Fight Club had it Wrong: the Problems with Minimalism

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When I was in first year at university, it seemed that there were two films that everyone was buzzing about: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fight Club. The two films are controversial, edgy, and they signify a coming of age for many students. One of the main themes of Fight Club is anti-consumerism, which leads to violent, radical activist behaviour in the latter stages of the film. Throughout the film, the narrator is told to free himself from his possessions, because it is in fact his possessions which control him. This is an “awakening” of sorts to many students, who now recognize the evils of advertising, mass media, and consumerism. A major lifestyle movement that has been gaining steam in the past decade is minimalism, which is also largely anti-consumerist and anti-possession.

Minimalism to the extreme

Minimalism to the extreme

Minimalism preaches to rid yourself of all but your most necessary possessions and living space. This means selling all of your DVDs, getting rid of most of your clothes, downsizing your home, and generally clearing your life of unnecessary clutter. Some of the more extreme proponents of the minimalism movement advocate for you to trim down your belongings to a mere 100 things, which is certainly no easy task for many of us today. I do agree that minimalism is useful for certain aspects of your life, and that as North Americans, we do accumulate a number of things that we simply do not need anymore. Technology is to thank for much of this, as we can now have entire libraries and DVD collections on a few devices in our home. However, as trendy as minimalism may be in today’s world, it simply does not work for the vast majority of us.

Minimalism advocates for less clutter

Minimalism advocates for less clutter

At its core, minimalism is just another countercultural lifestyle choice that provides its followers with social status leveraging against the status quo. The premise of essentially every countercultural movement is the motivation to be cooler than the mainstream, and minimalism is no different. The trend with design technology has mirrored this cultural taste, and most of our popular items today are very minimalist in their design. While technology and its design has advanced tremendously in the past decade, the price of most items has remained relatively stable, or has increased slightly.

A minimalist lifestyle reduces spending in the sense of clutter, but it increases spending in the sense of technology to offset the items lost. Getting rid of all of your CDs, DVDs, and books will likely require you to acquire a Netflix account, pay for a relatively good internet package to download movies or music, and purchase a Kindle or an iPad to store and read your discarded books on. This can be a rather expensive upgrade. Essentially, minimalism is not so much a rebellion against consumerism as it is a by-product of the evolution of technology. Think of any vision of an ideal future you may have seen in any science fiction movie. The design template was predominantly minimalist, with a low amount of visually stimulating colour and very simplistic overtones. The advanced technology allowed a more simplistic, streamlined way of life, much like what modern minimalism advocates for.

An example of a minimalist dwelling

An example of a minimalist dwelling

The actual lifestyle impact of minimalism is, on the surface, very promising. Less stuff means more space, more space means a more fluid and simplistic lifestyle and more time to focus on the tasks at hand instead of constant cleaning and organizing. But, another aspect of minimalism is to reduce the size of your living space to cut out unnecessary space from your life. This is all well and good when you’re young, as you don’t have the need for as much stuff because your day-to-day life simply doesn’t dictate it. But the vast majority of the population isn’t young, and space is required to raise a family in a healthy environment.  Additionally, a large part of North American culture is entertaining guests, whether it be for a birthday party, family reunion, or your child’s sleepover. While you can rent out a public space for a birthday party or a family reunion, or simply avoid having your child have a sleepover, this can be potentially damaging to your reputation and to the event itself.

If your home is not big enough to entertain guests such that you have to rent a public space, it ruins the intimacy of hosting the event, not to mention it costs a lot more. You might also run into unforeseen rules, regulations, and other annoyances along the way. In short, minimalism can often lead to awkward social situations if your social circle are not minimalists themselves. This is not to say that minimalism is wrong, but that it will never reach mainstream society because of how the North American family model has historically been constructed.

To quote the Great Gatsby: “I love big parties, they’re so intimate”.

This is why I believe that the minimalist movement is cultivating a secular crop of lonely people, unless your other friends also happen to be minimalist. If you physically do not have the space to entertain, or to even share it comfortably with one significant other, you’re limiting your development as a human. A small space is tight, enclosed, and unwelcoming. Look at most examples of minimalist living and you’ll find that the design and layout of most of these spaces evoke a very cold and lifeless atmosphere. Minimalism is also for people who do not need to interact with many people during their daily routine. For this constant face-to-face contact, you would need more clothes, means of travel, possibly a space to entertain at some point, and other possessions that sync with this lifestyle that minimalism doesn’t allow for. Dependence on technology, discarding mementoes and other priceless memorabilia, and ascribing to a strict regimen of little to no possessions can shut you out from some truly great experiences.

Ironically, experiences are what a lot of the appeal of minimalism is based on. In lieu of adding to your collection of possessions, the minimalist approach is to spend your money elsewhere. Learning new skills, travelling, and living outside the confines of your own home (hence why size doesn’t really matter) are key traits of a minimalist lifestyle. Traveling has definitely become one of the de facto ways to gain independence and discover yourself today, but a life of constant travel is quite expensive and unpredictable, which many people simply cannot afford to do. I definitely encourage shaping your life through experiences, and building lasting memories with them, but the fundamental flaw with this philosophy is that it states that experiences cannot be created through possessions and consumerism. I would argue that many possessions can provide you with experiences, and that one simply needs to be a smarter consumer instead of largely abstaining from purchasing.

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Minimalism advocates for spending more income on experiences, such as travel

In a previous article, I spoke of my theory that buying your clothes second-hand at thrift stores or online makes you more attached to them and increases your satisfaction with your purchase because you had to live out more of an experience to locate and procure them. My theory of experiential consumerism can be applied to almost every purchase you make in the future. I equate it to this: if the purchase you are making will provide your life with a direct, tangible benefit, then it counts as an experiential purchase, and you should buy it. This could be a cookbook, a computer, a bike – anything that you will use to great benefit of your own life.

What you should aim to approach with a more minimalist mindset are the things that you do not place high value in. I’m not the biggest fan of electronics and TV in particular, so I have the bare essentials as far as technology goes: a computer, a cell phone, and a small TV, but that’s all I have any use for. If you place more value on technology, by all means, spend away on it, as your high sense of value that is invested in your experiences that you gain from electronics will be rewarding.

I place a high value in books and my clothes, and my bookshelf is full of titles new and old, and my closet follows a similar pattern. I gain a great deal of personal value when I read a new book and learn something, or when I purchase an item of clothing to emulate a certain style or aesthetic that I find interesting. All of these are experiential purchases, and the value that they give me is worth the purchase ten-fold. Don’t be afraid to spend money on things you’re passionate about; it’s not consumerism if you’re consciously aware and happy with what you’re buying.

A minimalist closet. Generally not indicative of someone who places value in their clothing

A minimalist closet creates a very restrictive and repetitive wardrobe, which is fine if you don’t place value in your clothing.

The narrator in Fight Club placed a high value in furniture from IKEA, but the difference here is that he placed a high value in the furniture, not IKEA the company. This is why when he purchased everything in his apartment from IKEA, he was in a delusional state of happiness. His purchases did not reflect his high valuation of interior design and an attractive apartment. The narrator purchased unoriginal, cheaply made furniture that anyone could have, and this furniture was not produced with longevity in mind. This is also why many experiential purchases will be higher quality purchases: a long product life will produce more experiences for the consumer, and this attachment will produce more satisfaction and happiness with the product. If the narrator had have searched high and low for antique furniture or other rare, quality pieces, he would likely have been a lot more upset when his entire apartment went up in flames, because he attached an experience to his purchase.

I believe that Fight Club’s core message about how we let our possessions own us was correct, but to discard all possessions in favour of a life of squalor and violence was quite frankly delusional in nature. Our possessions only own us as long as we let them. We don’t have to throw everything away and squat in a dilapidated house while plotting our revenge against the system; we can make conscious decisions to make more of our purchases experiential ones. For many people, minimalism is a radical notion, and this is why it will simply never catch on to the desires of its proponents. Like all forms of counterculture, the strength of minimalism lies in its exclusivity. Minimalism has some good merits, but to subscribe to the entire ideology is not sustainable for most people.

As long as there is democracy, there will be competition for status. Counterculture exists for those on the cutting edge of status leveraging, and when an aspiring minimalist discards all of their possessions, they are merely trying to be cooler than the other guy, which is counterproductive. As the old adage goes: “The harder you try to be cool, the less cool you actually become.” The reality is, many of our possessions are what define our status and help us find a place in society. As sad is this grim truth is, it will continue to persist as long as our egalitarian society yields the premise of success and fortune no matter what the situation you’re born into.

What’s ironic is that while minimalists abstain from possessions because they’re a constant measure of status, minimalism itself is a status-seeking lifestyle. At its core, minimalism is keeping ahead of the Joneses by abstaining from needless purchases, so in terms of social morals, minimalists are no better than the possession driven mainstreamers they seek to distinguish themselves from.

Stop keeping up with the Joneses. Worry about yourself instead.

Stop keeping up with (or ahead of) the Joneses. Worry about yourself instead.

In this sense of almost inescapable status laddering, we must tailor our consumption to mirror our values, and force ourselves to forego purchases that are not experiential in nature. If we purchase things because we value them and disregard purchases that are thoughtless and largely driven by consumer hysteria, we will start to see a great deal of change. Tailor your purchases to your values, and stop making unnecessary purchases of things that you do not value.

I definitely encourage you to clear out some unnecessary things, as we are all guilty of having too much clutter in our homes. However, minimalism will not make you spend less money; rather, it will make you spend your money differently because you’re more actively thinking about what you’re doing doing with it. And this is the one philosophy of minimalism that I believe should be applied to your life whether you ascribe to this lifestyle or not. The bottom line is: we need to think about why we’re purchasing things, stop trying to impress each other, and instead focus on impressing ourselves.

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Lessons from Suits: Honest Body Language, Dress Sense, and Swagger

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Our non-verbal communication accounts for 93% of our total message that we’re sending to our recipients. We often think that it’s what words we choose that are the best tactic for effective communication, but it is in fact how we deliver these words, combined with how we carry ourselves and what we are wearing, that are most necessary to effectively deliver your message. Fortunately, the methods to achieving success with regards to effective communication are not that difficult. I’ll use the television program Suits to help illustrate how to use honesty in the way you portray and dress yourself, and how it can impact the message that you’re sending to your audience and impact your own self-confidence as well. I’ll start by analyzing the two main characters, Harvey and Mike, and then I’ll get into why honesty in your body language and dress sense can affect your self-confidence and the impression you’re giving off. Finally, I’ll bring everything full circle and explain how this concept affects your natural swagger.

In Suits, the show centres around Harvey Specter and Mike Ross, who are two lawyers at the firm Pearson Hardman. Harvey is a high-ranking Senior Partner, while Mike is a lowly, albeit brilliant, associate at the firm. The way that Harvey and Mike carry themselves reflects greatly on their character and their personalities, and the actors in the show do a great job portraying the specific traits of their character. The costume designers also deserve full marks for their choices. After all, with a name like Suits, your fashion sense better be top notch.

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Harvey is a high-ranking, alpha male character. He is tall, handsome, and confident, and his body language and dress sense reflect this. He walks with his shoulders back, arms slightly swaying, and he’s always looking up.  When he sits down, he is at ease; he leans back in his chairs unless he is making a dramatic point, and his posture remains very relaxed despite the intense depositions or interrogations that he is often a part of. If you examine how Harvey dresses, his suit choices also reflect his character and mirror his body language, and the way he dresses and how he carries himself is an honest projection of his personality. His suits have a wider lapel, his shirts are almost always a wide, spread-collared style, and his tie knots are always a full Windsor, which is the largest of the common tie knots. The wide lapels accentuate his chest to make it look broader, and the large tie knots combined with the spread collars draw a lot of attention to his accentuated chest. This combination makes Harvey look how he acts: dominant.

Harvey, just sitting back and playing it cool.

Harvey, just sitting back and playing it cool.

Contrast this to the character of Mike Ross: Mike is a low ranking individual at the firm and still quite unproven in his career, despite his brilliance. He has a very skinny build and his lack of experience doesn’t yet lend him the confidence to be a dominant character or person. Mike walks a little more hurriedly than Harvey does, and when he walks, his shoulders are hunched forward slightly, hinting at some nervousness on his part. Harvey initially ridicules the way Mike is dressed, from his cheap suits, bad skinny ties, and shirt collars that don’t sync well with the size of his tie knot or the width of his ties. His dress sense remains the same throughout the duration of the first season because it mirrors the behaviours and inexperience of Mike’s character.

The character of Mike Ross is intentionally dressed in slimmer suits and skinny ties because they both match his body type, but they also match his character’s presence. His suits do not accentuate his chest as much as Harvey’s do, and his tie knots are much smaller, either tied with the 4-in-hand or the half Windsor knot. His shirts are standard point collar dress shirts, but the width of the shirt collar does not sync up to the size of his tie knots (as you can see in the picture below). This signifies a lack of experience with dressing in a business formal setting, and is a reflection of Mike’s lack of experience as a lawyer, as well as his youthful ignorance. Mike’s dress sense conveys that he is less dominant as a person and relatively young and inexperienced. This isn’t a bad thing, because his dress sense portrays an honest message about who he is as a person. As Mike grows and learns the tools of the trade and becomes more experienced and confident, the costume designers mirror his gained experience with a heightened sense of style, as you can see in the differences in pictures below. The first is from the first season, and the bottom is from the third.

Mike's sense of style reflects his character's relative maturity

Mike’s sense of style reflects his character’s  maturity…

...and has evolved with his character throughout the series

…and has evolved with his character throughout the series

So why does honesty matter when portraying your message through dress sense and body language? The metric behind projecting good body language to your audience is projecting honesty towards them. This could include: honesty about the message you’re delivering, honesty about your passion for the subject of your message, honesty about who you are as a person and how it relates to your message, and honesty about your intentions. When you communicate, you’re attempting to form a connection by delivering a message to your recipient, and if it’s dishonest, your recipient will detect that and respond negatively to you.

Think of one of the first things you do when you meet a person: the handshake. A good handshake confirms that you have honest intentions and that you’re not hiding something (such as a weapon) from your recipient. As the interaction evolves from here, your honesty and intent should remain apparent to your audience. When you stand with your arms at your sides or slightly raised, you’re conveying that you’re not out to harm someone, and that you’re not defensive; you’re trustworthy. If you were to have your arms crossed or if you had your hands right out in front of you, this conveys a dishonest and defensive persona, and your message will not be received in the manner you intended. If you maintain eye contact, then you’re comfortable talking to the person, which also conveys honesty. If you avert their gaze, perhaps you are hiding something or are too embarrassed to maintain eye contact, which again displays a dishonest message.

As much as you might not think, what you wear can have immense effects on your confidence and your overall body language. This is why it’s important to make sure that you are dressing in a way that’s comfortable for you, and that’s not just limited to physical comfort, otherwise the world would be overrun by people in sweatpants. You need to have a certain psychological comfort in what you are wearing and how you are portraying yourself, otherwise you are being dishonest to yourself, and this message will project outwards as well. Just because a magazine or the Internet tells you that you should wear something, take a moment to do a little self-examination.

Does this certain item or certain style mesh with your personality?

Do you act in a certain way that will reflect well on what you’re wearing?

Can you see yourself being confident wearing whatever is in question?

If you answered no to any of these questions, perhaps that particular style isn’t for you, and that’s ok. I feel as if more people need to embrace different personalities and aesthetics that are portrayed by the various types and styles of clothing, and start understanding what kind of image they should be projecting. Don’t just go wearing what everyone else is, especially if you’re not crazy about it. Your clothing choices should be an honest reflection of your interests. A lot of people are faking who they are and conveying a dishonest message, and you’d be amazed at how many people can see right through it. If you know what type of person you are, what to wear to best reflect that, and are comfortable with this reflection of yourself, then you’ll notice that you will naturally become more relaxed and confident on a day-to-day basis.

Two men: vastly different in their roles, but both equally comfortable in them. Swagger at its finest.

Two men: vastly different in their roles, but both equally comfortable in them. Swagger at its finest.

This is essentially the basis for swagger, which is something that cannot be purchased or faked. True swagger is about portraying yourself through honest body language, honest style, and honest action. A double-breasted pinstripe suit with peak lapels isn’t for everybody, and simply buying one will not make you instantly become “a boss” (or a bawse, if you prefer).  Despite what a lot of songs or magazines will have you believe, buying expensive designer items doesn’t maker you cooler and give you swagger – in fact, it often makes you look worse, because people detect the dishonesty portrayed by it.

This is the same reaction you might get if you discover that someone owns a counterfeit designer handbag or sunglasses. They’re being dishonest about their income, and no one likes a liar. This is often why you hear fashion magazines preaching about ignoring clothing with a lot of external logos when you’re investing in a grown up wardrobe. Buying clothing based on solely the logo is largely a dishonest motive, because it shows that you aren’t truly thinking about who you honestly are as a person before you purchase it; you’re simply buying it because of the label. What a lot of people fail to realize is that no one cares how expensive your clothes, watch, or shoes are, because if it doesn’t sync up with who you are, it will simply draw negative attention towards yourself. This is why buying a Rolex – real or fake- will never be directly responsible for getting you laid.

Learning what works for you and what style best suits your personality is definitely not an easy task, but once you have established this, I guarantee that your life will be positively impacted.  To use an example from Suits, Mike often experiences difficulties whenever he tries too hard to be too much like Harvey instead of embracing his strengths as a person. He was essentially trying to fake it till you make it, but that never works. Understand what type of person you are and align that with the image of yourself that you’re projecting to the world. Your personal brand will be much easier to identify, you’ll make more memorable impressions on people, and you’ll be a lot more comfortable in your own skin. After all, that’s what true swagger is all about.

Does Grade Inflation in High School Affect Mental Health in University?

From an early age, we’re often asked the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

At first, our answers are usually visions of grandeur; choices range from an astronaut, the Prime Minister of Canada, an NHL hockey player, and the list goes on. We progress through elementary school holding on to a few of those dreams, and by high school it becomes apparent whether or not they can become a reality. By the end of high school, our grades, not our lofty ambition, are now the primary indicators of our success. As students in today’s high pressure world, our decisions are often heavily influenced by our parents, our peers, and our teachers

University enrolment in Canada has increased substantially over the past decade

University enrolment in Canada has increased substantially over the past decade

University enrolment has increased quite substantially in North America since the year 2000, and tuition fees also continue to rise along with it. More and more students are being pushed into university, with the prospect of landing a good career as the primary motivation, although many students are mislead in this assumption. It is not a mystery that number of jobs for new university graduates are not as plentiful as the new graduates, yet students still blindly push on from high school into university each year. Grade inflation is largely to blame, as the number of students graduating with an A average is a staggering 60%,which is a 40% increase from 1980. Today, over 10% of students graduate with an A+ average.

There are two parties to blame here:

i) Universities that have continually increased their acceptance averages due to more intense competition and and increase in the number of applications.

ii) Competition and student narcissism have created high pressure environments for high school teachers, who have are often pressured by students or their parents to increase students’ grades so that more of them can meet these acceptance criteria.

Entrance scholarships are also a significant factor for top performing students who are entering university, with many universities offering guaranteed scholarships based solely on academic merit. With this gross increase in the amount of high achiever students, that’s a lot of money to be dished out.

The problem with grade inflation in high school is that it conditions students to be used to achieving high grades even though their quality of work may not necessarily reflect that. Students progress through 4 years of high school programs with relative ease and little sense of competition, only to be overwhelmed when they get to university. These students then have to compete with 900 other students who have grades just as good as theirs, and with class averages hovering in the low to mid 70s, something (or someone) has gotta give.

Competition for high grades becomes that much more intense, and high levels of stress set in at a very early age. When faced with the prospect that their once lofty career dreams are disappearing faster than a hot cup of coffee during exam season, the average 17 or 18 year old simply cannot cope, and this is where the mental health of students begins to wane.

I believe that the reason that we have experienced a spike in mental health issues in the past ten years at university is the fact that universities and high schools are sending the wrong message to students. There should not be the pressure to only be admitted to a program if you have a lofty high school average, but at the same time, high school teachers should have more accountability and grade students accordingly. I’m not suggesting all teachers are guilty of this, but regardless, a new standardization needs to come into play, and perhaps it is time that high school education became more difficult in the academic stream.

Perhaps universities shouldn’t offer as many scholarships that do not require an application, as this just heightens the incentive for teachers to inflate grades so their students can receive entrance scholarships. If we alleviate this pre-disposition to such inflated of levels success at the high school level, then perhaps students will gain coping skills at an earlier age and be able to deal with the hardships of university easier. Basically, high school has become too soft, and so have the graduates.

Grade inflation and lofty entrance averages have combined to negatively impact the mental health of students at university

Grade inflation and lofty entrance averages have combined to negatively impact the mental health of students at university

If we challenge our high school students with a more demanding curriculum, in addition to producing grades that more accurately depict students’ efforts, we will also produce better students in the way they approach challenges and cope with stress. By grading students on a scale of 0-100, we have essentially put a cap on achievement and merit.

What if we altered the scale such that achieving a 90 or even a 95 was something that could only be accomplished with an effort that was truly ingenious in nature?

What if we challenged students to shoot for that almost unattainable goal, in the hopes that they would truly be celebrated for their efforts?

Being an honour roll student used to warrant a bumper sticker on the back of your mother’s car, but now it’s as common as a purple participant ribbon. Students can put in minimal effort and achieve what is deemed to be an “exceptional effort” – the definition of an “A” grade standing in a course. If 60% of our high school students are deemed exceptional by this definition, I believe we have a problem: we’re lying to them. And once many find out that they’ve been lied to with regards to how smart they are after achieving marks in university far lower than what they were used to in high school, many will become anxious, experience self-doubt, and ultimately this can lead to much greater complications down the road.

As humans, it is in our nature to get bored of things that are too easy. We get bored by winning a hockey game 10-0, we get bored playing an easy video game, and students get bored if their courses are too easy. The opinion that most students had of their high school was that “it was a joke”. The lack of a challenging academic regimen produces students who get bored with education, and as a result, the passion for learning disappears with the challenge of achieving high grades.

People often think that if something is hard, it stresses people out. Perhaps, but a little stress is a good thing if the goal is eventually achievable. High school students that are challenged in a healthy manner will have a better positive relationship with learning, because the average human being enjoys a healthy challenge in some way or form. By altering the high school curriculum to be more challenging, more students will develop good learning habits and problem solving skills.

The bottom line: there are too many people going to university nowadays. Many students simply are not cut out for it, and many truly don’t want to be in university pursuing a degree they hate, but the external pressures they face make alternative paths difficult. College students are often viewed as a lesser species by those in university, and this sense of elitism exhibited by university students makes it embarrassing for many high school students to pursue post-secondary education at the college level. But the reality is, more students should be attending college than currently are, as universities are overstocked with students who are not in the right mindset to maximize their potential based on what a university education can offer them.

University is meant to cater to a certain type of mind, and many students would be much happier (and more academically successful) in college, but the stigma attached to a college education by those in the university bubble often peer pressures students into pursuing an education that is not right for them. It’s also why a lot of university students are attending college after their degree to gain some practical skills that their degree simply didn’t offer.

It’s time we stopped lying to all of our kids; the chance of a good career is not a fair compromise for the increased risk of depression, anxiety, or other serious mental health concerns. We need to understand that not everyone was born to be an astronaut, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t help the lucky ones who were reach outer space.

Internet Propagated Pseudoscience: The Alchemy of our Time

Last night’s debate between creationist Ken Ham and scientist Bill Nye illustrated to the world that a subject as fact-based as science still experiences a great deal of controversy. Science, which, contrary to Mr. Ham’s false dichotomy of observational science and historical science, has followed the same natural laws throughout the existence of time, still has some glaring errors and is not without controversy and corruption within itself. This corruption is often falsely attacked by the true proponents of the real corruption, creating a situation where the “good guys” are actually the ones spreading rumours largely predicated on falsified data and bad science. I’m talking, of course, about the anti-vaccine movement, the anti-GMO movement, and the naturopathic supplement industry.

I know this will be controversial, and I know that some people that I know as friends may completely disagree with what I have to say, but my hope is offer a balanced perspective on the matter, and explain the damages of pseudoscience as a cultural movement rather than directly attack people with these beliefs. This is more an attack on the methodology of how people come to their decisions, as all of these ways of thinking are largely fuelled through examples generated from anecdotal evidence, not hard science. Here we go…

As long as there’s been public access to the Internet, there’s been bullshit. It started with chain emails that promised to grant you good luck for years if you sent them along, or promised your imminent death if you refused. It continued on with mass emails that reported ludicrous events such as: the existence of aliens, the Muslim Apocalypse, or the infamous Nigerian Prince mail scam. Fast forward to the Web 2.0 era, and Facebook is the primary vehicle for the spread of all of this “information”. It could be a simple photo that “proves” Jamie Oliver has won the fight against McDonald’s and their “pink slime”, or a whole group that spreads the word about the dangers of Fruit Loops cereal, how fluoride is a mind control agent used by the government, or the “new” and “groundbreaking” research in the fight against GMOs.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. What is the unifying principle that all of these rumours share? Fear. Why is a rumour started in the first place? To create fear, largely enacted out of jealousy. What a lot of supporters of these rumours forget is that the most famous movements were those motivated out of jealousy to create fear in their target consumers, knowing that they could create business as a result. People who believe in a lot of these “alternative” products are simply more easily influenced by fear than others. Fear is largely motivated by that of the unknown, and for those who are uneducated on many of these matters of pseudoscience, it is easy to fall victim to alternatives. My personal experience with this has been that most of my friends point their fingers and laugh at those who buy into these alternative products and conspiracies, because we all have science degrees, so our view is altered as such. Most of these rumours are created by companies or individuals who are just as greedy and corrupt as the evil corporations that they like to attack. Let’s investigate a few examples.

1) The anti-vaccine movement. Perhaps the movement getting the most attention today. Where did it all begin? In the 1960s, there were a few famous cases of vaccine disasters, including the Cutter Incident, where live strains of polio were actually contained in the vaccine dosage. That was over 50 years ago, and medicine has made some remarkable advances since then, including much more scrutinized testing. In his 2007 paper “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Life Saver”, Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick writes that “The great irony underlying current vaccination controversies is that, as vaccines have become more effective and safer than ever before, an anti-vaccine world view, reflecting a combination of nostalgia and cultural pessimism, has become more prevalent.” I couldn’t agree more.

What is really driving the recent spike in anti-vaccination activity is the now-defunct (and yet still cited) study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. At the time, this paper demonstrated evidence for a casual link between autism and a vaccine used for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Unbeknownst to the scientific community at the time, Dr. Wakefield had in fact been paid by British lawyer to forge his data in the hopes that it could be used as evidence in an upcoming lawsuit against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. The truth came out, Wakefield was incited as a fraud, and his name was forever tarnished. The study was removed from the prestigious British Medical Journal, The Lancet, in which it was published, and the scientific community was in general uproar. Wakefield’s results have yet to be reproduced to this day, and the MMR vaccine controversy is viewed as one of the greatest cases of fraud in recent history. Yet, the belief that vaccines are bad still persists to this day. I will dive into the ethics of this, because it has already been exhaustingly covered already by numerous articles and publications.

2) On to GMOs. A very controversial subject indeed, perhaps not because of the actual GMOs themselves, but because of one of the companies that researches, manufactures, and sells them: Monsanto. To a lot of people, GMO sounds like a very scary term, but in reality, we’ve all had GMOs at one point or another growing up. If you’ve eaten cereal in the last 20 years, you’ve ingested some GMO corn. But what about the rats with the exploding stomachs and cancer, you say? The famous study that always gets cited in the debate against GMOs is a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini that demonstrated increased rates of cancer and tumours in rats who were fed a diet of GM corn made by Monsanto. Not only were Séralini’s results never replicated, his paper was actually retracted from the journal that it was originally published in. Aside from the lack of replication, Séralini’s study contained a small control group, a strain of rats prone to cancer (his control group had similar cancer rates), and Séralini himself is a widely-known advocate against GMOs.

I googled “gmo rat study”, and the first results were from the following websites.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/gmo-safety-zmgz13amzsto.aspx
http://www.naturalnews.com/037249_gmo_study_cancer_tumors_organ_damage.html

Aside from incredibly biased journalism and awfully stereotypic website names, the articles fail to address the scientific shortcomings of the study. Any supporting documents cited are also from notoriously pro-GMO organizations, and the entire argument is another one of creationism vs. science. If you believe that GMOs are truly bad for you, then that’s fine, but just know that you’re being played no different than the people you choose to convey your “holier than thou” attitude on.  Most of these agencies are out to make money, and what they’re selling you is often costly, unproven, and downright fraudulent. This leads nicely into example 3.

3) Naturopathic supplement fraud

Studies have begun to surface that show many naturopathic supplements are nothing more than greenwashed filler pills. The FDA has a list of almost 100 supplements that have been found to show fraudulent amounts of the substance advertised, or simply none of it at all. Additionally, numerous supplements have unproven effects. Dr. Oz is largely to blame for pushing many of these supplements and products to the public. A spam email was sent to my inbox a few weeks ago, so I clicked on it like any smart person would do. It was a link to a site about green coffee beans, with an embedded YouTube video of the green coffee bean segment from the Dr. Oz show. This is just one of the many examples of Dr. Oz pushing products to his audience, but what I really don’t like is how dishonest he is about the whole process. He tries to act very objective on the manner, approaching at these products with a great degree of false skepticism to reassure the audience of his scientific validity. I predict in a few years some whistle blower will emerge, and then all of the companies who paid Dr. Oz to sell their products will emerge. The guy has a Harvard MBA in addition to his MD. He’s not stupid when it comes to business.

After watching two minutes of the video, I opened a new tab and googled “green coffee bean fraud”. Tons of results. I thought so.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/green-coffee-bean-extract-does-it-really-help-you-lose-weight/article6116816/

The study is flawed, and there’s only one study out there that even demonstrates that green coffee is remotely effective. No reproducible results, control group was flawed, small study. See a trend?

This is not to say that all naturopathic medicine is flawed, or that you shouldn’t take certain supplements. For example, fish oil has is a well-known, well-established supplement that is universally agreed upon to be good for you. But if you’re basing your entire conclusion about something from anecdotal evidence, please re-evaluate how you make critical decisions in your life. It would be like me waking up hungover after a night of drinking and going to an exam I had to write. Then when I aced the exam (duh), I decided to go around saying that being hungover makes your brain more alert and your memory recall better, because I just aced an exam, and so can you. Anecdotal evidence – my brain might react completely differently to the effects of a hangover, so to take my advice could work, but it could also screw you over. Same goes for switching to organic food, or taking green coffee bean extract, or cutting out carbs, or whatever. The human body is incredibly complex, so one study on a few people or rats is not going to cut it. Quit reading bad marketing disguised as pseudoscience, and start being smart about your decisions.

What a lot of people need to start doing is check their sources. It’s not that hard. Just because someone has a “Dr.” in front of their name, that doesn’t necessarily make them a credible source. What is credible is a scientific consensus, reproducible results, and good experimental design. Somewhere along the lines we lost the process of honest science, and only wanted the results, and it’s this movement that has resulted in the explosion of pseudoscience.

So be skeptical of the skeptics. They’re out to get your money just as much as the “big evil corporations” are.

Nature Deficit Disorder: How the Outdoors can Change Your Life

I will not take credit for the title of this article; for those of you unaware, there was a book by Richard Louv published in 2005 called “Last Child in the Woods” which talks about Nature Deficit Disorder and how it’s affecting society today. For the purpose of this article, I would like to discuss my opinions on the matter and how you can use the outdoors to benefit your life in almost every aspect.

This idea first came to me when I decided to give a presentation for a group of high school students at a conference here in London. The premise of the conference was to talk about environmental issues and outdoor education. Originally I was going to do a presentation of various life hacks that I may have come across that could be applied to an outdoorsy setting (and also because life hacks are a poor way of approaching life). As I began designing the presentation, I decided to change my focus completely and start to focus on the benefits that the outdoors can offer people, based largely off of my own experiences. Here is what I came up with.

I was fortunate enough to attend Lakefield College School, a school built on Lake Katchewanooka, which is about 2 hours northeast of Toronto. The school placed a huge emphasis on education of the whole person, and the underlying basis for this was a curriculum heavily invested in the outdoors. Instead of running laps for gym class, I went canoeing, snowshoeing, camping, cross-country skiing, and even got to experience a high ropes course. These experiences trained students not only in the physical rigours of these activities, but they also helped to develop numerous soft skills including leadership, teamwork, and pushing your comfort zone.

Overview of the LCS campus. Lots of lake and forest to explore!

Overview of the LCS campus. Lots of lake and forest to explore!

I came to the school in grade 9, and, like many of my fellow students, I knew essentially no one at the school. It was the one very difficult thing about starting high school fresh. You were tasked with making friends in one of the most intimidating social environments in existence, and all the while getting used to a whole new way of learning subjects. It also didn’t help that I was short, scrawny, and had glasses. Since the hierarchical structure of the male social system is determined largely through the physical make-up of it’s participants, I wasn’t exactly going to be team captain any time soon. Over time, I settled in and remained patient, and just did what I do best: learn. I learned a great deal from my three years of outdoor education at Lakefield. Once my body caught up with my mind, I underwent a major transformation, and by our Grade 12 trip to Algonquin Park, I was leading my group. I could definitely elaborate a lot more on the exact nature of how I personally underwent a major growth and transformation, but everyone in high school does, so that hardly makes for a unique article. My purpose is to illustrate how the outdoors specifically will change your life for the better.

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For me, this was high school gym class

1) The outdoors challenges you to be better. A lot of the skills you learn in the outdoors will be new experiences to you, so it reinforces that sense of effort and learning you experienced way back when you were little. It reinforces that you should never stop learning, and how enjoyable it is to learn new skills. One of these new skills may just become a new passion of yours.

2) The outdoors provides the opportunity for experiences, which are the best way to learn and to encourage personal growth. Instead of spending your money entirely on possessions, why not invest a little in a canoe, or camping equipment, or a trip to hike the Adirondack Mountains? Much research has been done on the benefit of purchasing experiences versus purchasing products, and the untamed, raw nature of many outdoor experiences has a lot more staying power than a new TV or new car ever will. A new car or new TV also can’t change who you are for the better.

This is a hell of a lot better than going to the grocery store

This is a hell of a lot better than going to the grocery store

3) The outdoors introduces novel risk on an increasingly safe and predictable world. This is why we are so obsessed with news stories of death and destruction. This is why TV shows and movies who have protagonists that are messed up or “bad” are so popular (Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and The Walking Dead, to name a few). We need an escape from our dull world, but unfortunately, the TV only gives us a temporary sense of that since we didn’t experience these events first hand. Get outside and experience some real risk for yourself. Scrape your knee climbing a tree. Jam your thumb hammering down your tent pegs. Get covered in mud when you’re spelunking. To quote the Miss Frizzle: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

4) The outdoors teaches independence. Many people my age are still incredibly reliant on their parents or other friends for basic things in life. They can’t read a map, they can’t cook, and they can’t do basic functional tasks. When I see this, all I think back to is everything I learned when I was camping with my parents as a child, or when I went camping with groups at Lakefield. Yes, I had parents or teachers around in case something went horribly wrong, but for the most part, the honus was on us to take care of ourselves. If you didn’t, there was that sense of risk and danger that helped balance things out and keep you focused. The best way to learn is by doing it for yourself, and nothing teaches that better than the outdoors does.

5) The outdoors introduces how a novel appreciation for nature can transcend barriers. I did an undergraduate degree in biology, but some of the people I know with the greatest passion for outdoors have no scientific background whatsoever. Don’t think that you have to be a science nerd in order to gain an appreciation for nature. I’m by no means a hippie, but I will always preach that a simple appreciation for how to identify different species of plants and animals, how they interact, and what impact we can have on them will go a long way and serve you well throughout your life. It could even save your life one day; you never know.

6) The outdoors can fashion you into a totally new person with the soft skills it teaches. Leadership, respect, responsibility, openness to new experiences; indeed all of these can help you become a better person. I wouldn’t be the same person today without these skills and values. I was a very shy and quiet kid in high school; now I’m the exact opposite. I love taking the lead with groups now, where I would never have been comfortable with any such thing before grade 11. You also have to respect the different values and opinions of your group when faced with difficult decisions that could potentially endanger someone in the outdoors, and these can be extrapolated to decisions you will have to make in the workforce one day. Many great leaders attribute their time in the outdoors to shaping their character.

7) The outdoors unites you with many like-minded people and offers you common ground on which to connect. Some of the more “outdoorsy” teachers I knew at Lakefield often brought their spouses along on trips, who were quite outdoorsy themselves. Relationships are built and strengthened upon shared experiences and philosophies, and if the outdoors is your thing, you’ll probably be happier with someone who shares that viewpoint. You both appreciate a challenge, you aren’t afraid to get messy, and you’re open to new things. This isn’t limited to relationships, either. Outdoorsy trips are a great place to meet like-minded people.

Camping brings people together

Camping brings people together

As more and more students are pursuing post-secondary education, their futures will usually lead them to settle in an urban area. This is causing a major disconnect from the outdoors and all of the benefits it offers. Instead of getting wrapped up in the trivial matters of city living, why not commit to improving your life and start investing more of your time pursuing outdoors-related ventures? I am by no means advocating that you have to become the next Bear Grylls, but instead of doing something boring and predictable, make your life a little more exciting by experiencing something in the great outdoors. Your life will be better because of it. Make sure you come back with a few bumps and scrapes, too; no one said it had to be glamourous.