The Importance of Skepticism

The atheist/skeptic community quite naturally focuses the majority of its attention on religious claims, and for good reason.

However, a healthy skepticism is vitally important on other facets of our lives as well.

This is a post I mean to write for quite a while, but unfortunately I never seemed to get around to it.  Now that I am attempting to revive this blog, it seems as good a time to address it as any.

Several years ago, we received a letter in the mail from the People To People Ambassador Program informing that our daughter, who at the time was in 4th grade, was nominated (by who, it didn't say) to participate in a trip to London and Paris.  Wanting to find out more information, I went on the web site.  Strangely, when I entered the code that was in the letter, the address it had for my daughter was in Wisconsin instead of New York.  I called the number and spoke to a customer service representative, who said it must have been a glitch or something.

Anyway, the program was having a presentation for interested parents at the SUNY Stony Brook campus.  My daughter was quite thrilled at the prospect of going on a trip to London and Paris, and I recall at one point when I made a joke about her not being able to go, she started to cry and said "You have no idea how much this means to me!"

So, my wife, my daughter and I made the trip to SUNY Stony Brook on the appointed day.  When you arrive, they collect the letter you receive in the mail.  In retrospect, I wish I had made a copy of it so I could reproduce its contents for this post.

We, along with other parents and children in attendance, entered the auditorium and listened to a man named Mike speak to us.  He then showed us a short film about the program.  After that, he brought out some of the people who have participated as chaperones for the program.  If memory serves, they were all school teachers.

The presentation was rather slick, and at least one person I read online described it as similar to promoting a time share.  There was a great emphasis made about how international travel can boost one's chances of being accepted to college and how it was such an enriching experience.  The cost estimate for the trip, to the best of my recollection, was somewhere around $5,000 to $6,000 dollars.  For parents who would have difficulty paying for the trip on their own, there were some fundraising opportunities, which I guess was doing things like selling candy bars and such.

After the presentation was over, Mike said that representatives were available in the lobby to accept deposits for early registration for the trip.  When we went out into the lobby, I saw that a number of parents had lined up to register their children for the trip and pay the deposit.  My wife asked me if we should do the same and I told her that I wasn't going to be rushed into paying for my daughter to travel to Europe with a bunch of strangers without doing more research about the organization.

Sure enough, when I did do some online sleuthing (the Internet is your friend!), I found some not so flattering things about the People to People organization.

For starters, my daughter had not done anything noteworthy to have received her invitation to the trip. 

An investigation by CBS found some bizarre irregularities in the invitations that were sent out.

"Many parents... believe their kids won an honor from a non-profit run by President Eisenhower's granddaughter. But the experience of Steve and Jennifer Barbee indicates otherwise.

The Barbees' daughter, Katelynn, got invited on a People to People trip this summer with other "high school students" from Tennessee. But Katelynn died back in 1996 when she was 10 days old.

CBS News found the same story in Iowa - a boy supposedly "recommended for the honor" of a People to People trip for his "outstanding middle school achievements." Impossible, said the mom in a letter, because her son "died at seven weeks of age in 1993."

I also found reviews of People to People by former and current employees of the company at a web site called Glassdoor.  The picture they painted was not a very encouraging one.

One employee wrote in May of 2011 that the cons of the organization included:

Unpleasant work environment full of aggression, anger and frustration.
Many people afraid of being fired for speaking their mind.
High turnover among staff.
High pressure selling leads to many cancellations.

A former employee wrote around the same time that "There seems to be a lot of very angry and nasty people in the management group.  It is not unusual for shouting matches to break out among 'leaders' in the company."

Another current employee wrote "Attempts to find and keep senior people have failed time and again as they arrive and figure out the real situation and leave.  Consequently, the same poorly qualified individuals stay and continue to make poor decisions." 

When I was doing the research I had found a review site from parents and students, where many, though not all, of the reviews were mostly negative.  I tried to find it again, but it may no longer be online.

Needless to say, after having investigated the matter to my satisfaction, I went over my findings with my daughter to explain why I would not register her for the trip. She was very understanding and accepted the decision.  I only wished I had done the research before wasting the time and gasoline to drive all the way out to Stony Brook. 

That being said, I do not deny that a fair number of children who go on People to People's trips have enjoyable and memorable experiences, and I read a number of reviews to this effect.  Some of them may even end up reading this post and commenting here.

Still, it seems clear that the way these trips are marketed to impressionable children and well meaning parents is not entirely honest.  As explained above, my daughter didn't receive her invitation because of any special achievement on her part.  With regard to college, I had never traveled outside the United States until I was 20, and that didn't stop me from getting a college education.  My daughter and my son are certainly more well traveled at their young ages than I was.  I didn't fly on an airplane for the first time until I was 25.  My son was less than six months old on his maiden flight.  I was 20 the first time I ever left the United States, and that was a drive to Montreal, where I stayed less than 24 hours.  My kids have been to the Philippines and Hong Kong 3 times, as well as Taipei, the Bahamas, the Caymans, and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. 

By all means, send your children on a People to People trip if you want to, but don't do it because you believe that they will suffer some horrible set back in life for not attending, because they surely won't.

The Importance of Skepticism