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Feb 10

The Blogversation Continues: A New Approach to the Fear of Chemicals and for a Course of Action

by Chemtacular | Categories: chemical education | (102312 Views)

This post is part of an on-going dialogue between chemists on Twitter in an effort to unite the chemistry community do something about negative portrayal of chemicals in a positive and productive manner. I responded to Renee Webster’s kick off post and we’ve gotten a lot of excellent feedback both on Twitter and from bloggers. I’d like to respond to all these amazing ideas by way of a response to bloggers Dr. Dorea Reeser (Chemicals Are You Friends) and Dr. Luke Gamon (A Radical Approach) who have upped the ante with their contributions to the blogversation. These posts are a wake-up call to the chemistry community by way of a completely new take on the situation.

Before I read these responses I wanted to figure out what to call the fear of chemicals in such a way that it didn’t lend itself to ridiculing people’s legitimate fear. I’ve argued that (#)chemophobia not only falls short of this but it perpetuates a negative image of chemicals. There was also the matter that (#)chemophobia inaccurately describes the way that the media and advertising capitalizes on this fear. I joined other chemists on Twitter in their search for alternatives but felt odd with our second attempt: (#)chemsploitation. Why is a term/hash-tag so important? I am of the opinion that it provides a way of checking that we do not damage our credibility with the way we represent ourselves. These responses elegantly change the focus on the debate on whether or not we need to get rid of (#)chemophobia.

Dr. Reeser explains that she avoids using the term chemophobia because it sends out the wrong message and because to those outside the debate and non-chemists, the term suggests something having to do with chemotherapy. She proposes the term/hash-tag (#)ChemMisConcept both to describe those that fear chemicals and those that perpetuate that fear. It meets all the criteria that I discussed in my previous response and has the added bonus of working in all contexts. The concept of chemical misconception(s) is as specific as it gets and this changes the way we approach the real problem: the fear of chemicals. This fear of chemicals is very real and rational considering that people have these misconceptions given the information they can access. Dr. Reeser reminds us that we have to acknowledge that chemical(s) include: dangerous substances which we should have a healthy fear of; substances where the danger depends on the dosage and those substances that are completely harmless. I agree that it is our job as chemists to explain which is which.

 

Dr. Gamon* agrees with Dr. Reese when he states that the energy that’s going into debating the word could be put to better use. He calls all chemists to take action with a cool head and in a respectful way and I couldn’t agree more. (#)Chemophobia just doesn’t serve this purpose and the term has outlived its use. Dr. Gamon reminds us that we are all brand ambassador, and I agree that we need to act like if we are going to take back the word chemical.

 

Dr. Gamon’s response agrees with a post Dr. Reeser directly cites, and I would be remiss for not addressing Chemophobia-phobia by Dr. Chad Jones* (@TheCollapsedPsi). Dr.Jones also suggest that we should hold ourselves, government agencies and other chemist/companies to higher standards. Education/information, policies and enforcement should be directly informed by evidence-based chemistry. I’d add that as chemists we need to make sure that this evidence is accurate. Dr. Jones and I don’t necessarily agree on our approach (we battle it out in #chemopocalypse, a podcast prosposed by @Chemjobber and had under the supervision of @ScienceIsntScary [link pending]) but I am 100% behind this idea.

 

Whether we have two terms to accurately define how people use the word chemical, is still insufficient to get chemists to act instead of react. In our pod cast, Dr. Jones warns that when we take on another term (say #chemsploitation) we run the risk of falling into the same attitudes as before. So as catchy as the catch phrases we have are, and whether or not we make sure to use them respectfully, they are still not inspiring action to reclaim the word chemical. Let’s retire them, accurately address the misconception and with taking back the word chemical.

 

Thus far @CompounChem’s marvelous info graphics are an excellent start. I enjoy them as a chemist and the non-chemists I’ve shown them to have loved understanding a little more about the chemicals that they enjoy every day (coffee, etc). They are a great way to start discussions. I am open to more ideas on how we can start educating folks about what chemical (and other appropriated words) really means, thoughts? What are some ways we can start doing this now? The more ideas we have, the merrier, and the more resources that we have to talk with different audiences. Do any non-chemists out there have suggestions for what they would like to see?

*The people that I refer to as doctors here have their doctorates or are close enough for me to respectfully add the title.

2 comments

4 pings

  1. BobChem

    I taught a high-school chemistry course for several years with an organization called Upward Bound. During that time I fielded numerous questions about the dangers of chemicals and the accuracy of what was reported on the news. In response to these questions and concerns I developed a short learning module for my students. One of the key elements to success was not only choosing ingredients that had chemical sounding names but also things like “sugar” and vitamins.

    1. Pick a food item from your home, something that comes in a plastic wrapper with the ingredients clearly listed and bring it in.

    2. Take 15 minutes and have the students read some of the names from the ingredient list on back of their food labels. Write them on the chalk-board. Have the students pick one of the compounds from their food wrapper.

    3. Take the list of approved compounds and print out MSDS sheets for the student’s respective compounds, hand these out the next day.

    4. Do some basic internet research on it. This process was a week long research project where we would spend 15 – 20 minutes every other day talking about what students found, the problems they were encountering in their research, and how to best utilize the sources that they had uncovered.

    5. Finish the assignment with a short 1 page report on all of the information that they had gathered, including conflicting findings, basic nutritional information, “whack-job” articles, everything.

    What this accomplished: by the end of the assignment most of the students were surprised to find that almost everything, vitamins, additives, natural products, dyes, etc. all had lethal dosages associated with them. Many of them contained some risk of cancer or were purported to at some website or another. This prompted the discussion “the poison is in the dosage”. Almost everyone turned up several whack-job articles saying that their compound was either going to out-right destroy the population or that it would cure you of everything from strep throat to incontinence. This prompted the discussion “evaluating good science and research” where the students rated the articles they wrote about based on several criteria, including citation of primary sources, words that were associated with emotional bias (I had the help of the English teacher on this one), and good versus bad science (think water with a bond angle of 114 degrees).

    After this whole process was finished, I don’t think I changed any eating habits. What did change was the way the students thought about the information that was being presented to them by the news media, food companies and even their own families. It also developed their ability to do research and evaluate ideas by tracking down different sources, thus giving them the tools to find information that was mostly reliable and convey what it meant to others around them. Many of them admitted to not really knowing what a chemical was before, even though it was something that had been mentioned in all of their science classes. While we didn’t wipe out chemophobia in all of them, we did learn some critical thinking skills necessary to withstand the onslaught of chemophobic messages.

  2. Tatvachintan

    Interesting! :D

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