Tag Archives: Mendeleev

Chemistry – “to dupe, to cheat?”

misinformation

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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What a pleasant surprise!

Mendeleev

I don’t normally notice the special images on Google’s search page but was pleasantly surprised this morning to see this one.

It’s great to see some people are celebrating  Dmitri Mendeleev’s 182nd birthday. He was born February 8, 1834 , in the village of Verkhnie Aremzyani, near Tobolsk in Siberia.

Mendeleev is considered the “father” of the Periodic Table. I remember as a school student being fascinated by the periodic table and the early versions of it as the researchers of the time attempted to make sense of chemistry. That fascination remained with me as my study of chemistry became more advanced Today, the table is firmly based in quantum physics and can be derived directly from quantum considerations. Yet, in  those early days, no-one had that theoretical insight and derived the table from the chemical and physical properties of the then-known elements. The fact this enabled them to predict the existence of other elements, and the fact this lead to successful searches for them, has always inspired me.

So, Dmitri Mendeleev is one of the giants whose shoulders today’s scientists stand on. Only natural then that this commemorative ruble marking the 150th anniversary of his birth is a prized souvenir I picked in up Moscow 30 years ago.

Mendeleev-ruble

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Collectors’ items?

little-darwinI watched a lecture the other night where the speaker had a Charles Darwin doll sitting on his lectern. I guess this is another thing we will see during the Darwin Year – Darwin merchandise.

It seemed quite cute and I wonder if they are available in New Zealand? This one is part of the “Little Thinkers” Set of dolls.

einstein-dollI quick search shows they aren’t the only such dolls available – there is also an Einstein doll! This raises the prospects of a new collection – dolls of great scientists.

What about others? As a chemist I would like a Mendeleev doll – I am sure he had the face for it.

mendelev

Dmitri Mendeleev

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Scientific dissent from . . . science?

Opponents of scientific evolutionary theory will often refer to the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism list to justify that the theory is controversial and should be discarded, or at least equal time be given to creationist “theories” in school biology classes. There is no doubt that the list is being used to attack scientific theory but its worth looking at the statement professionals on the list have signed up to. It reads:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

Few of the signatories have signed the statement for scientific reasons – rather their motives have been religious (see Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?). However, scientists by their nature are skeptics and should always critically examine evidence. In principle few scientists would disagree with the statement. So why has the Scientific Dissent from Darwin list attracted so little scientific support (see Dissenters from Darwinism in context)?

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