Why the Jessica Alba Detergent Fiasco Matters

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WatergateThe juicy details of what I've named "Waterspot Gate" — the utter farce that could not have possibly made Jessica Alba's The Honest Company look worse— mostly involve a series of intentional misstatements and outright lies about the company's products. They only serve to throw more dirt into the grave that the company itself dug.

Wall Street Journal reporter Serena Ng, whose thorough and tireless research peeled away one lie after another, had both company officials and suppliers tripping over each other in an apparent contest to see who could create the most egregious falsehood. It is all but impossible to decide who won this contest; even a week later, I still find my jaw hanging open when I read statements that seem as though they were cobbled together by the Keystone Cops.

While such statements made for great entertainment, they also did harm, and I'm not just referring to investors, who, if they haven't already, will certainly take a bath (soap, but not detergent).

The harm was that the incident contributed to further dumbing down of the American public about chemistry — a subject that most people find far more frightening than the sodium lauryl sulfate detergent that Alba's product allegedly lacked, but in fact, was chock full of.

The expression "dumbing down" is both correct and not. The U.S. is not only charging blindly into the often corrupt "organic," "natural" and "back to earth" movements, but we are also being capably pushed, by individuals, groups and industries, all of whom are profiting mightily by dishing out portion after portion of spoon-fed ignorance. Every time this happens, Americans get a little more confused about facts, a little more frightened about poisons, and a whole lot more likely to run to places where they believe that someone actually cares about their well-being.

If only it were true.

Instead, a now-giant cottage industry has sprung up, and it has done a superlative job of misleading consumers into believing that there is any meaningful distinction between their products and those from the "bad" big industries. These behemoths will keep you healthy and happy while the "other" behemoths will cheerfully fill you with toxins, since all they care about is your money.

This story makes a charming narrative, but scientifically deceitful, and dead wrong. And it is also remarkably effective for companies and non-governmental organizations alike.

Whole Foods takes special care in trumpeting the fact that they add no artificial flavors to its products, despite that these flavors are not only identical to those in fruits and vegetables, but sometimes even obtained from them. The company recently bragged about getting rid of harmless BPA from its containers, while replacing it with another chemical called BPS, which was found in labs to be "worse" at doing the same thing that BPA was supposedly doing — nothing.

Trashbag companies, with their always-green boxes have us convinced that their products are "earth friendly" despite that the plastic that makes up the bags will not decompose for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Internet-savvy supplement pushers, such as Dr. Oz, Mike Adams, and Joe Mercola have much of the world convinced that their unregulated products offer some sort of help, but no harm, because they are not drugs. Except for the fact that these products are, in fact very much drugs, specifically according to the FDA definition.

This trickery is not unique to companies. Ethically questionable environmental groups, such as the Natural Defense Resource Council — a group with a bank account that is 100-times larger than ours at the American Council — and the equally bad Environmental Working Group, can snap their fingers and bring in immense amounts of money by simply picking out a trace chemical that has been in use for decades and starting a fear campaign about it, using "science" that borders on alchemy and witchcraft.

In the end, the loser is the American public, which is masterfully being manipulated into believing it can save both itself and the world by buying one silly product after another. The cost is not just economic. Rather, it also further contributes to an already pernicious and pervasive anti-scientific mentality, which, in the end will be far more harmful, as we ricochet like pinballs from one fad to another, while invariably growing more confused and alarmed with time.

This mess will not be so easy to clean up. Even Jessica Alba's overpriced detergents will not stand a chance.