Sunday, June 23, 2013

Buzzfeed fails to correct bad science piece

The popular Internet trend/Pop culture website Buzzfeed screwed up an opportunity to correct a bad article last week, opting instead to double down on its flawed premise.

Buzzfeed, which isn't above mocking bad science when it's creationism or climate change denial, posted a textbook example of chemophobia with the piece 8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In Other Countries. Writer Ashley Perez lifted the meat of the article from the book Rich Food, Poor Food and did some brief Googling to find what appeared to be other sources that support its conclusions.

The entire premise is that some chemicals in foods we eat are dangerous, and since other countries have banned them we should too.

Of course, that assumes the other countries were wise to ban them. As you may guess, they were not.

Organic chemist Derek Lowe tore the entire things to shreds with a widely-read blog post. Here's a sample with Perez's original wording reproduced as the first paragraph:

"Bromine is a chemical used to stop CARPETS FROM CATCHING ON FIRE, so you can see why drinking it may not be the best idea. BVO is linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss."

Again with the caps. Now, if the author had known any chemistry, this would have looked a lot more impressive. Bromine isn't just used to keep carpets from catching on fire - bromine is a hideously toxic substance that will scar you with permanent chemical burns and whose vapors will destroy your lungs. Drinking bromine is not just a bad idea; drinking bromine is guaranteed agonizing death. There, see what a little knowledge will do for you? 
But you know something? You can say the same thing for chlorine. After all, it's right next to bromine in the same column of the periodic table. And its use in World War I as a battlefield gas should be testimony enough. (They tried bromine, too, never fear). But chlorine is also the major part, by weight, of table salt. So which is it? Toxic death gas or universal table seasoning? 
Knowledge again. It's both. Elemental chlorine (and elemental bromine) are very different things than their ions (chloride and bromide), and both of those are very different things again when either one is bonded to a carbon atom. That's chemistry for you in a nutshell, knowing these differences and understanding why they happen and how to use them. 
Now that we've detoured around that mess, on to brominated vegetable oil. It's found in citrus-flavored sodas and sports drinks, at about 8 parts per million. The BuzzFeed article claims that it's linked to "major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss", and sends readers to this WebMD article. But if you go there, you'll find that the only medical problems known from BVO come from two cases of people who had been consuming, over a long period, 4 to 8 liters of BVO-containing soda per day, and did indeed have reactions to all the excess bromine-containing compounds in their system. At 8 ppm, it's not easy to get to that point, but a determined lunatic will overcome such obstacles. Overall, drinking several liters of Mountain Dew per day is probably a bad idea, and not just because of the BVO content. 

Lowe called Perez out on her chemophobia, her ignorant preference for "natural" forms of chemicals, her glossing over of dosages and her failed attempt to masquerade as someone who knows what they're talking about. Lowe's response got passed around a lot and eventually Perez added something to the bottom. Unfortunately, this was it:

CORRECTION: Some studies linked in the original version of this article were concerning unrelated issues. They have been replaced with information directly from the book Rich Food, Poor Food (6/22/12)

Notice there was no mention of Lowe's piece. OK, I understand her reluctance to link to something that was critical of her competence. However, even though it was spelled out to her that her entire premise was wrong, that she simply yanked bad information from know-nothings, her "correction" was to double down and just change her links directly to the know-nothings.

What an absolute disgrace. Ashley Perez and Buzzfeed need to set their egos aside and admit they were wrong.

I'm going to let Lowe get the last word in with the final paragraph from his post:

Finally, I want to return to something I was saying way back at the beginning of this piece. The author of the BuzzFeed article knows painfully little about chemistry and biology. But that apparently wasn't a barrier: righteous conviction (and the worldview mentioned in the above three paragraphs) are enough, right? Wrong. Ten minutes of unbiased reading would have served to poke holes all through most of the article's main points. I've spent more than ten minutes (as you can probably tell), and there's hardly one stone left standing on another. As a scientist, I find sloppiness at this level not only stupid, not only time-wasting, but downright offensive. Couldn't anyone be bothered to look anything up? There are facts in this world, you know. Learn a few

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