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"The dose makes the poison” Already in the 16th century Educated people knew this truth

“The dose makes the poison” Already in the 16th century
Educated people knew this truth

A band of spoiled brats is waging jihad against science. Its victim is the public and -as it happens in war- most casualties will be poor folk without the chance to choose a side.

The grievances are not new but this time the conflict is particularly destructive. Already in 1959 there was  a “two cultures” warning, but in 1959 when the memories of plagues, famines and poor standards of living were still alive science and reason had many allies; now those problems are absent from living memory; now common sense is held in-check by the general illiteracy of the media; now nonsense is set loose and the anti-science marauders are given free range.

Science’s enemies long for an ideal past that never existed, preach that we should go back to “nature”, and believe that “natural” is -somehow- better than “artificial”; at its greenest fringe, their gospel asserts that humans are just a burden for nature, that “the planet” would be better off without us on it (1). Like most impractical philosophies, theirs is promoted by well-off rebels looking for something to rebel against.

One of their most prominent campaigns is against “chemicals”. Chemicals are defined by the anti-science brigade as anything that is not “natural” -in whichever way they choose to define “natural”. Their cult takes the well-established scientific fact that a chemical can kill you and transforms it into the misguided certainty that any detectable trace of that chemical will kill you. This is false.

BBC’s discussing the "potential” –and of course, unproven- risks of “exposure” to NEW CARS during pregnancy. Really? (click on the link for full story)

BBC’s discussing the “potential” –and of course unproven- risks of “exposure” to NEW CARS and other modern conveniences during pregnancy. Really? (click on the link for full story)

We can detect ridiculously small amounts of any chemical. This is testament to the ingenuity of scientists and the ability of engineers who designed ultra-powerful mass spectrometers. The fact that we can detect something does not make it automatically dangerous. Airport scans can detect 0.000000025 g of crystal meth in a dealer’s jacket; you will not get high by seating next to him -even if you do it repeatedly. A toxicologist who makes a living of proving that things are toxic –rather than finding out what is safe and what is not- dreads the question “how does the lethal dose compares with the levels found in the body?”.

Data from CDC’s National Vital Statistics Reports, 2014

Data from CDC’s National Vital Statistics Reports, 2014

Anything in a high dose can kill you: selenium (an essential micro nutrient) can kill you (0.007g/Kg), vitamin D can kill you (0.1g/Kg), salt can kill you (3g/Kg), even water can kill you (90g/Kg), yet we need all those things to live. We also need chemicals, for example, to maintain food at reasonable prices or cleaning kitchens. We need to feed people, not pests. Allowing pest to feed on our food is not “natural”, is stupid. Chemicals handled appropriately are safe and good. Chemicals are a necessity of modern society. Life expectancy in the ideal, chemical-free, wild-plant variety farming Neolithic age was 25 years (2); child mortality in the same period was 40% (3). Compare that with our modern industrial society were 12life expectancy is more than 3 times that of our “chemical-free” ancestors and still growing year on year (4).

3Our chemical-free “natural living” ancestors were at the mercy of plagues, famines and pests. They attributed all those things to divine punishment and punished they were, again and again. Was “natural” better? Small pox, decaying teeth, plagues, they were all natural. Vaccines, tooth paste, pesticides, they are the product of human ingenuity; we prefer the later lot.

Rejection of industrial society can only doom us to go back to a past of hunger, cold and disease. People rejecting chemicals at all cost, irrationally, often have –when they are not simply the victims of scaremongering- pseudoreligious objections against modern society. They also possess the inclination, spare time and income to afford products and lifestyles that they deem safe or ethical or “natural”. The push to impose this religious dogma on everyone, regardless of the social consequences of using inefficient and expensive processes, is wicked.

Baron Charles Percy Snow physical chemist and novelist

Baron Charles Percy Snow physical chemist and novelist

Science needs to find recruits and allies to fight the enemies of industry and progress. In 1959 C P Snow addressed the anti-science hordes as follows:

“If you want to turn your backs on the benefits of industrialisation, go hungry and see most of your children die in infancy; you are free to make that choice. I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion […] But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose.“

This is something we can all agree with.

 

 

(1) See “The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement” http://www.vhemt.org

(2) AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 124:315–329 (2004)

(3) AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 102:569–575 (1997)

(4) CDC National Vital Statistics Reports Volume 62, Number 7 January 6, 2014

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  • Colleen Meacham 08/11/2014 at 8:14 pm

    Some of the chemicals that have been released on our world; DDT, nuclear radiation, CFCs, etc. have a half life that will last for generations. And as none of the “natural” world was designed to address these compounds and their effects we will need to return to chemistry to understand the effects and to consider how to mitigate for them.

    • Ariel Poliandri 08/11/2014 at 8:19 pm

      How shall we redress these problems?
      I think with more rather than with less science. Abandoning modern industrial society and going back to the benevolent dictates of nature doesn’t seem an acceptable option for me.
      Malaria or brain tumours may not have a half-life (I am accepting the rather odd classification of radiation as a “chemical” and considering, for example, its use in PET). I do know however, that the half life of food was greatly increased by the introduction of refrigeration.
      I would never claim that the works of science are perfect. But I prefer science and chemicals to being sick, not knowing why my head hurts or eating food in bad state.

  • Klaus Petritsch PhD 23/10/2014 at 7:27 am

    Ariel,
    I think your article is a great read for people who have irrational fear of chemicals – and there are many I am sure. It will certainly help to be reminded or perhaps for the first time become aware of the “chemicals handled appropriately are safe and good” and “the dose makes the poison” message.

    On the other hand there is also a great deal of often unjustified worshipping of science happening. Science is a popular “racket” in politics, marketing and economics. Claiming the truth and the final word.

    This is why we have so many different kinds of sciences today including economics, pharmacology, politics (political science), psychology etc..

    The rigorous criteria (falsifiabilty, accurate repeatable experiments) of science cannot be applied to any of the above and many other self claimed sciences.

    Safe doses of chemicals will keep changing as they have always done. What was once safe has become toxic some years later (think asbestos, cigarettes, numerous drugs etc). I think it is super important to be realistic and honest here and keep that in mind. In an ideal world scientists would declare conflicts of interests, possible flaws and inaccuracies of their studies and also encouraged to publish unwanted, “boring confirmations of other studies” at the end of their scientific papers. This is not really happening (although there are some attempts).

    There is a lot of junk science out there and we need to be aware of this as much as we need to acknowledge the fantastic benefits of sciences (and non sciences).

    I would like to see more people being aware of both ends of the spectrum. I would recommend to stay well in between chemophobia and “sciencephilia” – following either extreme is likely to have disastrous consequences for mankind.

    • Ariel Poliandri 23/10/2014 at 1:17 pm

      Hi Klaus,
      Never intended to worship science, far from it; funny enough, that would be unscientific.
      As you said, science has had (and will have) its mistakes. Some mistakes were big, like Thalidomide; some were small, like aspartame; some depended on the context, like asbestos. Those mistakes must be prevented at best, fixed at worst. Overall however, I will argue that food was never so plentiful, life expectancy never so long, and pain relief never so effective, among other things. Denying progress and proposing instead eternal stagnation is a crime against humanity.
      I think that science (or more generally reason) is facing a battle as bitter as that fought against 19th and early 20th century’s creationist. There is a new “naturalist “religion (it is a religion even though most of its members claim to be enlightened atheist). This “religion” uses scaremongering to mislead people into believing that an ill-defined “natural” is much better than an ill-defined artificial. It worships the goddess Nature. It poisons minds with a new original sin: being human and changing the environment in whatever way, no matter how transient or insignificant for us. Furthermore, it teaches fear and that we should repent and renounce our industrial sins because the dooms day is close.

  • Markku Lehtonen 21/10/2014 at 6:53 am

    This is great! I love parody! Humankind has never before been faced with a war of equal importance, so let us all mobilise ourselves, beause the war against chemophobia is one that we just cannot afford to lose. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is about to take world power, so take up arms and prevent Armageddon!

  • Susan Evens 21/10/2014 at 6:51 am

    So true – we are nothing but a collection of chemicals ourselves!

  • Charles Fiddes Payne 20/10/2014 at 5:36 pm

    I’ve been guilty of this chemophobia myself: I have children and have been overprotective. Being overprotective about Strontium 90 led to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, about lead poisoning to lead-free petrol, and about tar to partial smoking bans, but I take Ariel’s point about unscientific religiosity and not wanting to base public ethics on it.

    Ariel writes with great passion and erudition, and his piece is highly recommended reading.

  • Zed Pi 20/10/2014 at 11:55 am

    I had a privilege to spend some considerable time with a chemist, an expert in water safety issues. I still remember when some “natural” product salesmen told her: “Ain’t no chemistry here.” She simply burst into laughter and explained them what chemical processes they had to perform in order to get that “natural” product (some food-supplements, btw).

  • Olle Bergman 20/10/2014 at 11:42 am

    An important subject, indeed. However, it is a polemic battle that will never be won by frontal assault across the trenches of cognitive dissonance; you need to flank your opponent.

    Thank you for leading me to the C.P. Snow quotation.

    • Ariel Poliandri 20/10/2014 at 12:01 pm

      If you liked Snow’s speech you can trace its origins to the 19th controversy between Huxley and Arnlod.
      I know many people share your views and I am happy for you to try. For my part, I do not think that religious fundamentalists are up for change. I prefer to invest time trying to open the eyes of people vulnerable to falling for their nonsensical and dangerous ideologies. In my experience (for I am truly common) common people like fun not righteousness.

      • Olle Bergman 21/10/2014 at 6:49 am

        I agree that it is ”the third party” who should be the true target of one’s communication efforts; there is little hope to change the zealots.

        Here an interesting blog post where a daughter tries to convince her anti-vax father:
        http://crastina.se/anti-vax-father-gets-a-lecture-from-his-daughter-who-happens-to-be-a-science-blogger/

        Finally, another fun quotation:

        ”Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”
        Scott David Weitzenhoffer

      • Peter Kinnon 21/10/2014 at 6:50 am

        I love the quote, Oile. A strikingly precise simile.

        It has long been a personal contention that humor is the best counter to superstition.

        I am sure that the efforts of Monty Python, for instance, are more effective in dispelling religious myth than, say, all the windmill tilting of Dawkins.

        The moral being “Don’t Feed The Pigeons”

  • Fillenia Sideri 20/10/2014 at 11:22 am

    Dear Sir
    Your article answers the growing unscientific views on Chemistry and reminds us that life itself is Chemistry.
    Therefore, thank you
    Fillenia Sideri
    Chemist

  • Analía 20/10/2014 at 6:24 am

    And if you say something like: but… haven’t you learnt that in school? You get replies like: THEY HAVE BRAINWASHED YOU!!! Internet can be a double-edged sword xD

    • Ariel Poliandri 20/10/2014 at 12:32 pm

      Oh yeah, conspiracy theories about “the man” are an integral part of the naturalist religion but the data speaks by itself.

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