Society changes its mind
March 20, 2011 6:54 AM   Subscribe

What are some things that were once widely believed to be safe or advantageous, but which are now widely accepted not to be? Like smoking be good for your health or the world being flat. Examples from more recent history would be the most helpful.
posted by someonesomewhere to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Having a job, vs creating your own company
posted by seawallrunner at 7:01 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Working on a tan vs avoiding sun exposure.
posted by Allee Katze at 7:04 AM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the period of about 1870-1914 (an era sometimes called The Great Binge), many drugs were developed and used without compunction or prohibition, which society at large has now determined to be Very Bad Things.

Heroin, for example, was supposed to be a non-addictive substitute for morphine. Cocaine was in everything from pick-me-ups at the drug store to toothache drops for children. Gift baskets with amphetamine cocktails were supposedly sent to the troops in the trenches by their loving families.
posted by Muttoneer at 7:07 AM on March 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


x-rays.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:14 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


By the way, the notion that people in the Middle Ages, and Christopher Columbus himself, believed that the Earth was flat is itself a popular misconception:
The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth is flat appears to date from the 17th century as part of the campaign by Protestants against Catholic teaching. But it gained currency in the 19th century, thanks to inaccurate histories such as John William Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Atheists and agnostics championed the conflict thesis for their own purpose ...
posted by asymptotic at 7:15 AM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


The multi-purpose convenient death-giver asbestos?
posted by robself at 7:16 AM on March 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Estrogen for menopause.
Prohibition.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:21 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Margarine was supposed to be better than butter. But then woops, it has trans fat.

You have to use fluorescent light bulbs to show how much you care about the environment! Except, woops, there is all that mercury poisoning...

Recycling may mean sending your trash out to China with no controls over the environmental and social costs. And in Cambodia, the social costs are huge — what Nicholas Kristof calls a "miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage."
posted by John Cohen at 7:21 AM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


A classic example is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, aka DDT:
In 1962, Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson was published. The book catalogued the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the US and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Its publication was one of the signature events in the birth of the environmental movement, and resulted in a large public outcry that eventually led to DDT being banned in the US in 1972.[4] DDT was subsequently banned for agricultural use worldwide under the Stockholm Convention, but its limited use in disease vector control continues to this day and remains controversial.
There's a phenomenal book review in the March 2011 edition of Harper's Magazine titled "Bad Air: The politics of malaria" by Helen Epstein, which is a review of "The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Manking for 500,000 years" by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. From the article:
Paul Russell, the main architect of the [World Health Organization's] Malaria Eradication Program, had promised the Eisenhower Administration that the DDT-spray teams would extend a hand of friendship to wavering Cold War allies, revive the entrepreneurial spirit of populations made dull and sickly by malaria, open up huge areas of fertile land for cultivation, promote economic development, end poverty, and spur demand for American products. But the global DDT campaign turned out to be one of the most famous and costly failures in the history of public health. Although by 1970 the disease was eradicated in eighteen countries, most were already controlling it relatively effectively before the program began. Where malaria had been an unmanageable problem, the DDT program had little effect.
posted by asymptotic at 7:30 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Formula has been variably considered superior to breastmilk, just as good as breastmilk, and not as good as breastmilk.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:30 AM on March 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Uh... CFLs are still considered far better than the mercury spewed by the coal burning plants to power that old incandescent.

To counter with other environmental example that has yet to be proven, PBDEs as flame retardants on everything. More proven, lead in gas. And MTBE in gas. PCBs in transformers.
posted by ldthomps at 7:35 AM on March 20, 2011


Thalidomide used to be widely prescribed to reduce morning sickness in pregnant women. Until the birth defects started showing up.
posted by DrGail at 7:37 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


CFLs are still considered far better than the mercury spewed by the coal burning plants to power that old incandescent.

Do you have a source for this?
posted by John Cohen at 7:37 AM on March 20, 2011


Thalidomide.
posted by The Potate at 7:37 AM on March 20, 2011




Abstinence. (Only sorta kidding - sex has positive benefits for both mental and physical health.)
posted by IAmBroom at 7:45 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Estrogen for menopause.

Actually the medical community is coming around on this one again. The most recent thinking is that the major study that got everyone scared about estrogens in the early 2000s was not that conclusive; as long as you're taking them for a short duration immediately post menopause, the dose is low and they're plant-based instead of equine conjugated estrogens, there seems to be much less cardiovascular risk than previously thought.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:48 AM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Radium as health tonic. Fluoroscopy for shoe-fittings and TB screenings. Lead and arsenic as beauty treatments.

Teasing out the risks and benefits of oxygen therapy for pre-term infants.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 7:52 AM on March 20, 2011


Gas lamps used to pump carbon monoxide straight into homes and apartments. Lots of deaths from leakage.

Radium was touted as a miracle cure/general invigorator until bones started withering away in healthy young women. We used to use cyanide to polish silverware, in paint, and to color our clothes. Arsenic used to be used in make-up. Both of the latter we still use in cigarettes.

Teflon coatings are currently criticized for breaking apart after repeated use and dissolving into toxic substances.

Leaded gasoline. There was a point in the 20th century when every car in the U.S. was pumping vaporized lead into the air. Speaking of lead, remember the recent scare regarding lead paint on toys imported from China?

During Prohibition, wood/methyl alcohol was the preferred bootleg of choice. Unfortunately, as opposed to normal liquor, which is metabolized relatively quickly into harmless elements, wood alcohol metabolizes into formaldehyde and acid. In your body. Over the course of five days.

Trace amounts of the drugs we take, birth control, hormones, acetaminophen, etc. end up in our waste water and aren't filtered out.

Fertilizers we use in the Great Plains are nitrogen-rich. As they break down, a lot of that is eventually carried by the Mississipi River and its branches into the Gulf of Mexico, de-oxygenating the water and creating an enormous dead zone.

Living around power lines/high-powered EMF fields is thought to have a connection to leukemia development.

Cell phones do/do not promote the growth of tumors/cause brain damage/etc.

I bet you could look at any substance in use today and find a point where it was wholeheartedly embraced and/or rejected as poison.
posted by greenland at 8:01 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


CFLs are still considered far better than the mercury spewed by the coal burning plants to power that old incandescent.

Do you have a source for this?

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/cfl-vs-incandescent-battle-of-the-bulb

If your power is 100% coal-free (doubtful), then this is meaningless.

Also, as the article points out, the mercury in the lamps only gets out if they break, and that's pretty hard to do.

I would also point out that elemental mercury (which is what is in the CFLs) isn't all that dangerous. What is dangerous is the various awful compounds that it can turn into when it reacts with other compounds. And the high heat of a coal plant is a perfect place for that.
posted by gjc at 8:08 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


During Prohibition, wood/methyl alcohol was the preferred bootleg of choice. Unfortunately, as opposed to normal liquor, which is metabolized relatively quickly into harmless elements, wood alcohol metabolizes into formaldehyde and acid. In your body. Over the course of five days.

It was not the preferred choice. Nobody wanted to drink it. It was the result of bad distillation practices and crooked bootleggers.


Living around power lines/high-powered EMF fields is thought to have a connection to leukemia development.

Cell phones do/do not promote the growth of tumors/cause brain damage/etc.


These things have been studied exhaustively and are consistently proven to be meaningless. It is impossible for those types of radiation to cause the kind of damage required to start cancer.

This is a good discussion, but letting it devolve into conspiracy theories is not helpful.
posted by gjc at 8:15 AM on March 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Twenty years ago a low fat, high carbohydrate diet was supposed to be healthy. Now, the wisdom of that is seriously in question. Will we ever really know what is healthy?

I think we know what is healthy, we just don't want to stop eating french fries and delicious pastries in favor of lean meat and green beans.

Another health related one is cholesterol and cholesterol lowering drugs. Research is finding that the benefits exist only for some people.
posted by gjc at 8:25 AM on March 20, 2011


I came here to say Flouroscopes in shoestores, but read this and well...
Thalidomide used to be widely prescribed to reduce morning sickness in pregnant women. Until the birth defects started showing up.
posted by DrGail at 10:37 AM on March 20 [+] [!]


Unfortunately it is still in use in some 3rd world countries as a treatment for leprosy. A major fail since most 3rd world medicines have pictograms instead of written warnings. The Thalidomide had a pictogram of a prengant woman in a circle with a diagonal slash, meaning not to be taken by pregnant women, and interpreted by some to mean 'prevents pregnancy'.
posted by Gungho at 8:29 AM on March 20, 2011


Working on a tan vs avoiding sun exposure.
This has gone back and forth several times. From the days when a tan meant you were a manual labourer (one of the sources of "blue blooded" - pale skin makes seeing blue veins possible) to it meaning that you were wealthy enough to have year-round leisure time in tropical places, to the risk of skin cancer. The modern chapter is that dark skinned children from wealthy Arab households in the UAE and Kuwait are developing rickets because they live their lives indoors and in cars.

I don't think CFLs are good examples. They were introduced widely only in the last few years and people worried about the mercury exposure from the very beginning, so that doesn't reflect a widespread belief changing so much as a disagreement over likely risk scenarios.

The power line and cell phone thing (ditto vaccination-autism links) also doesn't work as a good example because those have never been undisputed or widely accepted.

I think what we're looking for here are beliefs which are temporally separated rather than spatially separated.
posted by atrazine at 8:32 AM on March 20, 2011


Growing up in the 60's, we were taught that eating fat, such as beef fat or chicken fat, was good for you. I spent many a childhood evening sitting at the kitchen table with a cold glob of beef fat in my mouth, unable to swallow the disgusting thing but forbidden to leave the table until I did. Friends have told me similar childhood horror stories.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:37 AM on March 20, 2011


Estrogen for menopause.

Actually the medical community is coming around on this one again.


Yes, I've seen this. I'd just add that as we understand why and how we can de-medicalize menopause, the vast majority of "cases," can be successfully "treated" with simple lifestyle changes/additions that work faster, are safer, and set the stage for good health habits as we age.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:50 AM on March 20, 2011


Economic growth.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:56 AM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


It used to be common practice to put babies to sleep on their stomachs as apparently they sleep more soundly that way. Since then research has shown that putting babies to sleep on their backs significantly reduces the risk of SIDS and back sleeping is now much more common (see graph in linked article).
posted by tomcooke at 9:18 AM on March 20, 2011


Corporal punishment, the death penalty.

In Ancient Greece (and I'm sure other places/times) certain kinds of pederasty were considered salutary for both parties, likewise homosexuality among Spartan warriors.

Auditory and visual experiences unique to one person (hallucinations) have at many times been considered significant for the individual or their community (just in the Abrahamic faiths: Joan of Arc, Mohammed, Jesus, Ezekiel). Prompting these experiences with plants (mushrooms, cannabis) or rituals (drumming, sweat lodges, treaks into the desert, prolonged sensory deprivation in a cave) have in the past been valorized (and still are in some places, obviously).
posted by phrontist at 10:32 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I, too, take issue with the CFLs are bad because of mercury comment.

23 years ago, we were advised to put our son to sleep on his stomach to prevent SIDS. Current recommendation is to have babies sleep on their backs.

My brother had his neck irradiated as a prophylactic measure to prevent sore throats. Now he's at greater risk of thyroid cancer.

Tris was used in children's pajamas to make them fire-resistant. It caused kidney cancer.

Phisohex was used as an antibacterial cleanser. It's now suspected of causing cancer.
posted by theora55 at 10:58 AM on March 20, 2011


Using leeches and other blood-letting techniques to get rid of disease.
posted by Ekim Neems at 11:18 AM on March 20, 2011


But leeches are back: the FDA approved their use as a medical device in 2004.
posted by Corvid at 11:54 AM on March 20, 2011


The Wikipedia list of common misconceptions contains some items that answer your question, and some that don't but are interesting anyway.
posted by wondercow at 2:14 PM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Prolonged bedrest after surgery. People used to spend many days in bed, now it is thought to be best for everyone to start mobilizing the same day or next in order to prevent blood clots among other things.

Length of stay has dramatically decreased. A patient who had an uncomplicated vaginal birth used to spend 5 days in the hospital, now they often go home the next day. The change most likely came about as a way to reduce costs, but it has caused a major shift in the way people think about how much recovery should be done in the hospital vs at home.
posted by missanissa at 2:50 PM on March 20, 2011


Horseback riding helmets (the safety-certified kind, not the old style hunt caps which really do nothing). Some upper level dressage riders are finally putting on helmets after a couple of well publicized accidents, and riders at other levels are more likely to leave their helmet on and fastened even on the flat. (Unfortunately, western riding is still trailing behind with helmets).

Car safety for children.
posted by anaelith at 3:05 PM on March 20, 2011


But leeches are back: the FDA approved their use as a medical device in 2004.

Not for the curing of disease.
posted by Brocktoon at 3:14 PM on March 20, 2011


"Bouncing" while stretching used to be considered bad, now "static" stretches are bad and bouncing has been re-dubbed dynamic stretching which is supposed to be better because it warms up your muscles and prevents cramping or something.

Working on a tan vs avoiding sun exposure.

Except that's coming around again, thanks to all the reports of ludicrously low Vitamin D levels.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:16 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Per my grandmother: "The gums in your mouth are very delicate, donʻt brush them." I have actually seen advertisements from the 1930s that advise against brushing gums.
posted by fifilaru at 8:39 PM on March 20, 2011


The Gutmann method of securely erasing a hard disk prescribed a specific sequence of 35 different patterns to be used to overwrite the disk. However, this pattern was developed specifically for MFM/RLL encodings which have been obsolete and unused for at least a decade. The best you can do with modern drives is a simple scrub with 1-3 passes of random data, or using the drive's own secure erase command. Programs that continue to offer the "35 pass" option are just snake oil.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:42 PM on March 20, 2011


The use of asbestos as a building material. The use of lobotomy to treat mental illness. The use of corporeal punishment as a part of raising children.
posted by rjs at 12:14 PM on March 21, 2011


A humorous take: Eggs good for you this week.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:35 PM on March 21, 2011


Mandatory nude swimming classes for high school boys. Can you imagine the uproar if someone tried to institute such a requirement these days? Yet this was quite common up until the 1970s in some places. Related Ask Mefi
posted by SisterHavana at 12:25 AM on March 22, 2011


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