Saturday, June 9, 2012

Don't fear the science!

As an aside and a thought for the day...Don't let anyone baffle you because you lack scientific knowledge. So many things strive to be science-y because it's so easy to fool us with a few science-y words. (Check out any of the MLM stuff regarding anti-oxidants, alkaline water, or miracle cures and see what science-y-ness means!) Don't fear the science! Think of it as a shield against hucksters, as a weapon against those who would twist the words of science to sell you something you don't need.

When you see someone claiming that SLS causes cancer, ask them where they found this information. Ask them what studies were conducted and how large the sample group might have been. Ask questions. Stay curious! If you don't understand, don't fear looking like an idiot for not knowing! We all start out not knowing things, but those of us who ask questions eventually learn as much as those teaching us!

And don't be proud of your lack of knowledge. I can't believe how many people wear the "I'm confused by science! (giggle)" badge with great pride. There is no shame in not knowing - no one is born knowing physics, although that would be a pretty cool thing indeed - but there should be shame in being proud of your ignorance. If you don't want to learn, don't learn. But don't make it cool to be uneducated.

I wasn't born knowing chemistry. In fact, up until about 5 years ago, I was English girl! I graduated with a degree in English and Canadian studies and was supposed to be a teacher of both fields. (They weren't hiring during the recession, so I became a social worker instead. That makes sense, eh?) I started making bath and body products and wanted to learn more. I upgraded my chemistry and math so I could understand more of what I was learning. I admit I have huge holes in my knowledge of all things science, but I strive to learn more every day. It's not an easy task, learning chemistry, but it's really fun!

“I mean, you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist!” JK Rowling

Personal experiences are so important when making our products - we need to choose ingredients that offer us awesome skin feel, great cleansing, amazing moisturizing, and so on that suit our hair and skin type - but we need to make room for the science. When you say things like "I trust common sense more than science", you sound silly. (Which would you prefer the common sense remedies for TB from the pioneer days or modern medicine? And yes, I'm being extreme here.)

We need to know at least a little science to be good formulators. We need to know what is possible and what isn't. You can't violate the laws of physics and chemistry because you really want beeswax on its own to be an emulsifier. You shouldn't base your choices of ingredients on cutesy couplets or generalizations - for instance, anything with sodium in it is bad for you! And I ask that you learn why an ingredient is awesome rather than rely upon "this ingredient has been used for centuries by some group to treat their dry hair/foot fungus/desire for toasted bread" as your rationale for including an ingredient.

Stay curious. Ask questions. Be open. That's really all I can end with today...

And if you're interested, click here to see the podcasts for The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show from the BBC (absolutely hilarious radio show about science, concentrating mostly on physics, but really easy to understand regardless of your knowledge level!) or click here for Dr. Joe Schwarcz's podcast, The Right Chemistry. It's three minutes long, but full of great stuff!

And check out this fantastic comic about science! That's going right beside my desk!

BTW: That element up there is my symbol. I like chemistry so much, I married a man named Nichols! 


Anonymous said...

Spot on! Science isn't a belief system, no matter how much someone may not WANT to believe in a scientific theory it won't change the truth of it.*

You can believe Jimson Weed is a cure-all (as believed in Louisiana hoodoo practice), or you can accept the wide array of evidence that has been produced on this species of plant that says it is highly toxic, kills people easily at very low doses, currently has little to recommend it (and this applies to even the most insane of psychonauts too!) and that you should go see a real Medical Doctor instead.

Just like a child the first things I think/say when confronted with a proposed idea are “Why?” and “How?” - and sometimes the more adult question of “According to whom?”
I’m sure I annoy people a lot! However, if you want to further your knowledge base I heartily recommend it: Be annoying!
Though perhaps don’t go as far as annoying someone to the point where they are considering duct-taping your mouth shut just to make you stop asking questions

I’m more of a quantum physics and cosmology girl myself and I’m finding chemistry difficult, but Susan has worked hard to help people like me understand the basics and I’m really grateful for all the time and effort she put into this blog, it's a great resource….. Thanks again Susan!


* I’m not going to try to explain the scientific process here as IIRC Susan has covered it elsewhere, but I would like to point out that, in very simple terms, to scientists “theory” is equal to the lay-person’s term “fact,” and “hypothesis” is equal to the lay-person’s term “theory.”

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan, I was just wondering what your thoughts on the "brand new patent-pending Instant Cold Emulsifiers" were. I came across them on I was wondering how they would be used since they "deliver emulsion without the use of heat". Would they be added before the heating phase?

stelmaria said...

Dear Susan,

Your para 3 ending "don't make it cool to be uneducated."...cannot express how strongly I agree with this.

You're a fantastic role model, in so many ways. I'm very grateful for the time you invest in this blog. As are many others.

But specifically, thank you for putting into words (so elegantly)such an important point...and not just applicable for DIY cosmetics!

Nedeia said...

oh, I second that: "don't make it cool to be uneducated". Or that crap "if you can't read it, don't use it". Thank you for being here, Susan!!!

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

Agreed, knowledge is truly infinite and those of us who've bit off the tree of knowledge are humbled by its nature. I always laugh when I meet arrogant self righteous scientists who feel as though they've the answer to all of the world's questions...puleeze. Paradigm shifts and breaks are what make biting off the tree that much greater. I enjoyed the sentiment behind this post. My BS was in general physics but it seems as though the curiosities lately coincide with the lipid biochemistry. If you have any suggestions on good texts, shoot me a line or leave a note here, I surely will listen. One thing is that when we go out of our areas of training we have to use discernment to figure out which texts are appropriate and convey the proper knowledge etc. Thanks:)

VickiPS said...

While pondering on this post, I had to recall a web site I looked at earlier today, and how it harked back to your recent article about what "natural" meant. The site I looked at was for a range of cosmetics and toiletries trumpeted as "* NATURAL * SAFE * TOXIC FREE * SUSTAINABLE * ETHICAL * ENRICHING *CRUELTY FREE"

The manufacturer listed all ingredients in their products, which included "*NO Synthetic fragrances * NO Parabens * NO Ureas * No Petrochemicals * NO Amonia (MEA/DEA/TEA) * NO Dioxane * NO Sulfates * NO synthetic polymers * NO Antibacterial compounds". (The latter statement gave me pause). Anyway, the point of all this is that she mis-spelled one of her "natural" chemically-produced-from-vegetable-source ingredients as "magnesium mysterate".

Mysterate, indeed. It's hard to make a virtue out of ignorance, but some people try. (Her grammar isn't a strong point, either -- toxic free?)