I wasn’t going to write a blog post until after our Christmas Special on the 18th of December (hint hint!) but I was trawling through the BBC website and got quite irritated by something that I’ve seen all media outlets do before, but something that I think the BBC especially should try to avoid.
What’s that? You ask. Well, it’s the mistreatment of science reporting. It’s bad enough that Shukman is their chief science reporter and constantly fails to either understand the science he’s reporting on, or report on it without resorting to tabloid tactics of scaremongering or hyperbole. Last Wednesday (28/11/13) they had an article “Viewpoint: Why do people hate the word ‘chemicals’. I had a read through, being a chemist myself and I was quietly impressed with the conclusion; that reporting on chemicals and the use of phrases like ‘pure’ or ‘all natural’ in marketing always labels ‘chemicals’ as a pejorative. That they’re all bad, and if something is good for you, then it’s not ‘chemical’.
Now this is plainly nonsense; everything in existence is a chemical in one form of another; water is a chemical (a particularlry dangerous one at that), air is a chemical mixture, hell, even you are a big bag of chemicals most of which would come with legally enforced health warnings if put in a jar. The attitude of the writer of the article, Dr Mark Lorch, was spot on and I approved of the piece entirely.
Fast forwards to the day after and the government announces plans to see if plain packaging on cigarettes would help cut down on smoking. The BBC runs an article detailing the history of smoking bans and the efforts to curtail tobacco smoking. Right down near the bottom is this gem of an infobox:
Now, don’t get be wrong, there are lots of chemicals in cigarettes, and I might be being pedantic about this whole thing but by describing this list of substances as ‘harmful chemicals’ they’re only perpetuating this mindset that chemicals are nasty.
The chemicals they list can be harmful, I’m not debating that either, but what they fail to point out is that, aside from the very vague ‘tar’ and cyanide, most of the chemicals on the list are only harmful at a certain level. Indeed, your body produces tiny levels of acetone all the time; it’s one of the reasons you feel like shit when you’ve a hangover. Ammonia is found in toilet cleaners, yes, but also in urine. Aside from some seriously nasty substances like hydrogen fluoride and arsenic, it’s all about the dosage. Small amounts won’t have much of an effect, large amounts will kill you. This lack of a distinction from 99% of media outlets, the BBC included, does nothing to halt the falsehood that ‘chemicals’ are all bad.