Parabens and Pink Slime

“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.

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.


  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, (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.

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