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Parabens and Pink Slime

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

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In 1963, Bernard Forscher claimed scientists were generating too many facts, and in Chaos in the Brickyard, he said we were generating too many bricks (facts) without knowing how they go together.4 The excess of random facts makes it hard to develop broad theories that provide context and prospective.

The random bricks collected by EWR or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics show the consequences of facts out of context, without peer review—bricks without a building. Consumers lost in a sea of claims and accusations cannot be expected to filter out the good science or logical conclusions. Too much random noise and too few filters is a challenge we all face.

We may think the Internet expands our horizons, but the opposite may be true. The echo chamber effect occurs when we seek out like-minded groups or sources of information, and this phenomenon serves to reinforce our preexisting views and blocks out contradictory input. To take a simple example, always looking at the Personal Care Products Council’s website as opposed to the Environmental Working Group’s will polarize your world view.

Data Collecting

Another danger of too much Web browsing is the loss of long-form thought. Book content is fundamentally different from Web content. The front and back cover create a limited content. Presumably the publisher has been impressed by the author’s credentials and found value in the content. And hopefully, the content is well thought out, carefully organized and cannot easily be debated by the reader.

Contrast a book to discussions on the Web, which can expand without limit. There is no editor, no fixed agenda and the hyperlinks can go in a thousand directions. In this mass of unfiltered data lies the world of social media, the holy grail of modern marketing. But what happens when consumers find out that, at the very least, some of this supposedly spontaneous individual opinion is planted by companies to create the look of an unbiased process?

Nicholas Carr illuminated the effect, mostly negatively, on these modern thought processes in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?5 Carr discussed how we now skim and scan rather than read and absorb. Our attention spans keeps contracting, as does our ability to concentrate and to think in broad terms. We think technology gives us access to a wealth of information, and it does, but at what price?

At its most fundamental, this industry is based on information. It may be in the form of a formula, the knowledge of skin or hair anatomy, an understanding of global regulations, or a grasp of consumer needs. Information, in a disorganized and boundless flood of unqualified messages washes over us continuously, and controlling this flow becomes harder every day. Applying effective filters is necessary for our sanity. It requires a step back from the pressures of everyday life to see this information overload as a serious challenge to our ability to think in long form.

This column ends with (minimal) homework. At the very least, read the Carr article—it’s short and free online, so there’s no excuse not to. Then check out Gleick or Weinberger or similar works, which can easily be found at a variety of online retailers.

And realize there is irony here—to uncover the dangers of the Web, we need the Web. The trick is to use it to increase our ability to think, not just in glancing blows.

References

  1. R Ackoff, From Data to Wisdom, J Applied System Analysis, 16, 3–9 (1989)
  2. J Gleick, The Information, Pantheon Books, New York, (2011)
  3. D Weinberger, Too Big to Know, Basic Books, New York, (2012)
  4. BK Forscher, Chaos in the Brickyard, Science, 142(3590), 339 (1963)
  5. N Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains, The Atlantic, July/August 2008, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/ (Accessed May 24, 2012)

Steve Herman is president of Diffusion LLC, a consulting company specializing in regulatory issues, intellectual property, and technology development and transfer. He is a principal in PJS Partners, offering formulation, marketing and technology solutions for the personal care and fragrance industry. He is an adjunct professor in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Masters in Cosmetic Science program and is a Fellow in the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.