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All Natural And Chemical Free

Yesterday’s link to the comprehensive list of chemical-free products led to some smiles, but also to some accusations of preaching to the choir, both on my part and on the part of the paper’s authors. A manuscript mentioned in the blog section of Nature Chemistry is certainly going to be noticed mostly by chemists, naturally, so I think that everyone responsible knows that this is mainly for some comic relief, rather than any sort of serious attempt to educate the general public. Given the constant barrage of “chemical-free” claims, and what that does to the mood of most chemists who see them, some comedy is welcome once in a while.
But the larger point stands. The commenters here who said, several times, that chemists and the public mean completely different things by the word “chemical” have a point. But let’s take a closer look at this for a minute. What this implies (and implies accurately, I’d say) is that for many nonscientists, “chemical” means “something bad or poisonous”. And that puts chemists in the position of sounding like they’re arguing from the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. We’re trying to say that everything is a chemical, and that they range from vital to harmless to poisonous (at some dose) and everything in between. But this can sound like special pleading to someone who’s not a scientist, as if we’re claiming all the good stuff for our side and disavowing the nasty ones as “Not the kind of chemical we were talking about”. (Of course, the lay definition of chemical does this, with the sign flipped: the nasty things are “chemicals”, and the non-nasty ones are. . .well, something else. Food, natural stuff, something, but not a chemical, because chemicals are nasty).
So I think it’s true that approaches that start off by arguing the definition of “chemical” are doomed. It reminds me of something you see in online political arguments once in a while – someone will say something about anti-Semitism in an Arab country, and likely as not, some other genius will step in with the utterly useless point that it’s definitionally impossible, you see, for an Arab to be an anti-Semite, because technically the Arabs are also a Semitic people! Ah-hah! What that’s supposed to accomplish has always been a mystery to me, but I fear that attempts to redefine that word “chemical” are in the same category, no matter how teeth-grinding I find that situation to be.
The only thing I’ve done in this line, when discussing this sort of thing one-on-one, is to go ahead and mention that to a chemist, everything that’s made out of atoms is pretty much a “chemical”, and that we don’t use the word to distinguish between the ones that we like and the ones that we don’t. I’ve used that to bring up the circular nature of some of the arguments on the opposite side: someone’s against a chemical ingredient because it’s toxic, and they know it’s toxic because it’s a chemical ingredient. If it were “natural”, things would be different.
That’s the point to drop in the classic line about cyanide and botulism being all-natural, too. You don’t do that just to score some sort of debating point, though, satisfying though that may be – I try not to introduce that one with a flourish of the sword point. No, I think you want to come in with a slightly regretful “Well, here’s the problem. . .” approach. The idea, I’d say, is to introduce the concept of there being a continuum of toxicity out there, one that doesn’t distinguish between man-made compounds and natural ones.
The next step after that is the fundamental toxicological idea that the dose makes the poison, but I think it’s only effective to bring that up after this earlier point has been made. Otherwise, it sounds like special pleading again: “Oh, well, yeah, that’s a deadly poison, but a little bit of it probably won’t hurt you. Much.” My favorite example in this line is selenium. It’s simultaneously a vital trace nutrient and a poison, all depending on the dose, and I think a lot of people might improve their thinking on these topics if they tried to integrate that possibility into their views of the world.
Because it’s clear that a lot of people don’t have room for it right now. The common view is that the world is divided into two categories of stuff: the natural, made by living things, and the unnatural, made by humans (mostly chemists, dang them). You even see this scheme applied to inorganic chemistry: you can find people out there selling makeup and nutritional supplements who charge a premium for things like calcium carbonate when it’s a “natural mineral”, as opposed (apparently) to that nasty sludge that comes out of the vats down at the chemical plant. (This is also one of the reasons why arguing about the chemist’s definition of “organic” is even more of a losing position than arguing about the word “chemical”).
There’s a religious (or at least quasi-religious) aspect to all this, which makes the arguments emotional and hard to win by appeals to reason. That worldview I describe is a dualist, Manichean one: there are forces of good, and there are forces of evil, and you have to choose sides, don’t you? It’s sort of assumed that the “natural” world is all of a piece: living creatures are always better off with natural things. They’re better; they’re what living creatures are meant to consume and be surrounded by. Anything else is ersatz, a defective substitute for the real thing, and quite possibly an outright work of evil by those forces on the other side.
Note that we’re heading into some very deep things in many human cultures here, which is another reason that this is never an easy or simple argument to have. That split between natural and unnatural means that there was a time, before all this industrial horror, when people lived in the natural state. They never encountered anything artificial, because there was no such thing in the world. Now, a great number of cultures have a “Golden Age” myth, that distant time when everything was so much better – more pure, somehow, before things became corrupted into their present regrettable state. The Garden of Eden is the aspect this takes in the Christian religion, but you find similar things in many other traditions. (Interestingly, this often takes the form of an ancient age when humans spoke directly with the gods, in whatever form they took, which is one of the things that led Julian Jaynes to his fascinating, although probably unprovable hypotheses in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind).
This Prelapsarian strain of thinking permeates the all-natural chemical-free worldview. There was a time when food and human health were so much better, and industrial civilization has messed it all up. We’re surrounded by man-made toxins and horrible substitutes for real food, and we’ve lost the true path. It’s no wonder that there’s all this cancer and diabetes and autism and everything: no one ever used to get those things. Note the followup to this line of thought: someone did this to us. The more hard-core believers in this worldview are actually furious at what they see as the casual, deliberate poisoning of the entire population. The forces of evil, indeed.
And there are enough small reinforcing bars of truth to make all of this hold together quite well. There’s no doubt that industrial poisons have sickened vast numbers of people in the past: mercury is just the first one that’s come to mind. (I’m tempted to point out that mercury and its salts, by the standards of the cosmetics and supplements industries, are most certainly some of those all-natural minerals, but let that pass for now). We’ve learned more about waste disposal, occupational exposure, and what can go into food, but there have been horrible incidents that live on vividly in the imagination. And civilization itself didn’t necessarily go about increasing health and lifespan for quite a while, as the statistics assembled in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms make clear. In fact, for centuries, living in cities was associated with shorter lifespans and higher mortality. We’ve turned a lot of corners, but it’s been comparatively recently.
And on the topic of “comparatively recently”, there’s one more factor at work that I’d like to bring up. The “chemical free” view of the world has the virtue of simplicity (and indeed, sees simplicity as a virtue itself). Want to stay healthy? Simple. Don’t eat things with chemicals in them. Want to know if something is the right thing to eat, drink, wear, etc.? Simple: is it natural or not? This is another thing that makes some people who argue for this view so vehement – it’s not hard, it’s right in front of you, and why can’t you see the right way of living when it’s so, so. . .simple? Arguing against that, from a scientific point of view, puts a person at several disadvantages. You necessarily have to come in with all these complications and qualifying statements, trying to show how things are actually different than they look. That sounds like more special pleading, for one thing, and it’s especially ineffective against a way of thinking that often leans toward thinking that the more direct, simple, and obvious something is, the more likely it is to be correct.
That’s actually the default way of human thinking, when you get down to it, which is the problem. Science, and the scientific worldview, are unnatural things, and I don’t mean that just in the whole-grain no-additives sense of “natural”. I mean that they do not come to most people as a normal consequence of their experience and habits of thought. A bit of it does: “Hey, every time I do X, Y seems to happen”. But where that line of thinking takes you starts to feel very odd very quickly. You start finding out that the physical world is a lot more complicated than it looks, that “after” does not necessarily mean “because”, and that all rules of thumb break down eventually (and usually without warning). You find that math, of all things, seems to be the language that the universe is written in (or at least a very good approximation to it), and that’s not exactly an obvious concept, either. You find that many of the most important things in that physical world are invisible to our senses, and not necessarily in a reassuring way, or in a way that even makes much sense at all at first. (Magical explanations of invisible forces at least follow human intuitions). It’s no wonder that scientific thinking took such a long, long time to ever catch on in human history. I still sometimes think that it’s only tolerated because it brings results.
So there are plenty of reasons why it’s hard to effectively argue against the all-natural chemical-free worldview. You’re asking your audience to accept a number of things that don’t make much sense to them, and what’s worse, many of these things look like rhetorical tricks at best and active (even actively evil) attempts to mislead them at worst. And all in the service of something that many of them are predisposed to regard as suspicious even from the start. It’s uphill all the way.

53 comments on “All Natural And Chemical Free”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Back when I was in the lab we put a note next to the tap for a joke: “WARNING: This water contains nearly 1 million ppm hydrogen hydroxide”. The next day we had to remove it because the cleaner refused to work in an unsafe environment.

  2. Puff the mutant dragon says:

    Nice post. I’ve had these kinds of conversations more than once and it’s always very difficult because you’re dealing with a lot of the very deep misconceptions you point out. You end up with this frustrating situation where instead of deciding whether something is good/bad based on cost/benefit, sustainability and environmental impact, people are deciding whether it’s good/bad based on how “natural” it’s perceived to be. And in the long run this is actually BAD for the environment and for sustainability, because we are going to need things like GMOs (which are widely perceived as unnatural) to make agriculture sustainable in the long run, especially if we start farming for fuel as well as food (and it sure looks like we’re headed that way). This attitude also enables the alternative medicine folks to make a crapload of money off of what are essentially worthless remedies — because they’re somehow perceived as being more “natural” than the alternative. So this is a fight worth fighting, but it’s a very difficult one to win, because as you point out we start at a disadvantage — the “natural = good” worldview is simple and easy to defend, whereas a scientific/rational approach is more complicated to explain.

  3. Alex G says:

    A fantastic read, thanks Derek.

  4. Vaudaux says:

    I know people who won’t buy iodized salt, because “they added a chemical to it”, but extol the virtues of sea salt because “it’s not just salt, it has minerals that you need” … like iodine.

  5. a says:

    A fantastic post.
    For those interested in actually changing people’s minds, often a long drawn out process, not the “aha” moment that movies portray, some good advice from the global-warming-is-real-goddamiit camp, the “debunking handbook”
    The Handbook explores the surprising fact that debunking myths can sometimes reinforce the myth in peoples’ minds. Communicators need to be aware of the various backfire effects and how to avoid them, such as:
    The Familiarity Backfire Effect
    The Overkill Backfire Effect
    The Worldview Backfire Effect

    One could treat the “natural is better” as the myth to debunk.

  6. MelodyB says:

    One time when compiling a grocery list, a family member asked me to get “organic salt” which really gave me pause. I was not interested in “educating” this person – I just wanted to figure out what the heck salt I was supposed to get. After some back and forth it was determined that the desired product was an unprocessed salt, that didn’t have good minerals (like potassium) removed or other stuff (iodine) put in. This made sense to me, and I was able to accomplish the mission.
    I think part of the problem is that the more processed something is – a food or other consumer good – the more marketing accompanies it. Most of that marketing is designed to mislead consumers. Not many marketers make their dime selling kale – and the benefits of vegetables rather speak for themselves. So that adds on to the uphill battle of arguing that “chemical” does not equal bad or toxic. And it gives “natural” its cache.

  7. bad wolf says:

    I keep thinking that lifespans having doubled or tripled in the last century or so would suggest to people that the industrialized sanitized life we live is actually healthier than the all-natural lifestyle that came before it.
    Even my parents had infant mortality experiences with brothers and sisters that are far beyond anything accepted now, or knew people who had childhood diseases until vaccines came along that no-one has now. Again, not the result of too much BVO in the soda.

  8. Sue Denim says:

    I hadn’t seen this discussed, but John Oliver’s recent bit on Dr. Oz as well as the lack of regulation of nutritional supplements was well done and would be appreciated by many of Derek’s readers…

  9. Jacob says:

    I think there’s something else going on here too. Consumer companies started putting synthetic ingredients into their products in large quantities in the mid-20th century, an era in which there was, perhaps, a fair amount of hubris about our ability to use whatever compounds did the job without incurring any ill effects. This was the era of tetraethyl lead, carbon tetrachloride, sodium triphosphate in detergents, etc. As a result, we got developmentally-delayed children and hypoxic lakes and rivers.
    So, yes, the problem isn’t “chemicals” in general — the problem is these particular chemicals — but what’s a consumer to do? The only manufacturers who even pay lip service to avoiding these issues with their products are the ones who market them as “natural”, “organic”, et cetera. So consumers who care about reducing their environmental impact are pretty much stuck — either drink the “all-natural” Kool-aid or risk being complicit in the next major environmental catastrophe.

  10. jrftzgb says:

    I won’t eat organic food because I already get enough carbon……
    Isn’t it great that you can claim that in a marriage license it’s implied that your spouse finds you funny (I mean what sane individual would agree to spend the rest of their life with someone they don’t find funny). If it wasn’t for that implication I’d probably be single.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I will only eat inorganic food.

  12. But the fishes says:

    Dr. Lowe, You lost me at “dose makes the poison”- its so 80’s.
    From Rachel Carson’s _Silent Spring_ to Theo Colburn- birds to fishes.
    Monotonic toxicity curves are not universal – and high responses at low doses like hormones or endocrine disrupters have been well established if not still debated.
    Fish changing sex from leaching plastic bottles – the new toxicity.
    Which leads to even more discussion / explanation.

  13. Mary D says:

    Good article. A couple of points: I think people say chemical when they mean additives that are not found in that food in it’s natural state, such as preservatives, that may be harmful, perhaps somehow changing the functional metabolism of the food or having a cumulatively toxic effect over time, perhaps because the body is unable to eliminate it. Red dye No. 4, for example, has the reputation of being carcinogenic.
    The natural argument has to do with solvents or other by-products of chemical processing which may remain in the product in unsafe trace amounts.

  14. Global Village says:

    Consider the classic adage that it is much more likely for one to die in a car crash than a plane crash, but a plane crash is much more likely to make front page news. I am not saying anything controversial when I state that our quality of life has skyrocketed since the days of this putative “all natural” lifestyle but, due to the sensational nature of the occasional misstep (which undoubtedly occurred also in the much lauded natural “golden age”; read: poison berries, medical quackery etc) we are disproportionately exposed to the downsides. The simple heuristic that exposure is proportional to incidence makes this a particularly intractable situation.

  15. Cause and Effect says:

    These same problems in the “good old days” might have been chalked up to angry gods, bad karma, or any number of metaphysical disturbances. The ability to explain does not necessarily correlate with intent: we will still make mistakes going forward, but now we know that it was some additive, and NOT stepping on the crack in the sidewalk, that led to the problem.

  16. Sideline Chemist says:

    There’s a radio ad currently playing on a number of stations in the Boston area that takes the “anti-chemical” approach that those nasty chemicals in processed foods are so bad that you can use their names as curse words, such as “oh, sorbitol,” or “dextrose” (with appropriate hand gesture).
    The advertisers clearly have no concept that both of those nasty chemicals they highlight are naturally occurring substances and about as “un-chemical” as you can get….

  17. dearieme says:

    Consider fructose. I tend to ask how the molecule knows whether it’s in corn syrup or honey.

  18. Carl Lumma says:

    > There’s no doubt that industrial poisons have sickened vast numbers of people in the past: mercury is just the first one that’s come to mind.
    Define “vast”.
    > for many nonscientists, “chemical” means “something bad or poisonous”.
    This doesn’t describe the vernacular I observe. I think they use it to mean “synthetic product”. I think most people know cobra venom is a poisonous natural product but they figure we’ve been awash in natural products for a long time, so if they stick to those the risks are well understood. Synthetic products, being relatively new… who knows?
    This reasoning is also wrong but debunking it needs a bit more subtlety than the easy target you chose here. I don’t think you’ll get there while claiming industry has poisoned “vast” numbers of people, and linking to certain pieces at C&EN that should have been published in Rolling Stone.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Very well written! This is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Derek’s blog.

  20. smurf says:

    I don’t think this “fight is worth fighting.” Other people’s craziness or obsession about “organic” food doesn’t really bother me. Moreover, they will just piss you off if you want to explain the basics of science to them. It’s very hard to change someone’s mind when they are adults. So education is the key and it starts in early childhood.
    Instead of spending my time talking to people like rocks, I read more books and have fun. Let them do whatever they want to.

  21. PJ Hansen says:

    Ahh, the good old days. During a visit to the local historical museum it was surprising to hear the frequent, vocal yearning for the “good old days.” Since we had just left the International Museum of Surgical Science, we knew that we would have been either dead or missing a limb.
    It is hard to go up against nostalgia for simplicity and purity.

  22. ABC says:

    So instead of educating the public, we should dumb down things to their level? No wonder the general science education of Americans (and others) have slipped!

  23. aairfccha says:

    “There was a time when food and human health were so much better, and industrial civilization has messed it all up.”
    The first part is actually somewhat correct: The neolithic revolution was a step backwards in terms of health, life expectancy and body height went down. However, in late industrial times those have recovered *thanks to* industrial civilization.
    About heavy metals, for a *long* time (since the ancient Romans and Egyptians) lead was used not just in pipes or paints but make-up.
    Also I have a question about the shorter lifespans and higher mortality in cities: Was a possible reason given in the book or could that be a statistical artefact due to more accurate recording of deaths in the cities and (longer-lived) nobility living in the country?

  24. Anonymous says:

    Advertising “No additives or preservatives” used to be the way “natural” products were advertised. I guess that phrase lost it’s luster (or the ad execs got lazy / bored) and now we have the chemical-free dumbification of the consumer. These kinds of conversations always remind me of this movie scene:

  25. Anonymous says:

    @12 “Monotonic toxicity curves are not universal”
    Please name a substance with a non-monotonic toxicity curve where both low and high doses are toxic but with a low-toxicity sweet spot in between. Substances where the danger at the low end comes from a shortage (like vitamins) don’t count.
    “and high responses at low doses like hormones or endocrine disrupters have been well established” Unless those effects disappear at higher doses and are not masked by others, the dose-effect curve is still monotonic.

  26. Wonderful, thoughtful, post. Thank you!
    The fundamental problem is that industrial chemistry as an industry has lost the trust of the public. In the 1950s (-ish, more or less) there was a great deal of trust. We felt that we were in a new era of manufactured molecules that were going to make everything awesome. Plastics, drugs, synthetic food perfectly balanced for our bodies was surely just around the corner!
    Then we, the public, learned that we’d been betrayed. Industrial chemistry was careless and dangerous. They killed a lot of people (yes: vast numbers, entire communities sickened, damaged, with high fatalities. Minimata. Love Canal. Etc.). While the overall effect of industrial chemistry, of drug manufacture, etc, was wildly positive — and it was — the issue was the lies and the close calls. The trust was lost, not because Science didn’t deliver, overall it did, but because Science Lied. Or, Science was Wrong. Or something.
    The key today has to be to work to regain that trust. I think the industry, and Science as a whole, arguably deserves the trust of the public now. Regulation and simple maturity have completely changed the character of things. There *are* still occasional slips and problems, but generally the picture is quite good.
    You’re not going to persuade the public that Round-up is safe compared to vinegar — I *know* I can drink a cup of vinegar, and while unpleasant, it’s not going to kill me. This Round-up stuff, though, and your talk of residual soil levels after blah blah blah is just so much noise to me. You’re not going to teach me enough chemistry to get it. I simply have to trust you.
    Mocking people, however gently, isn’t a trust builder. Neither is pointing out that, despite the lies, things really did get better. The thing that’s got to get done it to persuade the public that we’re not lying any more.
    It’s about trust, so, attack that underlying problem, of rebuilding the trust that was once there.

  27. MoMo says:

    Let the free market decide who to trust in the consumer market-even if its wrong.
    The smart ones will survive and multiply in this classic example of chemical Darwinism, and the less-informed will be subjected to poisons by unscrupulous marketeers and their products. Low T anyone?
    Call 1-800 BAD DRUG if you get confused.
    Lawyers are now waiting for your call! I can hear their gnashing teeth!

  28. Thomas says:

    Maybe “a chemical” is something that imparts a “chemical taste” or “chemical smell”?

  29. Tomas says:

    How about the evolutionary argument that if it occurs “naturally”, it is most likely not toxic to organisms that co-evolved?
    We do not have this statistical assurance about chemicals not occurring naturally, at least not in concentrations we put them in contemporary food.
    (For the record, I buy in-organic, it’s better for the planet.)

  30. dave w says:

    #28: is that something like a “distinctive” taste or smell?

  31. Garrett Wollman says:

    A frustrating thing for me at least is that in the one area where we really do have significantly enhanced standards — the organic labeling program — they so often hit the wrong target. I care about farming practices. I don’t think that preserving meat using celery juice is any better for me that getting the sodium nitrite from a factory. I really don’t like that some certification racket got paid off at every step of the production process from feed to hog to slaughter to sausage factory. I do care how much energy was wasted trucking that “organic” feed across six counties because the farmer next door wasn’t certified.
    And I worry a *lot* that the population simply has no ability to distinguish between good additives and bad, or even between good genetic modifications and bad. So rarely do people inquire into the actual purpose of the things that are added to our food supply, and if you care about farming practices, or farm families, or energy supplies, or preventing famines, that purpose matters. Whose interest does it serve?
    I’m certain there are some organic products on the market today that, with a little research, one could demonstrate to be unequivocally worse for the planet in any number of ways than the “conventional” alternative, chemicals and all. Which is a shame.

  32. DV82XL says:

    The problem that the article’s author points out is endemic to most situations where public panic is driven by too broad (or too narrow) a definition of some terms. ‘Chemical,’ (the subject of this essay) ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ ‘radiation,’ ‘toxic’ and several others one could list all suffer from this phenomenon and it is exacerbated by marketeers that attempt to leverage it to sell product. Combined with the general public’s inability to assess risk in any reasonable way we are left with the mess we currently find ourselves in in several domains.
    What is crystal-clear to me is that this is a direct result of the collapse of the public education system that long abandoned the teaching of fundamental reasoning and hard science, both because of either an unwillingness, or inability to ground students in basic mathematics, and by that I mean arithmetic, which is the foundation of analysis via word problems, and geometry which provides a foundation in logic.
    We are now paying the price for this lack because at some point developing an understanding of scientific topics requires some foundation in logic and mathematics. Metaphors, and analogies used in popular science treatments eventually break down and people are being asked to accept scientific truths on faith, and this eventually causes a failure in understanding because it does not allow a clear differentiation between science and any other faith based explanation of reality.
    Cornered by the realization of their own ignorance many must fall back on the Precautionary Principle simply because they don’t feel they have a choice. And it matters little what we say, because from their perspective, we are no more reliable than any other source that assert that what they say is fact.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Another ironic aspect to all this – when you look at leading causes of death in the developed world, the “chemicals” with the greatest contribution to mortality (based on chronic exposure) are all-natural ones like salt, fat, sugar, alcohol, tobacco, etc.

  34. MadDog says:

    I have always maintained that a good scientist is one that can explain their particular field of study to non-scientists in way that is understandable. In the realm of astronomy / physics you have (had) ambassadors like Carl Sagen and Brian Greene; Sagan could get people to relate to the enormity of space, and Greene has done an admirable job with getting people to realize that really small stuff behaves oddly, or at least in ways we cant quite relate to.
    Who is/are the chemistry ambassador(s)? I am not sure if we really have any. On the one side of the spectrum you have absolute GIANTS like George Whitesides; is there an realm of chemistry that he has not influenced? But could he be the chemistry public relations ambassador? The other side of the spetrum is Bill Nye the science guy, but he is not quite the right cup of tea…too generic. Bassam Shakashiri puts on a great show with a lot of WOW, but not very relatable IMO. Is there anyone on the TED talk circuit that would fit the bill?
    Seriously, chemists could use a solid ambassador, but I am not sure who wold be a good pick. Any ideas out there in this audience? I know the ACS likes to think that it does a good job at this sort of stuff. And I appreciate that they try, but over the last 20+ years, I have not sen anything that has come out of the ACS that is even close.

  35. DrOcto says:

    I think that it’s relevant, in discussions such as these, to bring up the single chemical responsible for causing the most human deaths on the planet.

  36. gippgig says:

    Has anyone done the obvious and sued the purveyors of “chemical-free” products for false advertising?
    The counterargument to the “we coevolved with natural foods so they are safe” claim is that the foods have also coevolved to defend themselves against predators (such as us) by producing toxins (which, of course, artificial foods are designed not to contain).
    This brought to mind a comment in Consumer Reports magazine many years ago about a product that promoted itself as being made of natural ingredients. The product? Rat poison.

  37. Insilicoconsulting says:

    This discussion probably misses two important points.
    1. Most people know the difference between natural substances that are good and that are bad (poisons). They also know that a small dose of a poison can maim or kill and a larger dose can do so faster in all likelyhood. Dose response is not an unknown.
    2.Most people also know that natural substances have a cocktail of chemicals with the curative chemical being a small part. They see low concentration and being part of a mixture as virtues. In comparison allopathic drugs, synthetic versions are acknowleged to be potent but also more prone to side effects precisely because of being single agents at relatively high concentrations as compared to natural alternatives.

  38. simpl says:

    On the topic of perception of chemicals, here is another fault line, with the WHO and FDA in a cast of stars
    I’m for a single name for a single effect, in this case.

  39. Nile says:

    Time to start anpthe ‘Dihydrogen Monoxide’ scare.
    Which media outlet is stupid enough to take the bait, swallow the prewritten press-pack with canned interviews, and regurgitate it verbatim to millions?
    I’ll rephrase that: which one isn’t?

  40. Morten G says:

    From the viewpoint of one scientist…
    Biological and synthetic organic chemistry space overlap but not completely. Basically, anything made in the biological organic chemistry space can also be broken down in nature. Because that’s how enzymes work, right? But synthetic things don’t come with that kind of (almost) guarantee.
    And you don’t have to go back to the fifties to find chemical disasters. What about the CFCs and the ozone layer? That would have been pretty cataclysmic if sceptics hadn’t been as insistent as they were.
    Synthetic organic molecules should be considered with more distrust than biological ones. If the biological ones had a good potential to destroy the planet they already would have.
    And no matter how much EDTA Taco Bell puts in their products it doesn’t make EDTA food.

  41. Anonymous says:

    I think one of the problems is that neither of those two points are true enough.
    1) Kinda. I really doubt their ability to differentiate between good and bad. Especially as some as both. But what is more concerning is that they also see “extract of apple seeds” healthier than “cyanide”, despite both of them could be labels for a single substance.
    2) I even more doubt people understand the truth and strength of the statement: “Dose makes the poison”. I mean, all this hype about dihydrogen monoxide and nothing about the fact “water poisoning” from just drinking too much pure water is a thing? And that if concentration is such a problem, they really should avoid “nature alternatives” as many have little to no control/regulation of their concentrations/dosage.

  42. Jayarava says:

    This is a well written and interesting post. The question basically is how to communicate. And you’ve dealt with the cognitive aspects quite well. However if we look at how people make decisions, and thus how they assess new information we find that emotions are involved. Ask anyone why they hold any given strong opinion, even a scientist, and they often say “because it feels right”. Antonio Damasio covers this in his book Descartes Error.
    What it means for science communicators is getting out from behind the facts and meeting the people that we’re trying to communicate with. Understanding what makes them tick, what they care about, and what their values are. One has to be able to get across why anyone would care about the information you have.
    In fact the lay “chemicals” distinction is not a bad one if one is, for example, worried about additives in food. Maybe it’s not 100% accurate, but the basic motivation is to feel confident that the food we’re eating is healthy. Of course lay people can be fooled by unscrupulous marketing people (and this goes back to Freud’d nephew Edward Bernays in the 1920s). The iodine example that someone mentions above is a good example.
    But back in a time when goitre was common the addition of iodine to salt was an easy sell: goitre is disfiguring and thus people feel strongly about it. Fluoride in drinking water was another similar issue (at least where I grew up). Since then it’s become clear that authorities of various kinds mislead the public in order to make a profit. Bernays convinced women that they needed to break the 1920’s taboo on women smoking, by linking smoking with the suffrage movement. Smoking set you free. He called them “freedom torches”. And the rest is history.
    Anyway the facts alone are never enough. We have to know why we should care, and the relative importance of the new facts with respect to what we already know. We have to be sure that the information source is not just trying to make a profit or experimenting on us against our will.
    So if you want to rehabilitate the word “chemical” you have a long road ahead.

  43. Historian says:

    @12 (But the fishes): Re, “dose makes the poison”- its so 80’s…
    Yes, quoting Paracelsus is so 1580s, 1680s, 1780s, 1880s and 1980s, and mocking a mere 3 decades ago is so now…

  44. DrOcto says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we chemists already have a term that defines an arrangement of atoms?
    We don’t need two.
    Why don’t we let the marketing departments and eco-freaks have the word chemical. We can just define it as meaning a synthetic molecule.

  45. Anonymous says:

    BASF is currently running an ad campaign on the local radio here (Chicago area) that lists off many of the beneficial (and sometimes nature-friendly) things they’ve accomplished, with the background sounds slowly changing from the sounds of industry over to the sounds of nature, and ending with the tagline:
    “BASF: the chemical company”
    The way it’s said, with the sounds of chirping birds and crickets in the background, makes it pretty clear they want listeners to think of that as a *positive* phrase.

  46. DH says:

    @45: Yes, and I say good for BASF in not giving up on the term “chemical” in the face of ignorant and irrational attacks on “chemicals”. If only more big companies had such courage…

  47. NQ says:

    “Red dye No. 4, for example, has the reputation of being carcinogenic.”
    No, Mary – it IS carcinogenic.

  48. Anonymous says:

    Oh wow, Julian Jaynes. Glad to see him come up – he’s undeservedly obscure.

  49. cliffintokyo says:

    The chemical industry makes chemicals and farmers grow food. A person without any basic science education will never understand that there is an inescapable connection at the molecular level.

  50. Oblarg says:

    Derek, you mentioned in an earlier post the futility of trying to reason someone out of a position they did not arrive at by reasoning.
    Unfortunately, what you describe here is such a case. Attempting to convince “natural” food nuts that, essentially, everything they know about chemistry is wrong is not something that someone can do through any rational approach. If it were as easy as demonstrating that “naturalness” is a bad heuristic for “healthiness,” no one would hold these views in the first place. People do not believe these things simply out of ignorance of the existence of .
    No, what you are describing amounts to not only a fundamental reworking of world views, but a destruction of an important piece of many people’s self-image. Any attempt to reason people out of their incorrect beliefs is not only seen as a threat to their beliefs, but to their identity; to admit that there is no fundamental truth to the statement “natural things are good for you” (or even to admit that such a statement isn’t necessarily well-posed) is to admit that a significant part of their lives is a lie, and by extension that they, who put so much stake in it, are fools. Belief-updating isn’t something that anyone who isn’t already a scientist embraces as a fundamentally good thing.
    And, really, if you do want to take on such a gargantuan task, science (and scientific thinking) are fundamentally /the wrong tools for the job/. You do not convince people who are not participating in rational discussion of the truth by attempting rational discourse. Rational discourse is not possible if all involved parties do not hold the genuine intent to update their beliefs in light of new evidence.
    Unfortunately, I believe that engaging the masses on this topic is a bad idea with no potential positive outcomes. Scientific illiteracy on the part of the adult populace is not something that I think can be fixed, and certainly not by scientists. Our only hope lies in education, so that future generations might be better-equipped to parse evidence properly.

  51. cliffintokyo says:

    Could it be that “most people” are so distrustful of *chemicals* because they do not know the appropriate questions to ask? (Because they do not have the necessary educational background).
    Having looked more carefully at the comments, I would challenge @37 (Insilico…) about what we might expect people to know. I suspect that “most people” would not have a clue what these two jargon-filled statements provided mean (dose-response?).
    Coming back to my point about the *right* questions, would the average patient think to ask the holistic medicine practitioner who prescribes a herbal remedy (see @37) whether it contains a mixture of active ingredients? Thought not. The average patient probably still thinks that pharmaceuticals are some kind of voodoo, and almost never reads the label on the package!

  52. M Welinder says:

    I guess a tank of helium would qualify as all natural and chemical free.
    It wasn’t created by a chemical process (being the result of radioactive decay) and it isn’t likely to participate in any chemical process in a consumer setting.

  53. I'm not a moose says:

    I love how our bodies had to find a use for oxygen because it would kill us if we didn’t–and still can if the concentration is high enough.
    I’ve always felt that society’s opinions are like the ocean. Storms will stir them up, but they will inevitably subside and level off to a more agreeable balance once the worst of it is over. All people can do is do what they feel is correct. Given enough time, the world will find other “demons” to hunt, and chemists will be granted a reprieve. Now that we’re more aware of the consequences, we can hopefully start gaining back that lost trust with better practices.
    In the meantime, I’ll putter around this blog waiting for the next “Things I won’t work with” article. Those just brighten my life.
    Oh, and #30: I think the word you’re looking for is “characteristic.”

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