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Clever About Chemicals

They are so, so clever in Cambridge, England. The Royal Society of Chemistry there has mocked an advertisement for organic fertilizer which claimed that it was “100% chemical free”. How is that possible, the Royal Society snickered, when every material that exists is made of chemicals? The RSC, to make its point, offered a prize of one million pounds “to the first member of the public who could place in my hands any material I consider 100% chemical free.”

I understand what the Royal Society of Chemistry is trying to do. They’re attempting to shift the focus in popular language away from a one definition of the word “chemicals” to a more formal, and limited definition – the definition that the Royal Society prefers.

The problem that the Royal Society of Chemistry fails to address is that language doesn’t operate as predictably as a chemical interaction. Language contains multiple meanings that shift according to context.

The Royal Society of Chemistry knows exactly what was meant by the word “chemical” in that organic fertilizer advertisement, and so do the rest of us. We all know that the advertisement’s use of the word “chemical” was meant to refer to artificial chemicals – compounds synthesized by humans. Perhaps it would have been better for the advertisement to have made itself more clear in that regard, but no one would believe that the fertilizer actually had no chemical compounds whatsoever.

The problem with the Royal Society of Chemistry, as with so many royal societies before it, is that it believes that its own ideas are the only proper standard by which all other realms can be measured. They want to pretend that there is only one correct definition for the word chemical, and refuse to accept that folk definitions are equally valid within their own settings.

To teach them a lesson, I am hereby offering the Royal Society of Chemistry the material of this article, entitled Clever About Chemicals. The material of this article does not reside in any one place. It isn’t just on the computer servers of It gets transported, in a chemical-free state, around the world, whenever anybody reads it. Even when the material of this article gets to a certain computer, the actual substance, the material, of the article is conceptually distinct from the chemically-based display of it.

Would the Royal Society of Chemistry claim that this argument is immaterial – irrelevant, because the material is not placed literally in the hands of its leadership? To do so, the Royal Society would have to admit that arguments can potentially be material, and lose the larger argument.

Besides that, there’s more than one meaning to the phrase “in my hands”. The Royal Society of Chemistry cannot issue a public challenge such as this without accepting the complexity of public language.

I would like my one million pounds now, please. I have responded to the challenge. The material of this decision is now in the hands of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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