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Parabens and Pink Slime

By: Steve Herman
Posted: July 10, 2012, from the August 2012 issue of GCI Magazine.

“Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other.”
—Bill Gates

You may have been exposed to countless presentations and articles on using social media to enhance your interaction with consumers. Social media, and the Internet in general, have been touted as the ultimate sales and marketing tool. We can’t live without smartphones and tablets in our personal and business lives. But the true impact of the Web for good or evil is much more complex than the typical marketing presentation would lead us to believe.

Words have power to influence thought and exist on a potent emotional level that reason and rational dialog cannot compete with. Call lean, finely textured beef “pink slime,” and no one would want to eat it—even if they have been eating it for years with no adverse effects. Pink slime—to use the pejorative term—takes beef scraps, centrifuges out the fat, uses ammonia gas to kill bacteria, and is added to ground beef. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration considers it perfectly safe. But a blog was able to effectively destroy the product in a few months. Three plants were closed and 650 jobs cut in a display of the power of social media.

It is not too different from the process by which parabens, phthalates and sulfates (and once upon a time PABA derivatives and animal proteins) have been demonized. What scientific data can convince consumers to use mineral oil or petrolatum if they think it is harmful? Can you effectively discuss facts with someone who believes natural products are safe and “chemicals” are harmful? [For additional consideration, read “The Power of Words and Perception.”]

Information Overload?

As information channels become clogged by largely biased voices on Google, Facebook, Twitter and blog, intelligent decisions are going to increasingly rely on the filters applied to this ocean of raw content.

Russell Ackoff created a pyramid where the content of the human mind was classified into five categories: data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom, often reduced to the phrase DIKW hierarchy.1 It is a good start to understanding why all the things floating around our brains are not equal.

Information began with speech, became substantive with writing and spread widely through the power of the printing press. But the explosion of knowledge now being experienced started with the telegraph, a tale that is well-told by James Gleick in The Information.2 When a telegraph line was erected in 1844, it was possible to send a message in seconds from Baltimore to Washington, and from those dots and dashes of Morse code to the latest smartphone, the very nature of what we know and how we know it has been fundamentally altered.

The modern problem of information is that there is too much, and it is by no means clear what is right and what is wrong. Look at the sheer volume of the number of ingredients at our disposal: The 2012 International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary & Handbook contains more than 19,000 labeling names. These are cross-referenced to more than 66,000 trade and technical names and nearly 4,300 suppliers from 106 countries. And these numbers only reflect the skeletal information involving cosmetic ingredients. Each can have an MSDS, spec sheet and possibly extensive supplier documentation—including efficacy data, suggested formulations, graphs and photographs. Then there are significantly different variations under the umbrella of one INCI name. Consider, for example, all the possibilities embraced by one word such as “carbomer” or “xanthan.”

In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger claims the smartest person in the room is the room.3 The old hierarchical system headed by experts has been broadened to include anyone making a statement on the Internet. Groups of people, sometimes loosely organized as “crowdsourcing,” produce results no individual or small group can match.

Weinberger’s chapter titled “Too Much Science” points out the exaggerated importance of small, semi-scientific studies like one showing mice drinking coffee prevents Alzheimer’s. How does that project to humans? Some tiny, nonrandom group studies get inflated by the press and clutter the scientific landscape.