I ate my wafer...

1/27/2007

Everyday Chemistry

No human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are rodent carcinogens.
— Bruce Ames, Ph.D. and Lois Swirsky Gold, Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley

So, Peter Krupa very succinctly illustrates the level of science knowledge in the U.S. with his current post on sea salt. Since I fight similar, and probably futile, battles all the time, it is always nice to see someone else play science skeptic.*

If anyone is interested, I've started an argument (scroll down, my post is pretty obvious) at the Badger & Blade forums over the ridiculous assertion that herbal nostrums "contain no chemicals" and "contain no toxins". If, by some interesting quirk of fate, I ever teach high school or college science, there would be a substantial chunk of time devoted to the everyday science of evaluating alternative medicine health claims. Quite simply, until I see some serious evidence to the contrary, I strongly believe that:

A. A drug/food/whatever is essentially the sum of its chemical parts.
B. The scientific method, as applied in well-designed studies, and good analytical chemistry can tell us what chemical compounds are useful, dangerous, etc.
C. The dose makes the poison. Otherwise, damn near all foods would be lethal from the small quantities of toxic chemicals. Example: virtually all of the assertions in the silly "toxins" article at healing-scents.com are void for the low dose actually delivered in cosmetic products.
D. Placebo effect is an amazingly powerful device. (I believe I have an interesting way to demonstrate placebo effect in a classroom, using nothing more than a computer projector and 5 minutes of class time. If any teacher in the audience wants try it, let me know.)

In other words, unless a given sea salt product can be examined with analytic chemistry tools to explain exactly what non-NaCl components are present and actually useful, it is a complete waste of money.

*Full disclosure: Mr. Krupa and I were once lab partners. Since he knows at least one story from that time period, involving a bunsen burner, that would seriously degrade my credibility on scientific matters, I'm probably forever obligated to help him in internet science arguments.

7 Comments:

  • Is it dishonest to sell placebo effect?

    By Blogger luke, at 1:35 PM  

  • Taste: the utility may be, or is likely, purely qualitative in nature - cooking with different types of sea-salt lends different flavors, the gray Frencyh salt tastes different from the brownish-red Hawaiian stuff. I agree all the hype is belief-system orienterd rather than scientific.
    Across the bay from here there are huge, colorful salt ponds and a giant mountain of salt. They designed and built a miniature railway with tracks and cars and minature diesel locomotives that took salt from a harvesting machine to the wash-house, that ran for 60 years. Our across-the-street neighbor was my Jr. High science teacher, married to "a Leslie" - one of the heirs to the Leslie Salt Co. fortunes. He had cool telescopes he built himself.

    By Blogger DirtCrashr, at 8:01 PM  

  • bob, if it makes you feel better, I don't remember the bunson burner incident. besides that, i think the lawn mower carberator gasoline inhaling incident is potentially much more damaging to your reputation as a scholar and a gentleman.

    By Anonymous pjk, at 8:06 PM  

  • Hahaha, I'd forgotten about the accidental gasoline ingestion.

    The bunsen burner incident involved a water jet...

    By Blogger Bob, at 4:36 AM  

  • Excellent point. I keep finding myself in the minority during the Toxin of the Month debates with my peers, but at least I get entertainment value out of it. Consumers are very funny people.

    Understand the lab partner angle. Mine rescued me from Dr. Baron's wrath by going long and catching both parts of my distillation column when they launched themselves into Low Kresge Orbit. It's been 10 years, and he STILL holds it over my head.

    By Anonymous Sierra Delta Kappy, at 5:00 PM  

  • Speaking of "toxins" Dr. Drew goes OFF about de-toxifying the body on the Feb. 8 episode of Loveline
    http://www.lovelineshow.com/
    check 34:15-38:42

    By Blogger TheAmber, at 5:37 PM  

  • In a related note, I invite the readers of I Ate My Wafer to take a look at this website and guess how many of the merit badges listed our host is currently qualified for. I can confirm eight, and I would not be surprised to learn of about four more.

    Bob, we've found your people.

    See here: http://scq.ubc.ca/sciencescouts/

    --gauche

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:33 PM  

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