Chemistry – “to dupe, to cheat?”


OK – these are actors – but they could be portraying a certain PhD qualified chemist presenting a submission to a local body

I was reading a few articles about Dmitri Mendeleev recently – seeing we were celebrating his 182nd birthday (see What a pleasant surprise!). One I came across (Dmitri Mendeleev: Chemistry, the hot-air balloon and vodka) set me back a bit. Initially, it offended my feeling about the noble science of chemistry (have I mentioned I am a chemist) with this little titbit:

“Mendeleev himself did not consider himself to be a chemist. And rightly so. Back in those years the word “chemist” was synonymous to conman and the expression “to do chemistry” (khimichit in Russian) meant to dupe, to cheat.”

OK, I can understand how that attitude came about in  the early days – scientists often had unsavoury links with the spiritual and industrial or economic spheres. But surely not today?

Unfortunately, it does happen today. We can all think of a few names of qualified chemists (and other scientists) who are effectively snake-oil sales persons. Or something worse – in my mind – people who use science and cherry-picking of the scientific literature to misinform the public for ideological reasons. Paul Connett, from the US anti-fluoridation activist group the Fluoride Action Network, is an obvious example.

When you think about it these sort of people – with academic degrees – are all over the place. From “creationist science,” to “intelligent design” to climate change denial, anti-vaccination and anti-GMO groups, and so on. Their presence  seems particularly strong in the alternative and “natural” health movement. And this is an area where the use of honorifics like Doctor, Professor, etc., is milked quite irrationally.

We are all consumers of scientific information so should be wary of such charlatans. We owe it to ourselves not to be swayed by such honorifics so that we don’t properly assess their claims. If we do not have the scientific skills to do our own critical analysis of the claims then we should take the advice of experts whose background rest on more than a degree. Their occupation, employment and publication history.

This is particularly true for public officials when they make decisions which can affect the health of citizens. And, yes, I must admit I have in mind the Whakatane District Council who tomorrow are to reconsider their decision a few weeks back to discontinue community water fluoridation.  On this – have a read of this open letter from one of the councillors criticising the way that decision was made (Open letter to Councillors).

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