The Antidote rescues class from toxic misconceptions

By Sean Morrison

“There is a method to the madness,” said the man in a red cape, ski goggles, shorts with tights, a half-dozen wristbands and a bicycle helmet.

His shirt bore a broad “A” crushing a skull and crossbones. His side pocket held a calculator, as if the device were a grappling hook or other Batman-esque gadget.

Tim Evans, also known as The Antidote, picked this getup and alter ego as a way to make his area of research, toxicology, more digestible to the average person.

“I’m used to dressing like this,” he said. “That’s a little scary.”

MU associate professor of toxicology Tim Evans presents on misconceptions within his field and science as a whole. | Sara Shipley Hiles

MU associate professor of toxicology Tim Evans presents on misconceptions within his field and science as a whole. | Sara Shipley Hiles

Evans, an associate professor at MU and 2013 Kemper Fellow, uses the outfit to draw attention to problems in people’s understanding of science. Evans has presented to audiences from UM System President Tim Wolfe to junior high school science student in an effort to shake biases and misconceptions.

“Every experiment I’ve ever done has never turned out the way I expected,” Evans said during a presentation Tuesday to the MU Science, Health and Environmental Writing class. “I’ve determined that’s why there’s an R-E in front of search: Because you’ve got to do it again.”

Evans pointed out that toxic substances such as radiation and pesticides are frequently in the news. Yet everything is toxic — even water — depending on the dose, Evans said. It’s up to scientists and those who report on them to provide context to each experiment and its results.

“Because it happened in a mouse, is it going to happen in a human?” he said. “There’s a lot of experiments today that they do it in a mouse, they get a result, they do it in a rat, they get a different result. … I don’t have a problem with some of these things being simplified and perhaps oversimplified as long as someone makes a qualifying statement.”

Beware of words like “always” and “never,” Evans said, when discussing scientific results. People should know the difference between correlation and causation and understand that even peer reviewed works might not be as highly scrutinized as they should be. Evans suggested referring back to original sources, checking for validity within the study, and making sure the scope matches up with the assertions made by the conclusions.

“How do we interpret what’s fact or fiction?” he said. “What’s the mechanism we use?”

Those questions, posed by a superhero, scientist or journalist, are integral to our understanding of the world around us. They are also a way to distinguish the correct solution from those based on presumptions, a lack of context or some inherent bias.

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