Seeing through fuzzy lenses

Things look a little blurry?

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 rightlysneers 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

15 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post! I definintely share the cat lens – I read Time to Eat the Dog? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Time-Eat-Dog-Sustainable-Living/dp/0500287902/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337805857&sr=8-1 which laid out the precise environmental impact of having a pet and thought “nah, you need to have some pleasure in your life, I make up for it by being green in other ways” although I blatantly don’t do enough to compensate for all that litter, fish and factory-farmed chicken. For that matter I’m reluctant to accept that intensive animal rearing is lower carbon than free range. I’m sure I have others but I’ll need to think about it, I suppose the whole point is you’re not aware of your lenses.

    Reply

    • Hi Jules!

      I’ve heard the environmental argument for eating one’s pets, and it sends shivers up my spine. There are some things I’m not going to do even when the numbers make sense, and I think that’s OK. We’re not machines, and nor are the animals that share our lives. I am willing to accept that some forms of high density animal farming can produce more output for less land, which has environmental benefits (assuming that the land not used is left alone rather than converted into buildings)…but I can’t agree that it’s worth the cost in animal suffering. My perspective that animal welfare matters is, I suppose, another lens. The problem with ideology is that it tends to be invisible!

      Reply

  2. Posted by EcoCatLady on 05/23/2012 at 14:54

    Another fabulous post! I periodically descend into wistful imaginings of how wonderful it must have been to have lived in an earlier epoch. I lament the pollution, the chemicals, the impersonal nature of modern society – and I have a persistent fantasy that everything must have been “so much better” before we were plagued with all of that.

    CatMan generally snaps me back to reality with statements like “Really? You want to go back to a time when the average life expectancy was 50 years… when there were no antibiotics and people died from simple infections on a regular basis… when entire communities regularly got wiped out by dysentery or cholera… when you had to kill and butcher animals to stay alive… when a gardening failure wasn’t just a minor annoyance – it could mean starvation…” and so on.

    And I remember chatting with my high school boyfriend at our 25th reunion. He’s a civil engineer and we were talking about some solar energy projects that he was involved in, which had been funded by the Obama stimulus package. These are all things that I desperately want to be in the “good” category – solar energy, Obama, economic stimulus vs. slashing social programs… but then he told me that he actually ran the numbers and figured that the payback period would be over 100 years! Sigh.

    I guess the truth is that the real world isn’t neatly divided into good & bad categories like our ideologies would have us believe.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Cat! I think Charles Dickens probably said it best when he wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” It’s easy and tempting to idealize the past, and hard (impossible?) to look at things objectively.

      David Owen also concludes solar isn’t worth it in The Conundrum. I first came across the idea that renewable forms of energy weren’t the solution in a James Lovelock book, and felt very angry and defensive about it. Feeling defensive for me is a sure sign that something just disagreed with my ideology. Often, with enough time and evidence, I come around to a more moderate position. I think solar and wind are still worth developing and trying, but that we’ll need some pretty hard limits on our consumption to get even partially off oil.

      One problem with this kind of analysis is that it often leaves me on the fence about issues. I don’t feel strongly about things like the Safe Cosmetics Act and have read perspectives on both sides. I agree with labeling GMOs, but I also think there needs to be better public understanding and ability to make decisions for reasons other than fear. I guess this makes me a crappy activist!

      Reply

  3. a great, thought provoking, honest post.
    I actually was thinking about this today- but in the context of bilingualism and speech-language pathology assessment, recommendations and treatment (haha, ok, so my job is a bit all consuming). This generally comes up when I have to read up on research (every few months) and begin to worry that what I recommend so firmly (bilingualism for all and treating/assessing children in BOTH languages… basically) will be challenged and how I will handle that.

    It’s difficult, and I think it’s so important to keep an open mind while critically examining new evidence that is brought to our attention.

    Reply

    • Hi EcoYogini,

      Yep, it’s a doozy! Your job sounds really interesting, by the way. Seems like you’re doing a good job of trying to keep an open, yet critical, position. I think it’s much harder to reserve judgment than to jump on a bandwagon, and sometimes (as, I believe, with climate change) it’s necessary to take a stand before all the evidence comes in because so much is at stake. Tricky, tricky.

      Reply

  4. Posted by smallftprints on 05/23/2012 at 18:06

    At some point in my life I realized that everything I’ve been taught may not be the truth. That, for me, was a total eye opening moment. It’s made me reevaluate every “lens” and test it. Even testing an issue can keep it fuzzy but at least I’m not just going with what I was told or always believed. Now, when I find myself leaning towards a particular conclusion, I research the opposite point of view. I guess it’s all about information and having enough of it to make a decision … and having the right to make the decision.

    The article about Rothamsted’s GM wheat experiment, which I’m guessing you linked up in the Meet & Greet, was really interesting. There are always 2 sides to every situation and it was interesting to read a scientist’s perspective. I believe that part of the problem is that not all companies and even scientists are ethical … and people have been fooled and hurt by the unethical. So we’re “gun shy”. The situation isn’t helped when those companies fight hard to hide information from us. So it isn’t science that bothers me … it’s those who would exploit it, at any cost (aka the heath of the planet as well as our health), for their own gain. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to see who they are.

    Reply

    • Hi Smallfootprints,

      I try to do that, too — look for perspectives I don’t agree with and work through my knee jerk reaction to see why I’m having that reaction. I’m by no means good at it. I still have plenty of knee jerk reactions! And I generally still choose to err on the side of caution, which is another lens from my personality and upbringing.

      I’m finding the GM wheat debate extremely interesting. (And yes, I linked to it, because I thought it was interesting and thought provoking.) Two issues that seem to get confused whenever GM comes up are policy and technology. They are not the same thing. I don’t agree with many of Monsanto’s policies, yet I think the potential for GM technology in a world where the climate is changing faster than plants and animals can evolve is too big to ignore — I see it as one more tool for the emergency kit. It is unfortunate that GM technology is spearheaded by a few large corporations. I’ve read that the shortage of smaller companies and more universities is partly a result of the many regulations and testing mandated, which make it financially difficult for smaller or less well funded organizations. You’ll get no argument from me that monopolies are problematic.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Joy on 05/23/2012 at 22:58

    Oh cats are far cooler than dogs

    Reply

  6. Posted by Andrea on 05/25/2012 at 05:50

    Hm… evidence… well I love science, so when I find statistics based on well-designed studies, I’m pretty good with changing my mind. Then I pretend I never believed otherwise because it’s embarrassing, hahaha… But really, if I get information from sources that I trust, it would be silly of me not to listen and adjust my attitude.

    By the way, I’m totally with you on the sunblock issue and save my worry for personal care products that I use on a much more frequent basis! Hello, moisturizer!

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea,

      Yeah, I’m with you. Most things I’m willing to change my mind about when presented with compelling, rigorous evidence (peer-reviewed, please, and general consensus among scientists doesn’t hurt, either!). It’s largely when those issues run into emotions or personal convictions that I find myself getting a little defensive or eager to disprove. I feel like I see that happening all the time with the people around me, and I wonder if it gets in the way of being receptive to and promulgating good information.

      I’ve been using jojoba oil as a daily moisturizer for over a year and have had very good results with it. I just massage a drop or two on damp skin, and it seems to actually have helped clear up my oily, acne prone skin. My skincare routine has definitely gotten simpler, originally out of concern for chemical exposure, but I’ve kept it because it works better.

      Reply

  7. Posted by San Diego Plumber on 05/30/2012 at 01:21

    We all have different views and opinions on how to view different things but when it comes to going green and preserving the environment, there has to be a concrete and feasible way to achieve the best results and make the world a better place to live in.

    Reply

    • Hi SD Plumber,

      I appreciate your optimism! I am often way towards the other end of the scale. One of the problems with preserving the environment is that it’s going to involve a lot of trade offs, and I think we’ll have difficulty deciding on which. For example, something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is nuclear power. A few years ago, I was absolutely, totally, deadset against nuclear power of any sort. Shut down all the nuclear reactors, right now. Now I’m starting to see that, in order to meet our energy needs, we have a limited number of choices, all of which come with significant drawbacks. There are fossil fuels, of course. Dirty, limited, not renewable. Then there are bio-fuels, which are significantly less efficient and would require a lot of land to be converted from growing food to growing fuel. Then there are renewable sources, which would also require copious amounts of land in order to produce enough energy. And then there’s nuclear, which, if/when things go wrong, they go seriously wrong. But I wonder…if it came down to choosing more renewable at the cost of destroying open spaces and delicate habitats or choosing nuclear and leaving more ecosystems and wilderness intact, which would be greener?

      Reply

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