1/21/17

How Not To Debate A Chemist



It was with great pleasure that I read the recent exchange on Bigsly's blog between Bibi Maizoon, who holds a B.S. in Organic Chemistry from Stanford University, and the blog's author, who simply peddles a lot of B.S.

As I read Bibi's comment to his recent "Fake Facts" post, I realized that one of my faithful readers really "gets it," and understands what I've been writing for years. Fragrance enjoyment is entirely subjective; there are no rights or wrongs in how you perceive perfume. There is no such thing as a "chemical" fragrance, for all perfumes are chemical compositions. And there is no shame in finding pleasure in popular mass-market designer fragrances like Dior's Sauvage. What you like is entirely yours to enjoy. If the only fragrance you've ever smelled is Chanel No 5, and you absolutely love the stuff, more power to you. It's one of the biggest sellers of all time, and you have settled on something that will always be available to you.

Likewise, if you enjoy oddball cheapies like Jovan's Intense Oud, that's great too, but as Bibi pointed out, understanding that it's not a high quality oud allows you to enjoy it with a deeper knowledge of what you're wearing, and hopefully within a meaningful context. She simply pointed out that if you're a Westerner wearing JIO in the Middle East, you shouldn't be too surprised if your fragrance isn't well received, given the preponderance of more sophisticated oud perfumes in that part of the world. In America you'll be regarded as someone with unique (and probably quite interesting) tastes, but that's because we're not well versed in oud.

Bibi also pointed out that there's nothing "wrong" with Sauvage, a fragrance Bigsly habitually denigrates. It is well received by her wealthier acquaintances, and it continues to be a strong seller for Dior. I would hazard to guess that Sauvage is to Dior what Bleu de Chanel has been - a cash cow! I live in a metropolitan part of the USA, and still haven't encountered anyone wearing Bleu or Sauvage, so I can't say they're overwhelmingly popular. But sales stats would probably prove me wrong. Whenever I wear Bleu, I receive compliments on it. Sauvage probably rates the same for those who wear it.

One of the key points Bibi made is that the term "chemical" means nothing when applied in a general way to how a perfume smells. Her understanding of perfumery seems well aligned with mine: perfumery is the art of creating entirely new (inherently enjoyable) smells that are not found in nature. A truly great perfume is its own one of a kind smell, using mostly synthetic chemicals. One example that I happen to frequently wear and enjoy is Versace's The Dreamer. I wear The Dreamer knowing that it doesn't smell like real lavender, or real tobacco, or real vanilla. It contains lavender, tobacco, and vanilla notes, and I can clearly discern them, but they work together to form an entirely unique accord. I'm not concerned with whether this accord is "natural" or "synthetic." That is not the point of The Dreamer. The point is that nothing else smells like The Dreamer, and it's a very good smell.

Bigsly clearly doesn't understand this. In his retort to Bibi, he wrote:

"The 'trick' of modern perfumery is to use such large amounts of synthetics and yet make most people think it smells 'natural.'"

The problem with his statement is that if this were the "trick," then chemists would never have bothered with synthetics in the first place. Oakmoss and birch tar are great natural fixatives, and chemists would just build on them with other natural essences of floral extracts and musks to compose perfumes, making the entire concept of perfume one of naturalism (and very high retail prices).

But perfumers don't do this. They use synthetics precisely because they enable us to experience smells not found in nature. Bigsly's definition of perfumery suggests that perfumers must "reinvent the wheel" when they enter the lab by laboriously tinkering with vats of chemicals to replicate scents found in nature.

But where in nature can one find the apple note in Cool Water? The violet note in Green Irish Tweed? The citrus melange in Acqua di Gio? These scents are megahits because they smell fake, in a good way.

Bibi's comment implies a criticism of Bigsly's "fragrance chemist," one which is well formed, given the dubious nature of his interview with this anonymous person. What surprises me a little is that he opened himself up to this obvious criticism. He spent years criticizing my blog for lacking "citations," "sources," and "evidence." Eventually I was able to interview an identified veteran of the fragrance industry who supported my positions and refuted his, and Bigsly considered my source "invalid" for reasons that were never specified.

All of that is fine of course - if you dislike me and Jeffrey Dame, then that is your right - but if you argue that Mr. Dame's opinions are invalid, the burden of proof is on you to support your argument, and that is something Bigsly never did. He simply used his personal opinions to counter Mr. Dame's 35 years of professional knowledge. Because Mr. Dame has decades of experience in things Bigsly has no professional understanding of, one can see the obvious problem with Bigsly's attitude toward him. Bigsly is just an anonymous amateur enthusiast. His complaints are akin to a child whining about rules dealt to him by an adult.

Then in 2016 he claimed to interview a fragrance chemist, without disclosing the chemist's identity. I pointed out the obvious problem with this, and Bibi brought it directly to Bigsly. He responded to her by saying:

"If you think I should not have published my interview with this person, despite the background check I did and having an 'expert' review it first to see if there appeared to be any 'red flags,' then you can just state that, but making up 'false facts' (or lies, as I prefer to say) is unacceptable . . . "

This is a smoke and mirrors comment, and the only thing unacceptable here is an unidentified amateur calling a highly educated chemist a liar.

Bigsly is attempting to discredit Bibi's honesty by calling what she says "lies." However, he reveals (perhaps unintentionally) that even he did not know who he was talking to when he interviewed his "chemist." He mentions that he had to background check the person's claims, and have them "reviewed" by a third party. He's basically telling his readers, "I want you to trust this person, even though I do not." If the interview was with a real fragrance chemist with a real place of employment, wouldn't a simple call to his employer suffice? Or was that also anonymous? If so, I would think this level of unnecessary anonymity would be its own "red flag."

That Bigsly doesn't seem to pick up on this makes him seem a little dim, to be honest. I think I can speak for Bibi when I say that neither of us believe he interviewed a real fragrance chemist (she has said as much in comments here anyway). I will concede that it's possible his interview is legitimate, but with no way to verify it, I choose to remain unconvinced, and will withhold further judgement for the day (if it ever comes) when he is allowed to tell the world who he spoke to.

However, Bibi has an advanced degree in organic chemistry, and it seems she sees little factual content in Bigsly's post. And as for his "background check" and his "expert" (who is supposedly the most "well known" fragrance writer in the English language, which implies Luca Turin), these are meaningless assertions without specifics. Bigsly can't even tell us who reviewed the anonymous chemist's claims! That's three degrees of anonymity, including Bigsly himself.

One can only infer that he is unable to verify any of what he wrote, and since the interview suspiciously supports many of his long-held contentions about fragrance, the logical conclusion for any intelligent reader to reach is that the entire thing is fictitious. Add to that a dissenting opinion from an Organic Chemist (who I'm sure would be more than happy to prove herself to anyone who challenges her), and well, Bigsly has a problem.

He published that stuff. It's on him to prove that it's legitimate. To the general public, he has no credibility. Unlike me, he's an anonymous blogger. He could be anybody. For all anyone knows, he could be a professor with a PhD in astrophysics, or he could be a compulsive liar who is just smart enough to not give specific details about himself, or anything he lies about. Without his help, there's no way to know the truth. However, given the glaring holes in his arguments, I feel confident in choosing to believe he isn't a PhD in anything.

When you choose to be completely anonymous on the Internet, you have to convey your message with factual specifics if you wish to be taken seriously. Not wanting to disclose the name of a fragrance chemist you claim to interview is bad enough, but not even wanting to disclose the identity of a supposed "expert" you claim reviewed the interview is even worse.

Add to this the bad pattern of arguing with industry insiders (and people with access to them), and we see how not to debate. I think Bigsly should give up on his ill-advised sparring with experienced insiders, and resume picking on little old me. I don't have a degree in chemistry, nor do I have three decades of industry work under my belt. Call me a "deceiver" all you want, but at least you know my real name, what kind of house I live in, and even what kind of car I drive. Sorry to be so deceptive, I guess I'll have to work on that!




10 comments:

  1. Five points:

    1) Oh dear, I see Bigsly didn't publish my reply asking him what 'chemical' and 'synthetic' smells like. That speaks volumes doesn't it? That is my biggest pet peeve- when people post reviews with such ridiculous descriptions. Just post "this smells yukky" and it would mean the same thing- a 3 yr old could tell you that.

    2) I just spoke with a friend of mine who works for Sephora in Dubai- she says the Arabs LOVE Sauvage and "freshies" are now the rage across the Middle East. Thank Allah because if I have to ride on the plane to Dubai, Qatar, or Bahrain one more time next to someone wearing one of those nuclear oud/rose things or zoo-like animalics I might need to pack a gas mask.

    3) Sauvage smells to me like Bleu & Fierce had a Chinese lovechild (HAH!) What's so surprising that a mainstream design house put out a mainstream fragrance that appeals to the mainstream? Dior certainly isn't niche and I think the Sichuan peppercorns make it a little edgy. Not too edgy as to put off the mainstream public though.

    4) What is the big secret with Bigsly's supposed 'fragrance chemist'? I know a Firmenich trained perfumer and a Givaudan perfumer- they openly brag about their training (and rightly so!) It's a great honor! They also tell me the perfume industry isn't secretive at all. They all went through the same training and know each other. They are like great artists who wouldn't dream of copying another's work - (Picasso wouldn't copy a Van Gogh nor vice versa DUHHH!) What's the point of being secretive? If anyone really want's to know what's in a fragrance for a small fee they can have it analyzed to find out exactly what's in it.

    5) I'm sorry but ambroxan and IES just do not smell harsh, nor synthetic (whatever that is) even at high concentrations. It seems like those are the only 2 synthetics people have heard of so they blame whatever they don't like on ambroxan & IES. The very natural Sichuan peppercorns are very harsh, brusque, and brash in their terpenic lemon peppery-ness. The synthetic dihydromercenol exerts a powerful, fresh lime-like, citrusy-floral and sweet odor with little or no terpenic undertones even at low concentrations. Any higher than 8% and it goes metallic, sharp, and medicinal for HOURS.
    'nuf said.

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    1. I wonder when he'll abandon this idea that fragrances can't develop more intensity in their bottles. Every single Creed I've owned has done this consistently over the course of two years, post purchase. Dozens of people on basenotes and Fragrantica attest to it happening, usually with Creeds. Yet Bigsly clings to this idea that we're all delusional. The majority is meant to discard their own experiences and believe some unproven argument of his claiming that our "sensitivities" change, not the fragrance. Maceration is a non starter. Evaporation is a no go. At this point I feel that short of Bigsly actually buying a new Creed (from Creed) and trying it for himself, I'll never convince him. I'm fairly certain he's never actually done that, though. It's typical of him to argue against something he's never tried. Look at his arguments against Sauvage, for example. They would hold a little more water if he at least gave the stuff a spritz. To date I understand he hasn't even done that much.

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    2. THREE CORE DEFICITS OF ASPERGER SYNDROME
      Weak central coherence: an inability to bring together various details from perception to make a meaningful whole
      Executive dysfunction: impairment or deficits in the higher-order processes that enable us to plan, sequence, initiate, and sustain our behavior towards some goal, incorporating feedback and making
      adjustments along the way.
      Theory of mind deficit: an inability to recognize that other people have thoughts, feelings and intentions
      that are different to one's own, and an inability to intuitively guess what these might be
      (I have a cousin who is an Aspie. He has been a grad student for 20 yrs at UCLA. He choses not to deal with his cognitive deficits but believes himself to be a misunderstood genius. Sound familiar?)

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    3. Maybe, but I think we're just dealing with a stubborn and self-defeating kind of person here, the sort who chronically labels himself and others while ignoring what his own senses cannot account for. Could be Asperger's, but I have extensive experience working with that topic myself, and I don't see it here. There's a little too much of some hard to pin down quality that makes me think so, but I can't express that here.

      His latest edit to his response to your comment pretty much seals the deal. Painting yourself in a black hole of logic-free nonsense? Why not whip out links to blog articles that expound on the generally low-key trend of the Asian fragrance market! Meanwhile, let's miss the whole point my reader made about two specific BRANDS - Hermes and Dior - being bestsellers in Asia, and pretend that somehow this means 100% of the popular fragrances in every Asian country eschew bold, spicy notes, like the pepper in Sauvage. (I think I mistakenly thought that was black or pink pepper in my own assessment, somewhere.)

      This is another thing proponents of "fake news" do quite often - that take a very hardline stance on micro arguments, when a moderate position will more than do. Are the majority of Japanese clients interested in watery pastel scents? Yes, but that's mainly Japan, and I don't think you were just addressing Japan in your comment. Other countries, like India for example, embrace spicy orientals. Old Spice is a major, major hit in India. I have the current stuff from India, and it's loaded with pepper. It's more piquant than the OS we use here in the USA. So clearly pastel fresh frags aren't the only thing Asians are interested in.

      I happen to be friends with an Israeli man who commented to me a few years back that the general trends in product consumption in Tel Aviv mirrored the tastes in Western Europe and America. He even warned me about dead accurate counterfeits from Israel flooding the American market, particularly with clothing and accessories. I believe Israel is technically part of Asia.

      What confuses me the most about this "dialogue" between our blogs is how despite overwhelming first-person accounts contradicting his position, Bigsly will still insist that his singular notion is the only correct one.

      He should have kept his mouth shut five years ago when he insulted my sense of smell. Had he done that, his blog would probably have been more popular and mired down by far fewer losing positions.

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    4. For the most part Japanese tastes in perfume are 'low key' - look at all the wan or delicate Hermes' Le Jardin collection and the huge worldwide Terre d'Hermes. I sell Buddhist art & sell to many wealthy Japanese- their tastes in fragrance are- yuzu/citrusy things like Clinique's Happy, a very harsh and soapy Taif rose as in Anna Sui stuff, hinoki or Japanese cypress, and rather camphorous incense things. Sansho (the Japanese variety of Sichuan peppercorn) is used in many different Japanese foods and the fragrant leaves are used as decoration- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanthoxylum_piperitum
      People like what's familiar to them so maybe the Sichuan peppercorn note was genius to appeal to the Asian market?
      Also the fragrances Asians like tend to be clean, as in sinus searing, relentlessly, eye wateringly, antiseptically CLEAN (ie the camphor, rose, citrusy stuff I noted above.) Nothing dark, funky, or even mildly suggestive of dirtiness.
      Israel's in Africa (technically). Israelis & Arabs do a lot of EXCELLENT copies.
      Anyhoo, you can read the predominantly Arab reviews raving about Sauvage on the Souq- http://uae.souq.com/ae-en/sauvage-by-christian-dior-for-men-eau-de-toilette-100ml-9116326/i/?a_source=google&a_medium=cpc&a_content=remarketing&a_type=image&a_campaign=REMARKETING-DYNAMIC-UAE-EN&gclid=CJGev4XA3NECFdOGaAodMD0IPQ

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  2. I also haven't smelled Bleu, Sauvage, and Invictus in most typical, day to day settings. But at the bars and clubs I frequent, almost every time I hug or do the double/triple cheek kiss with someone, I smell those. Surprisingly enough, Aventus (or Aventus clones; I don't think the original is leaps and bounds better than the copycats) is up there too.

    Bibi, the funny thing is,not only are they not harsh smelling, Molecule 01 and the ambroxan one are really well received. Molecule 01 is the opposite of harsh and barely even feels like you're smelling a perfume, even though it's not weak, if that makes sense (I haven't smelled the ambroxan one, so I'm not sure if it's similar that way)

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    1. TLM-
      JHAG's Not a Perfume (Cetalox) is just as faint. After about 20 minutes it gets stronger but it's still a very VERY understated woodsy musk. In fact Romano Ricci's ad states "a modern day fragrance that is 100% synthetic and created without allergens." (Most people don't realize that natural substances are far more allergenic than synthetics due to the many different molecules. More different molecules = more opportunities for sensitization.)

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    2. Yeah this crap about being sensitive to Iso E and Ambroxan (and other synthetics) is another terrific example of "fake facts/fake news."

      Iso E Super is a very, very mild chemical. It rarely inhabits top notes (if ever), definitely comes out in mid to later development in compositions, and usually does not constitute its own definitive "note," as it is instead used to "hilight" other notes. It adds some texture, creates added depth and warmth, etc. I notice it frequently in Bleu de Chanel, where it basically upholds the vetiver note in the rather woodsy base accord - and honestly the vetiver is far more noticeable because of the Iso E element. Would I ever say that this would "irritate" other people? Look, anything is possible, I suppose there are some people out there who have a genuine negative psychical reaction to Iso E Super. But 99.9% of the population will have no genuine physical reaction to something as spare and understated (and simple) as this material is.

      Bibi is correct in pointing out that natural materials are far more dangerous. The only allergies I've ever experienced were with fragrances that were actually more natural than not, like vintage Halston 1-12, for example, where a combination of too much oakmoss and some other floral ingredient (I suspect, as I find it mostly in feminine scents) made the wearing experience all but impossible for me. 1-12 (from ten to fifteen years ago) was a rather busy composition, full of natural elements that are themselves loaded with potentially offensive molecules that aren't found in more uniform synthetics.

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  3. It's also similar with other natural vs synthetic things. I don't know if there are some synthetic allergens, but by and large, I mostly hear about the natural ones. Foods, flowers, pollens, dander, fur etc. I don't know why people think "natural" is so great.
    (I'm not a chemist though, so take whatever I say with a grain of salt)

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    1. Naturals and synthetics are inherently neither good, great, or bad, or terrible. It's what the perfumer can do with them that matters. I have two fragrances that are almost entirely natural, with only a handful of synthetics to bolster their quality, both by perfume house Garner James. One is almost 100% sandalwood, and I've developed a mild allergy to it. The other is a heady green/woody thing called Nature Boy that still works for me and smells terrfiic, but only because it was made with the highest level of skill imaginable. This stuff is incredible, I mean it.

      Any orthodoxies that cling to one or the other, naturals or synthetics, isn't well thought out in my opinion.

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