Tag Archives: biology

Antibiotic confusion in the Wall Street Journal

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have a thing against antibiotics. I love to take them when I have a bacterial infection, but I think it’s a terrible synonym for ‘antibacterial’, an older word that doesn’t confuse people at all. The problem is that people (as in “folks” who are not scientists, doctors, and science journalists) typically assume that antibiotics can treat non-bacterial infections, and this encourages people to demand antibiotics for anything that ails them. Unfortunately (and this is the bigger problem), scientists, doctors, and science journalists don’t think the word is at all confusing, and thus see my issue as completely “irrelevant” to the massive overprescription of antibiotics.

So last week I begged Ben Zimmer (Wall Street Journal) on Twitter to explore the origin of the word “antibiotic”, with the hope that people (folks and otherwise) would listen to him. Here’s his column: A Cure for ‘Antibiotic’ Confusion? It’s short and sweet, so just read it, but here’s my favorite sentence:

In current usage, “antibiotic” is roughly synonymous with “antibacterial,” though technically speaking antibiotics can act on microbes other than bacteria. [italics mine]

Two comments about the column.

First, I wish the article had explored just how common the confusion is. It’s not just that some people are confused. I think most people are confused. Again, I’m talking about “folks”, not the overeducated people who might be reading this nerdy blog post. But to be honest, some of the overeducated people I’ve talked to don’t understand antibiotic specificity, either. Because terrible word.

Second, Zimmer asked two people whether “antibacterial” could ever float as a substitute for “antibiotic”. They answered that it couldn’t because (essentially) the disinfectant lobby would object. That’s an odd reason because just as antibacterial wipes kill bacteriaantibacterial drugs kill bacteria. That’s because they both contain antibacterials, though the sources might differ. Zero conflict. And if there really is a conflict, I think the original use of antibacterial should trump the wipe lobby. People can be flexible about these things. An example is that synthetic antibacterials are called antibiotics … despite a tradition among scientists to view antibiotics as only those substances produced by bacteria.

To be honest, I think the more relevant objection is that it’s really, really hard for older people to avoid a word they have been happily using for decades. Good examples of words that have changed are “life preserver” (now “personal floatation device”) and suntan lotion (now “sunscreen” or “sunblock”), words that will probably only die when we do. But if properly motivated, people can make switches much faster. Two good examples of mandated changes are demonstrated by the employees of BackRub.com and Beaver College, now Google and Arcadia University, respectively. So I think a bunch of PhDs and MDs can summon the power to say “antibacterial” when speaking with impressionable patients. But they’ll only do so if some higher power (CDC, WHO) makes it clear that doing so might reduce overprescription of antibiotics.

I’m not suggesting that we can’t use “antibiotic” under any circumstances, of course. It’s a word that’s too important to just drop outright. It’s probably fine for conferences, publications, and when socializing with people from the powerful wipes lobby.

Thanks, Ben Zimmer!

Here are my previous posts on the topic, if you’re interested.

You keep using the word antibiotic

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Happy birthday, Origin of Species!

On November 24th, 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Eventually shortened (thank, God) to, On the Origin of Species. First editions can easily fetch $200,000 at auction. Not all copies have been accounted for, so check your shelves. This one is owned by the American Philosophical Society, which also has a huge and entertaining collection of translations and even the draft title page that Darwin sent to Lyell. If you’re shopping for a gift for a young science fan, get Dr Jan Pechenik’s version, The Readable Darwin: The Origin of Species, As Edited for Modern Readers

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; First edition of Darwin's Origin of Species

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Origin of Species translations

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Origin of Species draft title page

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Tree of life cake for Charles Darwin

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Photographs from the Galapagos Islands

Just a few Galapagos photographs pulled from my Instagram feed. Click or mouse-over to read captions, and email me if you have any burning questions. I only had a few seconds to take many of these shots because the tour I was on was the regular “forced march” variety, and you’re required to stay in sight of the guide. Would love to go back for a more leisurely visit, ideally with a guide who has impaired mobility and walks slowly. I’ll be posting more pictures in the coming weeks, so follow me on Instagram if you’re a Galapagos fan.

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Stickers for Darwin fans

Come on, science fans, let’s stick together: all you need is a sheet of sticker paper, a printer, and a pair of scissors. Then stick these little Darwins on lunch boxes, laptops, and your friends’ backs. Or pass them out in science classes as geeky prizes for all the little barnacles. It’s his birthday. Show some love.

charles darwin, evolution, science, sticker, has a posse

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Charles Darwin Has A Posse stickers

If you need stickers for Darwin’s birthday (February 12th) I finally got the image up on Redbubble. These stickers are great for kids’ lunch boxes, skateboards, and prizes for biology class. Redbubble claims the stickers will survive 18 months outside, which is great news for those not allowed to bring evolution material inside the house. I’ll eventually put up some translated versions, too, so if you need this in Arabic, be patient.

Charles Darwin Has A Posse stickersIf you’re curious, I designed this image because I wanted a way to show my fondness for evolution but thought the “evolution fish” (the standard image for science and reality fans) was a tad too offensive. More details on my Charles Darwin Has A Posse page.

Charles and Andre the Giant have stickers

Photograph above by Paul Begley (Flickr).

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