Monday, August 8, 2011

Quacks vs Chemistry

"How can you be so sure there is nothing to it all?"  That is probably the number one question skeptics get asked.  It's a very good question too, in fact I would argue that a skeptic should be the first one asking himself/herself that question.  If you don't accept that there are ghosts, why is that?  How can you be so confident that Alternative Medicine isn't really medicine?  You need to know the answer to such questions or risk coming across as completely closed minded and ignorant instead of informed and skeptical.  Now depending on the subject the long answer can be rather long but the short answer almost always turns out to be: Science.  Science may not be perfect but it is peerless in differentiating truth from falsehood and while it can't always tell you what the correct answer is with 100% certainty, it is fantastic at telling you what the wrong answers are.  That is why I am very confident in dismissing the nutritional claims of someone like Mike "the health ranger" Adams as complete quackery.  How can I be sure?  Because his claims don't stand up to scientific scrutiny.  Worse, you need only an elementary school science education to know that he doesn't know what he's talking about at all.

For instance, in a recent article called "What's really in the food? The A to Z of the food industry's most evil ingredients." he made the following claim:
"Homogenized Milk - The fats in the milk are artificially modified to change them into smaller molecules that stay in suspension in the milk liquid (so the milk fat doesn't separate)"
He goes on to explain how that somehow turns milk evil and such but that's really as far as I need to read to see that he really has no clue.  See if you break up the fat molecules in the milk you don't get smaller fat molecules, you get things that aren't fat or milk or in fact anything remotely like it.  Now since I said you only needed elementary school level science to understand why, let me demonstrate with an extremely simple example.  Behold the mighty water molecule, H2O:

As you probably know, a water molecule is one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms.  So when you break it up into "smaller molecules" what do you get?  Really small water molecules?  No!  You get Hydrogen and Oxygen molecules, neither of which are anything like water molecules!  Put water on a burning pile of wood and you put out the fire, put hydrogen and oxygen on a fire and you get a much bigger fire!  The molecular structure of a substance makes it what it is.  If you break it up you don't get a smaller version of the substance, you get a completely different substance.  It's that simple.

On that subject, a lot of the hysteria surrounding vaccines and autism came from the claim that "ZOMG vaccines contain mercury!!"  That is a lie.  There is no mercury in a vaccine.  There is however something called Thiomersal (C9H9HgNaO2S) in vaccines which is a compound containing mercury.  As I've just pointed out with the water molecule example, there is a very big difference between mercury and a molecule that has mercury in it.  Here is another fun example I bet they taught you in elementary school, table salt - one of the best examples of just how magically amazing chemistry is.  You take Sodium (Na) which is toxic and as an added bonus explodes when you add it to water and Chlorine (Cl) which is so horrifically toxic that they used to use it as a chemical warfare weapon, but when you join them into Sodium Chloride (NaCl) you get ordinary table salt, which doesn't explode in water and isn't toxic at all - in fact it's edible!  Therefore, just as putting salt on your popcorn is not the same as putting chlorine on it, putting thiomersal in a vaccine is not the same as putting mercury in it.  It's elementary!

To study chemistry is to study a world of endless wonder, but not for these quacks.  No surprise there, actually understanding the science of their claim tends to debunk it completely.  They want people to be afraid of chemistry and I'm afraid they've been very successful.  Just look at advertisements, how it always tries to juxtapose "chemicals" with "natural" as in "All natural with no added chemicals"; which is not only terribly lazy language use, it's also complete crap.  Everything is made out of atoms, that is a fundamental truth of everything that physically exists.  Chemistry is the study of how all these atoms interact and behave.  Therefore, chemistry - and chemicals - are everywhere.  Everything you eat, drink, breathe and wear is made of chemicals.  You yourself happen to be made entirely of chemicals.  Chemicals are not evil.  Scaring people with chemistry on the other hand is evil (not to mention stupid and wrong).

So then, when an alternative medicine proponent tries to make their case with "science-y" sounding terms but clearly lack even a basic understanding of what they are talking about, I feel pretty confident in disregarding their claims.  That is how I know there is nothing to their claims - if they had anything they would have presented me with facts, not fakery.  If you want to see the rest of Mike's pseudo-scientific claims from that article dismantled by actual science I heartily recommend Orac's blog post on it: Oh, no, there's protein and salt in my food!  It's choc full of chemistry and good for you!


GumbyTheCat said...

That one line should read "You get Hydrogen and Oxygen ATOMS", not "molecules". Good post though. It's crazy how much bad medicine and nutritional quackery is going on. I like Orac though since it's not nearly my field of skepticism I don't read him much.

Eugene said...

Thing is I had a bit of a debate on whether to put atoms or molecules there. I decided to go with molecules instead because to my mind, if you broke up a bunch of water molecules you will get a lot of Hydrogen gas (H2) and Oxygen (O2) which would be molecules. Or you could get a Hydrogen atom and a bunch of -OH which would make alcohol if you added some carbon but isn't really anything on its own as I recall.

I don't read Orac on a regular basis either but he really is a great source for debunking medical quackery so I try to check it out every once in a while.

The King's Son said...

HI Eugene, came across your blog while looking up people who liked the same things as I. Good and real stuff here I must say. I'm inviting you to stop by at mine ( too. Who knows; we might just be blog buddies soonest. LOL!
Following you. :D

Eugene said...

Thanks, I appreciate that. Will definitely check out your blog