Usually, my ‘Science for Fun’ piece is an experiment for people to try, or an explanation of a science topic. This time, I am taking a look at some examples of loose language in science – some harmless and some less so. As a science communicator, accurate language is something that I take extremely seriously, and I see a lot of use of inaccurate language in all forms of media.
Recently a Chemistry in Australia reader pointed out to the editor some examples of inaccurate science they have observed. These are the subject of my column.
I have a prescription medication that boldly states ‘Do not take potassium without medical advice’. I wouldn’t take potassium even if it was prescribed by my doctor!
This misinformation is technically incorrect, but unlikely to be dangerous. The reader was referring to the element potassium (atomic symbol K), a very reactive metal. If you put metallic potassium in water, it will react violently. Depending on the size of the piece of metal, it may fizz, catch fire or explode. In schools and universities, small amounts of potassium (or similar metals such as sodium) are put into water to demonstrate their high levels of reactivity. A video showing the reactivity of these metals with water can be seen at bit.ly/2BSz5kf.
Potassium in elemental form is not going to be part of a medication. However, potassium in the form of ions (K+) is an important part of some medicines, and indeed a crucial component of the human body.
This distinction between forms of chemicals is extremely important, and sometimes deliberately manipulated to provide misleading information. A classic example of this is the issue of mercury as a preservative in vaccines. Yes, mercury is a very toxic heavy metal. Yes, some vaccines contained mercury. However, the mercury was only present in small amounts – way below established safety thresholds, and in a chemical form (called thimerosal) that allowed rapid excretion from the body. The evidence in this case still shows that exposure to mercury from vaccines was safe, but public perception and fear resulted in removal of all mercury from vaccines. See a fact sheet about thimerosal at bit.ly/2CJiPyX.
In our local media there have been ads for ‘chemical-free food’. Can food be ‘chemical free’?
I know for sure that our reader knows the correct answer to this. By definition, literally everything is chemicals. The intention with the term ‘chemical free’ is to market something as being perhaps organic, natural, healthy, clean, safe etc., but unfortunately this use of language can result in an unnecessary and dangerous phobia of ‘chemicals’.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that minimising or avoiding toxic or harmful chemicals is a bad thing – far from it! It is the use of language that I disagree with. Perhaps people conveniently forget that some of the most dangerous chemicals known – including components of snake venom, botox and cigarette smoke – are ‘organic’ and ‘natural’. In addition, as with the example of mercury, the toxicity of all chemicals is dependent upon the dose. Even water is toxic if you consume enough of it (bit.ly/1XfYcio).
Our previous Prime Minister reportedly said that ‘carbon dioxide is a weightless gas’.
The political debate around climate change, and the carbon tax is full of loosely used language such as this. Carbon dioxide is not weightless, and is indeed a more dense gas than the air around us. Even by a less scientific definition, ‘weightless’ refers to something ‘lacking apparent gravitational pull’. A simple experiment, where one balloon is filled with air, and another is filled with carbon dioxide, provides evidence that this gas is in no way weightless. Drop both balloons at the same time and the carbon dioxide balloon will fall to the floor due to gravity much more quickly than the air balloon. Again, this may not be critical misinformation, but is further evidence of the loose language used in discussions of scientific issues.
It seems to me that one of the major problems in science journalism in Australia is the decline of specialised science journalists in the mainstream media. This, among other reasons, has contributed to an increase in the careless or inaccurate language. I won’t address these ideas in detail here, as they were succinctly covered last year by Professor Joan Leach, Director of the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU, in an article in The Conversation entitled ‘Science journalism is in Australia’s interest, but needs support to thrive’ (bit.ly/2GMcrtg). Professor Leach discusses the importance of accurate scientific reporting, and reasons for the decline of specialised science journalists. She points out that, thankfully, ‘as the number of science correspondents has fallen, the science sector has rushed in to fill the online void with blogs and social media sites’.
In answer to the reader’s question, my opinion is that yes, we should be doing all we can to assist in the accurate portrayal of science in the mainstream media. How exactly to do this though, I honestly don’t know. Ultimately, this is of critical importance, as more accurate reporting allows the public to make more informed decisions when it comes to things such as voting for our government, who creates and enforces policy.