Cosmetic Chemists Baloney Detection Kit

I saw this excellent video about critical thinking and how you can detect whether a claim is bogus or not. This is an important skill for cosmetic chemists because despite your knowledge of science, you can still be prone to some thinking errors. These errors can cause a number of problems in your work.

They can…

…lead you to waste time by seeing see positive experimental evidence where there is none

…cause you to waste money buying chemicals that don’t work

…make you feel inadequate by comparing yourself to competitors who are making bogus claims.

What you need is a baloney detection kit that helps you figure out when claims are real or bogus.

10 Baloney Detection questions

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself when you hear any claim about a chemical, new discovery, or competitive product.

1. How reliable is the source of the claim?

As a cosmetic chemist, you will encounter lots of claims about technology and miracle cures. The first thing you should do is question the reliability of the source. What is the motivation for the person making the claim? If it is a sales person, they are motivated to make their products look as good as possible. This doesn’t mean they lie (not usually) but it does mean they might make a product seem much better than it actually is. And when your marketing people come to you with a claim that a competitor is making, point out to them the unreliability of the source.

2. Does the source make similar claims?

There was once a company who sold raw materials that were always the greatest breakthru in cosmetic technology. It seemed that the products were always interacting with the cell metabolism and changing some aspect of skin or hair. This caused me to be extremely skeptical about what they were saying.

3. Have the claims been independently verified?

It’s rare in the cosmetic industry that you’ll get independently verified claims. When presented with a new technology, you should ask whether the data they are showing you was produced by an independent lab. Just be careful because there is a confirmation bias happening here. If the data came back negative, the sales person wouldn’t be showing you. Therefore, you only see positive results.

4. Does this fit with the way the world works?

When people see claims that simple treatments from the refrigerator can make you skin and hair look great, they find it compelling. But the world really doesn’t work that way. If you could open your refrigerator and find a product that performs as well as a professionally developed cosmetic, some company would already be selling it. Developing cosmetics that feel great and work takes more effort than going to your refrigerator.

5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?

When you are presented with a new technology, there will typically not be enough time for anyone else to have evaluated the data. If you are in the innovation group, then don’t let this stop you. But if you are developing a product that has to launch within a few months, be weary of anything so new that no one else is using it.

6. Where does the preponderance of the evidence point?

This is one that is ignored by chemical fear mongerers when they claim that cosmetics have dangerous chemicals and are killing people. Think of all the cosmetics people have used over the years and the low incidence of problems reported. Since cosmetics were invented people are living longer, cancer rates are going down, and the preponderance of evidence is that products are more safe than ever.

7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?

Many people and groups in the cosmetic industry use emotion to convince people of their points. You need to ignore emotional arguments and stick to facts & logic.

8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?

Groups that use non-scientific arguments to convince you of their claim often do not have any positive evidence of their claims. When you see a claim like ‘lipstick without lead is safer’ ask for the evidence. What proof can they show that the products are indeed safer? Removing a toxic chemical from a product does not automatically make it safer or better for the environment.

9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory

This doesn’t have a lot of application to cosmetics because we don’t spend a lot of time coming up with new theories about cosmetic products. However, when you read something in the Journal of the SCC that challenges an old idea (e.g. hair growth mechanisms) you should check to see if the new theory works better than the old one.

10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

Belief driven claims run rampant through the cosmetic industry. Some people want to believe that chemicals are bad and natural things are good. You might even have that feeling or desire yourself. But to really know what is true, you need to ignore what you want to be true and focus on the data. The degree to which you believe something is not indicative of how true it is.

There is a range of claims whether they are true or not. It is up to you as a scientist to decide whether some claim you hear is worth pursuing.

Good luck and be skeptical!

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