Current Affairs Science

Lava bacteria and germy soap pumps?

Crossposted from The 21st Floor:

I don’t often watch adverts, but every now and again, I’ll see one that annoys me so much that I actively seek it out. The culprit this time: Dettol, and their two recent adverts for for Complete Clean, and their “No Touch” handwash system.

I’d like to first address Complete Clean, as, to be honest, it’s Complete Rubbish. It opens with a bold declaration – “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava”. Well, this is undeniably true. A number of organisms have been discovered living (and thriving) in temperatures previously thought to be hostile to all life; they are known as hyperthermophiles. They were first discovered in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park (in 1969), and since then, have been found in (and on) several other environments, such as deep sea hydrothermal vents. Organisms in this class have been known to survive temperatures of up to 130 degrees Celsius, and some have even been able to reproduce in environments heated to 122 degrees Celcius (e.g. Methanopyrus kandleri). This statement is made over what appears to be a close-up of some bubbling lava, but what is then revealed to actually be a spill on a stove-top, and it’s at this point that Dettol begin to engage in something I like to call not-quite-false advertising –  “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava, so think how easily the bacteria in your kitchen could survive.” Holy nonsense! I’d better run out and buy some cleaning products right now to protect my loved ones and children! Or, maybe I could just turn off my stove, since hyperthermophiles thrive in hot environments, such as those of 60 degrees Celcius and above, so unless I’m running my stove constantly, and in the vicinity of a hot spring, I’m probably ok.

There are numerous laws in place to prevent companies from lying when advertising their products, so instead, several companies seem to be resorting to this not-quite-lying. Granted, it’s true that there are bacteria that can survive in lava. And it’s also true that bacteria can survive in my kitchen. To link the two facts, however, while not technically lying,  is about as close to lying as you can get. As I’m unlikely to start cooking with lava any time soon, the likelyhood of my kitchen becoming infested with hyperthermophiles is extremely low (M. kandleri can only survive in anaerobic conditions, for example!), and even if it were to become infested with them, there’s no proof that they are more harmful than any other organism which I might find in my kitchen. The fact that hyperthermophiles exist has no impact on the existence of common kitchen bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and other such organisms, particularly since most of these organisms could not co-exist in the same environment (Salmonella being unable to survive after an hour at 55 degrees C, for example). In truth, linking the two makes as much sense as declaring that “Black bears enjoy eating honey; think of the damage bee stings could do to your children!” It’s not technically false advertising, but it is blatantly manipulative, and at its heart, dishonest.

I might be temped to call this campaign a fluke, or a one-off, if I hadn’t then seen the numerous advertisements for the new “no touch” hand washing system, which will enable your adorable little darlings to handle all sorts of scary things like frogs and normal household waste, and then wash their hands, all without having to touch a “germy soap pump”. Now, before I even begin to examine the science behind this silliness, I can’t help but point out the most obvious flaw in this advertisement – they are touching the germy soap pump immediately prior to washing their hands. It wouldn’t matter if the germy soap pump was liberally coated in raw chicken fillets and puppy excrement, because immediately after touching it, they will be removing any potential contamination by washing their hands. This, surely, is a sensible enough reason for most to leave this expensive and nonsensical product on the shelf. If not, we’ll examine some of the facts they present as part of the advertisement.

“Fact: Your soap pump can harbour hundreds of bacteria”. Well, once again, that’s undeniably true. A soap pump, like any surface, may harbour bacteria if the conditions are right. Those bacteria are most likely to be kitchen and bathroom bacteria (since these are the places where one is likely to place a soap pump), and as such, are likely to include our old reliable Salmonella and E. coli, as well as some new favourites such as Shigella and Cholera. Who would want to touch a soap pump laden with such disease causing bacteria? Well, someone about to wash their hands, since hand washing has been shown to effectively curb the spread of all of the above conditions by effectively removing the bacteria from the hands, and thus preventing transmission. A soap pump may harbour bacteria, but so may any number of surfaces in a typical house. Basic hygiene practices will effectively prevent infection by those bacteria, so long as, after you touch the “germy soap pump”, you use the soap you’ve pumped to wash your hands. At the end of the ad, we’re treated to a scene where a mother kisses a child’s (hopefully clean) hand – don’t they know how dangerous “germy mom mouth” is?!

Humans are, for the most part, pretty robust. We have reasonably effective immune systems which, over time, build up immunity to any number of common illnesses – this is why vaccinations are effective, and it is why we have been able to almost eradicate some diseases altogether; it is why being exposed to common bacteria in childhood is important. By the time we enter adulthood, we have immunity to most common bacteria, and knowledge of the hygiene practices that will keep us safe from the rest, but companies like Dettol are changing that. There is increasing evidence that children who are living in over-sterilised environments are missing the opportunity to develop these basic immunities through a lack of exposure to the bacteria in question, and this may be linked to a rise in a number of autoimmune diseases. Of course you should wash your hands after preparing raw chicken, but if your child is crawling on the floor, there’s probably no need to sterilise the entire surface for fear of lava bacteria. Go on, live dangerously – touch the germy soap pump.

Current Affairs

Integrity starts at home

Yesterday, I received a notification about a comment on a previous blog of mine. When I logged in to approve the comment, I noticed that the visits to my blog had spiked unexpectedly, and when I viewed the comment, and my site stats, I found out why. My blog was linked to by Jennifer Ouellette in a blog which was published on the Scientific American website. Understandably, I was curious as to what had brought my blog (relatively small as it is) to the attention of someone posting on SA, so I headed on over to see. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that thrilled with what I found. The blog was about the recent “elevatorgate” furore, and about sexism in science in general, and it seemed that my blog had been referenced in, what I believed to be, a rather unfavourable light.

After the link was brought to my attention, I posted about it on twitter, wondering whether Ouellette had actually read my blog (since she seemed, in my estimation, to be misrepresenting what I had said, and indeed, who I am). You can also see her (slightly confusing) reply in the tweet linked above. I attempted to continue the conversation, by explaining that I wasn’t offended, but didn’t agree with how she had referenced me (those tweets read from last to first, to get the sentences in correct order). I had hoped to engage in further discussion with her on the point, but that hope was quickly quashed by, arguably, one of the more dismissive responses I’ve received in recent times – “Interesting that in a 3000 word post with 25+ links, you’re making it all about you.” My final reply (again, read from bottom to top) attempted to call her on this behaviour, but she obviously considered the matter closed, as I’ve received no further reply.

Many of you may wonder why I’m even bothering to blog about what is, let’s face it, a relatively minor slight on twitter. Well, the truth is, I’m not really writing about that; I’m writing about the value of integrity and honesty, and the will to stand behind something that you have written, even if others do not agree. I’ve pictured the paragraph in question here. The truly astute among you will probably notice that, although I’ve obviously taken a screenshot of the paragraph in question, there doesn’t appear to be a link there. That’s because there isn’t … now. Some time after my twitter comments, the link to my blog was quietly removed without comment. I received no message to tell me it was done, and no comment appears on the article to indicate that it was further edited after being published. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have web data records to prove the visits coming from the blog, the link might never have existed. And, frankly, that’s more than a little pathetic.

People say that newspapers are dying, and that internet media (particularly blogs) are the way forward. With this in mind, a great many bloggers have been catapulted from relative obscurity to internet-fame as the modern journalists and commentators of our time. Being able to put together a blog, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that what you have to say is worth anything. What makes certain blogs stand out is the quality of the writing, and often, the willingness of the writer to stick with their beliefs and convictions, even if others disagree; it’s much harder to ignore disparaging comments than to accept praise. Standing behind your writing, possessing integrity, means that you don’t bend at the first inkling that someone might not agree with what you’ve said; it means that you write what you believe to be true, you check your facts, you check them again, and you maintain a standard that doesn’t bend whenever you’re too lazy to maintain it; no secret-editing, no phone hacking, no shady journalism.

There was a time when being a writer, or writing for a major newspaper, was a respected profession, and one I even thought about entering into myself. As we uncover more about the phone hacking, lazy journalism, and illegal dealings of News International (who are, sadly, not alone in engaging in these activities), it’s more important than ever that those of us who write hold ourselves above this. When I write here, I write what I genuinely believe in. I source and check my facts, and if it’s not certain, or not legal, it’s not in my post. I don’t change my posts after I’ve written them to better suit my mood, or to avoid something that I don’t want to deal with. I stand by what I write, even if others don’t like it. If a small-time blogger like me can manage, surely someone like Jennifer Ouellette can at least try?

Current Affairs

Much ado about…wait, what?

Unless you’ve been in space, or travelling without net access, you’re likely to have come across just some of the fallout from “Elevatorgate”. If you haven’t, here it is in a nutshell, with copious links. Skepchick Rebecca Watson was approached by a guy in Dublin following an atheist conference, and later spoke about it in a video, saying that he shouldn’t have done that. And then the world exploded. Blogs appeared everywhere, either to defending or persecuting, and on Twitter, occasionally things got downright ugly. And then Richard Dawkins commented on one of these blogs, and things got a little more crazy again, culminating in a final post which, confusingly, aims to outline athiest pick-ups to prevent further snafus.

If you’ve opened every link up there, I commend you for your commitment to information, and indeed, for your patience. There’s a lot to read there, and in my opinion, an awful lot of it is pretty tough to swallow. Unfortunately, an imaginary dichotomy appears to have sprung up, and throughout the land, people are being broadly classified as either “feminist, and therefore supportive and helpful and likely, a male apologist” or “anti-skepchick and therefore pro-rape, sleazy, and generally a bad person”. This is primarily what I would like to challenge, and hopefully, lay to rest for at least some of my readers.

I don’t often focus on myself in these blogs, but in this instance, I think that a little context would be valuable. I work as a programmer, having received a degree in Computer Science and Biology, and in my spare time, I train in a number of styles of martial arts. I also like to game (tabletop RPGs and video gaming). It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that I often come across stereotypes relating to women – after all, I received my degree in a class composed almost entirely of men, I work in a male dominated field, and the martial arts that I do tend not to attract many female participants. In short, I’m a woman in a man’s world. With all of the above in mind, it may surprise some of you to learn that I don’t consider myself a feminist. In fact, I often find myself possessing very little patience for the feminists of today.

I’m a “modern woman” who just doesn’t agree with modern feminism, and it’s a terribly awkward position to be in. I know that, as a woman, I’m still more likely to be paid less for the same work, and less likely to be promoted to senior management positions. I know that, as a female martial artist, I’m more likely to be regarded as someone who received their grade simply because they’re a girl. And while I don’t think that this is right, or ideal, I also don’t think that we’re going the right way about changing that.

Feminism isn’t supposed to be about the superiority of the “fairer” sex, it’s supposed to be about equality between both sexes, and with that, there has to follow a little give-and-take. There are so many places where, even in this day and age, it is a struggle to be a woman; woman are routinely abused, denied rights, and subjected to treatment that is not handed out fairly or evenly. This, I can’t condone, and I don’t believe that anyone should. There are plenty of “first world problems” too, such as pay and promotion disparities, and these too, should not be allowed. I just don’t believe that a man asking to spend time with a woman, and then saying “ok” when she refuses, is in the same league as the systematic abuse perpetrated in many countries on a daily basis. Perhaps it might make you feel uncomfortable if you’re not attracted to the person, but that’s not a feminist issue, it’s a personal one.

You can’t simultaneously demand equality, and then also demand different treatment because you are a woman. Equality should mean equality on all fronts, which should mean that men and women are free to express their desires, and men and women are free to say yes or no. And as long as no crime occurs (i.e. sexual assault after a clear refusal), then that really should be the end of it.

I have believed for some time that modern feminism isn’t fighting for the things I believe in. Instead, it’s fighting for something beyond equality, where women are untouchable, and every conflict is a sexist issue. It is such a hot topic that any man saying disagreeing with the majority feminist viewpoint risks being publicly named and shamed in the manner of a sex offender. Much of this behaviour happened on twitter in the last week or two, and frankly, it’s ridiculous. The fact that I’m a women doesn’t change the way I deal with the various issues I blog about, or my beliefs. I’m female, but I won’t treat being female like it’s something that should give me carte blanche, or something that should change the way I live my life.

I am lucky enough to live in a corner of the world where, for the most part, being a woman isn’t a big deal. I won’t look for sexist issues where they don’t exist, and I won’t add gravitas to otherwise unimportant happenings by tacking the word “feminism” onto them; especially when so many women do not enjoy the many freedoms that I take for granted. I’m not a feminist. I’m just a programmer, a martial artist, a blogger, a scientist, and a skeptic. I also happen to be female.