31 October 2010

Autumnal reruns: Apartment Therapy makes my head hurt

This post ran originally on 29 August 2009 and I'm running it again to keep up the educational tone of my reruns this weekend. I can't repeat it often enough, science is your friend. There is no other method to understand the world.

It's Saturday and I'm feelin' the need to pontificate.

Against my better judgement, I logged onto that doggone Apartment Therapy the other day. I have no excuse other than I was looking to read something inane, and what better place for a fix of inanity than AT?

I found this:
Over the weekend we read about some recent studies showing that plant essential oils from common herbs—specifically rosemary, thyme, clove, and mint—can be effective as natural pesticides. Apparently just a few drops of the plant oils mixed with water can repel or kill destructive aphids and mites. This seems like great news for those trying to grow veggies and fruit at home without the use of harmful chemicals...
Uhhhhhh, the plant extracts mentioned here; rosemary, thyme, clove and mint, are most definitely harmful chemicals. If they weren't harmful chemicals, they wouldn't kill aphids and mites.

All plants are engaged in an arms race with the creatures that eat them. Plants defend themselves the only way they can, they evolve chemical defenses. Some of these defenses are aimed at a specific predator and some defenses are more broad spectrum. Human beings aren't usually the intended target in this arms race, and as a species we reap some really tasty rewards. So even though I happen to love the taste of rosemary, thyme, cloves and mint (to maintain the theme of the AT pablum I quoted above), I never forget that the taste I'm so drawn to in these plants is essentially a pesticide. I'm not the intended target, but if I eat enough rosemary it'll make me as sick as a single bite of rosemary does a katydid or an aphid. Rosemary's taste comes from a chemical made by the plant to act as a pesticide, and rosemary's certainly not alone in this. These foods and flavors aren't bad and I'm not saying that you shouldn't eat cilantro or mustard greens any more. Toxicity is a matter of dose. Period. A toxic dose of cyanide is surprisingly small. A toxic dose of water is significantly higher, but it's still a toxic dose.

The following is an excerpt from a lecture given by Richard A. Muller, a professor at the University of California at Berkley. He makes some great, though counterintuitve points about this whole natural/ unnatural division. I LOVE this kind of stuff.

Life is rarely, if ever, an either/or proposition. Divisions between natural and unnatural are arbitrarily drawn. Natural is a meaningless label applied by marketing departments. The current vogue for "organic" foods may have standards behind that label (for the time being at least), but it too is an arbitrary line in the sand.

Have you ever noticed that the bug spray Raid smells like chrysanthemums? It does because its active ingredient is pyrethrin. That's chrysanthemum extract. So what's the difference between spraying Raid on a tomato plant and growing a chrysanthemum next to the same plant? One may make you feel better but at the end of the day, there's no real difference.

I say it all the time, science is your friend folks.


  1. There is a reason I call it A-tard-ment Therapy.

  2. I want the word "toxin" purged from out language.

  3. I'm another annoying bore who points out that water is a chemical and that death by plague or drowning is entirely natural.

    But I was astonished to hear recently that adding more water to a bottle of vinegar was sufficient to produce more vinegar in a few days. Not sure if the purveyor of this wisdom also believes in spontaneous generation.

  4. Did you hear about the homeopath who forgot to take his remedy? He died of an overdose.

  5. My husband's sig says: Homeopaths suffer from dilutions of grandeur.


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