.5-502.4 people per year. That’s it, folks. So let’s go with the worst case scenario, and say that smoking pot really does double the number of people who develop this. We’re talking about 1004 deaths per year due to marijuana. 

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Alcohol use kills 88,000 people per year.

Tobacco products kill 480,000 people per year.

Both perfectly legal. But heaven forbid we legalize pot, or 1000 people might get a rare form of cardiomyopathy. Do the people who make these arguments against pot not realize how insanely inconsistent their logic is? I mean, are we going to put people in jail because they use tobacco? Consumption of sugary drinks leads to diabetes, which affects 29 MILLION people in America. Should we jail anyone who drinks a big gulp?

And really, that’s what I think pisses me off the most about all this uproar over legalization. It’s not about health. Health is important, but legalizing pot isn’t a referendum on whether or not it’s bad for you, or whether or not you should use it. legalizing pot is about one thing:

NOT SENDING PEOPLE TO JAIL FOR USING IT.

That’s what decriminalization is about. It’s saying hey, maybe you shouldn’t go to jail for using a substance that’s less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, two perfectly legal products. 8.2 million people are arrested every year for pot-related offenses. Sure seems like we’re ruining more lives than we’re saving with anti-pot laws and policy. And we’re disproportionately ruining the lives of minorities, too, considering that white people use pot at the same rates of blacks and Latinos, yet are far less likely to be arrested for it. Not to mention the billions of dollars wasted every year enforcing these stupid laws:

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There’s no sensible reason to keep marijuana use illegal. There’s very poor evidence that it adversely affects health, at least compared to other perfectly legal substances. Anti-pot laws just waste everyone’s time and money. And people like Dr. Walton-Shirley are cherry picking data with very poor sample sizes to paint marijuana as some health menace, when there’s really no compelling body of evidence to support the stance.

Just make it legal everywhere and put those resources to better use.

Stressed out? You’re not alone.

In a previous post about healthcare in the United States, I talked a little bit about stress and its role in health. With this post, I’d like to delve a little bit more into its prevalence in American society. In order to do this, I’ll be summarizing and analyzing the latest stress report from the APA–the American Psychological Association–entitled, “Stress in America: Paying with our health.” You can find the full report here. It’s a fascinating read, and I highly encourage everyone to read it. I’ll then provide my own insight into the matter. First, a little background.

The APA has been conducting this study since 2007. That’s not a terribly long time for any long term trends to emerge, but I think the data is still valid and relevant for a short term snapshot of the American psyche. This last survey was conducted in February of 2015. 3,068 adults were included in the survey, which was conducted by Harris Poll. There were 1,204 men and 1,864 women across all generations and all regions of the US. Now, to the results.

The top causes of stress

The top four things that cause us stress are:

  1.  Money (64% of respondents)
  2. Work  (60%)
  3. Family responsibilities (47%)
  4. Health concerns (46%)

Money, not surprisingly, is the top concern of most people and the biggest cause of stress. 54% of those surveyed reported having “just enough or not enough money to make ends meet at the end of the month.” Specifically, Americans worry about paying for unexpected expenses, essentials, and saving for retirement. Unexpected expenses are a big one, considering the plight of the average American.

62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts, and 21% don’t even have a savings account at all. That means that, in the big picture, a whopping 83% of Americans don’t have enough money to pay for something big that happens out of the blue: an injury, a car repair, etc. It’s no wonder that the average American has $4,717 in credit card debt, and US credit card debt currently totals close to one TRILLION dollars.

The financial picture is just as bleak when it comes to retirement. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me:

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Clearly, the average American is not prepared to retire. This means that they have to work longer, which is a source of stress. However, the impact of not being able to retire goes beyond simple stress. Aging workers are more likely to suffer injuries on the job. They’re also more likely to have chronic health problems, which means they use their insurance more than younger workers. Ultimately this means that employers wind up paying more for an aging workforce.

But how does money specifically impact individual health? Well, according to the survey, nearly 20% of American report skipping or thinking about delaying visits to the doctor. 32% of Americans say that they don’t have enough money to live a healthy lifestyle. It also affects relationships. 41% of respondents with a spouse or partner reported that stress had caused problems in their relationship.

But perhaps the biggest effect on our health is how we manage stress. Spoiler alert, it’s very poorly. In order to deal with stress, the Average American will 1) Watch television, 2) Surf the internet, 3) Sleep/nap, 4) eat, 5) Drink, 6) Smoke. The order of those things changes depending on which generation you’re surveying, but you’ll notice two general things about all of those activities: they’re either sedentary or they’re actively bad for you. And about 20% of Americans say they don’t engage in any sort of activity at all to manage stress.

Now, let’s talk about some of the good things to come out of the survey.

First, self-reported stress is down. Yay! On a scale of 0-10, Americans in 2015 had an average stress level of 4.9 , which is down from 6.2 in 2007. However, that’s still far short of the level of stress that Americans think is a healthy level–3.7. Also, the number of Americans who say that stress has a “very strong or strong” impact on their physical and mental health appears to be decreasing as well.

Okay, now for some thoughtful analysis. First off, I think it’s very tempting for some people and pundits to look at this data and say, “Well if those lower income people would stop spending their money on fancy phones and tattoos and all that garbage they’d have more money left over!” It’s a new variation on the old “Welfare Queen” trope and quite frankly it’s pitifully stupid. The data clearly show that this isn’t the case. 53% of Americans reported using coupons or shopping during sales this year, 52% are cooking more at home, and 51% are cutting back on non-essentials. In short, people are tightening their belts, contrary to the conservative narrative. Now, does that mean that there aren’t people out their who spend and manage their money poorly? Of course those people exist. But they’re the exception, not the standard. And they even include wealthy people–actors and professional athletes can go broke making stupid purchases, too.

Second, there have been lots of reports about how, “The middle class is shrinking because more of them moved into a higher class!” Well, that’s certainly a nice talking point, as you can see in this article. And there’s even recent data that shows that median household income has nudged upward. However, let’s keep several things in mind.

“Middle class” is a relative term. It’s simply a multiplier of the poverty level. Also, it’s not a reflection of purchasing power. It’s not a statement on inflation. I can make more money, but if the price of goods increases at a rate greater than my income, the extra income means nothing. Similarly, if my debt increases, the extra income also means less. My newfound income may also push me into a higher tax bracket. In short, it’s entirely possible to make more money but be worse off than you were before. Being “middle class” or “upper middle class” is a purely linguistic term, and it’s very subjective. And if this report is any indication, any new income gained by the average American has not done much to impact the level of stress they feel regarding money. Which leads me to my last point, which is more philosophical in nature.

People who regularly read this blog know that I’m not a big fan of money. I hate it. I hate the way it’s used, I hate the way it’s idolized. At the same time, I recognize that in our society money is obviously necessary. I have to eat, put a roof over my head, etc. But the problem with money isn’t a conceptual one. I have no qualms with the idea of creating a system wherein we have a currency that represents labor. The problem is a cultural one, how we promote and utilize such a system.

In American culture, money has become synonymous with success. The more money you have, the more successful you are. The more material objects you own, the more successful you are. Indeed, it’s ingrained into the American psyche that spending money is tantamount to patriotism. Remember W imploring everyone to go out to mall or the terrorists will win? In the grand scheme of things, our society promotes money over all else.

It promotes money over science: the fossil fuel industry spends millions of dollars every year trying to discredit climate science and buy legislation.

It promotes money over public policy: The NRA and gun control. Lobbying by the food industry (hello soda and corn products!)

It promotes money over family: We spend much more time working than we do with our family and in our relationships.

It promotes money over the environment: Who cares about pollution if it provides us with cheap goods?

And it promotes money over health as the survey here shows.

But even if money is necessary, is it really important? And more crucially, is it really the metric we should all be using for success? Who lived the richer life: the man who died wealthy but never knew his kids or the person who lived a modest life and spent more time with their family? I realize that’s a subjective call, but my point is that culturally, we as a society only view one of them as being successful.

As a final thought about money, stress, and society, I would encourage everyone to read this article. It’s about a book written by a palliative care nurse who recorded the regrets of the dying patients that she took care of. Here’s the list of what people reported regretting on their deathbeds the most according to this nurse’s experiences:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

 

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

 

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

 

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

 

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

”This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

I would argue that what society tells us we should value really isn’t what we inherently want to value. And that disconnect more than anything is probably the biggest cause of stress in our lives.

Where’s the water?

I read something deeply disturbing to me the other day in a CNN article. You can read the story here. The disturbing part of that story isn’t that Trump and Clinton are virtually tied in Nevada. Well, actually, that is disturbing. But it isn’t the *most* disturbing part. No, the most disturbing part comes at the very end of the article, where it talks about the top three issues for Nevada voters.

  1. Jobs and the economy
  2. Terrorism and national security
  3. Supreme court picks

On the surface, these aren’t really very surprising. I’d guess that they reflect national concerns as well. But there’s something missing from this list that I would think that Nevadans would be particularly worried about.

Water.

In case nobody has ever been, Nevada is literally entirely desert. The whole state only receives 9″ of rainfall annually on average. For some perspective, my hometown of Portland, OR gets 39″ per year. That’s a pretty big difference. And it’s especially important given the fact that Nevada is running out of water.

Actually, a lot of states are running out of water, but you never really hear about it with the exception of the California drought. What’s amazing to me about California is that, although the plight of their water system and supply is reported on in the news, people don’t really seem to care. Which is really a shame, because, you know, you can’t live without water…

You’d think that California’s neighbor to the east would be paying very close attention to that situation. But alas, polls seem to indicate otherwise. But there’s something that Nevada can’t escape from: a dwindling water supply.

Lake Mead is created by the Hoover dam, and supplies most of Nevada (and several other states, including California) with water. The problem is that for the last 14 years, Lake Mead has been shrinking. In fact, according to one estimate, since the year 2000 the lake has lost 4 trillion gallons of water. That’s a metric shit ton of water. And it only gets worse.

As of writing this, the lake is currently projected to hit 1,079 feet at the end of December; federal guidelines call for a shortage at anything less than 1,075 feet. And there’s a 59% chance that the government will have to declare a shortage in 2018. The reservoir hasn’t been that low since 1937. Why are these levels a big deal? Because the water pumps sit at 1,000 feet–anything below that and the pumps won’t have anything to pump (AKA nobody gets water).

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A little before and after. Lake Mead hasn’t been filled to capacity since 1983.
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The white on that hill is where the water level used to be.

To be fair, Nevada has done a good job at enacting efforts to conserve water. Even though the population has grown, water consumption is down. But conservation only goes so far, because people watering lawns is only a tiny fraction of the problem. The biggest problem is that the planet is warming and drought is increasing, and flushing a toilet less isn’t going to stop that pattern.

The problem is actually twofold. First, an increasing population has a greater demand for water. Second, a warmer planet means less snowfall, and decreasing snow packs mean less run off, which means rivers and lakes receive less water. And this problem isn’t limited to the Southwestern United States. It’s global.

In fact, in 2015 the World Economic Forum declared the water crisis the world is experiencing to be the #1 risk to the globe based on impact the society. Think about all the clean water does.

Obviously you need water to drink. But we also need it for sanitation. And for agriculture. No water, no food. No modern sewer system. Industry relies upon water, too. You can’t have life and you can’t have an economy without water. Let’s take one of those examples, agriculture, and look at it further.

It takes 1,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of wheat. It takes 1,400 liters to produce the same amount of rice. And it takes a whopping 13,000 liters to produce 1 kg of beef. In Nevada, agriculture consumes 80% of the water supply. In point of fact, the USGS estimates that 38% of freshwater withdrawal in 2010 was due to agriculture, but that agriculture accounts for 80%-90% of consumptive water use. You can read the report here.

There are certainly things we can do to help mitigate things. Better irrigation systems. Growing less water-intensive crops. Simply growing less. We currently produce more than we consume and export, which is a huge waste. But the problem won’t be solved until we address climate change, since that’s the biggest contributing factor to the problem, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on and we continue to burn fossil fuels.

Which is why it’s so disheartening for me to see that in our political system, the link between the environment and the economy and jobs and security is either ignored, downplayed, or outright denied. It’s preposterous to me that people who are actively experiencing drought that will significantly impact their lives for potentially generations to come care more about who gets to pick supreme court justices. And I know conservatives get a lot of flack for being science deniers, but the left has their share of it too, especially when it comes to this issue. I was very dismayed to hear Bernie and Jill Stein talk about the evils of GMO foods. Not only is their no evidence that they’re harmful, but genetically engineering crops to use less water is going to be a very important part of future conservation strategies.

Ultimately, though, I’m waiting for a candidate to really spell it out for the people: all of the petty political things we argue about mean diddly squat if the environment collapses. Some politicians kind of dance around that or pay good lip service to the environment on the campaign trail, but inevitably the conversation returns to creating jobs and ISIS. There is no economy without water. There is no life without water. Who gets to pick supreme court judges is important, but not because of abortion or trade deals or gay marriage; it’s important because of who gets to rule on future cases involving conservation and the environment. And at the same time, realize that taking action on the climate *is* taking action of the economy, and jobs, and national security. They’re all tied together.

 

The real problem with American healthcare

There’s a healthcare crisis in America. This is at least one fact that both sides of the aisle can agree upon here. Of course, each side thinks that the crisis is happening for different reasons, and they both have their own solutions. I have a feeling, though, that both of their solutions are going to incompletely solve the problem, because they don’t address the root cause of the problem.

Let’s delve into the specifics.

Costs associated with healthcare are out of control in America. We spend more than every other country in the world on healthcare, and our results are middling at best. How much more do we spend?

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We spend twice as much as many of the countries on that list. Healthcare costs in America run into the trillions of dollars every year. A lot of people point to the high price of drugs. Yes, that does indeed play a role in the high price of healthcare in the US, and it does need to be addressed. Other countries on that list are able to directly negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies because the government is the insurance provider. Here in the US, pharmaceutical lobbies spend tons of money to get lax standards passed in congress, and private insurance companies are more than happy to charge you higher prices because it makes them more money too. To be sure, it’s an awful system, but it’s only one factor among many that contributes to the overall failure of our healthcare system.

Still some say that there’s too much bureaucracy involved in our healthcare. To some extent that’s certainly true. There are way too many cogs in the healthcare machine, so to speak, and frequently you get situations where the right hand doesn’t talk to the left hand because the system is so convoluted and bloated. There’s redundancy and waste. That’s obviously a contributing factor and should be addressed.

People also argue that we should either reign in or do away with insurance companies altogether, and go back to a simple fee-for- service model that’s left to the providers. This model makes the most sense, but it still has plenty of flaws. Unless you reign in drug prices, this kind of model isn’t really going to save you money at the pharmacy. It also doesn’t address the fact that there are plenty of treatments out there that cost more than the average person can pay (more on this later). Even if you got all of the insurance and government mumbo jumbo out of the way, open heart surgery is still going to be expensive because it’s complicated and risky with a long recovery period. Cancer treatment is still going to expensive. There’s no getting around that. But a model without insurance companies might work for simple primary care visits, and could serve as a patch or a bridge within the system.

All of these problems skirt around the real issue here, the real reason why the price of healthcare continues to skyrocket in this country: the burden of disease is high and keeps getting higher. In short, Americans pay more for healthcare because we’re sicker than almost everyone else. In my state we have an insurer, Moda, that’s in financial trouble because once the ACA went into effect, they very quickly realized that people were much sicker than anyone realized.

And that’s why the ACA is struggling a bit. The very people that the ACA brought into the healthcare fold were the sickest among us—the people who previously had no or sporadic access to healthcare and the people living in poverty. But that’s not exclusive to the lower socioeconomic groups. Americans in general are unhealthier than ever, and that’s an upward trend. What are the most common causes of death here?

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The striking thing about that list is that many of those things are preventable. Heart disease is the #1 killer of Americans, and it’s also the most preventable. Diabetes is also preventable (at least Type 2 is) or at least manageable. Respiratory diseases and even some cancers can be prevented, too. The common trend here comes down to ONE simple thing: lifestyle factors.

Unlike your genetic predisposition to something like high cholesterol or cancer, lifestyle factors are completely modifiable. And they play an important role in your overall health and the burden of disease within our healthcare system. In fact, there are four things that have tremendous impact on your health:

1) Sleep

2) Exercise

3) Diet

4) Stress

You’ll notice that all of those things can be addressed quickly and, more importantly, basically for free. You don’t need to spend money to go for a walk outside every day. You don’t need to spend money to eat less every day. Sleeping doesn’t cost anything. And you might also have noticed that all of these things have a profound effect on your immune system. Chronic stress will suppress your immune system. Not enough sleep will screw up your immune system and your metabolism. An imbalanced diet will screw up your immune system. And, for our really “with it” readers, you might also have noticed that all of those things affect each other; exercising and eating properly will help you sleep and they reduce stress.

In short, the problem with healthcare in America is this: IT DOESN’T PROMOTE HEALTH.

And because of that,  too many people get fat and stressed and sick and then burn out the healthcare system, which isn’t designed or able to support hundreds of millions of chronically ill people. Just how much of an influence do those four factors have on health? Well, let’s look at them.

Sleep. We all know that you need sleep. That’s when your body heals, replenishes all of its neurotransmitters, grows, etc. You can’t function properly without the proper amount of sleep. How much sleep you need depends on your age and to some extent the individual, but here’s what the facts have to say. A whopping 45% of Americans say they get poor or insufficient sleep. The same report reveals that 67% of people who report getting “poor” sleep also report having poor or “only fair” health.

Exercise. It’s recommended that you move around for at least one hour every day. Yet most Americans lead very sedentary lives. The average American watches 5 hours of TV per day (7 if you’re over 65). In case you were wondering, here’s how our television watching compares to those in other countries:

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If you’re like me, this doesn’t really surprise you. But it does reinforce the fact that Americans are exceptionally sedentary. And what about exercise specifically? The CDC reports that only 20% of Americans over 18 meet the recommendations for aerobic and weight-bearing physical activity; that statistic jumps to just below 50% if you remove the weight-bearing exercise.

Diet. Again, there probably won’t be any surprises here. Take a look at this info from the USDA:

USDAchart1

As you can see, Americans eat too much fat, salt, and sugar and not nearly enough lean meat and vegetables. The average American consumes 3,770 calories per day, which is about 53% more than is recommended. The average American also eats more processed foods than ever before:

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Stress. Stress is hard to quantify, but we can certainly try. Let’s think about some of the things that cause us stress. Work is one thing. We do work more than people in other countries:

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Money or financial things also cause people stress. 63% of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts. 21% don’t even have a savings account at all. Good luck replacing the refrigerator or repairing the car. This also partially why you’ll never be able to just get rid of insurance companies (as much as we’d all like to). This survey from the American Psychological Association shows that while overall stress levels have decreased since the first survey in 2007, they’re still way above what the survey defines as a healthy amount of stress.What’s more, how Americans manage stress is also horrible: we eat, watch TV, drink, or smoke.

So what does all of this mean? Well, for one thing it means we’re fat. 62% of adults are overweight, and 27% are obese. What does that mean? It means more heart disease. It means more strokes. It means more diabetes. These are all things that happened to be in the top ten causes of death, by the way. It also means things like more arthritis. If you’re diabetic, which about 10 million people in America are, it means chronic wounds, visual problems, kidney failure, etc. That number is expected to jump to 44 million people by 2020, with spending on JUST DIABETES related problems expected to climb to $336 BILLION dollars a year.

And none of this is taking into account all of the effects that hypertension associated with these things have on individuals. Or the fact that 16 million Americans have asthma. And I’ve left out the effects that diet has on oral health, as well. The dental situation in America is out of control, but that’s almost another post. The bottom line is that these things profoundly affect the health of America and the burden on our healthcare system, and they’re all modifiable.

Of course, we don’t do that in this country. For philosophical reasons we let everyone engage in whatever self-destructive and detrimental behavior they want, then we balk at the price tag when the bill comes and can’t understand what went wrong.

But it obviously doesn’t have to be that way. Yes,  waste exists and we should try to eliminate it. But prevent the disease in the first place and you prevent the spending. There are lots of ways this could be done. I personally favor taxes on soda and fast food. I don’t care about “It’s my right to drink 7 Pepsi’s a day,” arguments. We tax alcohol and cigarettes, two other substances that raise the disease burden on the healthcare system. We could do the same thing with soda and fast food.

I also think we could do a better job providing incentives to people (as if not dying a slow, fat diabetes death isn’t enough in the first place). If you’re classified as overweight or obese, why not grant people tax breaks if they lose weight? Everyone loves saving money. I’d also be a proponent of publicly funded gyms that anyone can access for free. Start a public awareness campaign about diet and exercise. We did the same thing with smoking and teen pregnancy and the rates went down. Perhaps all that “This is your brain on drugs” money would have been better spent on “This is your body on sugar” commercials.

But until the way we conceptualize health and the role of healthcare systems changes, the price tag attached to healthcare won’t change. If we don’t address the root causes of disease we’ll never be able to stem the tide of rising healthcare costs. If we don’t promote and encourage health, we’ll never be healthy.

The vitamin and oil conspiracy

Folks, if you read me regularly then you know there’s nothing in the world I hate more than pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Which is why I’ve been fairly perturbed as of late by my social media feeds being inundated by posts about “Natural cures they don’t want you to know about!” I’m sure a lot of you have seen the ads or sponsored pages pop up on Facebook or Twitter. Bullshit like this:

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Look at that. 100k people think that cannabis just cures cancer. That’s something I’ve seen pop up quite a bit these days. Crap like, “Man with stage 4 cancer gets rid of it in a month with simple cannabis trick!” It’s the worst kind of social media offender: it’s simultaneously clickbait AND pseudoscience.

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Just a cursory Google search yields all kinds of wacky bullshit results:

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I mean, come on guys, this is totally on the up-and-up. If you can’t trust premier research institutes like Leafly, MedicalJane, and cureyourowncancer.org, just who the hell can you trust? I mean, just take a look at what this promises. Seven months of cannabis oil treatment and poof, goodbye cancer. Six terminal patients taking illegal cannabis oil?! Holy smokes. Of course, this kind of nonsense isn’t relegated simply to cannabis. “Natural cures” are the herpes of the pseudoscience world.

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Which prescription meds is turmeric better than? For what diseases? Who knows! I think it’s safe to assume, though, that the claim will be something along the lines of “All of them, of course!” But we can climb one more rung up the bullshit ladder and arrive at the detox fad:

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Well look at all of the stuff lemon and flax does. Not only will it “detoxify” you, but it’ll also cure your diabetes and get rid of that pesky cellulite. Simply amazing. Especially in light of the fact that “detoxing” is complete and utter horse shit, with all of the evidence in the world pointing to the inescapable fact that such cleanses do literally nothing for your health. And would you like to know why? Because your goddamned body already has an amazing filtration and detoxification system that works 24/7 your entire life. Folks, meet the real stars that keep you free of harmful toxins, your kidneys and your liver!

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The unsung heroes

And there’s the granddaddy of all the natural cure bullshit: vitamin C. Motherfucking vitamin C, everyone. It cures everything, didn’t you know? Like, literally everything. Here, just take a look at this complete and utter drivel. What are some of things Natural News claims vitamin C therapy can cure?

  • Chickenpox
  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Tetanus
  • Polio

Wow, that’s weird, exactly the diseases that vaccines eliminated. Almost as if these people are, I don’t know, trying to market something to a specific group of people, an untapped economic niche. It gets better, though. Here’s what else vitamin C can cure:

  • Herpes
  • Pneumonia
  • Hepatitis
  • Mono
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Glaucoma
  • Alcoholism
  • High cholesterol
  • Ruptured intervertebral discs

The crux of this therapy is receiving high doses of vitamin C intravenously. Because somehow science. Who knows what the alleged mechanism of action here is because it’s never explained. In fact, no evidence or explanations are offered at all. Instead, the sell is in the fear.

Manufactured drugs are poisons that are slowly killing you all to make a profit! These natural cures are, like, way better, because natural always equals better. Duh. You can’t trust the government and Big Pharma. They’re all evil and just want your money. That’s why they make you sick, so that they can take your money!

Okay, let’s take the stupid one step at a time here.

First of all, vitamin C is water soluble. Meaning that whatever your body doesn’t absorb gets peed right out. In other words, there’s a saturation limit with vitamin C–cramming more than your body needs or can absorb into your veins is going to do precisely dick. Then there’s the matter of overdosing. Yes, even though it’s water soluble, you can still overdose, by doing something like, I don’t know, RUNNING IT INTO YOUR SYSTEM IV. Then you can suffer the nausea, vomiting, and kidney stones that nature apparently wanted you to.

Which speaks to another irony: there’s nothing “natural” about injecting vitamin C into your body intravenously. If you wanted to get your vitamin C the way nature intended, you’d fucking eat it, because that’s how your body was designed, to obtain vitamin C through diet.

As to the conspiracies, there are plenty. First, the idea that vaccines and modern medicine are a way to poison people and depopulate the planet. If that’s the plan, I’d say that they’re doing a super shitty job, considering the population continues to grow. Plus, isn’t it a rather stupid business model to kill your customer base? How the hell are you supposed to make money if you kill everyone?

Second, creating cures for things is not an excellent business model if you’re part of a conspiracy. Why bother creating vaccines when letting people just catch the diseases would result in much more profit? You’d think that the last thing Big Pharma would want to do is eradicate polio and smallpox, and yet…that’s precisely what they did. You’d think that they wouldn’t develop a cure for Hepatitis C, yet that’s exactly what Harvoni is. Again, this doesn’t really jive with the conspiracy theorists’ models.

“Well follow the money!” That’s what all of these people who think Big Pharma is out to get everyone and suppress the truth say. That’s an excellent idea. Why don’t we indeed follow the money…right over to the Natural News store! Well, that’s funny. Why are these guys making a profit if the only people who are motivated by profit are the bad guys?

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I mean, fuck getting vaccines for free (which actually causes doctors to lose money, which again speaks against conspiracy) when you could just spend $650.00 on a stupid herbal medicine cabinet. 

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Or you could spend $164 on a single bottle of vitamin E. Seems totally legit. But you know what, guys. Before you do any of that, you have to know what health dangers are lurking in your house in the first place. But don’t worry, because the Natural News store has you covered again!

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Better fork over that $379.00 to detect those electromagnetic fields before they fuck up your chi or reiki or whatever other bullshit you believe in. Never mind the fact that every electronic device and appliance in your house will emit an EM field, so the product is guaranteed to make you think you’re being besieged by electromagnet fields –electromagnets are killing you and giving you cancer! Ahhhh!

I mean, why on earth would you pay a $20 copay for a visit to a medical professional and get a generic prescription for $10 when you could fork over $1,029 to Natural News for an EM detector and some herbs? I mean, you don’t want those money grubbing physicians to win, do you? They’re only after your money!

Do vitamins play a role in health? Yes, obviously. Does cannabis have the potential to lead to new cancer fighting drugs? Yes. But simply claiming that if you shove the shit raw into your veins you’ll cure all diseases known to man is stupid in the highest degree, without a single shred of evidence or science to back it up. And, by the way, most drugs on the market are based in some way on something completely natural, like how aspirin is derived from willow bark, or ACE inhibitors came from the venom of pit vipers–most medication you think of as poison really comes from completely natural substances anyway.

Okay, one last thing to convince any natural cure advocates reading this. Let’s grant for one moment that cannabis really does cure cancer. And let’s say that vitamin C really does cure all of the things that they say they do. And let’s say that all those herbs really are curative. Why on earth wouldn’t Big Pharma take advantage of that? I can guarantee you with 100% certainty that if all of those things really did work, then drug companies would have already patented them and the only way you could get your vitamin C or lemon and flax detox would be by prescription. At the very least, if the conspiracies were true you’d think that the drug companies would still patent them and then just make them inaccessible to everyone so nobody could cure themselves. What kind of a stupid conspiracy is it to sell everyone poison but leave well known cures out there for anyone to use?

Maybe it’s because there is no conspiracy. Maybe the drug companies do rip you off as far as price gouging goes, but at least their products work. Or you could just fork over your cash to Big Vitamin and literally piss out all of your hard earned money.