Hamblin: I think that was one sentence that I said because [the TV-show hosts] asked me, “Do you smell bad?” As you’re weaning yourself off of these [products], you do [smell bad], but then you stop smelling with any sort of regularity or frequency.
But there’s a reason you write 90,000 words about something like this. It needs to be a book for a reason: because it’s complicated. The initial headline was something like: “Doctor Says Washing Bad for Health.” If they want to make fun of me, I don’t care. But when they suggested that I’m countering this extremely critical public-health message right now, that was infuriating to me, because this is what I live for, to do the opposite of that. So I went to their site to report a factual inaccuracy, and just reported that I literally did not say the thing that they put in quotes in their headline. And they changed the headline to say I don’t use soap, which is still inaccurate.
Wells: This article initially suggested that washing was bad for your health, which was a very dangerous message at this time when washing is essential. Hand-washing, specifically, is essential to health. It says you haven’t use soap in four years. Is that true?
Hamblin: No, I use hand soap many, many times a day.
Wells: You’re very concerned that this might suggest that you are somehow endorsing not hand-washing at a time where it is essential for every person to be washing as much as possible.
Hamblin: Exactly. [People are] looking for clear messages, and one of the few clear messages the public-health community has been able to give is: Do wash your hands. Do wear a mask. Do social distance. There’s not a lot we can say for certain, but we know those things. Every time people try to throw a wrench in those gears just to be provocative or rile people up, it does actual damage.
Wells: This is complicated, though. Nuance does not work on the internet. This is the problem.
Hamblin: Every force drives you toward decontextualization.
Wells: I do feel like in several of these phone calls, I’ve been asking you about some headline I read, which is essentially decontextualized, slightly hyperbolic information, and I’m having to help you, like, deconstruct it for me. For instance, about vaccines, [I’ll read something where] it seems like we have a vaccine, but we don’t have a vaccine. We just have some very small study that showed some people were not harmed.
Hamblin: A headline is always too distilled. But most places do a decent job.
Wells: Is this just not the time to be talking about how, actually, for parts of your body [other than your hands], soap is really stripping and harsh? Is that just way too nuanced of a message right now?
Hamblin: No, I don’t think so. Because also, at the same time, this is a huge global industry. Sales are falling. People are changing their daily habits. They’re curious to know about what effect that has. It’s not life or death, but it’s part of our daily lives in which we spend time and money.