One important social role of skepticism is mediating the public’s concerns and fears. Skeptics often find themselves helping (or trying to help) the public distinguish between real and exaggerated threats. Statisticians such as Joel Best and John Allen Paulos have written accessible, useful books on how to recognize real risk and distinguish dangers from false alarms.
Skeptics typically work hard to reassure the public that their fears of many things are exaggerated or outright fabricated: fears of vaccines, for example, or food additives, or GMOs, Satanists, immigrants, online predators, and so on. This is often a thankless job, as there is profit in alarmism. The public rewards the Chicken Littles of the world who warn (usually sincerely, though sometimes not) of some impending, previously unrecognized danger.
One example that comes to mind is the pink slime scare of 2012.
Remember the Slime?
Pink slime got a lot of publicity in late 2012—none of it good. The widely used beef and hamburger filler had parents and politicians upset, and an online petition urged the government to keep pink slime out of school lunches.
Pink slime was defended by its manufacturers and the U.S. government as eco-friendly, allowing more of an animal’s carcass to be used. It’s not as nutritious or tasty as full meat tissue, but many foods contain harmless fillers.
Pink slime sounds unappetizing, but it was consumed for years. Though some have raised concerns about the safety of pink slime, there have been no reports of any problems or food contamination because of the substance. Pink slime was regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which classifies it as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), a very common designation that applies to most foods we eat. Thus it’s safe—or at least no less safe than any other consumer meat, which must be correctly refrigerated, prepared, and cooked before eating.
The real problem with pink slime is the “ick factor”—it sounds gross. When it comes to the ick factor, it’s mostly psychological. Part of the psychology behind the ick factor is labeling. The language we use when we identify things influences how we interpret them. We can call an old car “used” or “pre-owned”; we can call civilians killed in wartime “men, women, and children” or “regrettable collateral damage.” And we can call processed beef parts “pink slime” or we can call it “boneless lean beef trimmings.”
Pink slime may not be appetizing, but it’s not much more disgusting than what’s in all-American hot dogs—you don’t want to know what kind of “miscellaneous parts” go into those ballpark favorites.
What seemed to scare consumers the most about pink slime—which an ABC News report claimed was used in 70 percent of ground beef sold in American supermarkets—was that the lean beef trimmings were treated with ammonia. That sounds scary, but is actually perfectly safe. Ammonia is used to kill harmful bacteria that exists in the meat, but is present in such tiny quantities that it is not harmful to consume. The United States Department of Agriculture affirmed as much in a letter back in 2012, a few weeks after the ABC story aired. Indeed, Chips Ahoy cookies and Velveeta cheese contain similar ammonium compounds, like ammonium phosphate, as does Wonder Bread. Understandably, though, people are scared of the word ammonia, which they associate with heavy-duty cleaning products. Perhaps unsurprisingly that’s why some quarter of a million people signed a petition asking that the government not serve their children ammonia-treated beef for lunch and why several fast-food chains, including McDonalds and Burger King, renounced the product and stopped using it in their burgers.
Many people would be disgusted at the idea of eating another animal’s skin and dermal fat—but they happily munch down pork rinds (made from fried skin) and leave the skin on cooked chicken and turkey. And let’s not forget Jell-O brand gelatin, a favorite dessert since 1897. You can call it Jell-O, or you can call it flavored and colored powdered cow bones, cartilage, and intestines. Gelatin is made from collagen, an animal tissue (which is why many strict vegans refuse to eat it). Feeding ground-up cow meat to children is a disgusting outrage, but feeding ground-up cow bones to kids is a delicious treat on a hot summer day.
Ultimately the debate about the future of pink slime should rest on the science of safety instead of the psychology of disgust. Food processing—and especially meat processing—isn’t pretty no matter what you call it or how you do it.
This exaggerated outraged concern over pink slime is perhaps best understood as a primal contamination fear. As far as I know, I was the only prominent skeptic at the time to write about this topic and try to allay the public’s fears. It’s not that others were ignoring the subject; it just wasn’t on the radar of skeptical organizations and public safety advocates.
Skepticism’s failure to help the public put the pink slime scare into perspective is no one’s fault; there are too few skeptics and too many potential topics and inevitably some worthy subjects simply slip through the cracks. Pink slime, though ripe for skeptical fear-allaying analysis, was a slippery subject because it didn’t fit neatly into classic skeptical categories; it had nothing to do with the paranormal, it wasn’t alternative medicine or pseudoscience, exactly. It was certainly a form of health scaremongering, but those promoting the scaremongering were not the usual suspects such as the Food Babe; they were hundreds of ordinary parents and caregivers who didn’t want to eat the stuff and feared, for no obvious reason, feeding it to kids. It was, one might ague, a form of moral panic.
Her petition, signed by over 50,000 people so far, calls the chemical a “dangerous ingredient” and ends with, “North Americans deserve to truly eat fresh—not yoga mats.” Added Hari, “When you look at the ingredients, if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.” Yuck! Who wants to eat yoga mats? But is that really what’s in Subway bread?
According to a 1999 World Health Organization evaluation of studies on the effects of azodicarbonamide, there was a negligible impact from the chemical in animal test subjects, except in massive doses. All information regarding human testing was inconclusive. The ingredient is widely used throughout the food industry, including by Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, and many other chains.
Azodicarbonamide is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which classifies it as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) when used as a dough conditioner or bleaching agent in flour. The GRAS designation is very common and applies to most foods we eat. Thus it’s safe—or at least no less safe than other foods. Of course no food is completely safe; all foods carry some inherent risk, whether it’s the risk of food-borne pathogens, the risk of mercury in seafood, or even allergic reaction.
The Food Babe website is littered with alarmist click-bait titles like “Are You Eating This Ingredient Banned All Over the World?” and “Why Chewing Gum Destroys Your Health” and, perhaps most memorably, “Do You Eat Beaver Butt?” Hari is smart enough to know that simply offering a carefully written, science-based article is not going to generate the publicity she seeks. Instead Hari launched the petition and circulated a photo of herself outside a Subway sandwich shop with a rolled yoga mat displayed prominently under one arm. Who needs statistics and peer-reviewed journal studies when you’ve got a bright blue yoga mat associated with food?
In another incident, Portland, Oregon decided to dump 38 million gallons of drinking water after a teenager urinated into an open reservoir. There was no risk involved, of course; as Laura Helmuth noted in a Slate article:
The decision seems to be based on some combination of chemophobia, homeopathy, and pee shame. The dose makes the poison, and clearly this dose is negligible. But is it possible to calculate precisely how illogical Portland’s decision is? Let’s try to put some numbers on it. Several smart people on Twitter quickly did the math and figured that a typical urination of about 1/8 gallon in a reservoir of 38 million gallons amounts to a concentration of 3 parts per billion. That’s billion with a B. For comparison, the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for arsenic in drinking water—arsenic!—is 10 ppb. But of course urine is 95 percent water. (If you’re ever trapped in rubble after a natural disaster, go ahead and drink it.) Only about 2 percent of urine is nitrogen-rich urea. That means he’d have to urinate 166,666 times for the concentration of urea to approach that of the EPA’s limit for nitrates in drinking water. Draining the reservoir is paranoid, illogical, and expensive. But the most frustrating thing to me about the whole episode is that there is actually something Portland could do to its water supply that would have an immediate, positive, and repeatedly scientifically validated impact on public health: Add fluoride. Paranoia is not healthy.
There are countless other examples as well, but these give you a sense of the problem. I asked two prominent skeptics to share their thoughts on the topic: Terence Hines (professor of neurology and author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A Critical Examination of the Evidence) and Susan Gerbic (grief vampire gadfly and Wikipedia wizard).
Said Terence Hines:
“That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II
Well, probably. But if the rose had happened to have the bad luck to be named “stinking toilet flower” I doubt very much if its aroma would be as popular as it is with its current name. A very practical example of this was changing the name of a fish called “slimehead” to “orange roughy.” Slimehead wasn’t going to be a big seller at the fish monger. But “orange roughy” is quite popular. Happily, for the sellers of orange roughy, the name “slimehead” was never known to the general public. Had it been, no amount of re-branding could have erased the unpleasant emotional connotations of “slimehead.”
This was precisely the problem faced by the meat product that came to be known as “pink slime.” Although it was totally safe, the name attached to it by activists caused its doom. This is an excellent example of how the name of a thing can matter a great deal—and that an unpleasant sounding name can easily overcome a rational evaluation of a product. Another common example is the “Frankenfood” label for genetically modified plants or animals.
It’s important to recognize attempts by critics to demonize harmless, or even beneficial, new products or technologies by sticking them with icky or scary sounding names. It is easiest to arouse fear and anxiety in people over things that they don’t think they have any control over and that they don’t understand. This makes scientifically and technically untrained individuals particularly easy to manipulate into opposing new technologies and products, especially when they have some sort of sciencey sounding name or derivation. The classic example here is how easy it is to get people to sign petitions demanding that dihydrogen monoxide be banned as a dangerous chemical substance.
Skepticism has been criticized, to some extent correctly, for focusing on Bigfoot, astrology, lake monsters and the like, while paying less attention to beliefs that cause far more harm to society such as opposition to vaccinations. Challenging opposition to unfounded fears over new technologies can both help promote socially desirable goals and make skepticism more relevant to the general public.
Susan Gerbic had this to say:
I suppose I should be flattered to be asked to talk about pink slime. It is a big step up from my normal work with grief vampires (psychics who claim to communicate with the dead). I also run the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project and so my first instinct when I learn about something new is always to check to see what information the public is seeing when they are looking for information. We know that Wikipedia is one of the first places people will check, either directly or by following a link from an internet search. And more importantly this is where the media gets a lot of its information. Looking now at the Wikipedia page for Pink Slime I see that in the past thirty days it has been viewed 14,831 times and it has a daily average of 478 views. It is important to make sure the Wikipedia page has great information written in a way that the average reader can understand it, leave great citations for them to follow if they want more detailed information, and then make sure the page is available with the same standards in other languages. It’s a lot of work and a giant responsibility. It might be an overwhelming task, but it needs to be done.
Let’s move on from pink slime to a broader discussion about the skeptic’s role to combat the nonsense that is rampant on social media. Before we can improve Wikipedia pages, we need great citations to use. We need more people writing and researching about diverse topics and publishing them not on websites and blogs but in journals, books, and reputable news sites. This isn’t the domain for the average skeptic. We need to leave this up to the Ben Radfords, Steven Novellas, Harriet Halls, et al., of the world. They give us the ability to improve Wikipedia pages for What the Health, Spontaneous Human Combustion, Facilitated Communication, Weather pains, and so much more. If you don’t fall into this group of people, then maybe you can join us on GSoW? Our team just rewrote the Blue Whale (game), and some of the citations are from Radford. In fact, I would never have heard of this internet meme if not for Ben discussing it on his podcast, Squaring the Strange.
When it was brought to my attention, GSoW got to work on it and my editors fought to bring it into the shape it is today. Since our rewrite in September 2017 it has been viewed 3,371,847 times. Our rewrite of Spontaneous Human Combustion since August 2013 has 1,825,897 views. I know it is hard to believe, but people are still interested in these topics; people still need to be educated. The chupacabra myth was exposed years ago by Ben, yet the Spanish Wikipedia page has had 577,717 pageviews since GSoW rewrote it in July 2016.
In order to combat bad information, rumors, and scare tactics we need to get well-written, calm analysis into the hands of the public so they can get great information. If you are not in a position to be one of the people who has the notability to do so, please support them in any way you can—review their books and share the content they create. If you have more time on your hands and want to make a bigger impact, please consider joining GSoW. We train and mentor from your first day. We just added our 569th Wikipedia page, Maury Island incident, last night. Only counting those 569 Wikipedia pages, we have just hit 24,335,113 pageviews. We add about 34K new views a day.
Stop fiddling away the day arguing on social media with trolls who are NOT reading the links you are providing to counter their nonsense! It is only driving up your blood pressure. Consider another path, one that allows you to educate people who are really interested in knowing more and help the media write their articles. You can do this with your cat, bunny, or dog curled up by your feet. If interested, contact me on Facebook, Susan Gerbic.
The news media and social media are inherently far more likely to spread exaggerated fears than to debunk them. News stories warning of dangers and threats will always get more attention than stories explaining why things are probably okay or a reported risk is remote. Skeptics can—and must—play a vital role in stemming the public’s fears of remote or nonexistent threats and dangers.