Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The dangers of internet arrogance

So recently, my sister Jane performed one of the internet's cardinal sins and forwarded me an Unsubstantiated Public Service Announcement E-mail on the dangers of microwaving food in plastic containers. Naturally, being the good netizen that I try to be, I turned to Snopes to find the real story. I read the Snopes article, thought to myself: "Well, that little internet tidbit is clearly false", replied to my sister with the link, and smiled the smug smile of self-satisfaction one can only experience after lazily denouncing someone's valid attempt at discourse.

"Jane should know better than that", I thought, upon receiving the message. And maybe she should have. But I had fallen into a now-common trap that can blind even the very reasonable internet visitors among us, and certainly those more prone to tell people when they've done something "wrong" or stepped beyond the ephemeral bounds of netiquette (and there is no shortage of those—in fact, there are websites dedicated exclusively to telling people they're wrong; also, the comments on places like Digg are full of examples of people telling each other they're wrong in really awful ways).

My point is that Jane's chain e-mail activated my critical reflex, but I allowed Snopes to shut the reflex down, because I accept that site as a Reputable Depot for Information on Scams and Frauds and Unsubstantiated or Far-Fetched News Stories. It's not that I don't actually trust Snopes; even in this case, it's clear that the message itself is a fraud. But I had a reality check when I watched an episode of CBC's Doczone called "The Disappearing Male" that was about how certain chemicals which are widely used in plastics and other consumer products appear to be causing damage to the reproductive organs of male fetuses and eventually fertility problems in babies, boys, and men. The documentary presents strong evidence from numerous independent studies that this is in fact the case, and these chemicals—bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates—are extraordinarily dangerous, but at the same time points out that the United States Food and Drug Administration and other public bodies—guardians of the public health all—have preferred to rely on industry-sponsored studies for their judgments and recommendations about these chemicals (remember the tobacco debates?). The point being that Snopes defers to the FDA on the matter, and, usually, I would be suspicious of the government in any matter like this.

The Snopes article then goes on to quote a presumably reputable doctor advising: use plastics "specifically meant for cooking" if you must, because "whenever you heat something you increase the likelihood of pulling chemicals out", but it's best to cook with glass, ceramics, or stainless steel (obviously not the latter in the microwave, no matter how curious you might be). In other words, if not quite refuting, then certainly diluting the claim that plastics are safe for microwave (or general) use. This particular Snopes article is strange actually, because it tries to present a balanced view by debunking the form of the message (the fraud disguised as a PSA), but offering another side of the content of the message (the grain of truth in the fraud)—which is fine—but it seems to me that the researchers were maybe more interested in shooting down another bit of presumed internet nonsense rather than providing a public service. I think Snopes too fell prey to the same internet arrogance that prevented me from taking that next critical step.

Anyway, I recommend you watch "The Disappearing Male" and take a look at where these chemicals are around you. Canada recently banned the use of bisphenol-A in baby bottles, where it was very common, but they remain in all sorts of products and in the environment at large. From the Doczone page: "Found in everything from shampoo, sunglasses, meat and dairy products, carpet, cosmetics and baby bottles, they are called 'hormone mimicking' or 'endocrine disrupting' chemicals and they may be starting to damage the most basic building blocks of human development."

So, sorry Jane! I still don't like chain e-mails, but I'll pay better attention next time, and not be so quick to judge.
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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.