The Use and Abuse of Scientific Language
Jonathon Griffiths- Guest Writer
Scientific language is the poor misunderstood soul listening to pop punk in its room and writing in a diary all the while mummy Scientific Method argues with dad Mathematics downstairs. That was an odd way of saying scientific language is often misused in everyday life and within the media, not always intentionally and not always to detrimental effect. I thought it’d be fun for us to point and laugh at a couple of examples of the misuse of scientific language and learn the valuable lesson of asking ‘does this person have any idea what they are on about?’
Dan Aykroyd (one of the ghostbuster blokes) has a product called Crystal Skull Vodka which has already been criticised by YouTube personality “JonTron”, while many criticisms are brought up I wanted to focus specifically on Dan and his use of scientific language. I like to call this use of it ‘spooky chemistry’: the purposeful use of chemical names and their applications to be scary. I’ll be talking about some points from the start of this interview here.
A very speedy GCSE level chemistry refresher: An alcohol is basically a carbon chain with an oxygen-hydrogen pair bonded to it somewhere. At the start of this interview (1:30-2:30) Dan starts to talk about things you can find in everyone’s favourite bottles of grain based social lubricant. Now it is true you can find glycerine in vodka as a sweetener but the way Dan uses the words is misleading. He mentions glyceride (which is actually a fat made from glycerol and a fat molecule) and glycerol, stating word for word “glycol is antifreeze”. He clarifies they don’t put enough in to do any harm but the statement “glycol is antifreeze” is actually a double whammy of bollocks.
Firstly, glycol is actually a chemical naming convention for chemicals that are diols which means they contain two alcohol groups and normally refers to either ethylene glycol or propylene glycol. Secondly, while ethylene glycol is a big component in anti-freeze, its close buddy and best friend propylene glycol is not and is actually food safe as well as being used as a liquid sweetener. In fact propylene glycol is so food safe that it is LESS toxic than alcohol. What Dan is doing here is trying to sell his vodka as better because it doesn’t contain a bunch of ‘spooky chemicals’ but believe me most chemicals have scary names. Take 1,3,7-trimethylpurine-2,6-dione for example, that’s caffeine.
Subject specific words like glycol or diol are useful when talking about a group of chemicals but using the chemical names or names of groups only to invoke their hazardous components is misleading and adds to this growing fear of things with “chemically” sounding names.
Now talking about ghostbuster vodka is fun and fluffy and ultimately the guy is just trying to sell you a bottle of booze. Next I want to look at when the misuse of scientific language can be detrimentally misleading.
The worst offenders come from the two words “hypothesis” and “theory”. Have you ever heard someone say in casual conversation Oh I have a theory about this? For example “I have a theory about why Dan didn’t make it to work today! It is because he is hungover from drinking 3 bottles of Crystal Skull Vodka”. This is not a theory, it is a hypothesis.
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for something you have observed which can be tested. In this case by going to Dan’s house and seeing if he is passed out over the bog. A “theory” allows you to make predictions about something and is the result of testing many hypotheses, perhaps a better word is model. Going back to Dan if you kept making and testing hypotheses about his life you would eventually end up with a working theory of it but this analogy is already starting to be spread thinner than a tub of butter spread out over the moon so let’s look at gravity instead.
The theory of gravity allows you to make predictions about how objects with mass will attract each other and how planets will orbit a star. This theory was built up over the testing of many hypotheses and with substantial mathematical framework, and in order to dismiss this theory you MUST provide a new theory that makes better predictions. This has actually been done with general relativity. Despite the fact we have general relativity now, Newton's theory of gravity is still taught and used because it is a useful model as general relativity is quite complicated by comparison. So, if someone ever has the nerve to say, “climate change is just a theory” then challenge them to provide evidence, predictions and solutions to the Earth slowly turning into a giant hot tub and maybe slap them too.
My point behind all this is that misuse of scientific language spreads misinformation and can lead to people drawing the wrong conclusions from statements and information because the words surrounding them are so distorted. After the language surrounding an important topic starts to lose meaning it becomes easier to use this language to feign knowledge and authority on a subject. This fake authority is then used for anything from convincing you to buy booze to refuting hard scientific evidence that the world is dying. Keep a bit of healthy scepticism when someone uses language like this and maybe challenge them on it if you happen to know about the topic!