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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Big Scary Words

by Alison Hudson

November 3, 2014

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Donate When I wrote a post complaining about chemophobia a couple of weeks ago, I expected to see certain arguments crop up in the comments section and I wasn't disappointed. A lot of common chemophobic points reared their heads in the comments to that post. One, in particular, caught my attention because it is a particularly flimsy one. Commenter "David" introduced it in its (chemically) purest form:
When she [the teacher] uses the word chemicals, it is abundantly clear that she means substances with long names, such as sodium benzoate etc. Just read the list of chemicals that you might find in ordinary hair shampoo or shower gel. A lot of them are almost unpronounceable, and probably a lot of them are potentially dangerous.
"Chemicals" that are "unpronounceable" and therefore "potentially dangerous" is a common argument with many "all natural" proponents, despite the fact that it is a completely toothless argument.

In fact, it's not even really an argument so much as another phobia. It even has a name: sesquipedalophobia, the fear of long words It's also sometimes called hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, which is just being mean to the poor sesquipedalophobics. In argumentation, I suppose we could call it argumentum ad sesquipedalia, but in deference to those afraid of big words I'll just refer to it with simple language that everyone can pronounce: the Big Scary Words fallacy, the argument that because a name is unfamiliar and/or unpronounceable, it must be dangerous.

David's comment above is a perfect example of the Big Scary Words fallacy. He followed it up with another post that even more adroitly illustrated the fallacy:
Here is a list of shampoo ingredients:

WATER (AQUA), SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE, SODIUM LAUROYL SARCOSINATE, COCAMIDOPROPYL BETAINE, COCAMIDE MEA, POLYSORBATE 20, PEG-150 DISTEARATE, OLETH-3, PROPYLENE GLYCOL, CINNAMIDOPROPYLTRIMONIUM CHLORIDE, GLYCOL STEARATE, FRAGRANCE (PARFUM), DISODIUM EDTA, PANTHENOL, ALLANTOIN, SODIUM PCA, BENZOPHENONE-4, HYDROXYPROPYL GUAR HYDROXYPROPYLTRIMONIUM CHLORIDE, COCOS NUCIFERA (COCONUT) OIL, PEG-120 METHYL GLUCOSE DIOLEATE, PHOSPHOLIPIDS, HYDROLYZED OAT PROTEIN, PHOSPHORUS, MAGNESIUM ASCORBYL PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM PANTOTHENATE, MAGNESIUM SALICYLATE, ZINC GLUCONATE, SACCHAROMYCES/ZINC FERMENT, SACCHAROMYCES/COPPER FERMENT, SACCHAROMYCES/MAGNESIUM FERMENT, SACCHAROMYCES/IRON FERMENT, SACCHAROMYCES/SILICON FERMENT, METHYLPARABEN, PROPYLPARABEN, METHYLCHLOROISOTHIAZOLINONE, METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE.

These are all OK?

David didn't identify which shampoo this was, though Google suggests it may be this brand. Not that the brand is important, just as any of the particular chemicals is unimportant to his argument -- otherwise, why not single one out and explain the problem with it? He literally just posted a long list of ingredients with unfamiliar words in it, essentially saying, "See? Look at all those Big Scary Words!" This post is LITERALLY using the Big Scary Words fallacy to try and make its point.

I won't point-by-point that list (then what fun would you have looking it up for yourself?) but I will point out that nothing on that list is inherently bad because of its name. I may not know off the top of my head what each of these is, but I don't just look at a list like that and go "Oooh! Scary! I don't want all that in my shampoo!" I go "Oooh, a bunch of things to look up. I wonder why they use those in the shampoo?" Then I'm curious, and then I spend an hour Googling and reading instead of doing the dishes.

Chemicals are not inherently bad or good just because you cannot pronounce their names. Anytime someone offers me that argument they are literally wearing their ignorance on their sleeve. If pronounceability equated to safety, then chemists, who could pronounce every word on that list, would be nigh-invulnerable (so long, I suppose, as they ate everything with a spoon). Chemicals are not Rumpelstiltskin; learning how to pronounce an ingredient's name does not take away its power over you. If a chemical is dangerous, it's dangerous; its name is immaterial.

Besides, if people want to be afraid of things based on the names of the chemicals they contain, they should be more concerned with the things they are feeding their kids. Consider this list, which is the ingredients list for a foodstuff parents commonly feed to their children:
WATER (AQUA), VEGETABLE OIL, FRUCTOSE, GLUCOSE, SUCROSE, STARCH, CAROTENE, TOCOPHEROL , RIBOFLAVIN, NICOTINAMIDE, PANTOTHENIC ACID, BIOTIN, FOLIC ACID, ASCORBIC ACID, PALMITIC ACID, STEARIC ACID, OLEIC ACID, LINOLIC ACID, MALIC ACID, OXALIC ACID, SALICYLIC ACID, PURINES, SODIUM, POTASIUM, MANGANESE, IRON, COPPER, ZINC, PHOPHOROUS, CHLORIDE, NATURAL COLORS, ANTIOXIDANT
Are these all OK? I mean, there are literally ten different acids in this list. Stearic acid is used in laundry detergent and industrial lubricants; Linolic acid is used in paint varnish; Nicotinamide is one of the drugs used in chemotherapy! And yet, picky parents pack this food in their kid's lunches. Every. Single. Day. What is this awful mystery product? Who knows? But doesn't it sound scary?

Of course, there's nothing actually on that list that will harm a child, not in the dose or form that they're getting in their sack lunch everyday. See how easy it is, though, to take unfamiliar words and spin them to sound awful? That's the Big Scary Words fallacy. Ultimately it is a form of argument from ignorance: "I don't know what these words mean, therefore they are bad." That is not an argument. That is simply being afraid of something you don't understand.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it can also be scary. The solution is not to avoid what one does not know; the solution is to get more informed. I absolutely agree with those who argue that consumers should be more informed about what it is they are eating; but knowledge begins with the individual. Stop being afraid and start being savvy. And who knows? You might learn a thing or two.

(Oh, and by the way, you can find the name of that mystery foodstuff right here. Just in case you were worried.)

 

by Alison Hudson

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