I'm rarely riled these days. I tend to let life wash over me and avoid getting too het about anything if I can avoid it. But this morning, whilst lying half-awake watching breakfast TV in bed, a story caught my eye which was interesting. And then an "expert" in the studio riled me to the point of turning the television off in disgust.

One of my pet hates is "bad science". Ben Goldacre writings both in print and in the Guardian are worth seeking out if you've never read them. But they're probably not the best read if you are a follower of alternative medicine.

Anyway, back to the story. NCP (who run the car parks) are going to start piping smells into the stairwells of their carparks in order to stop them developing the smell with which we're all too familiar in car park stairwells. Good idea. However, a botanist and smell expert (!) is quoted as saying the following on the BBC website, which is pretty much identical to what he said on BBC Breakfast this morning...

"Urine and vomit contact harmful bacteria that can make us ill, so our bodies reaction is to protect us from them, so your body tells our smell sensors to avoid them.
"And in the same way, fresh flowers and baked bread contain good bacteria that are good for our bodies, so our smell sensors enjoy them and tell us they're good for us."

He's got a point. Over evolutionary time, the human species (and others, of course) has developed a sense of smell and the brain has developed the short codes "good" and "bad" to warn us away from harmful things, and tempt us towards nourishing or otherwise beneficial things. That is "good science".

However, I really don't for one second believe that bread smells nice because of the good bacteria in it. In fact, I would argue that fresh flowers don't contain that many good bacteria either (I wonder whether Activia get their biffidus digestivum by scraping tulips in spring?). I don't know the authoritatively correct reason for why we perceive flowers as smelling nice - but I could take a guess that it's something to do with flowers growing in similar places to food, or something equally sensible. I am absolutely sure it's nothing to do with flowers containing good bacteria.

It's not so much that people believe such twaddle (or indeed, are paid to spout it) but the fact that the BBC put this "expert" on the TV and he spoke with authority and it's perfectly possible that most of the people watching will believe what he says and that's what irritates me.

Rant over. Sorry about that. I must stop watching TV, it's bad for me.


  1. Hm - irrespective of bacteria, I would refer the botanist to this entry for skatole.

    "Skatole or 3-methylindole is a mildly toxic white crystalline organic compound belonging to the indole family. It occurs naturally in feces (it is produced from tryptophan in the mammalian digestive tract), and coal tar, and has a strong fecal odor. In low concentrations it has a flowery smell and is found in several flowers and essential oils, including those of orange blossoms, jasmine, and Ziziphus mauritiana. It is used as a fragrance and fixative in many perfumes and as an aroma compound. Its name is derived from the Greek root skato- meaning "dung". "

    It is irritating that there seems to be no easy way of countering guff that is promoted in MSM.


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