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NPR can’t tell Crichton from cosmetics

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National Public Radio’s Noah Adams interviewed Science Friday’s Ira Flatow on NPR’s Day to Day program and, frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. I expect better from public radio.

It started out as a kind of lite-‘n’-brite feature about the amazing buff and shine you get when you nanowax your car — “nanoparticles that are so small they actually fill in the tiny nicks and scratches” — and that’s OK. Then, after tossing out some info on an artificial retina that produces “16 channels of differentiation” that lets the blind “tell the difference between a knife and a plate, where they couldn’t before,” they launched into a strange mix of fiction and nonfiction.

When Adams brought up Michael Crichton’s “Prey,” which he described as “nanotechnology gone wild” with “swarms going after me,” Flatow missed an opportunity to differentiate between the far-off (or far-fetched) fear of the Crichton variety and the more-legitimate near-term ones. Flatow, without skipping a beat, answered the “Prey” comment with, “This is the deep fear that many people have about nanotechnology.” He described the concerns over nanoparticles and toxicity, as if the Crichton book had anything to do with it.

Then, Flatow just got his facts wrong when he asserted that the UK’s Royal Society recommended cosmetics that contain nanoparticles be taken off the market.

In reality, the Royal Society said in its recently released report, that the nanosized titanium dioxide inside some brands of sunscreen had already been given a favorable recommendation by the European Commission’s scientific safety advisory committee, so no action needs to be taken there.

Meanwhile, the Society asked the cosmetic companies that use nanoscale zinc oxide to provide details on how they reached the conclusion that they’re safe. The cosmetic companies have not done that, much to the annoyance of some nanotech-watchers in Britain, but the Society has made no recommendation that anything be taken off the market.

Flatow was confusing the Royal Society with the radical, headline-seeking, anti-technology ETC Group, which long ago recommended taking sunscreen and cosmetics off the shelves.

Chalk up another victory for the ETC Group, which has again proved that if you repeat selective information over and over again, it not only magically becomes “the truth,” it’s even placed in the mouths of others. I expect most of the mainstream media to parrot the ETC Group line and leave its assumptions unchallenged, but I do expect better from NPR.

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