Saturday, December 22, 2012

Science Myths and Misconceptions: Part I: Chemicals

I started off a few weeks ago writing an article entitled "Science Myths and Misconceptions". I wanted to clear up a few common mistakes and misunderstandings. I started with a top five. It took me long enough to write that by the time I finished those five I had another six I wanted to write about. Then by the time I was half way through that list there were even more added to the list. I think it's safe to say that I will never finish that article. Instead I've decided to post it in parts.


#1 - Synthetic chemicals are more dangerous than natural chemicals
This may be the most frustrating science misconception on the list. At least it is to me, as a chemist. It may sound nice to believe that natural things are better for us than anything synthetic, but it's just not true. To assume that a synthetic chemical is more dangerous than a natural one is to throw away over 200 years of scientific evidence. By that I don't mean to say we've done it this way for 200 years, so it must be right. What I mean is that there is 200 years of evidence. A scientific paradigm shift isn't out of the question, but to justify a complete shift you would need to present a theory that:

1 - Explains all the experimental evidence just as well or better.
2 - Presents new, testable predictions.

One argument that people make is that as scientists we are just being too picky with our word choice. When someone says "synthetic chemicals" they mean bad chemicals in processed foods, bad chemicals polluting the environment, and bad chemicals we get into our body because of our modern lifestyle. Again, I think it sounds true that our modern lifestyle pollutes our body and therefore we could be healthier if we lived more harmoniously with mother earth. Unfortunately sounding true and being true aren't the same thing. There is nothing inherently good about chemicals found in nature and there is nothing inherently bad about chemicals made in a lab or put in your food to keep it fresh. Cyanide is a deadly natural compound while synthetic medicines have greatly extended our average life expectancy. The toxin considered to be the most deadly is Botulinum, which you may have heard called by its trade name Botox. Even small doses of Botox can kill you almost immediately - as little as 100 nanograms injected into muscle. Botox is also used therapeutically to treat muscle spasms, cervical dystonia, and chronic migraines. It's also used to make your face look like this:

All this from a natural chemical...


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