Impeccable Science: the perils of hot tea

Today’s impeccable science comes from the 1841 volume A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School.

This book has some great advice (eat your vegetables, remember to bathe, don’t drug your babies when they start crying), some dubious advice (treat arsenic poisoning with huge quantities of sugar water, wake up at dawn if you want to be a good American, don’t let babies wear hats), and some downright bad advice (don’t read books unless you want to be mentally ill, and don’t give books to smart children unless you want them to experience “suffering, derangement, disease, and death”).

Our treatise, in the section on healthful food and drink, talks at great length about warm and stimulating beverages. For instance: don’t give your children a lot of sugary coffee (check!), don’t drink too much caffeine if you’re prone to nervousness (check!), and don’t drink very hot tea unless you want all of your teeth to fall out (huh?).

The warning against excessive steaming tea isn’t too far out in left field, as there have been numerous studies noting that scaldingly-hot caffeinated beverages in enormous quantity can cause health problems ranging from esophageal cancer and prostate cancer to bone brittleness and skeletal fluorosis. That said, the book’s Impeccable Science stems from its taking this reasonable premise to a completely illogical conclusion.

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This stern warning begins by describing how, obviously, “if any person should hold a finger in hot water, for a considerable time, twice every day, it would be found that the finger would gradually grow weaker”. (I’ll admit that I haven’t tested this to see if it’s true.)

If you haven’t been too derailed by the image of giving your finger a daily hot water bath, you’ll notice that what follows is somewhere between xenophobic, dentally questionable, and outright incorrect.

The frequent application of the stimulus of heat, like all other stimulants, eventually causes debility. If, therefore, a person is in the habit of drinking hot drinks twice a day, the teeth, throat, and stomach are gradually debilitated… It has been stated to the Writer, by an intelligent traveller, who visited Mexico, that it was rare to meet an individual with a good set of teeth; and that almost every grown person, he met in the street, had only remnants of teeth. On inquiry into the customs of the country, it was found, that it was the universal practice to take their usual beverage almost at the boiling point; and this, doubtless, was the chief cause of the almost universal want of teeth in that Country.

Dear so-called “intelligent traveller”: I’m not sure where you found and surveyed an entire country’s worth of toothless Mexicans, and even if you did encounter some dental atrocities in your travels, your scientific approach is, at best, a fine example of illusory correlation.

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Now I’m going to go drown my sorrows in a cup of black tea. Don’t try to stop me.

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