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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When is an experiment not an experiment?

Online video is a great teaching tool, but even great teaching moments can potentially mislead. One of the fun staples of chemistry "wow" is the reaction of concentrated sulfuric acid and plain sugar (sucrose). In this friendly video, Bucky uses pretty good cinematography to show the dramatic effects of sucrose breaking down in the presence of concentrated sulfuric acid. And kudos for emphasizing the safety gear to have around when working with a concentrated acid.

While entertaining, he makes the repeated mistake of calling these "experiments". This is one of those situations where the trappings of science are used in stark opposition to the process of science. Bucky vaguely makes some observations about the surface area of the different forms of sugar, but doesn't really formulate any hypotheses. His "experiments" lacked appropriate controls (after all, without a hypothesis to be tested, what's the point of a control?), and were imprecise (no measurements are taken) so replication is not even a consideration.

These serve to illustrate a known observation in science (the breakdown of sucrose), but doesn't really educate viewer about the scientific method - or why it is trustworthy. It is no different that doing magic tricks, and naive viewers can conflate the two.

For a better understanding of the scientific process using cooking, following Bethany Brookshire's Cookie Science postings is a much better bet.

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