Spread the word about chemistry & don’t fret the chemophobia


At times chemists can feel rather maligned. But according to the RSC’s study of the UK public’s perceptions of chemistry we shouldn’t be quite so worried about what people think of us.  We do however need to get out there and let people know what we do.

The other sciences seem to get pride of place in the medias science pages and TV shows. Whilst chemistry has no celebrity singing it’s praises, not a single chemist made it into Science Magazines  50 science stars on Twitter, and chemistry news just doesn’t get the same coverage as the big physics projects (even when the physics project was all about landing a chemistry lab on a comet).

As a profession we think we do some pretty important work. After all every modern pharmaceutical, synthetic material, cleaning product, fuel, battery, ink and electronic device contains our handy work. Which is why we get upset when an advertising campaign emblazons the dreaded words “Chemical-free’ across some product or another.  Or the likes of The Food Babe, decides to start an uniformed campaign against an additive based on little more than the fact she can’t pronounce it.

Sometimes we (I) throw our toys about the pram and start ranting about how everything is made of chemicals and how chemophobia is rife. God knows bloggers have written enough posts about it, including a comical ‘paper’ in Nature Chemistry. However, we should settle down, because the Royal Society of Chemistry has commissioned a comprehensive study of UK public’s perceptions of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. And it seems many of those (mine included) irate blog posts got it wrong.

I’ve been able cogitate about what it all means as I got an an advanced copy of the findings and have had time to discuss them with the RSC. So here’s my potted summary and a few conclusions.

Perceptions of perceptions of chemistry: First off the RSC asked it’s members about how they thought the public perceived chemistry. And sure enough most expected a negative attitude. The fear of chemophobia amongst chemists was certainly commonplace. But when the RSC turned to the public chemophobia didn’t materialise in anywhere near the expected levels. Instead …

Perceptions of chemicals:Chemophobia is not commonplace. Less than 20% of the public thought that all chemicals are dangerous or harmful. Most people really didn’t have strong feelings about chemicals one way or another. And 60% knew that everything is made of chemicals. This is despite the use of ‘chemical’ to mean something dangerous being very common.

Perceptions of chemistry: Here 59% believe the benefits of chemistry are greater than any harmful effects (as compared to 55% for science). And once again most people were pretty neutral about chemistry as a subject.

Perceptions of chemists: It turns out people just don’t know what we do. This is made all the worse, in the UK, by retail pharmacists being universally known as chemists.

Don’t fret the chemophobia

There’s an important message here about what’s going on when ‘chemical’ is used pejoratively. For most people ‘chemical’ has a double meaning. So we shouldn’t get upset when ‘chemical’ is used as a short hand for toxin or poison. I know I’ve written plenty that’s contrary to this, but the RSC’s study has really changed my thinking. People are quite capable of holding two meanings of ‘chemical’ in their minds and we should just try and ignore the use of the one that soooooo grates. In fact it may even be counter productive to try and combat our perceived misuse of ‘chemicals’. As the RSC study puts it…

“People’s views of chemicals do not impact their view of chemistry or chemists. But if chemists talk about chemicals all the time, especially in trying to combat inaccuracies in the views of others – we risk activating existing fears.”

Chemists aren’t being tarnished with the chemicals = danger association. But by continually banging on about how chemicals are in everything we run the risk of being alienating our audience. Luke Gammon put’s it very well.

Don’t denigrate, belittle or “punch-down” – remember to laugh with, not at – lest we lose the battle for the public perception of “chemicals”.

So here’s me hanging up my #chemophobia hash-tag. And conceding that Luke, Renee and Chemtacular probably had the right idea (check our their blogversation)

There’s a void we need to fill

However the overwhelming message is that there is a void in the public’s perceptions of what it is we do. And it’s a gap that we should all do our best to fill. That means that we all need to do our bit, whether on social media, in blogs or even at parties. We can all tell people about what we do. There’s a great appetite for science out there, we shouldn’t assume that people aren’t interested in what chemists get up too and we certainly shouldn’t fear a negative reaction from them.

To go along with the study the RSC have also published a communications toolkit which summaries their main findings and contains some tips for how to get the wonders of chemistry across. Please go and take a look and then spread the word.

And join in the discussion on twitter with the hash-tag #chemperceptions.



  1. a pharmacist says:

    Look at Table 3.1 (p. 40) of http://www.rsc.org/globalassets/04-campaigning-outreach/campaigning/public-attitudes-to-chemistry/public-attitudes-to-chemistry-research-report.pdf?id=8495

    Since the people surveyed lived in the UK, they confused chemist with pharmacist. Were the people surveyed told what chemists actually do after answering this question/before answering any other questions? If not, then I don’t think we can take anything away from this survey…

  2. Hi “a pharmacist” – yes, I can confirm that we gave respondents our definitions of chemistry and of chemists after they’d answered the initial “top-of-mind” questions.

  3. a pharmacist says:

    Hi Jon, I still don’t think one can conclude very much from a single, small survey in which most of the interviewees didn’t know the difference between a chemist and a pharmacist…

    • Either the perceptions of chemists (in the UK) is that they are pharmacists or in general people don’t know what chemists do. In either case it is important that chemical scientists raise the profile of the profession, otherwise we risk the void being filled with something that we have no control over.

  4. a pharmacist says:

    After being asked in the public survey where chemists work they were read the following definition of a chemist to try to move people away from any stereotypes that might prevail: A CHEMIST is a scientist who uses their knowledge of chemistry to understand what things are made of, create new materials and solve everyday problems with chemistry. Chemists work in a wide range of diverse settings, from developing new drugs, materials, flavours and even skin care products, to helping solve crime using forensic analysis.

    You could also argue that this definition may have unintentionally (positively) biased the interviewees.

  5. Duncan McDougall says:

    After I read this posting I took a quick look at the “Chemical Free Kids” site – I must admit, it was just before dinner time and I did not want to spoil my appetite. However, once I’d got past being indignant and stopped laughing, I had an idea:

    Why can’t we have a reality TV show – call it “Chemical Free World” – where 100 families try to live without chemicals for 100 days? Get one of the US cable companies to run it and have each family put up a bond of $10,000. Whoever makes it to the end of 100 days divides up the $1M; if nobody does, the money goes to a selection of children’s charities.

    Let them have food and water (but mention before every meal that food is made up of chemicals and that you couldn’t have food or potable water without the use of chemicals). Beyond that, let’s have an oversight committee consisting of two people from chemical companies, two senior people from Greenpeace and a chemistry professor to give a casting vote if needed. Their job is to decide whether the poor saps are allowed to use anything other than food and water (like soap, or alcohol, or anything made of plastic). I bet most times there would be a unanimous “no” vote.

    It might be interesting to see how many of our volunteers get past the end of the second week.

  6. Duncan has a great idea! But yeah people worry too much even though they will never be free from chemicals. And I laugh really loudly at those perceptions. Thanks for the post!

  7. Most people don’t realize that a person is a collection of tens of thousands of chemical compounds. We are living chemistry. While the Food Babe continues to spread misunderstanding and fear, we’ll continue to promote science and reason!

  8. Can confirm the phobia. Has a RA I recently got into reseaching the use cases of Nootropics in all their different forms, but I have received weird looks when stating this out loud. We are doing science, nothing more.

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