Chemistry is Tricky

Thanks to Ryan Mattson for sharing this link in which Derek Lowe debunks criticisms of some of the foods we consume on the grounds that they contain chemicals we shouldn’t be ingesting. For example, an uninformed author suggests brominated vegetable oil shouldn’t be part of our diet, since “Bromine is a chemical used to stop CARPETS FROM CATCHING ON FIRE, so you can see why drinking it may not be the best idea. BVO is linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss”. Derek Lowe counters:

Now, if the author had known any chemistry, this would have looked a lot more impressive. Bromine isn’t just used to keep carpets from catching on fire – bromine is a hideously toxic substance that will scar you with permanent chemical burns and whose vapors will destroy your lungs. Drinking bromine is not just a bad idea; drinking bromine is guaranteed agonizing death. There, see what a little knowledge will do for you?

But you know something? You can say the same thing for chlorine. After all, it’s right next to bromine in the same column of the periodic table. And its use in World War I as a battlefield gas should be testimony enough. (They tried bromine, too, never fear). But chlorine is also the major part, by weight, of table salt. So which is it? Toxic death gas or universal table seasoning?

Knowledge again. It’s both. Elemental chlorine (and elemental bromine) are very different things than their ions (chloride and bromide), and both of those are very different things again when either one is bonded to a carbon atom. That’s chemistry for you in a nutshell, knowing these differences and understanding why they happen and how to use them.

The simple presence of nuance in an argument (bromine can be very dangerous or very safe, depending on the form it takes) is enough to make some folks’ brains hurt. It’s true that when issues seem complex, multi-dimensional, or wicked, discussants should take extra care not to misstep. Here, even in a fairly fact-based discussion of the consequences of consuming certain chemicals, wrongness abounds.

Which brings me to the broader point, also emphasized by Lowe: check your facts. As a consumer of information, we all have a duty to read critically. Think about what you read, examine the arguments, and use a little logic. I’d like to affirm that you can trust what you read, because journalists are universally well-informed and unbiased – but you’d probably just laugh at me.

Or, as Lowe puts it:

The author of the BuzzFeed article knows painfully little about chemistry and biology. But that apparently wasn’t a barrier: righteous conviction (and the worldview mentioned in the above three paragraphs) are enough, right? Wrong. Ten minutes of unbiased reading would have served to poke holes all through most of the article’s main points. I’ve spent more than ten minutes (as you can probably tell), and there’s hardly one stone left standing on another. As a scientist, I find sloppiness at this level not only stupid, not only time-wasting, but downright offensive. Couldn’t anyone be bothered to look anything up? There are facts in this world, you know. Learn a few.

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2 comments

  1. Yeah, I saw that article by Lowe – excellent points. We can trust facts. I just wish it wasn’t so difficult for the general public to get accurate info./facts about health and other highly important topics! For some less-than-critical thinkers, it’s difficult to discern fact from opinion, and similarly, a trustworthy source of information from an untrustworthy one. This discussion supports the need for education in critical thinking from as young an age as possible. Such an important life skill.

  2. And something I’m always working to emphasize in my classes and on the blog. Ways of discerning good sources from less credible ones. Particularly when issues are complex and not so straightforward, there can be major challenges. Nuance is difficult enough to convey to an audience (and hard enough to think about) – and this is often exacerbated by a need for the article to have an easy-to-grasp conclusion like “X is good/bad.” When the real answer is “X is sometimes good but sometimes bad,” the article seems less marketable. But like it or not, very often these are the most accurate conclusions we have. They need to be better communicated.

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