Monday, February 26, 2018

What to do about Nick Kristof?

Over the weekend, a rather bizarre column (calmly titled "What Poisons Are In Your Body?") from the New York Times' Nick Kristof where he tests his urine for endocrine disruptors: 
Finally, I heard back from Silent Spring Institute. I figured this was a report card I had aced. I avoid all that harmful stuff. In my columns, I had advised readers how to avoid it. 
Sure enough, I had a low level of BPA, best known because plastic bottles now often boast “BPA Free.” 
But even a diligent student like me failed the test. Badly. I had high levels of a BPA substitute called BPF. Ruthann Rudel, a toxicologist who is the head of research at Silent Spring, explained that companies were switching to BPF even though it may actually be yet more harmful (it takes longer for the body to break it down). BPF is similar to that substance that made those mice do back flips.
I am a little at wit's end to understand how to help intelligent people like Mr. Kristof see past their clear fear of chemicals, the distrust they have of chemical companies and their seeming dismissal of regulatory agencies. It seems to me that he is all too credulous to the claims of organizations like the Silent Spring Institute that are incentivized to generate as much fear and doubt around chemicals as possible.

Readers, what do you think? 

14 comments:

  1. I'm actually surprised, the comments on the article are (for the most part) taking him to task

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    1. I didn't read all of the comments, but many of the first responses were all in full support (and even bringing more toxins into the conversation). I especially liked the comment that because of all the toxins in plastic, the commenter no longer buys their yogurt in plastic. Which I think is an excellent idea. I'm going to the store on my way home and I'll just weigh myself before, put the yogurt in my pockets and re-weigh myself. Oh, sorry, if I read further down the comments I realize that my clothes are all made out of plastic! Damn it, guess I have to eat my yogurt in the store.

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    2. A weird aspect of this is what people think of as "plastic" is polyethylene, which I tend to see as deeply innocuous. I dunno.

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    3. That's your problem. You aren't "seeing" things as these commenters are. Nothing is innocuous, let alone deeply innocuous. Some of the comments are deeply disturbing, though.

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  2. Pop culture gives us two useful principles. Trust no one and money changes everything.

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  3. With the current leadership in the EPA, I don't trust them either. The public has very good reason to mistrust the oil refining industry...

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  4. I think at least part of the problem is that people with chemophobia don’t draw a big distinction between chemicals and germs. Like germs, chemicals are invisible beasties that can contaminate the things they eat, the things they touch, and can cause tremendous harm to life. And for that reason, chemicals are to be feared. The analysis doesn’t really go deeper than that. You can tell them all day long that aspertame is just a dipeptide, or that there is no chemical difference between natural and synthetic vanillin.

    More speculatively, I also wonder how much it reflects an external locus of control. Chemophobia narratives dovetail so well with the Big Bad Greedy Multinational Corporations Selling Us Stuff narrative, there’s this lollapalooza effect where they become self-reinforcing.

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  5. A case of the Dunning-Kruger effect?

    Neither Kristof and the NY Times editorial board hold a real science degree. One is a psychologist. An area that is losing credibility rapidly.

    The NY Times also believes there is a scientist shortage. The fact that they do not have one on their editorial board seems to support this and virtually every thing they have to say about science.

    But this must be their only weak area, I am sure every thing else they write about is amazingly true...

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  6. There is no cure for willful ignorance

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  7. This comment was a NYTimes Editor's Choice. It begins: "I'm evaluating a new all-natural arthritis cream. This cream has testimonials that could come from the New Testament...." You can imagine where it goes from there. https://imgur.com/a/FkHIr

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  8. I agree that the current state of chemophobia is overblown, but wouldn’t you agree that the chemical industry does not have a great record of self-regulating when it comes to toxicity?

    Also, there is a huge lag between commercialization of a product, evidence of toxicity, and regulation. In that time millions of pounds of said chemical can be released to the environment.

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    1. Exactly what I've been thinking. The fear and misunderstanding as a history behind it, and isn't "willful ignorance" as some are suggesting. Problematic no doubt, but belittling misunderstanding never led to more understanding.

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  9. I do a lot of outreach with high school kids. I sometimes touch chemophobia by first hiking up this fear about "dihydrogen monoxide" and then highlighting that anything can be presented in a scary way when you select the facts that go along your message. But then I show the Andy Warhol soup cans. People usually recognize them. How did Andy Warhol die? Arrhythmia cause by water poisoning. Because even "chemicals" you encounter daily can be harmful if you misuse them.

    Basically the fact that a lot of people want every information to be a short and sexy tagline that attracts attention on social media makes for a mess when most scientific explanation cannot be summarized that way.

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