paths blogI recently returned to the home I had left 14 years ago. When I left, I was a runner, and when I returned I was a walker. The knee surgery removed my daily pain, but at the cost of having to give up running – an exchange I’d gladly do again. Today, when I walked my old running route I saw things I had never seen before.

I suppose part of it is just reminiscing. I passed the trees that were the source of leaves for grade school leaf collections. I walked through the field behind the school where we launched model rockets, and watched our greyhound run. Everything was familiar, but not the same. The predawn sounds were welcoming and relaxing. I found myself wondering if I had been aware of them when I was younger and was a runner.

On my way back to the house, I could see the steps I had left in the dew-laden grass. It struck me that life is made of paths and tracks, and I wondered if those were analogous to the decisions I had made as a younger man. When we look forward we are looking at a path, but only by looking back, by being introspective, can we tell what tracks the path left behind.

Some of us look back at our life’s path and see a straight line- one day progressing to the next, driven by some internal compass for constant, linear progress. Others look back and see they have taken a more meandering path through life. I doubt that either is better than the other. It seems the important thing is that there is value in occasionally taking a moment to look back from our path to see if the tracks we left make sense.

It seems like such a simple concept now that I am not a young man. Much like it seemed simple to run now that I can only walk. If I have learned anything, it is probably that I should stop now, and look back to realize that the track I just made in the grass as I walked will someday be a distant memory. Just as happened with running, it is inevitable that someday even walking will be impossible.

I am not writing this from a position of pessimism. It is a simple observation inspired by a few lingering footprints seen in the early morning dawn. What we take for granted today will someday be a memory we cannot relive. So my advice is to stop where you are, look back at the tracks of your life, and realize that they cannot be changed, but then look forward and endeavor to ensure the path you choose will be one without compromise. Choose a path that reflects your authentic self and regardless of whether the track is straight or meandering, you will know that it is the track that is you. That is something with which you can live.


Many surveys have shown that Americans are decidedly unaware of basic civics. As one example, a 2014 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 36% of respondents could name the three branches of the United States government.[1] With that level of knowledge as a foundation, I have come to ignore (mostly) people’s ill-informed statements about the Constitution. The bar is disturbingly low for what the public knows about our government.

However, the bar for presidential candidates should be, and must be, much higher than the general public. It is my expectation that someone running for the highest office in the land should know more than the basics when it comes to how our government works and the Constitution. Statements made this weekend by some of those candidates indicated a profound lack of understanding of the First Amendment. The context of the misstatements was Trump’s cancellation of his campaign rally in Chicago due to protesters.

Using his favorite form of communication, Trump tweeted[2] the following:

ScreenHunter_51 Mar. 14 08.55

The problem is that his cancellation of his own rally had absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment which reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

To be crystal clear- The First Amendment applies to the government restricting religion or speech, not someone’s speech being curtailed by actions of private individuals. Remember, you can make any political statement at your place of employment you want and will not go to jail. However, should your employer disagree with your statement, he or she is within their rights to fire you on the spot.

Given Trump’s lack of knowledge about our political system I wasn’t terribly surprised by his ignorant statement. However, he was not alone. On ABC’s This week with Gorge Stephanopoulos that aired March 13, other presidential candidate put their ignorance of the Constitution on display. In an interview on the show Senator Ted Cruz stated, “Let’s be clear. First of all, the protestors were in the wrong, when you come up and use violence, you engage in violence, you threaten violence and when you try to shut down and shout down speech that’s not what the first amendment allows. The First Amendment gives every one of us the right to speak but not to disrupt others.” No Ted, you got this one very wrong. This one surprised me – I expected more from a Harvard Law School graduate. Maybe Ted knew what the First Amendment said but wanted to intentionally misinterpret it because it would serve as a campaign rallying cry for his low-information supporters.

Also on Sunday’s show, presidential candidate Marco Rubio was speaking about the protesters at Trumps rally and stated “They don’t have the right to disrupt an event.” That seems strange coming from an original Tea Party candidate. Wasn’t throwing all that tea into the bay a bit disruptive?

Finally on Today’s episode of Morning Joe, Guest Ben Carson ironically talked about the cancellation as an educational opportunity by saying “This is a wonderful opportunity for education in America. It gives Donald trump and other candidates to talk about first amendment rights and why they’re important.” Could he have missed to mark any further?

Maybe the education opportunity is for all the presidential candidates to actually read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and stop making ridiculous statements that feed the misconceptions of the poorly informed public. But then, maybe the strategy is that the candidates want to electorate to bee ill informed.

[1] Americans know surprisingly little about their government, survey finds. September 17, 2014 http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-know-surprisingly-little-about-their-government-survey-finds/

[2] “The organized group of people, many of them thugs, who shut down our First Amendment rights in Chicago, have totally energized America!”  March 12, 2016 https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/708619775153475584


I like Bernie. I really do, and I like his populist socioeconomic message. It is hard for me to disagree with how he’s characterized the evolution of wealth distribution and its associated short-term and long-term consequences. It’s a huge problem that must be addressed to stabilize society. But I wouldn’t choose him over Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president. I wonder if that means I’ve lost my youthful idealism and sold out, or if it means that I’ve redefined idealism to mean choosing a more realistic chance of achieving limited goals over achieving none.

Simple, self-centered math

For me, that’s the primary issue. (Sorry, double entendre intended) Where Bernie is an evangelist on a single subject, Hillary is a plodding expert on policies more or less aligned with my beliefs. I believe 100% in Bernie’s socioeconomic message, but I also believe, if elected, he would have 0% chance of implementing any of it. I believe in 80% of Hillary’s policies, but I also believe she might get 50% of then accomplished. That’s my math. I get 0% of what I want with Bernie and 40% of what I want with Hillary. In today’s political environment, I’d take 40% all day long. I don’t think that means I’ve lost my idealism as much as it means that the older I get, the more I appreciate the axiom of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good.

Unbridled obstructionism

Why would Bernie not be able to deliver on his primary message? With the Obama obstructionism as a prelude, I cannot imagine the Republican controlled House would consider any of Bernie’s plans. With a Socialist, excuse me – a Democratic Socialist – at the top of the Democratic ticket I would think the calculus for the Senate might swing back toward the Republicans. With both houses of Congress in Republican control, I find myself wondering how a Sanders administration could accomplish much of anything. If so, everything Sanders is telling his enthusiastic supporters would become merely an interesting footnote in history.

Hillary – an insider with a progressive core

Then there’s Hillary. Her cheering crowds are smaller and she comes with baggage. If you look at the entirety of her political career, I think you can see that her core beliefs are rooted in progressive goals. My thought is that those core beliefs would be carried into her administration and be expressed in her programs and accomplishments. I’m sure it wouldn’t be pretty because she would be dealing with the Republican-controlled house, but with Hillary at the top of the Democratic ticket, the chances of Democrats regaining the Senate are decidedly better than if Bernie were at the top of the ticket.

Then there’s the baggage that is more of an election issue than it would be in a Clinton administration. With the exception of using an email server in her home, I think the balance of the baggage comes from a long career in politics getting stuff done. No one can be effective in national politics without stepping on toes and creating adversaries. Although that creates fodder for opposition campaign talking points, it also means that once in office, Clinton would use that same experience to her benefit. She would know exactly which toes to step on to get things done.

A revolution is not one person

I hate to sound so practical. I’d like to believe I could vote for Bernie and be part of his revolution, but revolution is not one person. Until there are a significant number of Representatives and Senators in Congress that share his views and could support his programs there is simply no way he can deliver on any of his socioeconomic objectives.

Society always seems to focus on presidential horse races. Maybe because of the media coverage, but more likely it’s because candidates have become adept at creating sound bites that capture single concepts. It’s easy to follow presidential campaigns, in fact it’s hard not to. On the other hand, what do you know about the primary race for your Congressional representative? Can you articulate any of his or her positions? I think that’s less likely, but that’s where the revolution really begins. It begins in the trenches of local politics where those candidates espousing philosophies similar to Bernie’s are elected to Congress.

With effective gerrymandering and unlimited special interest campaign funding, that will be an uphill battle, but without that base of political support in Congress, there is virtually no chance that a president with a Democratic Socialist agenda can accomplish much of anything.

I’m sorry Bernie. I like you, I like your message, but in today’s environment the reality is that with less than absolute enthusiasm- it has to be Hillary.

Maybe it’s that almost every day in Southwest Florida is a slow news day, or maybe it’s that the quest for ratings drive the selection of stories that are covered, but it seems like there is an unusual fascination with reporting on the purported problem of “stranger danger.” After seeing yet another such stereotypical report on television[1], I dropped a note to the reporter that did the story. His polite response and defense of the validity of stranger danger offered insight into why the problem persists. It has been exactly two years since my last posting on risk perception[2] so it seems reasonable to revisit the topic again from the perspective of news coverage.

The problem I have with media coverage of stranger danger incidents is that it usually perpetuates and intensifies an irrational fear of a child being abducted by a stranger that is wildly disproportionate to the actual risk. To put this all in perspective, the US Department of Justice is responsible for generating authoritative reports on child abductions and has commented on news coverage by stating: “The exaggerated fears of “stranger danger” generated by lurid tabloid headlines need to be replaced with solid facts garnered from serious research.”[3] Serious research means bypassing agenda-driven websites that may benefit from stranger danger fears to find data from original, credible sources which are invariably government affiliated. If the data is from a website that ends in .com or .org, then additional research is need to find the source data. Critically reviewing the source data is the only way to understand the true context, applicability and limitations of the data.

Risk Perception versus Actual Risk

To be crystal clear, children are sometimes abducted by strangers and in those cases it is a tragedy of inestimable magnitude. It is precisely because of this magnitude that the risk is overestimated. Paul Slovic has written extensively about risk perception and identified two types of risk that determine the overall level of perceived risk, namely dread risk and unknown risk.[4] In the case of dread risk, the idea is that the more dreadful the consequence, the higher the risk perception. Examples of high dread events would be nuclear war, nuclear reactor meltdown, or asteroid impacts. The commonality of these is that a single occurrence would be catastrophic. I would suggest that a child being abducted by a stranger would be in the dread risk category. Slovic has shown that people will consistently ignore the facts about the actual likelihood of an event occurring if it has a high dread factor and they will rate the event as being highly risky or dangerous.

The chance of a child being abducted by a stranger is incredibly remote, and yet it seems people live in fear of the unknown car driving too slowly by the bus stop. The situation is exacerbated by news organizations that prominently feature anecdotal reports of those slow-moving cars. One would hope that instead of fanning the fire of irrational fears, the media could use those anecdotal reports to educate the public on the true risk of stranger danger.

Motivated reasoning

Part of the problem is that the individuals at news organizations are not immune from harboring their own misperception of stranger danger risk. A critically thinking person, especially a reporter, should be able to uncover relevant facts and change their perspective based on those facts. That would be the ideal situation, but in reality, most people are driven by what psychologists have termed motivated reasoning[5] where “facts” are preferentially selected that support an existing position or belief. For example, the reporter that responded to me stated that “24% of abductions are by strangers… 27% by acquaintances.” Although the reporter cited no source for those figures in his email, there was a link in his reply to Parents.com where those figures were found.[6] A Google search for “stranger kidnapping (24 percent)” shows a number of retail websites using those abduction figures.[7] The important question is if those numbers are accurate.

Good data matters

It requires little additional Google searching to find that the original source of that often quoted data set is a 1997 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – “Kidnaping of Juveniles: Patterns From NIBRS.”[8]  The report clearly states the following.

Based on the identity of the perpetrator, there are three distinct types of kidnaping:  kidnaping by a relative of the victim or “family kidnaping” (49 percent), kidnaping by an acquaintance of the victim or “acquaintance kidnaping” (27 percent), and kidnaping by a stranger to the victim or “stranger kidnaping” (24 percent)

So, the 24% is real, but is it meaningful today? The problem with the information is that it is from 1997 and is based on the review of only 1,214 cases from only 12 states. It is hardly current information and the limited dataset raises questions of its representativeness. Nevertheless, that 24% number remains prominently quoted on child abduction awareness websites and by certain local reporters. The fact that it is flawed has not diminished its popularity. In a very real sense, it is a classic example of motivated reasoning, e.g. “I believe that strangers abduct children, so I’ll find the facts that support my belief.”

Critical thinking and questioning the data

The limitations of the 1997 study were apparent to the agency that produced the report so they initiated a more robust, two-part study to assess nonfamily abductions of children. In part one, “National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview”[9] it was stated that in 2002 there were 797,500 children reported missing out of a total child-aged population of 70,172,700. In part two of the report, “Nonfamily Abducted Children: National Estimates and Characteristics”[10] it was reported that of all the child abductions in 2002 there were only 115 classified as a “stereotypical abduction” defined as:

A nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.

115 is a small number. It represents 0.014% of all children reported missing. As a percent of all children in the United States in 2002, the 115 abductions by a stranger amount to 0.00016%. Getting back to Slovic and the concept of the disparity between perceived risk and actual risk, it is important to accept the fact that child abductions by strangers are exceedingly rare and to use that fact to counteract the dread risk of such abduction.

Current FBI data: 1,671 kidnappings for all age groups in 2013

 Since factual data matters when attempting to dislodge emotionally held beliefs such as stranger danger, it may be useful to look at the most current data set on kidnappings from the FBI.[11] [12] In 2013 there were 15,041 kidnapping victims of all ages. 1,676 of these were by strangers or 11.1%. Since the total population in the US in 2013 was 316,500,000 the odds of anyone of any age being kidnapped by a stranger were 1,676/316,500,000 or 0.00053%.

In the dynamic between perceived risk and actual risk, numbers matter in another way. Denominator neglect – something that is often discussed in healthcare circles – is equally important in understanding why the perceived risk of child abductions is so high. Denominator neglect has been described as “A prominent example of the difficulties that patients experience to understand health-relevant numerical concepts is denominator neglect, or the focus on the number of times a target event has happened (numerators), without consideration of the overall number of opportunities for it to happen (denominators).”[13] The point is that 115 child abduction by a stranger is tragic, but in relation to the entire population the actual risk is vanishingly small. As another point of perspective, in 2013, the National Weather Service reported more than twice as many people – 330 – were struck y lightning.[14]

Media-driven, positive feedback loops,  a.k.a. echo chambers

Given all the facts that show the risk of abduction by a stranger is minimal, there is still a palpable fear in some circles that it is a ubiquitous and pervasive threat that must be constantly addressed. Besides the influence of Slovic’s dread risk, another contributing factor must be that the media facilitates “echo chambers” for those like-minded people that believe in extreme stranger danger. For example, in his email to me, the local reporter stated, “I have had several parents thank me today- for reminding them to have an important talk with their children, since this is the fifth time this happened in 3 weeks.”

I would argue that in reality, nothing ever really happened that put any child at risk. Although it may feel good to get positive viewer feedback, it should not be construed as validating any stranger danger. In some ways, using a statement to prove the same statement is a common example of the logical fallacy circular reasoning, also known as “begging the question.”[15]

What did happen is that some parents listened to a news story that validated their existing stranger danger paranoia which they then passed on to their children. Instead of planting the seeds of fear in their children, parents would do more good by addressing the daily risks that are far more likely to harm their children. Instead of warning of slow moving cars, maybe parents should make sure their children are wearing their seat belts. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2011, more than one third of children killed in motor vehicle accidents.

Risk as feelings versus  risk as analysis

Life is about constantly assessing risk and acting accordingly. To the best of our ability, our actions should be guided by actual, fact-based risk assessment and not by perceived risk that is driven by emotion. Will that happen? Probably not. George Lowenstein drew a distinction between risk as feelings and risk as analysis. In his 2001 paper, Lowenstein stated, “Drawing on research from clinical, physiological, and other subfields of psychology, they show that emotional reactions to risky situations often diverge from cognitive assessments of those risks. When such divergence occurs, emotional reactions often drive behavior.”[16]

One small step would be to better align perceived stranger danger risk with the facts. One place to start would be for local news outlets to become more aware of the facts and temper their coverage of stranger danger anecdotes with a touch of reality and informed perspective.

[1] http://www.nbc29.com/story/30482669/cape-police-investigating-suspicious-bus-stop-complaint#.Vkhp93arTIU

[2] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2013/11/

[3] http://www.ojjdp.gov/jjjournal/jjjournal598/safe.html

[4] https://www.unc.edu/~fbaum/teaching/articles/Science-1987-Slovic.pdf

[5] http://pages.ucsd.edu/~cmckenzie/Kunda1990PsychBulletin.pdf

[6] http://www.parents.com/kids/safety/stranger-safety/child-abduction-facts/

[7] https://www.google.com/search?q=%22stranger+kidnapping%22+(24+percent)

[8] https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/181161.pdf

[9] https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/196465.pdf

[10] https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/196467.pdf

[11] https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/nibrs/2013/table-pdfs/relationship-of-victims-to-offenders-by-offense-category-2013

[12] https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/nibrs/2013/data-tables

[13] http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4614-4358-2_10

[14] http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/odds.shtml

[15] “Begs the question” is one of many logical fallacies and does not mean “asks the question.” An example is “This painting is trash because it is obviously worthless.” https://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/begs.html

[16] http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bul/127/2/267/


ScreenHunter_09 Oct. 04 10.25

The peculiar nature of the campaign for the 2016 presidential election has provided political pundits an oversupply of fodder for their analyses. A prevailing assessment seems to be that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are achieving at least transitory success in the polls not because of any great depth of their policy discussions, but because of their outsider standing.

I’m sure that’s true on some level. I tend to think that their success is at least partially due to the fact that voters, especially low-information voters, don’t care to be encumbered by policy discussions, but instead respond favorably to demagoguery and oversimplifications. It’s far less work and besides, policy discussions tend to be analytical while sound bites stimulate an emotional response. At this stage in the presidential race, it seems that emotional preferences are being reflected in the polls rather than an assessment of presidential job suitability.

Have we ever elected a president solely on how qualified they are to execute in the role of president. It’s doubtful. Nevertheless, I thought I’d offer one perspective on where I’d place some of the current candidates on a Dunning-Kruger chart. The title of Justin Kruger’s and David Dunning’s 1999 publication succinctly defines their observation Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.[1] To be sure, this is not a novel observation, Charles Darwin has been quoted as saying, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” I summarized my thoughts on Dunning-Kruger in an August 2013 post, “You probably don’t know what you’re talking about – you only think you do.”[2]

The political manifestation of Dunning-Kruger  is no more evident than in the current race for the president. I have been especially struck by how the outsiders currently at the top of the polls are singularly lacking any experience in government and are devoid of any credible, substantive understanding of policies. Overconfidence may play well in the boardroom or the operating theater, but it is decidedly a dangerous personality trait for the President of the United States. For that reason, I would place Trump, Carson and Fiorina at the very top of the first curve in the Dunning-Kruger graph indicating they have limited knowledge of the true nature of being president, but at the same time project their own omniscience of the job.

At the other end of the curve are those candidates that have far better insight of what the job really entails. If an incumbent were running they would clearly be at the far extreme of knowledge. Since there are no incumbents, I would argue that those having been in Federal government at a high level have an advantage. There is also value in having had a close relative hold the office to have a grounded perspective of how things really work and the realization that the president is not omnipotent as some of the candidates on the first hump of the curve would have us believe. Of all the current candidates, Hillary Clinton and to a lesser extent, Jeb Bush, have the best understanding of the nature of the office. This is important when comparing statements made by them to statements made by the outsiders.

I think this will all settle itself out as the field narrows and voters realize that there’s more to being president than empty slogans. At some point substance matters, and if it doesn’t, then the world may have to learn how to deal with a reality television President of the United States.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10626367

[2] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2013/08/31/you-probably-dont-know-what-youre-talking-about-you-only-think-you-do/

I am convinced that one of the limiting factors of the human species is our inability to understand cataclysmic events that are occurring because they develop at a rate that is outside our ability to emotionally comprehend. And, as humans, if something can’t be understood at an emotional level, then it is unlikely to receive the attention it deserves.

I have written before about the Holocene extinction, a cataclysmic event through which we are very likely living.[1] Everyone look around. Does it look like we’re in the same predicament as the dinosaurs and are about to become extinct?  Admittedly that’s a hyperbolic question.  And, the expected answer is a resounding “No. Everything looks normal.” However, we need to remember that after that asteroid slammed into the earth, it took the dinosaurs another 30,000 years to die out. And yet, when one visualizes the extinction of the dinosaurs, the vision is one of near-immediate obliteration. Actually, that’s an accurate characterization if one is thinking in geologic time.

Our perception of the extinction of the dinosaurs is that it occurred rapidly and catastrophically, but it actually took 30,000 years for the dinosaurs to die out after the meteor strike. How we perceive the sixth great extinction, the Holocene Extinction. We don’t really perceive that we are living during a mass extinction because the cataclysmic events occurring around us are happening at a rate too slow for us to feel.

The guiding clock of a human is not based on geologic time, but on what we experience in our daily lives. Intellectually, we can observe and understand long term events, but we aren’t likely to act on them because they fall outside the collective consciousness of our species.[2] If a dinosaur hatched 5,000 years after the meteor strike and could ponder such things, what would it think while looking around munching leaves? Not much, within her mind everything would seem normal; she wouldn’t see any mass extinction. The most likely thought would have been, “Where’s my next leaf?”

If we are in the midst of another great extinction, then we won’t see it either. Not because it’s not happening, but because it is happening at a rate that is too gradual for us to feel and experience. We’re too busy looking for the equivalent of our next leaf. It’s not just the Holocene extinction that we have trouble seeing. There are other events occurring around us that portend disaster, or at least extreme discomfort, for our species to which we are oblivious.

I remember a few years ago reading about the thermohaline circulation- the great oceanic conveyor that moves warm water from the Gulf of Mexico northward toward the United Kingdom[3]. I was struck at the time not only by the elegance of the system that kept Northern Europe relatively temperate, but also by its fragility. It has been widely suggested that the perturbation and subsequent shutdown of this system was what lead to the Little Ice Age 10,000 years ago and that a subsequent shutdown would lead to another big chill in Northern Europe.[4] Climate scientists believe this transition could take place in a matter of a few years – not a few centuries.  Such is the nature of tipping points.

Recent evidence suggests that the disruption of the thermohaline circulation has already begun. Chris Mooney wrote about this possibility recently in the Washington Post and offered the following map from NOAA as suggestive evidence. [5] The map shows anomalous record cold in the Northern Atlantic at the terminus of the thermohaline circulation.[6] Does this corroborate the suggestion that the great conveyor has started its collapse? Maybe, maybe not, but it is highly suggestive that something not normal has been occurring recently.


What does all this really mean? Maybe a few tens of thousands of years from now whatever sentient beings exist will look back and wonder how we humans could have been in the midst of such catastrophic events and taken no action to alter the course of our future. It is surely within our intellectual grasp to do so, but we will not. Instead, we live our daily lives consumed by the minutia of the present minute. We will be driven by our primitive emotion-based compass to pursue the fleeting distractions of the hour. We will fight over land, go to war over religion, fight over sexual orientation, argue endlessly of funding social programs, debate spending obscene amounts of GDP on the military and its methods of mass destruction, wonder what the Kardashians are doing, or fight about restricting firearms intended only to kill humans.

It would be so glaringly obvious that all of these pursuits are so incredibly meaningless if we could only understand, no, if we could only feel that the events of our world do not follow humans’ perception of time. If we look closely and critically we can see the events unfolding, but because we can’t feel them, the odds of our taking any meaningful action is, unfortunately, quite remote.

Inevitably, we are part of this world and whatever we do is all that we can do. Our logical and intellect may not outlive the consequences of our emotional behaviors. Humans will be humans, and in 100,000 years or so, the Earth will have sorted things out one way or another- with or without the assistance from humans. The only question is if our species will be around to see how things turned out.

[1] “The Holocene extinction event. Is our species’ destiny to be known as “The Burners?” https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2014/04/13/the-holocene-extinction-event-is-our-species-destiny-to-be-known-as-the-burners/

[2] “Humans are a minor perturbation in the life of the earth.” https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2014/02/09/humans-are-a-minor-perturbation-in-the-life-of-the-earth/

[3] NOAA, Currents: Thermohaline Circulation  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/tutorial_currents/05conveyor1.html

[4] Ice Age Reboot: Ocean Current Shutdown Viewed as Culprit http://www.livescience.com/46548-ocean-currents-linked-ice-age-length.html

[5]Global warming is now slowing down the circulation of the oceans — with potentially dire consequences


[6] NOAA Global Analysis – August 2015 https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201508

Does additional antimicrobial treatment have a better effect on URTI cough resolution than homeopathic symptomatic therapy alone?

The absolute absurdity of this “published” research study is beyond mind boggling. The tragedy is that it will likely fulfill its purpose of serving as the reference cited for the phrase “clinically proven” that will appear on some future product from the French homeopathic manufacturer, Boiron. A greater tragedy is that Boiron continues to thrive not because their products are actually effective, but because people will continue to buy them because they “believe” they work. Basing health decisions on beliefs, feelings, superstitions, or hearsay plays directly into the hands of peddlers of homeopathic therapies. In the United States alone, Americans spend $39 billion on these useless products.[1]

There is no scientific basis for the efficacy of homeopathic magical potions. There simply isn’t. And yet, manufacturers of homeopathic products attempt to provide empirical evidence by buying “researchers” to perform “studies” that will be “published” and cited as evidence of the potion’s efficacy. The only thing effective in this process is that Boiron makes a ton of money. In fact, in 2014, their top-line sales were $690,000,000, all of which was from selling homeopathic potions. It’s bizarre.

All of this is prelude to an inspection of the recently published study impressively titled, Does additional antimicrobial treatment have a better effect on URTI cough resolution than homeopathic symptomatic therapy alone? A real-life preliminary observational study in a pediatric population.  Here are the principle problems.

  • Half of the participants received just a homeopathic potion to treat an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). The other half received the same potion, and in addition, despite there being no clinical basis for it, they also received an antibiotic. The authors clearly state in the paper that antibiotics are inappropriate for treating a URTI. This raises serious ethical questions of providing a medication when it is known that it is not indicated.
  • Since both groups received the same homeopathic potion there was no control group. However, that did not deter the authors from concluding that the potion was effective for. Think about that one for a minute. Both groups given the same medication and the authors conclude it works –compared to what?
  • The study was paid for by a grant from Boiron.
  • The study was published in an obscure journal that charges $2,000 to publish a paper.
  • It’s based on homeopathic principles where efficacy is proportional to dilution. That’s right – the less you have of something, the more effective it becomes. In this study, ingredients are diluted one trillion times.

In essence, Boiron paid researchers to concoct a study that would show their placebo worked, and in turn paid an obscure journal to publish the results. The study itself was hopelessly flawed using two placebos to show the placebo worked. The study also has serious ethical shortcomings in that one group received a medication that was clearly not indicated. It will not be surprising when this study shows up in the marketing literature of Boiron as “clinical proof” for their products. That’s the story in a nutshell, but diving a little deeper into the details reveals just how bizarre this story is.

Well, it sure looks like a real study.

At the time of this post, the study is available at this link, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4527103/ and is also attached as a PDF. The first thing to note is how having a paper on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) official website might confuse a reader who is unfamiliar with evaluating scientific literature. Seeing a paper on an NIH site might be construed as an endorsement of the work. The screenshot below may imply a credibility that doesn’t exist.

ScreenHunter_06 Sep. 18 10.48

What, exactly,  is in the potion the study participants received?

The homeopathic potion used in the study is a combination of the following plants and mineral, and water –lots and lots of water.

 150Anemone-pulsatilla  150 Rumex_crispus  150Bryonia_dioica_(Cucurbitaceae) 150Cephaelis_acuminata 150Spongia
Anemone pulsatill Rumex crispu Bryonia dioica Ipecacuanha Spongia tosta
 150Lobaria_pulmonaria  150Antimony  ?????  150cacti  150- Drosera
Sticta pulmonaria Antimonium tartaricum Myocarde Coccus cacti Drosera 

Homeopathy is based in the belief that the more something is diluted, the more effective it becomes. It’s the epitome of the adage, “less is more.” In this paper, a common dilution is 6C where C represents a one hundred fold dilution making 6C a trillion fold dilution. To put this in perspective, a rectangle of water the size of a football field and 30 tall would contain around 11 million gallons. Now, envision adding one drop of gin and one drop of vermouth to the water and shake, don’t stir, until completely blended to create a 6C dilution or the world’s weakest martini. Welcome to the world of homeopathy.

Antibiotics for a viral infection

It is dumbfounding that this study ever passed an Institutional Review Board. Knowingly giving a medication that is known not to be effective is unambiguously unethical. In the following statement the authors acknowledged that antibiotics were inappropriate but they were going to give them anyway.

“A Cochrane review of antibiotic use for cough and common cold concluded that there was not enough evidence of important benefits in the treatment of URTI, whereas there was a significant increase in adverse effects associated with antibiotic use .However, parents are rarely satisfied with in the watchful approach, and often have an expectation that antibiotics should be prescribed.”

“Eighty-five children were found eligible to be enrolled in the study. Forty-six patients received homeopathic syrup alone for 10 days (Group 1) and thirty-nine children received homeopathic syrup for 10 days plus oral antibiotic treatment (amoxicillin/clavulanate, clarithromycin, and erythromycin) for 7 days (Group 2).”

But did it work?

By 10 days, all URTIs were resolved in both groups, which, not coincidentally, is the expected time to resolution with no intervention. However, there were differences between the groups in signs and symptoms related to antibiotic administration. For example, 23.4% of children in the homeopathic potion plus antibiotic group developed diarrhea while none of the homeopathic potion only group developed diarrhea. Again, the ethics question surfaces, but ethics and study design did not dissuade the authors from concluding the following.

“In conclusion, our data confirm that the studied homeopathic treatment has potential benefits on cough in children, as well as highlighting the good safety profile of this treatment. Supplementing the syrup with antibiotics did not improve cough resolution and was associated with more adverse events than the homeopathic syrup alone. These results indicate that antibiotics should not be routinely prescribed for uncomplicated acute cough secondary to URTI, as they are inappropriate for this condition and might be even dangerous– leading to increased antimicrobial resistances and adverse events, without evidence of benefit.”

Absurd. It’s simply absurd to conclude that a treatment was effective when there was no control. Regardless of the absurdity the paper was published and will end up in Boiron’s marketing slicks.

Want to publish a paper? Got $1,940? You’re good!

Another indication of the worthlessness of this paper is where it was published – the Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine. This “journal” appears to be a paper mill where virtually any article will be published with only cursory, if any,review as long as the submission is accompanied by $1,940 – credit cards accepted. (http://www.mrmjournal.com/about/apcfaq/howmuch)

The obscurity of Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine is impressive. Scientific journals are scored based on the quality of their publications and the number of times articles are cited. The greater the number of citations, the greater is the journal’s Impact rating. The higher the rating, the more credible is the journal. For example, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine has a score of 54.42 and Nature has a score of 42. At the other end of the spectrum are journal such as Bulletin of the Iranian Mathematical Society with a score of 0.27 or the Balkan Journal of Medical Genetics with a score of 0.17. How did the Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine do? 0.15. [2],[3]

Does it matter that the journal has no credibility? To scientists yes, but to the study authors and Boiron, not so much. It is clear that the purpose of the publication was not to advance our knowledge or report anything remotely meaningful. No, the purpose was to get a reference for Boiron’s marketing department. Sadly, based on Boiron’s finances this strategy has apparently worked.

Homeopathy is big business

It is a testament to the gullibility of the human mind that Boiron’s financial sheet is so impressive. The screenshot below is from EuroNext[4] and shows 2014 net sales of 609,748,000 Euros or approximately 690 million US dollars. Who knew you could sell $690 million worth of water?

ScreenHunter_04 Sep. 18 10.06

People will be people

I hate to end on this thought but despite the glaring evidence that homeopathy does not and cannot work, a certain segment of the population will not relinquish their belief that it works – for them. Their emotional loyalty to natural “cures”, their suspicion of real medicine and its complexities, and their thirst to feel empowered and in control of their own destiny will fill the coffers of companies like Boiron for the foreseeable future. It’s a pity, really. Humans should better than this, humans can be better than this, but we’re not. As long as people are willing to make uninformed choices, there will be industries to happily exploit their ignorance.

PDF of study -40248_2015_Article_22

[1] https://nccih.nih.gov/news/camstats/costs/costdatafs.htm

[2] http://www.researchgate.net/journal/1828-695X_Multidisciplinary_respiratory_medicine

[3] http://www.citefactor.org/journal-impact-factor-list-2014_M.html

[4] https://www.euronext.com/en/products/equities/FR0000061129-XPAR/company-information


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