August 7, 1999

Gimme Shelter

News Item, CNN, August 4, 1999:

Users of strongest sunscreens stay in sun longer

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports in Wednesday's edition that European researchers found that people who use stronger sunscreens stay out longer in the sun because it takes longer for them to burn. And the prolonged exposure only increases their risk of getting skin cancer.

"It's not due to the fact that sunscreens are bad, but people have a bad attitude -- using them to increase the amount of time they spend in the sun," said Dr. Ferdy Lejeune, an author of the study.

I've never been a sun worshipper, as I don't tan easily and don't enjoy being hot and sweaty. I have to admit, though, that I thought that's what sunscreen was FOR.. to enable you to safely spend more time in the sun.

This cheery piece of news reminded me of something I came across a couple of years ago, while helping a son research a school project on automobile air bags. I was looking for a new angle, and found one: there was a study somewhere in the US that found that people tend to drive more recklessly when they know their cars have air bags, and as a result have MORE accidents with MORE injuries, as opposed to the other way around. (Unfortunately I no longer have the URL for the article, and was unable to find it.)

In both these cases, the products in question do work as intended.. but it's people who defeat their safety purposes. Do the ads for air bags and sunscreens give people a false sense of security? Possibly, but attributing the statistics to that would shift responsibility for our own welfare to someone or something else, a tendency that's way too prevalent nowadays, in my opinion.

I prefer to think of this rather as an example of "you can't fool mother nature". You can't stupid-proof everything. Human nature will find a way around it.

This, in turn, made me think of the "Peter Principle", developed by Laurence Peter, which states that in a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their "level of incompetence". The idea was expanded by the authors of the Principia Cybernetica Project to state, "in evolution systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence".

I suppose it's asking for too much "adaptive competence" for people to sensibly take advantage of health and safety innovations and information. People are still as overweight as ever, even as sugar-free and fat-free foods fly off the grocery shelves. People still smoke cigarettes, drink too much and drive, take steroids for athletic purposes, take drugs, have unprotected sex. The adaptive inclination seems to be going in the wrong direction, and our survival instinct, severely corrupted.

I guess all individual people can do is learn to accept the world as it is, conduct their own life in as sane a way as possible, and teach their children to do the same. After all, a child that's had too much sheltering is most likely to stay out in the sun too long.

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