What’s in a name?

February 5th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, penises | 4 Comments »

What’s in a name?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 5, 2004
The Guardian

· Proper scientists are getting on with the important business of broadening our vocabulary. Call me childish, again, but you might want to check out the unbelievably hardcore “molecules with silly or unusual names” website at the University of Bristol’s chemistry department (bris.ac.uk/Depts/Chemistry/MOTM/silly/sillymols.htm). For yes, there is a molecule called Arsole, the arsenic equivalent of pyrroles. And it’s a ring. Normally I wouldn’t give references to papers, but you might want to read about it in the definitive paper Studies on the Chemistry of the Arsoles, G Markl, and H Hauptmann, J Organomet. Chem, 248 (1983) 269. All very childish. I prefer Cummingtonite, a mineral named after Cummington, Massachussets, where it was first identified. And imagine the look of childlike excitement on the faces of mineralogists in Fuka, Japan, as they proudly emerged from the Fuka mines, bearing the mineral they knew they would be able to get away with calling “Fukalite”. Traumatic acid, erotic acid, Bastadin-5, Welshite, Butanol, Anol, Clitorin, Fuchsite, Carnalite, Ciglitizone, Vaginatin, Kunzite, Dickite, Moronic acid, Spammol, Pubescine and the recently isolated element number 111, which, under the IUPAC temporary naming system, is called unununium, presumably until someone famous dies. Fucitol, I’ve had enough, stop me now.

· Much as we feel obliged to love the BBC these days, they do seem to be making a habit of parroting any old nonsense. Environment correspondent Alex Kirby got very excited about the story of N’kisi the psychic parrot. Like almost every newspaper, he failed to mention the research was performed under the aegis of Rupert Sheldrake, who speculates that animals are guided by unproven “morphic fields” and whose last bout of pet research, on a psychic terrier called Jaytee, turned out to be unrepeatable in a study by Dr Richard Wiseman, published in the British Journal of Psychology. The parrot research was endorsed, pleasingly, by Uri Geller. “About 100 words are needed for half of all reading in English, so if N’kisi could read he would be able to cope with a wide range of material,” says Kirby, failing to realise, perversely for a wordsmith, that just because 100 words made up 47% of the content of the Washington Post in one study (don’t say I never give you original source material) that doesn’t mean you’d be able to make sense of it. But USA Today at least managed to mention that Sheldrake’s work has in the past “been met with scepticism among some scientists”. Only some?

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