This week, I’ve come across two articles on the ever-popular topic of sunscreen safety. The first presents some early research suggesting that zinc oxide may not be as safe as we thought. The second, citing the EWG, claims that nano zinc oxide based sunscreens have been given a green light for safety and effectiveness. How you respond to these articles probably has a good deal to do with your opinion of the safety of cosmetics to start with. If you believe most commercial cosmetics are unsafe, you are more likely to be alarmed by the first article and dismiss the second. If you believe that most commercial cosmetics are safe, you are likely to find the first unnecessarily alarmist and think the second reassuring.
(Where do I stand? I am a staunch supporter of staying out of the sun during peak intensity, wearing a hat and breathable clothes with good coverage, and if neither of those is possible, applying sunblock. And then not worrying about it. I defy any sunblock to cause measurable damage to my health in just ten or twenty applications per year.)
We all see the world through certain lenses of opinion, experience, background, and emotion. Objectivity doesn’t come naturally; maybe doesn’t come at all. But being able to identify your own fuzzy lenses is a helpful way to understand why you think and react the way you do. Let’s take one of my fuzzy lenses — one of the sillier ones — as an example. I like cats. I genuinely think they’re cooler than dogs.
The belief that cats are awesome influences my behavior in quite a lot of ways:
- I have a cat
- I volunteer at a cat rescue
- I follow cat organizations on Twitter and Facebook
- I read cat stories online
- I surround myself with fellow cat people
- I put more weight on articles that show cats to be superior lifeforms
- I am more likely to be skeptical of articles that show cats to be inferior to / invasive / less intelligent than dogs
So, by limiting my exposure to things I don’t agree with and increasing my exposure to things I do, I’m reinforcing what I want to believe while (maybe) thinking that I am making a rational assessment. In fact, it’s more or less just ideology. In Jennifer-land, cats are cool, and there’s not much you can do to persuade me otherwise.
In his article on PersonalCareTruth.com, cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski brings up this point as an ideology litmus test: what evidence would you need to change your mind about an issue? If the answer is that nothing would change your mind, you’ve stumbled upon some ideology.
Frankly, the anti-science tendencies of the environmental movement scare the dickens out of me. I came across a comment earlier this week about how the sun doesn’t cause cancer, sunscreens do, and the breathtaking disregard for a large body of scientific knowledge and consensus as to the effects of UV radiation on skin appalled me. The Skeptical Environmentalist, perhaps rightly, sneers at our tendency to adopt binary beliefs (organic = good, GM = bad, for example) as a ‘litany.’ In surrounding ourselves with studies we want to believe and doubting the ones that don’t align with our beliefs, are we really that much better than climate change deniers?
It’s a sobering thought, and it prompted me to identify, if not completely clear off, some of my other fuzzy lenses:
- I want to believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier, kinder, and more environmentally friendly.
- I want to believe that organic farming is lower impact and more sustainable than high-efficiency conventional farming.
- I want to believe that all industrial scientists whose data goes against my beliefs are corrupt.
- I want to believe that natural is safer, more sustainable, and more effective.
- I want to believe that our planet and its remarkable biodiversity is inherently valuable.
- I want to believe that science is the most reliable way to understand our world.
I’m pretty sure there’s evidence that could affect my opinion for most of these, and I have already moved towards urging a more case-by-case consideration on farming practices and chemicals. I have been following the debate over Rothamsted’s GM wheat experiment with great interest and appreciate all the open conversation that is taking place between the scientists and the public. But I don’t think you could budge me on the last two. I don’t think ideology is necessarily a bad thing, or an avoidable one, but it’s good to know where it is.
(By the way, the questions in this Baloney Detection guide, although aimed towards orthorexic vegans, are quite useful for evaluating information in general.)
What are your fuzzy lenses when it comes to all things green? What evidence would it take to change your mind?
Photo by Crunchy Footsteps