The most common element in our bodies

My copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma reads,

Carbon is the most common element in our bodies—indeed, in all living things on earth. (20)

In fact, the human body is about 65% oxygen and 18% carbon by weight. If we look at the number of atoms, carbon ranks third, behind hydrogen and oxygen.

This error doesn’t appear to have grave implications for Pollan’s larger point. Nonetheless, I find it troubling. It bothers me precisely because the information is so elementary. I distinctly recall learning from a textbook in my fourth-grade class that I was mostly oxygen, so I’d certainly hope that a science journalist writing about biochemistry would be familiar with it.

Maybe Pollan was well aware that oxygen accounted for most of our body weight, and this just somehow happened anyway. Mistakes happen. But if The Omnivore’s Dilemma had been carefully reviewed before publication by people who were knowledgeable about the relevant material, it’s hard to imagine that an error this basic would have slipped through.

This doesn’t discredit the entire book, of course, but it will influence my reading of the rest of it. If Pollan doesn’t accurately represent the things that are familiar to me as a layperson, it’s much more difficult to trust the deeper scientific claims that he makes. It’s entirely possible that these claims are correct, but I’ll want to do some research and see for myself. This is a task that will be made difficult by the absence of citations, but I’ll do what I can.

For what it’s worth, a later printing of the book, previewable on Google Books, makes a sort of correction,

After water, carbon is the most common element in our bodies…

I know what he’s trying to say here, but I still have to quibble. I read this to means, “Water is the most common element in our bodies, and carbon is the second most common element in our bodies.” This, of course, is nonsense because water is not an element. Pollan would like us to be excluding water not from the list of elements but from the bodies in which we rank the elements. This is arguably more of a language error than a content error, so I won’t say anything more about it.

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