Are You A Mangina?

So you’ve been called a “mangina”? Okay, you may not have come across this term before, but never fear, this objective assessment will help you all out and let you know if their accusation had merit. Because, seriously, do not Google Images that term.

Please answer the following questions truthfully and honestly:

Are women principally sacks of meat?

a) Yes, absolutely bro.

b) Well, technically

c) No, of course not, they’re actual people. They have agency and feelings.

Boobs breads 01.jpg

Is your main goal in life to stick your penis in warm, moist things?

a) Yeah. Bitches are getting the D. *SELF-FIVE*

b) Like on American Pie?

c) No. That would be pretty sad. What about doing something meaningful for others?

Is the character Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother a positive role model?

a) Totally! The dude is swimming in the poon, dawg!

b) “Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave you met Ted?”

c) Gods no… that’s the point! Do people actually think that?!?! Did they even watch the show?!?

Size 10. Discuss.

a) Ewww, gross dude! Never get up on a fattie.

b) What, in shoes?

c) Size 10 in the US is equivalent to size 14 in the United Kingdom and size 42 in the European Union. Clothing sizes developed in the late 1800s as commercialisation of clothing towards the masses began to take off, necessitating standardised sizing for those too poor to simply afford everything to be custom made. The supposedly standard sizes have, in fact, varied over time although their present measurements were set in 1958 under the standards regulation…

Do you like to use handcuffs in bed?

a) Yeah, stops the dumb bitches running away. Lol. No means yes! Yes means harder!

b) Why would you… never mind.

c) I’m open to it. But both partners’ consent to it is the most important thing.

Handcuffs by Armondikov

Anal?

a) No means yes! Yes means anal! Dude yeah!! Nice ‘n’ tight!

b) No matter how clean the house is, they’re still not satisfied.

c) Again, consent and safety. I mean, sure, some people actually like it. But it’s important to do it slowly at first, preferably with lubricant and constant communication between people.

You see a woman in a short dress walk down the street. What do you do?

a) Tap that bitch’s ass, dude! That’s what!

b) There are so many song lyrics stuck in my head right now.

c) Nothing. Why would I?

A close friend confesses that she’s been raped, what do you do?

a) Fuckin’ slut.

b) …no joke answers on this one.

c) Oh, oh gods, that’s hard. Support her. Definitely make sure she’s okay. Help her report it to the police, go with her if she wants. Keep her confidence, sure, so no going around just telling anyone. And ask if she wants anyone else to help get her through it.

How much sex do you actually get?

a) All the fucking time, dude. Ten times a night!! Yeah. Bitches be all over the D here!

b) Well, there’s Rosie Palm and her five daughters…

c) I think that’s between me and my steady partner, thanks.

No, really, how much sex do you actually get?

a) Okay, dude, quiet… look, there’s this little pill, right? And you just slip it in their diet coke like so…

b) I have much gold.

c) A few times a week and occasionally full-on sessions on a weekend, happy now? And the occasional orgy at the club. And the threesomes with her girlfirends. And this one cool time in a hot-tub where…

Adding up

Okay, so thanks for finishing the quiz. Now check over you answers.

  • If you answered mostly “a”, congratulations, you are definitely not a mangina. You may continue about your business. Just, not in front of anyone else, please.
  • If you answered mostly “b”, then perhaps we need to have a little chat about the birds and the bees before sending you off to college, okay?
  • If you at any point answered “c” to any of the questions, then I am sorry to inform you that you are a mangina. You are a beta mangina, thus say all us Alphas with our Game.

I hope this clears things up.

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Things You Should Probably Stop Saying – “YOU CAN’T BE SEXIST TOWARDS MEN!”

How sexist towards men! How dare they imply all men are horrid and can’t cook! That’s awful. And while we’re at it, those stereotypes of fat useless beer-drinking dads you get in sitcoms, what a joke! And not a good joke! It just reinforces sexist stereotypes against me.

If you’ve been on, well, the internet at any point you’ve probably see the above in some form or another. Perhaps its even a thought that’s crossed your own mind. Perhaps you’re the one that wrote it on a forum somewhere. In which case, you’ll also be familiar with the following retort:

You can’t be sexist towards men.

And you may have seen similar things, like “you can’t be racist towards white people” or “there’s no such thing as heterophobia” – although to be honest, even by the terms I’m about to outline below, that’s definitely true, there really is no such thing as heterophobia, get over the whole “straight pride” thing already… anyway. Perhaps its even a thought that’s crossed your own mind. Perhaps you’re the one that wrote it on a forum somewhere. In which case, you’ll be familiar with… well, the inevitable fight that ensues.

The fight ensues because this is how one particular “side” reads this phrase:

These acts that demean a single group of people don’t actually exist. Or, at least, I don’t care that they exist. They don’t affect me personally, so fuck you. I don’t care about you. You do nothing but whine. Your complaints aren’t valid so shut up. I want to talk about my oppression, your views can suck it smelly white boy!

While someone else reads it as:

Okay, but those don’t represent a form of oppression or control at a social or cultural level. They don’t pose a systematic problem that prevents, say, men getting certain high-paid jobs, and while the stereotypes are a problem they don’t pose an ongoing threat. Besides, if you are already born with certain hidden advantages the marginal impact of a negative stereotype is much less.

See where I’m going here, yet? It’s yet another lost-in-translation argumentum ad dictionarium thing. I.e., whether something “is” or “is not” sexist depends not on its properties itself, but whether your definition of “sexist” allows it. With one definition, we focus only on individual acts, hurtful comments, prejudices and stereotypes, and with another definition we focus only on systematic biases, cultural expectations or established power dynamics.

With the former, an -ism can swing both ways. With the latter, well, to put it frankly if you think men are discriminated against systematically on average, or that white people suffer a cultural and social bias that keeps them down, you simply haven’t visited the western world recently (because we’re all about the First World Problems here, let’s keep it Anglo-centric for now).

The real sad part is that anyone who really knows what they’re talking about and has a modicum of sense has room for both definitions. It’s called “levels of analysis“. At one particular level we can look at sexism as individual acts – the fat drunken slob of a sitcom father, to someone shouting “cracker!” (a word that has zero cultural salience to me, though) to a manager slapping his secretary on the ass. We can then go up a level and see how those individual acts create a larger system. For instance, how at least 90% of people reading this would have automatically assumed that the manager was male the secretary was female in that set of examples. Those are things like gender roles, where the wife does A, B and C, and the husband does X, Y, and Z and never the twain shall meet. Or they focus on how names, accents, and skin colour affect someone’s job prospects and the level of respect they’re afforded by others even if base insults aren’t being thrown about. It is about where women are expected to take the lower paid cleaning jobs and still stay at home to look after the children. The higher level looks at cultural expectations, which are difficult to spot because people are so used to them, and even more difficult to break apart. That’s why people say “privilege” is a myth even though we can experimentally verify it, actually.

These are the cases not where a sleazy idiot slaps his secretary’s arse and says “nice tits, pet”, but where someone throws out a man’s CV when sifting through job applications because “why would a man want to be a secretary?” – although I like that example (which is based on a true story, by the way) because it hits both levels. It is individually damaging to the one man who had his job application thrown out in an individual act of sexism, and it is systematically sexist towards women by reinforcing the idea that this job is their role and no one else’s.

But why should you – if you are one of those social justice warr… erm… enthusiasts – not say something like “you can’t be sexist towards men”? Particularly if you mean it in the technically true way as outlined above?

You shouldn’t use it precisely because of one word in that sentence: “technically”. If something is “technically” true, it relies on your definition being right. It relies on everyone agreeing on that definition. And as thrown around like that, it’s just jargon. You might understand it, I might understand it, but does everyone? No. You are actively courting confusing, and intentionally obfuscating a point by sticking to this rigid concept that you own the term “sexism” or “racism”, and that it can only ever mean “prejudice + power”. Not everyone has your college-educated feminist enlightenment behind them.

This is not helpful.

And secondly, let’s be brutally honest here: practice what you gods-damned preach. If your mantra is to avoid stereotypes, avoid generalisation (which all people do) and be treat people as individuals with feelings and histories and personalities and real experiences, actually do that. Don’t throw all men under the bus and all white people there too simply because it suits your narrative at the time. Don’t dismiss someone’s personal concerns and genuine feelings because they don’t agree with you – engage with them instead. Going straight to the dismal soundbites will get you nowhere. The aim should be to convince people, and that often requires explanation. It requires frequent explanation, yes, and sometimes it will fall on deaf ears – but you are treating the very people you need to get on to your side with utter contempt by refusing to engage and explain your actual position. Those ears remain deaf precisely because so many people skip straight ahead to the lazy soundbites.

Instead say…

It’s a good point that unfair stereotypes of men and white people exist. But you have to understand that these are harmful in a qualitatively different way and not oppressive at a cultural or social level. As a rule in the western world men aren’t restricted from job applications or taunted by society or treated lowly because people assume they’re expected to conform to a stereotype, especially not a stereotype imposed on them by women and minorities. Our conversation right now isn’t focused on that, but let’s set aside some time to air it out anyway because it is interesting and as society evolves we need to focus on stereotypes as a wider concept, rather than just based on who is targeted.

Or anything, really. Have a stock explanation. Find a decent cutesy webcomic that explains it if such a thing exists. Or pick the other quote from further up. Just stop with the damn soundbites already and retire the idea that it is impossible to be sexist towards men and embrace a wide range of use-cases for that one lone word – because if your aim is only to shore up people who already agree with you, you will never be the change you need to be.

Worst. Article. Ever – A Litany of Pop-Science Sins

The current story-du-jour (sort of) in dodgy science is the re-emergence of a derivative of the EmDrive and how it has apparently been “validated by NASA”. I’m not going to delve into the physics of it or the potential problems, those things are best left to elsewhere because it’s boringly controversial (though almost certainly bollocks).

Yet Facebook recently exposed me to this article and I just have to shove my thoughts here. Sorry to name-and-shame YourNewsWire.com for this, but this is the last in a long chain (see below) and so you get top billing in this. What the fuck are you doing?

Ignoring the science for a moment, let’s go into what is wrong about the reporting. From the top.

Headline

“NASA Has Created Engine That Defies Physics, No Fuel Needed” – switch a few words around to make it “Has NASA created…?” and Betteridge’s Law would practically explode! But let’s go through it.

“NASA…” Nope. As Corey Powell’s Discover Magazine article points out, this is a few fringe guys paid by NASA spending a few days dicking about with stuff on the off-chance it works (after all, the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background taught us not to dismiss oddities out of hand). Still, this is “NASA Has…” in the same way that the “United Kingdom has” written this very blog.

“…Has Created Engine…” again, no, this is NASA (well, the men-in-a-shed paid by NASA) testing a variant of a drive that has been around for years, with dubious physics underpinning it and some odd testing conditions around it.

“That Defies Physics”, again, no, you can’t defy physics. At least, not in the sense the article is implying. If something works, it clearly works. It isn’t defying anything. Things might readjust our present understanding, but they defy nothing. Okay, I’m being picky there.

“No Fuel Needed”, right, so this might come across as unforgivable pedantry over definitions too, but suggesting a lack of fuel needed gives the impression of the drive being associated with free energy. “Fuel” is really just any high energy substance that can covert to a low energy substance, and free up that energy for work. In that respect, even solar energy requires “fuel” – it’s just being burned 8 light minutes away. The EmDrive and its derivatives claim to use no propellant, which is kinda synonymous with “fuel”, but this does conflate the concept of a reactionless drive with free energy and perpetual motion.

Choice of Image

The USS Enterprise? Really? You’re discussing  a reactionless drive that claims to produce minute quantities of thrust that, at best, might be useful to orientate a satellite rather than using a gyroscope…

Besides, everyone knows you should be using the definitive version.

So, pop-science is supposed to “capture the imagination” – whatever that means – so associating the right illustrations is essential. But associating this sort of thing with a science-fiction starship famous for its faster-than-light travel is simply lying. It’s there for the clickbait only. It’s the same as the old trick whereby news articles would randomly associate news stories with celebrities in order to boost search rankings. If it was the ’90s, it would be saying “this drive could take us to Mars, the Mars as seen in Britney Spear’s latest music video Oops I Did It Again“. See how insane that is?

Gold Medal Churnalism

Of course, I said this one I named-and-shamed is the last in a long chain of regurgitated articles.

  • It’s actually a complete copy-paste of something from TheRunDownLive (March 12th)…
  • …which itself was an “originally posted on Higher Perspective (Undated)”, and the less said about that site the better…
  • …which itself is a rehash of the WiredUK piece that dates from July 2014. And we can do the same thing again with its headline of “Nasa validates ‘impossible’ space drive”.

Now with churned and re-churned articles making their way around the internet, is it any wonder so few people trust science and the scientific method? When the primary goal of a web-based news source is to trigger as many clicks as possible, you simply cannot trust the content to accurately report on science, which is supposed to transcend hype and avoid outright lies. As we’ve seen before, science has enough trouble dealing with university press offices without authors on the distribution end fucking it up, too.

Content (Or Lack Thereof)

So, the rest of this now focuses on the piece as written by Higher Perspective

Of course, I completely trust science reporting from a site with "wellness" and "spirituality" sections.

Of course, I completely trust science reporting from a site with “wellness” and “spirituality” sections.

The trouble is that at this stage we’re not reporting science as re-written by an over-enthusiastic copywriter in a press department, but a site that is absolutely riddled with woo and bullshit all over. And this is where we get to the real bad pop-science writing.

It’s Oh So Quiet… Shhhhhhh…

At this point in the chain, the headline has become “NASA Quietly Tests Engine That Uses No Fuel And Violates The Laws Of Physics” – repeating a few errors discussed above and adding the new thing of “quietly”. This is pretty common in conspiracy theory bullshit. If you don’t make a song and dance of the result, then sure, you’ve done it quietly, but why? Why did you do it quietly? Obviously it’s a conspiracy to cover things up and keep this result from the world because Big Oil needs its profits and of course your free energy device has been buried by the faceless New World Order! It couldn’t possibly be that the result doesn’t actually deserve the song and dance because it is, in fact, a few people dicking about and doing something that probably will amount to nothing. And it definitely isn’t “quiet” because it’s 6 months out of relevance…

Dismal Representation of Criticism

Let’s look at the description:

It works by bouncing microwaves in an enclosed chamber, thus creating thrust. Shawyer was never able to get anyone interested in his device, despite numerous demonstrations. His critics simply rejected the device entirely, pointing out that it violates the conservation of motion.

Yeah, that’s what the critics did. They just dismissed it because of a lone reason. They didn’t, of course, point out numerous flaws in the experiment, the theory, the explanation and the general haphazard claims made by the people who tested it – including the odd case of the version designed not to work actually working, for some reason – as Jon Baez totally didn’t do. On more than one occasion.

The only way you could know anything about the EmDrive or Cannae Drive and not know about the myriad and highly specific problems with and criticisms of the theory and experiment is if you deliberately ignored it. It takes literally seconds on Google to find these points and read them and grasp that there’s a lot of problems with it and that dismissing it is more than just mere healthy skepticism.

Quoting “NASA”

NASA explains:

NASA explains? Did NASA as an abstract entity explain? Or did all 18,000+ employees explain at once? Stop trying to play on the use of the big name when it’s just one person you’re quoting. You can still get the same effect with “Dr Bulsh Hite, lead researcher on the project with NASA” without the aggrandizement and outright misdirection.

It continues:

“Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

That’s all just a fancy way of saying that we’re not completely sure. Wired speculated that the process involves pushing against a cloud of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping in and out of empty space. And that’s about the point where this humble writer is lost.

Again, about two seconds on Google proves that this is a “fancy way” of saying “we’re just making shit up”.

And while I don’t want to blow a disproportionate amount of time on two words, this “fancy way” irks the shit out of me. It’s this kind of ignorant folksiness that really doesn’t belong in pop-science.

If you’re reading a pop-science article, you want to know that the person writing it is qualified to know about the subject. Because that’s the point of having writers. If everyone, if every person reading the article, had enough experience to grok the primary literature, they’d do that. Journalists and writers are there to take the complicated primary material and translate it. A writer, particular in popular science and science reporting, has an obligation and duty to translate what they’re given accurately. If someone is writing but has no clue what they are writing about, what use are they? How do they know they’re doing good?

How can they be sure they’re not piling yet more misunderstanding upon misunderstanding – as Higher Perspective, I Fucking Love Science, Wired and countless others do?

All of Black Mirror Happens in the Same Universe – Over-baked Fan Theory of the Month


It should go without saying but, dudes, spoilers below – also, for anyone stumbling upon this, this doesn’t include the new Netflix season, and is nothing more than a totally-not-remotely-serious bit of conjecture to fit Fifteen Million Merits  into the chronology in a more interesting way than most other attempts.


Putting all Black Mirror episodes into the same universe is fairly easy.

Of course, it’s not explicit like in the more recent films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe where they’re building a continuity and a whole story, it’s still just flashes and odd references. But keen-eyed viewers can see news reports and the occasional background flourish that nods towards the other episodes. The trial/appeal of Victoria Skillane appearing briefly in the background of a news report, or the I_AM_WALDO username, for example. The Waldo Moment comes before The National Anthem because you can see brief news tickers referring to Carlton Bloom’s art exhibit closing early – and presumably Waldo (now controlled by Jack Napier) has something to say about Michael Callow’s encounter with a farm animal a few weeks later. The technology to resurrect someone seen in Be Right Back looks like a precursor to the technology shown in White Christmas – the early AI-copies fed on your outward expressions put onto the internet. After the development of a neurological interface that was first used to wipe minds clear of a few days of memories, they learned to take it from your brain directly, synthesising a sentient agent from the preferences stored in your brain rather than on Facebook.

Yes, yes, yes, it’s not really all set in the same world.[1] And this is fan-cruft over-interpretation. Nothing serious. It’s just a bit of fun to join the dots. The world of Grains and Cookies are years away from the 15-seconds-into-the-future of The National Anthem and The Waldo Moment, the references are there just for anyone with a sharp eye. Nothing more.

That said….

The trouble is fitting Fifteen Million Merits into the continuity. It’s something of an outlier being the most blatantly futuristic sci-fi of the lot.[2] Where does it fit in? It clearly can’t be contemporary to any of the other stories given its outlier status but it must somehow if this over-baked fan theory is to work.

If you watch the first two series, you might think that it’s what society looks like when it rebuilds after the post-script sequence of The Waldo Moment – hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future after the cartoon bear with the blue cock sinks half the world into an Orwellian nightmare. BUT… consider:

  1. The society in Fifteen Million Merits has no qualms with keeping their drones in perpetual boredom.
  2. They literally do nothing productive. There are no builders or doctors or decorators – and, curiously for the setting, precious little in the way of highly trained maintenance engineers (or ways for the biker drones to become one).
  3. There seems to be no mechanism whereby they reproduce – there are no babies, kids or pregnant women to be seen. Anywhere.
  4. Nor any mechanism for them to grow old and die, for that matter. They get fat and abused, and that’s it.
  5. The bikes couldn’t possibly generate a net-gain in energy so the power thing has to be bollocks – a legend invented to disguise what is really just social control (cf. The Matrix).
  6. And White Christmas does have a flash of the show Hot Shot on it, suggesting it must be contemporary with it somehow…

So isn’t it obvious?

They’re actually Cookies.

The drones are AI copies of real people held in long-term storage. They’ve either had their long-term memories wiped by a digital version of the technology shown in White Bear, since we can assume the neural interface shown for wiping minds must be somehow related to the interface that draws information for the Cookie. Or they’ve been there so long they’ve simply forgotten their past lives. Years? Centuries? We know they can at least crank a thousand years per minute in our time. Once suitably “blanked” they’re transferred in.

Of course, they have to be doing *something* to pass the time, as Trent points out in White Christmas they get driven insane if you just leave them, so they get on a bike and buy stuff for a digital version (of the digital version) of themselves. So in reality, they’re all sat on a hard-drive somewhere, churning through their lives on bikes until they make it onto various TV shows, where producers back in the real world have experimented with using them for light entertainment. Hence the brief reference to Hot Shot and the cross-pollination of the song.

From Trent and Potter’s discussions, it seems precious few people are actually aware that the Cookies are effectively sentient slaves – and those that are simply don’t give a crap (see the “people are shitheads” point in footnote[2]) that they’re mistreating self-aware pieces of code. So where do people think this new TV show is coming from? Do they realise they can’t actually apply to be on ‘Hot Shot’? They probably don’t ask awkward questions like that when Waldo introduces it to them.[3]

And this has been a boon to TV producers. You don’t need to pay these digital copies. The drones clothe and feed themselves – they even practically produce the TV themselves by signing up and running everything. The drones are exposed to advertising constantly, with no escape unless they pay a penalty against it, and so form a captive (literally) audience to act as a huge focus group when testing the effectiveness of television adverts and product placement. Why test advertising in the real world, where you have to go through the rigmarole of filming a boom against a background and comping it into a shot getting a focus group, paying for the advertising space, correlate the result with profits, and see if it works on real people when you can test it on a literal captive audience and have months or years of data back in an instant?

And since they’re just code, they’re fairly easy to control and manipulate – just exactly how did you think “Cuppliance: Compliance in a Cup!” actually worked? It’s code, manipulative code. It is the mental projection of code infecting an AI/drone/Cookie to make it comply with a new instruction that goes against its original personality. Although clearly it only works on suitably prepared consciousness – as Trent can’t simply give it to Greta in White Christmas, he has to torture her into submission first so she’ll accept the Cuppliance-type programming. Digital-Greta wasn’t just a human psyche broken by boredom, there was clearly something else there – Cuppliance programming applied once the AI was ready. As was explained to AI-Greta, the buttons on her control panel were merely symbolic, they didn’t really do anything per se, so the bikes the Cuppliance probably work in the same way.

As you can do time-compression on Cookies, you can get a brand-new crop of desperate wannabes for reality TV and fresh people for your digitised advertising focus group every single day to exploit – and you only need to spend a few minutes at most producing and “filming” your episodes when they willingly take care of it themselves. The viewing public just watch the pre-rendered result. It’s all taken care of by the likes of Wraith, Hope and Charity, who clearly get a good benefits package to keep the system running whether they’re aware of their status as digital simulations or not.

So the punchline, almost to the entire series as a whole, is that the the Cookie, once thought to be the ultimate form of AI that could do important things such as resurrect people from the dead has become the perfect device for creating shit reality television and perpetuate consumption and consumerism. Abused, like so much great technology, to appeal to the lowest common denominator.


[1] It would certainly be interesting to very explicitly set all the stories in the same world and build a mythos and continuity with the same unifying concept. The inevitable US remake, for example, would suit this because it would fit the bill of adapting it for the television ethos of the US very well. And given the fan theory above, I think it’d make an excellent concept for a connected series. But right now in the present series they’re just sly nods. This is how it should stay. Please, no fucking sequels to episodes. Not ever. This is just pointless fun, okay?

[2] Fifteen Million Merits has been called “dystopian” but I disagree on that assessment since the society actually functions. There’s a little bit of social oppression going on, but it doesn’t have the same hallmarks of classic dystopian science fiction with the gritty industry, the towering statues and faces of the Glorious Leader, or the social breakdown at the lowest level. It’s no Nineteen Eighty-Four by a long shot. It’s not even Escape From New York. The real interesting thing about it is that while a general theme of Black Mirror is that each story requires a piece of – currently non-existent – technology to work (The National Anthem excepted) in Fifteen Million Merits the technology is just window dressing. It’s irrelevant. The social aspects could be happening right now. In fact, it is happening right now. This story could be happening right now, today, and what you see on screen is all in Bing’s head, projected onto the world as he’s driven mad by an existence that consists of nothing but his one-bedroom-flat, his cubicle in an office, and the commute between the two. This episode says a lot more about our society right now than our techno-paranoia of the future. Particularly interesting, I think, is the sexism and misogynistic elements. There’s the blatant stuff – the widely advertised pornography in this world is specifically the degrading kind that doesn’t give a damn about consent, because, as Judge Wraith points out, they can medicate against shame or discomfort. And there’s also the subtle stuff – if you want to read into Judge Charity’s reaction to Wraith and Hope undressing Abi with their eyes and their comments, you’ll see it’s almost a textbook patriarchal bargain (look it up). She neither approves wholeheartedly, nor can she voice any disapproval, so settles for looking and feeling awkward, and covering it up with a joke about “us girls wanting to join in”. That’s her choice, but the choice has been made in a restricted environment, where she has “chosen” to comply with the chauvinism and suffer through and endorse it in exchange for the recognition and the promotion up the society. Men and women wear the same clothes, bike the same bikes, get the same accommodation, food, and identical expectations of their nominal performance – yet equality of respect is still lacking. That’s not the future, that’s today. Overall, Fifteen Million Merits is the outlier in how it explores a wider social side of modern life (the “people are total shitheads” social angle is explored in all of them, of course) rather than focusing on the techno-paranoia of our creations running amok. Anyway…

[3] And don’t ask awkward questions like “where are all the Z-Eyes in White Bear if Victoria Skillane is on appeal during White Christmas?”[4] and “Why would Michael Callow need to bone a pig in The National Anthem if they have the ability to build a sex-enabled meat-puppet as shown in Be Right Back?” or “What if you just installed a Cookie into Jaime Salter’s brain and made Waldo sentient?” Just don’t ask. Okay?

[4] Or… perhaps she was on appeal after several years trapped in the White Bear Justice Park. Brooker, you bleak motherfucker…

Consent Might Be Complicated If…

I really like this post on consent, and it seems to have had a massive surge in popularity, and for good reason. As one of the later paragraphs concludes:

Do you think this is a stupid analogy? Yes, you all know this already  – of course you wouldn’t force feed someone tea because they said yes to a cup last week. Of COURSE you wouldn’t pour tea down the throat of an unconcious person because they said yes to tea 5 minutes ago when they were conscious. But if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea, and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea, then how is so hard is it to understand when it comes to sex?

It’s a testament to the power of analogy (and logic, in fact) that something can seem blatantly obvious when presented one way, but obfuscated when a different but completely logically analogous situation is presented. Make no mistake, consent is one of those stupidly simple things that you should be able to wrap your head around with ease – as pointed out by the analogy to pouring hot tea down someone’s throat because “they asked for it”. But it does fly in the face of nearly everything we’re taught about sex from school, culture and society, and that’s why people might fail at it so readily.

What sort of things? In no particular order…

For consent to make sense as a concept, it must be capable of being withdrawn, or the option to say “no” must be present. Consent without that is literally meaningless. How, therefore, is this compatible with the idea that men must “always be up for” sex? Men having sex forced on them by women isn’t just used as a joke by wacky sex comedies, but often by otherwise-serious news sources – because they’re always wanting sex. The word “no” doesn’t exist in the sexual vocabulary of men, or so we’re told, so clearly they never have to make a decision around giving consent. It’s sad that people buy into that, but they do, and it erodes our understanding of consent from the start.

Campaigns about rape, even from sources ostensibly ran by women such as Cosmo magazine, focus on things like not walking alone at night, avoiding strangers, carrying rape alarms… as if this term “rape” referred to a very specific situation and build up to a specific type of assault, rather than “sexual activity without consent”. This extends into the cluster-derp caused when people talk about “honest rape” and “legitimate rape” and “rape rape” – it’s as if consent doesn’t play a part in this at all. If consent isn’t the first port of call in people’s definition of rape, then what does it say about their attitude towards consensual – or shall we say “not-rape” – sex? The “grey area” so many people talk about is something entirely of their own invention because “consent ∨ ¬consent” is a pretty strong bit of binary logic.

Sexual courtship as dictated by society has more than a creepy resemblance to a predator-prey relationship – further underpinned by sex education lessons that separate boys from girls and teach them about their own parts separately. For something that is about people, *ahem*, coming together, segregated sex education is potentially disastrous. This school-yard separation reinforces the Us vs Them nature that has developed, around heterosexual relationships especially, and become all-consuming in the “Standard Model” of the sexual relationship. Men go on the prowl, women wait to be selected. The women wait for the men to woo them, to convince them, to select them and then close the deal.

Above all, consent suggests people can enjoy things. No, really, they actually can. But sex education in school is largely centred around the *ahem* ins-and-outs of the mechanics of it, with abstract drawings of genitals painted in the platonic ideal to make sure no-one really knows what they will actually end up looking at in real life. The idea that you can enjoy, and therefore wilfully consent to, such mundane biological procreation makes no sense when presented with this. Sex education means you can know a variety of methods of putting a condom on a banana, but banana-all about how to figure out if the banana wants a condom put onto it in the first place. That’s a pretty tragic state of affairs.

That “Standard Model” of a sexual relationship is centred almost entirely around the idea that women won’t just say “yes” because they want to. It says women need to be somehow, regardless of whether the methods are ethically sound, coerced into saying “yes”. Consent attacks this model directly as it allows women, in particular, to agree to things and say “yes” without repeated prodding. Think about how many movies would retain their romantic sub-plots if consent actually played a part from the very start? Boy meets girl, boy asks girl out, girl says “yes”, the end… Boy meets girl, boy asks girl out, girl says “no”, the end… The predator-prey relationship, the need to pester women, and the implication that no one simply can want sex is prevalent across all our experiences of relationships before we experience one for ourselves. So little wonder few people can grasp “consent” despite its simplicity.

Sometimes, it seems like “consent” is a word that has just been invented recently. It’s the most trivially simplest thing, and seems so obvious when you think about it, but goes against all the preconceptions we’ve been taught. Consent, therefore, may well be a very difficult concept to wrap your head around when the whole sexual culture you’ve experienced ignores it, misrepresents it, and doesn’t believe it can or should exist.

Addressing those preconceptions would be difficult, but thankfully consent is a great thing to replace them with.

Ultracold Cells on Titan – Yay or Nay?

Listen up pop-science fans, I might be just about to pop one of your bubbles (or maybe not). This one, in fact. The original paper can be found here – it’s open access, and therefore extra awesome. I thought I’d do this before the Discovery Institute get their grubby mitts on it.

The regurgitation of the press release begins as follows:

Ultracold-Resistant Chemical on Titan Could Allow It to Harbor Life

Astrobiologists and planetary scientists have a fairly good idea of which chemicals might indicate the presence of oxygen-breathing, water-based life—that is if it is like us. When it comes to worlds such as Saturn’s moon Titan, however, where temperatures are too cold for aqueous biochemistry, it’s much harder to know which chemicals could signal the existence of hydrocarbon-based life.

Oh, I love pop-science headlines. They always go at least ten steps ahead of the research they’re actually reporting. In their defence, Scientific American do a decent job and don’t oversell it once they hit the third or forth paragraph, but I want to go a little deeper into the theory because I’m kind of a nerd. I’ll cover some of the core strengths and disadvantages of what they’re doing in this research.

In brief – What the f**k are they doing?

Life on Earth requires some sort of membrane to contain it. We call these cells. You may have heard of them. These are made – as high school biology graduates will know – by phospholipid bi-layers that create a fully encased supramolecular structure. These layers form because the phospholipid molecules have parts that attract to water, and parts that move away from water. Obviously, we pretty much live in water, so there aren’t many options for the parts of the molecule that dislike water – these long hydrocarbon chains – and so they form small globules called micelles, where the long chains face inward, protected from water by a shell made of the parts of the molecule that actually like to bind to water. In higher concentrations these start forming membranes, where there are two layers – the hydrophobic, water-hating, parts of the molecule all turned in and the hydrophilic, water-loving, parts turned out. Eventually, with the right concentration, they form bi-layered cells.

This is exactly how it happens.

This is exactly how it happens.

Of course, this all means we need liquid water. The chemistry of these membranes and bi-layers doesn’t work in other solvents particularly well, and certainly not at low temperatures where water and lipid molecules freeze solid. So the question is this: can we do the same thing that forms in other solvents, using other molecules, and at temperatures outside the “habitable zone” of the solar system. More specifically, can this be done for the conditions on Titan, where liquid methane acts as the moon’s “water”, and simpler organic molecules act as the phospholipids.

The response seems to be that, in principle, the answer is yes.

So it means life is possible?

Yes and no. The theory proposes a way to build the membranes and cells required to contain life – these keep the active metabolic chemicals in high concentration (the original paper mentions this as part of the introduction, it’s all part of the “RNA World” hypothesis for abiogenesis), allowing life to form and evolve. But this is far from the greatest barrier to self-organised and self-replicating life. Even if these hypothetical cells form, they would have to contain some high concentration chemistry – something that would have to be more complex and active than we currently have solid evidence for. The chemical “soup” trapped in there would also have to reach a complexity to start replicating with modification – where evolution can take over and make “life”, as we know it, Jim, almost inevitable. This is a much bigger “if” than the mere formation of membranes, and to be fair even that is still a big “if”.

Even a theoretical proposal would have to import essential chemical properties to a low temperature system with an alkane solvent. This is not impossible, but it is not staggeringly likely either.

“Computational” = “Proceed with caution”

It’s important to keep in mind this current “cells on Titan” research is theoretical – in fact, “hypothetical” might be a closer qualitative description, as it’s a big “if” rather than a solid, well-backed theory. This sort of caveat is often the first to go missing as papers get compressed into press releases, and press releases get compressed into pop-science articles, and articles get compressed to Facebook posts and tweets and meme images and Daily Mail comments. Be under no illusions: this work has been done entirely in a computer, and is just a proposition for now.

It gets lost in translation quite a bit.

It gets lost in translation quite a bit.

I can’t and won’t trash work for being purely computational. I’ve done plenty of my own calculationsthat have interfaced between real-world chemical observations and their theoretical replication, and I’ve mentioned before the successful results of using a genetic algorithm to predict the existence of usual chemical structures. However, the work I discussed there by Oganov et. al. went a step beyond their computational hypothesis – they put their experimental clout where their mouth was and actually made the substances they predicted. Score one solid goal for science, even if it didn’t “completely overturn all of chemistry” as the press release claimed.

So far with respect to cell membranes forming on Titan, there’s no empirical data forthcoming. Is this because someone has tried, failed, and neglected to publish? Is it because conclusively demonstrating that cells don’t form in liquid methane would mean proving a negative? The experiment might not be so straightforward to do, there may always be the right conditions to make it happen if the hypothesis is solid. But I expect it will come eventually, particularly if they’ve piqued the interest of parties capable of doing the experimental work. This hypothesis will either sink or swim (in liquid methane, of course) on the basis of that.

Fuck the Disco 'Tute getting hold of the story, it's IFLS you need to worry about.

Fuck the Disco ‘Tute getting hold of the story, it’s IFLS messing it up that you need to worry about.

Molecular Dynamics simulations

Computing the properties of molecules is difficult. Computing the properties accurately is even more difficult-er.

Think of it this way – for every atom (if you want to treat every atom individually) has to be described by three coordinates of position. And then three coordinates of momentum to give it a direction. And three coordinates of force acting on it computed from everything else that will change its momentum and position. It’s clear that as your system grows, you’ll need more data just to describe it. But then there are the interactions that lead up to the force that will alter its position and momentum. Two points gives you one interaction – and this is the only case you can solve perfectly. Three points gives you three interactions (consider a triangle). Four points gives you six interactions and five points requires modelling ten interactions (draw these out if you don’t believe me) and it increases from there. Some theoretical models increase their computational costs even more rapidly than that.

If you want to describe a very large system, say, a protein, or a layered membrane formed from dozens or hundreds of molecules, you will have thousands upon thousands of interactions to take into account. It stands to reason, then, that the more interactions you have the less complicated your calculations for each one must be. Otherwise you’re talking “age of the universe” time scales for making your calculation. This is where molecular mechanics and molecular dynamics come into play – you take your molecules and you simplify down the possible interactions to the most basic level, then run the simulation that way using assumptions and less intensive calculations.

In general, this is alright. You can get the basics of what a large number of molecules will try to do just from running such simple calculations, and the OPLS model used in this work is accepted as good enough for the task at hand. So the method is what we’d call “robust” – that is, it’s one of those things where 60% of the time it works 100% of the time.

If you download a neat bit of freeware called Argus Lab (warning: it’s not under active development at the moment and tends to run into trouble on 64-bit machines) you can start playing with your own things in a matter of minutes and do things like show DNA bases binding to each other using molecular mechanics calculations. The exact values you get for the strength of that interaction are dubious-as-all-hell, but hey, from fundamentally simple equations you can predict that DNA works. That’s just cool, right?

Errr.... I'll assume this point will skip you by, that's fine.

Errr…. I’ll assume this point will skip you by, that’s fine.

But the simple methods are not perfect and foolproof. Often you need to fudge a few of the simulations with real-world data. These methods are known as “semi-empirical” (you can work out the etymology of that at home) and the garbage-in-garbage-out principle holds true for them. Sometimes, even if you do try to fudge it with decent empirical data you still can’t get a good result. Even trying to work out the properties of water – something you’d think is the most well-studied molecule in existence – is insanely difficult and requires, actually, modelling a lot of water molecules because the interactions are that disperse. You can’t calculate something like a hydrogen bond strength of H2O just by considering two H2O molecules interacting. So you need to validate the simple model to make sure you aren’t falling foul of this sort of physics trickery.

The main bit of data used to validate the OPLS model in this work is the binding energy between two of their target molecules. The authors compared their predicted energies from the model that made the self-organised layers to an energy taken from a more robust and reliable (a “higher level”) calculation. And this is the part where I need to say “proceed with caution” again, because this data they’re comparing to still isn’t empirical, but also established from a calculation.

Ab initio Calculations

If you scroll down the original open access paper you’ll find the frightening combination of numbers and letters “M062X/aug-cc-pVDZ”. To explain this as quickly as possible, everything before the “/” is the “functional” – this is the theory, as laid out by clever computational people and physicists with a lot of spare time on their hands, that you will use to spit out an energy from your calculation. Everything after is the “basis set”, which are the basic building blocks of the atoms (more specifically, the electrons) that you’ll use to help derive it. There are an astounding number of each, and they are all completely interchangeable (although some combinations are more sensible than others). And each combination will spit out different energies for even the same molecule.

Calculating the binding energy between two molecules is almost comically simple. You set up your molecule and the theory and basis set you want to use to model it and the calculation spits out an energy value. You then set up two molecules next to each other and the same calculations spit out another energy value. If the latter is less than two lots of the former, the molecules prefer to sit next to each other by that amount of energy.

There are a few caveats to this, such as basis-set superposition error (BSSE), which is basically the error associated with assuming the “comically simple” approach I just described, but you can correct for that easy enough. Since you didn’t ask, you do this by taking the molecules individually as described above, but give them access to the atomic orbitals, aka the basis functions, of the other molecule but without actually putting the molecule or the electrons there – you then do some mathematical jiggery-pokery with the resulting combination of energies and you arrive at your correction. This is another thing you need to do or your TAP-IPM will chase you around with a chair.

Now, the major trouble with ab initio (from base principles) calculations is that they need to be calibrated. You do this by picking a method that produces reliable results for the work at hand.

And that’s the trick, you have to find the right combination that works. If the theory and basis-set combination you choose replicates an energy that you’ve actually measured (a known quantity) within a few percent, it’s a good bet that it will successfully predict the energy of an unknown if you’re looking at a similar-enough system. A lot of simple organic reactions can be predicted well by the combination labelled “B3LYP/6-31G”, which is about as close as you can get to a “standard” or “default” combination. But B3LYP/6-31G fails miserably for a lot of transition metals and organometallic compounds, which is where you need to start getting creative. If the process you are studying is intra-molecular – i.e., bits are just rearranging, rather than falling off or coming on – then most combinations tend to be much of a muchness. But when you’re talking inter-molecular interactions, particularly the van der Waals or electrostatic interactions between molecules, the right combination is essential. Again, garbage-in-garbage-out.

But you must measure it against something known, otherwise you are shooting in the dark. I once read a paper that proposed a very interesting new twist to a particular catalytic mechanism, something that they claimed had a much lower – and therefore more plausible – energy profile. It looked great. But it turned out they hadn’t actually calibrated/validated it well. If you could even call what they did “validation”. Their supplementary information showed that they had just changed the electron core psuedopotential (an assumption that allows you to ignore all the core electrons around an atom and replace them with just a single charge) a few times and concluded “well, we get similar enough answers each time so it must be right”. You can’t do this, or your TAP-IPM will chase you around with a chair. Again. Your chosen method has to be calibrated against empirical data or the garbage-in-garbage-out principle applies. So, when I replicated this catalytic system with a completely different level of theory and a different basis set (one that was calibrated against empirical energy values derived from some painstaking kinetic experiments) the claimed effect in this paper effectively disappeared.

And this is where I get a little dubious about the reality of micelles forming in liquid methane in reality. The molecular dynamics, and particularly the more detailed conclusions of the paper rely on an accurate binding energy between two molecules. Without this, you could get any old result. You could stick in a random number for the binding energy, and see molecular self assembly from the simplified molecular dynamics calculations that is wholly unrealistic. The energies associated with that self-assembly may well be off my a huge margin, and when you start plugging that into thermodynamic equations that are raised to the power of these numbers, your errors become far more staggering. I am also dubious about taking a binding energy from just two molecules alone. If you’re talking about large structures such as micelles, I really would like to see some ab initio stuff done on larger clusters including tetramers to see how they start interacting using this higher and more precise level of theory, BSSE-corrected or not. As I touched upon above, in water you need to get to several layers of interacting water molecules to approach experimental accuracy. Is this level of detail needed in this case? It might hurt the hypothesis, but it can’t hurt its reliability.

I also have to question the use of implicit solvation in their quantum mechanical model – that is, not making the calculation in the presence of actual solvent molecules (almost essential if you’re going to imply that solvent drives this reaction!) but in just polarisable continuum that, let’s be brutally honest about this method, only vaguely represents the idea that there’s a solvent if you squint a bit and squish it about. The binding energy that they calculate to configure and validate the model is, of course, more than against molecules verses molecules separated by infinite distance, it competes against the ability for the molecules to bind to the solvent explicitly. This isn’t always trivial. The ability for solvent molecules to make very specific interactions with molecules means that solvent getting in there are breaking up the self-assembled layers and altering their stability needs to be accounted for much more explicitly than they have done to make the results more robust.

Is all that required for acrylamide and other similar molecules working in methane? Possibly, possibly not. Hopefully the authors have done their background reading to figure that out, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt given that they’re refererring fairly robust procedures and methods – although these methods are compared against reasonable standards (M062X) rather than a “gold standard” like CCSD(T). It’s reassuring that the OPLS model’s binding energies were within 4 kJ/mol of the ab initio results, suggesting the model has merit, but as I’ve pointed out above, theoretical self-consistency should take a backseat to consistency with experiment because the former can be fudged so very easily.

Conclusions

Life or not, it'll almost certainly have some interesting chemistry

Life or not, it’ll almost certainly have some interesting chemistry

Overall, I think this is a pretty cool and promising result. The work by Oganov on sodium chloride stoichiometry that I’ve discussed previously on this blog demonstrates the predictive power of computational chemistry, and this could well do the same. The authors here have demonstrated some excellent potential chemistry that could be going on in liquid methane oceans. However, save the champagne for now. Without comparing their results and values to experimentally derived ones, and finally experimental verification that self-assembly of these molecules actually happens in liquid methane there is no hard evidence, yet, that this theory is realistic. Hopefully these experiments are coming soon, so we can see if this holds up. Because if we can build them in the lab, and then figure out a reliable way to detect them in the wild on Titan, the question about whether it lowers the barrier to life and its application to exobiology is irrelevant, it will be some really interesting chemistry we’ve found.

Things You Should Probably Stop Saying – “BUT EVERYTHING IS A CHEMICAL!”

GreenChem_greenAnyone who hasn’t lived under a rock somewhere in the barren wastelands of arse-nowhere for the last half century will probably, at some point, heard about dangerous “chemicals” in our food and water supply. It’s an amazingly common trope. It isn’t just limited to food-bloggers and woo-merchants, it’s practically embedded into our language. “These nasty chemicals are everywhere, and they’re not good for us. So eat organic, avoid chemicals, or you will die!” they may cry.

“Avoid chemicals!” comes one piece of advice. “That food’s bad for you because it has too many chemicals in it” says another.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. As evidenced by the average skeptic and pro-science response, which usually goes thusly:

Silly peon! Don’t you know everything is a chemical? Water is a chemical. Air is a chemical. You like drinking water and breathing, don’t you? But you’re an idiot! You don’t get it, you don’t understand what a chemical really is! What about (R)-3,4-dihydroxy-5-((S)- 1,2-dihydroxyethyl)furan-2(5H)-one? That sounds scary doesn’t it! But that’s vitamin C! You’re such an idiot. This is nothing but chemophobia!

And fair point, to a certain degree. Chemophobia – nominally the “fear of chemicals” but is really just the “fear of chemicals whose names you can’t pronounce” – is a serious problem that interferes with scientific literacy and keeps a lot of really stupid people (*cough*Vani Hari*cough*) financially solvent with ActualMoney.

But… because there’s always a “but”… “everything is a chemical” doesn’t actually refute what our hypothetical woo-merchant is saying.

This post is about how “everything is a chemical” is a phrase and reasoning you need to stop using. It misunderstands what it’s supposed to refute, and it doesn’t help.


We know from observation that a hypothetical woo-merchant who voids “chemicals” probably isn’t against breathing an admixture of O2, N2, Ar, and CO2 and H2O in their gaseous state. Similarly, we can presume they’re not against drinking dihydrogen monoxide oxidane, nor are they scared by the concept of vitamin C being generally a good thing. Their behaviour demonstrates this nicely.

Quite clearly, these things are not in the category they are talking about when they say “we should avoid this”. They’re drawing a ring around a group of substances and saying “avoid these”. What they call that ring and that set is irrelevant, because we can clearly tell what they mean from their usage of it. Their use of the word “chemical” might be ill-defined and slightly non-technical (see below), but simply re-defining what they mean by “chemical” on only our side of the conversation does nothing to refute their claim nor their fundamental errors.

They have a set of Things they call chemical. We have a set of Things we call chemical. They say one thing about their set, we say something different about our set. The only thing uniting those arguments is their common label, nothing more.

RefutSustainability_greening a claim based on operating an argument over a completely different set of Things isn’t technicality, and it isn’t nitpicking nor pedantry. It’s just plain fallacy.

It would be as if Person A said “look at those 99 red balloons go by!” and Person B declared “FALSE! There are only 45 red balloons, the remaining 54 are pink!” and concluded that, therefore, Person A was lying completely and no balloons of any colour went by. Or, if on being told that your friend was in hospital following  car crash, you decided that they couldn’t possibly be in hospital because, technically, it was a hatchback not a car. Such skeptical dismissals ignore the point of the argument, ignore the uses of the words that form the argument, and focus instead on a trivial mismatch of labelling, mistaking it for actual content.

Someone arguing to avoid chemicals very clearly use “chemical” to refer to a sub-set of all substances. They know that, and – get this – we also know that. We must, because we’re so eager, apparently, to correct their usage to “but everything is a chemical”. That’s something we couldn’t do if we didn’t at least understand their own meaning. So it’s almost as if the typical “everything is chemical” response actively acknowledges that skeptics don’t really want to engage with the argument, but want to claim superiority in terminology.

It also reduces things to a sound-bite that convinces only the already-converted: “Hey, you told that Food Bitch that everything was chemical! High-five skepto-dudebro!! Haha LOL!”

From the other side, that doesn’t look like a convincing argument so much as people actively ignoring what you have to say, and that convinces no-one. If Person B wants to change Person A’s mind about 99 balloons going by, then their best starting point is to acknowledge the wider variety of hues within the “red” set as used by Person A.

In short: refute what the other person actually talks about, not what you want them to be talking about.


Still, I think there’s a more fundamental error going on. Something that misunderstands chemicals and chemistry, and chemists. And this is where I think I have a few qualifications to butt in and add additional comment:

Calling everything  “a chemical” isn’t even a technical definition as used by actual chemists.

This may seem odd, but actually think of the manipulations that chemists have to do on a day-to-day basis. If chemists accepted “everything is a chemical” in an absolute sense, we’d have no use for the term at all. The water running through a reflux condenser would be a “chemical”. The nitrogen running through the Schlenk lines would be a “chemical”. Our lunch would be a “chemical”. Hell, our bodies are a god-damned dangerous chemical refinery of unfathomable complexity that chemical the chemicals with the chemical chemicals.

If everything was a “chemical” to us, a simple instruction like “put all the chemicals back in the chemical cupboard” – an instruction barked at undergraduates with increased profanity as time wears on – would be literally meaningless. The only way to satisfy such an instruction would be to cram the entire universe into a loosely-defined cupboard. And then put the cupboard itself inside it, too. As, of course, everything is a chemical – including the cupboard. If we had to run a risk assessment on the chemicals used in a prep, would we need to fill in the COSHH form for water, for oxygen, for the cellulose in the wooden desks or the plastics on the chairs? After all, those would all be chemicals, and they’d all be involved.

chem_cupboard

Look at the chemicals inside a chemical surrounded by chemicals in a bed of chemical… now, fetch me the chemical.

Technically, that’s correct – you know, the best kind of correct. If you want to define it like that, of course. But that definition of “everything is a chemical” is not useful to us.

Professional chemists use “chemical” to mean just a sub-set of all chemicals in the world. We use it to mean just the substances (usually solid, sometimes liquid) that we intentionally mix together for a reaction. Often, even solvents are excluded from the category “chemical” because they’re not often part of that intentional reaction, but just a support medium. I’m speaking in terms of the common parlance, of course, as you’d use it in a daily conversation with another chemist. In a more formal setting we’d use something way, way more precise – like “reagent”, “solvent”, “catalyst” or literally name the substance instead. “Everything is a substance” is more likely to resonate with a chemist than “everything is a chemical”.

Even if we held that on an abstract level that everything is a “chemical”, we wouldn’t (and couldn’t) actually use the word that way. It’d be too broad to have a use.

So, in fact, the “technical” definition of a chemical is far closer to the woo definition than most pro-science skeptics think.


Instead say…

Well, I’d go for something like this. There isn’t a nice sound-bite, but sound-bites are for you and your revision purposes, not for anyone else.

Your definition of “chemical” is really arbitrary. You seem to put substances you don’t like into it, and ones you do like aren’t included… but you’re never really clear why. This is a problem because you ignore some really important concepts such as the dose-response relationship. A sufficiently low dose of something that you might consider dangerous (like cyanide or benzene) won’t cause harm – yet a sufficiently high dose of something you might consider benign (like water) will definitely cause you a lot of harm.

It also doesn’t take into account multiple safety studies done on substances that account for this and quantify their relative harm. For instance, formaldehyde is certainly a dangerous substance in large quantities – but because it’s a common metabolite, and such a simple molecule that you can find a higher concentration of it, quite naturally, in a single apple than in shampoos that have been forced off the shelves for containing it.

Perhaps if you were more specific about the precise substances you’re against and the dosage limits you find acceptable or unacceptable, and why, then your arguments might be better accepted by the science community. Because as it stands, your definition and usage of “chemical” is simply vague and ill-defined – so we can’t really understand what you don’t like. You only seem to be using it to import the connotations of the smoke-stacks and refineries of the peterochemical industry,  which look bad, and use them to imply that otherwise-benign substances are far more dangerous than they really are.

Feel free to copy-paste that. Add the “you’re an idiot” parts back in as you see fit.