Dodgy diagrams in ads matter, if we want people to understand the value of chemistry

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Kat Dayhttps://chronicleflask.com/
Dr Kat Day is a freelance science writer and editor with a focus on chemistry. She was a teacher for many years, but she’s getting over that now. These days her speciality is explaining tricky chemistry concepts in as few words as possible. She also writes fiction and is an associate editor for the podcast PseudoPod.

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A little while ago an advert for a Volkswagen service plan turned up on Twitter with the tagline: “We have a formula for good customer service.” It pictured a red-headed lad standing in front of a blackboard covered in vaguely chemistry-related diagrams.

The VW advert which is described in the text

The trouble was, there were carbons with too many bonds, carbons with too few bonds, bonds to hydrogens that probably should have been carbons. There was a rather sad oxygen that didn’t appear to know quite why it was there, and a number of nitrogens sprinkled around, possibly because the graphic designer was bored with the letters C and H.

Speaking of graphic designers, it spurred a debate – namely, how much do these inaccuracies really matter? Should chemists be smugly pointing out errors in such diagrams when many of us can barely reposition an image in a word processing document without bursting into tears?

I should declare my biases: I am not only a scientist, but also a chemist. Worse, I’ve spent many years as a chemistry teacher and tutor. These days I also act as an editor and consultant for chemistry and science texts. It is my job to look at things and say, “all those should be subscripts,” and, “the particles in a liquid are touching,” and “I’m sorry, I know it looks nice on the black background, but you just can’t have pink carbon atoms.” People quite literally pay me good money to be a chemistry pedant.

I honestly can’t turn it off. The other day I came across a website that was advertising a cream in which the active ingredient was “a molecule called HOCI”. Now, as I write this article I’m not sure how it’s going to appear, and this might not be obvious in a sans-serif typeface, but it was meant to be HOCl. That is, their final character was a capital “i” – suggesting iodine – instead of a lower-case “L” which, with the C, gives us chlorine. You might say, who cares? It looks the same. Everyone knows what they mean. But it bothered me. They’re marketing a product as “natural” and “biodegradable” and comparing it to other wound-treatment ointments which, they claim, “cause allergic reactions in up to 10% of people,” and they’re not even giving the correct formula. It doesn’t fill me with confidence. 

And confidence in chemistry matters. The trouble is that lots of substances have similar names. There are umpteen different oxides of nitrogen, for example. Consider the active ingredient in inhaled gas and air, nitrous oxide, the respiratory irritant, nitrogen dioxide, and the biological signalling molecule, nitric oxide. They all sound very similar, but you really, really wouldn’t want to mix them up. Using their formulas, N2O, NO2 and NO respectively, helps – but so does being extremely picky about terminology. Getting it wrong could literally be disastrous. Chemists are pedantic because we have to be. It could mean the difference between life and death.

We’re trained to Get It Right. If I had a pound for every time I’d explained to a student that Co is cobalt and CO is carbon monoxide I’d have… well, it might have helped towards the cost of my annual boiler service, at least. Students who can’t see the point of these sorts of details are probably not destined for careers in chemistry. Specific symbols matter. Spelling matters. The line goes to here, not there.

So, no, it’s probably not reasonable to expect chemists not to jump on dodgy diagrams, any more than to expect a professional musician not to be bothered by a persistently wrong note, a director not to be annoyed by a fluffed line, or a chef not to care about too much salt.

But does it matter for everyone else? Can’t everyone who isn’t a chemist just enjoy the pretty symbols and not fuss over what they do, or rather don’t, mean?

A bottle of Miracle Mineral Solution taken by wikimedia user: LittleT889 [CC BY-SA 4.0]. The bottle is white and has a green label.

Not surprisingly, I’m going to argue that it does matter. More than you might think. There are a lot of people out there selling dubious products, some of which are flat-out dangerous, and they sometime use bad chemistry to get away with far more than they should. For example, there’s the so-called ‘miracle mineral solution’ which is hawked as a cure for literally everything, including, recently COVID-19. It doesn’t cure anything. It’s actually a 22.4% solution of sodium chlorite in water.

In reports, it’s often described as a ‘bleach’ or as ‘industrial bleach’. To which its proponents reply, ‘aha, but it’s not.’ And the thing is, they’re right. It isn’t. But when sodium chlorite is mixed with an acid – anything from citric to hydrochloric – it forms chlorine dioxide. And that is a bleach. That’s the stuff made famous by chlorinated chicken. It is safe to use in very, very dilute solutions to wash certain foods. It is absolutely not safe to drink the sorts of fairly concentrated solutions that are made by sloshing some orange juice with some sodium chlorite in someone’s kitchen.

Inaccuracies and lack of attention to detail can give the quacks just enough leverage to make people doubt. Just enough to make them say, oh, the scientists are wrong about this. This warning isn’t even about the same thing. The doctors don’t understand what this treatment is, really. They’re all hiding something. They’re just trying to scare us.

It’s a dangerous and, I’d argue, extremely slippery, slope. It starts with dodgy graphics and careless formulas on websites, but it can so easily drift into ‘alkaline water’ and ‘alkaline diets’ (both nonsense), homeopathy, apricot kernels… and suddenly people are treating skin lesions with bloodroot and zinc chloride and making children drink chlorine dioxide solutions (I’m not even going to mention the enemas).

So, yes, there is good reason for chemists to be picky. Let us pick. And if you’re an ad agency who wants to use chemical formulas in your ad, maybe consider paying a chemist to just do a quick sense-check. As an aside, my rates are very reasonable.

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