Dirty Germs

Shocking Science

When I was a teen our dentist told me that our mouth was the dirtiest opening in our body, dirtier than the anus. Now how am I supposed to believe he knows that, I wondered. I also assumed he meant harboring bacteria by “dirty.” I didn’t ask him: my mouth was jammed open by his paraphernalia.

Now, loving my reading of Bill Bryon’s At Home, I see a claim that the toilet seat in the average home harbors fewer germs than than home’s kitchen counter.

Uh … I think more than one professional, more than one expert, more than one journalist in this society digs shock value.

How quickly, simply, can I emphasize that my thoughts here impinge on a whole constellation of things:

Germ theory is relatively recent in human consciousness. We never heard of the wee beasties before Leeuwenhoek, weren’t afraid of them before Pasteur.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, b. 1632

Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma (1907) made fun of the doctors of the early Twentieth Century believing that germs caused illness: germs were present in great numbers in the healthy as well as in the diseased. I don’t doubt that there is a relationship between microbes and disease but it’s far more complex than the hit-the-eight-ball-into-the-corner-pocket causality of the public mind.



At the dentist’s I didn’t doubt that human (and other) mouths teemed with micro-life. I don’t doubt that some of that life can relate to some disease. I also don’t want anything to do with expert morons like Skinner putting his daughter in a sterile box and keeping her there.

BF Skinner's Baby Box

BF Skinner’s Baby Box

Geniuses can be just as stupid as ordinary people, sometimes stupider. Shaw is right: doctors, any experts, can lead the public in error more readily than in wisdom. (Like any of us, they do both.) I don’t doubt that the scientist that Bryson cited actually counted bacteria on someone’s else’s toilet seat and counted bacteria on someone else’s kitchen counter; but I know that she didn’t count any bacteria on my toilet seat or on my kitchen counter: she’s never been here. Did she test your house? Watch out for statistics that aren’t tied to information about the sampling selection. Many a scientist, many a statistician, knows what they’re doing, but few readers do: and the statisticians should be constantly reminding us.

Bryson’s treatment of the history of houses, homes … privacy is marvelous. He’s good at tracing how much thought can go into inventing a mouse trap while how little thought goes into how we deal with body functions, accumulated effects of population … Yes, I knew that flushed toilets bloom the whole house with fecal bacteria, a zillion times more if the lid is up, and I very well know how few people know it. But I also know that we’ve lived a long time with our mouths, and our anuses … and our publics, lurching this way and that.

Hey, wait a minute: that dentist wasn’t hinting … Nah.

Oh: and Bryson’s very good on bats! We’ve driven them near extinction: and they eat the insects which carry the germs! Meantime, scientists, journalists … me … love shock value. and dirt. and life.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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2 Responses to Dirty Germs

  1. Muge says:

    Skinner’s main objective was to get rid of all the extra clothing and blankets infants are wrapped in while they sleep, making them uncomfortable and blocking their movements during sleep (even causing death when too tight). He created a temperature controlled crib so his daughter would be able to sleep with the minimum amount of layers. The crib also circulated the air, which protected her from the germs other people would bring in near her crib. I wouldn’t exactly call him a “moron”, but maybe an innovator.

  2. pk says:

    Thanks, Muge, quite right.
    Regularly I’m a little loose with the “moron” word (I insist I have a right if anyone does), but please know that in this case at least, re: Skinner, that I was goofing on Ivan Illich tagging Skinner as “stupid” from the podium at Fordham.
    In Illich’s context of the moment, Illich was right on. (Illich was blackbrushing our dependence on experts where the experts are selected by other experts: churches, universities, AMAs … as distinct from experience!

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