#chemophobia Blogversation Part 2: Turning around public perception on chemicals and chemistry

This is the second post in response to a conversation started by @chemtacular and @reneewebs (see an excellent summary by Reneé Webster of the conversation so far).

In October last year, Chemistry World wrote an article on chemophobia which asked “Is it the role of industry, working academic scientists or communicators to do the repair work?”. My view (as an academic scientist) is that we must all take on this responsibility. As a PhD student who relies solely on federal government funding (via taxes) I see science communication as a public duty. It is our responsibility to inform, educate and encourage the next generation of scientists as well as the general public.

We’ve all been challenged by @chemtacular, in her post on chemistry-blog.com to suggest a “course of action” to combat chemophobia and encourage education about chemicals. So, what can we do as individuals and what can we do as a community? Also, how can we encourage future generations and engage with the wider adult public?

Here is a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his New York Times bestselling book “The Black Swan”:

When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.

I see the central message here being about empowerment through access to information. It is up to us to provide the public with as much accurate information about chemistry as possible. We cannot simply correct those who are wrong, we must engage the wider community at local, national and international levels. Remember, knowledge is power.

There are many simple things we can do as individuals – write a blog, engage with your friends, family and even people you meet on the street! Tell them about the great chemicals in their everyday lives and ask them about their fears and concerns. “What’s the first word that pops into your head when I say the word ‘chemical’?”

Now, lets think bigger. Ask your local chemistry department about public outreach events or organise your own (Chemistry of chocolate or beer is always a hit!). Perhaps write an opinion piece for the local newspaper or appear on a local tv/radio program. In Melbourne there is a group called Laneway Learning which organises accessible “cheap fun classes in anything and everything”, including “The Delicious Science of Baking” and “Solar Power – how it works”. They’re always looking for people who might want to teach a class. There are so many opportunities for modern science communication. Go and find out what’s happening in your city.

We are part of a diverse, international and highly passionate online community of chemists (as evidenced by Reneé Webster in her excellent summary of the #chemophobia conversation). It is imperative that we leverage this network in our efforts to repair the public image of chemistry. We need to think big. What can we  do as a collective to stimulate change on a national or international level?

The West Virginia chemical spill is a good example of where lack of information spreads fear. An obscure chemical leaked into the rivers of WV and flowed downstream to taint the water supply. Residents were left confused and scared for hours. The online chemistry community scrambled for toxicity data on 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). As it turns out, Eastman Chemical had performed a ‘suite’ of toxicity studies in the 1980s/1990s and has since released this information. We, as a community, need to encourage the public release of this kind of information. Internationally our laws and regulations regarding industrial chemicals should be robust and we can play a role in identifying problems in these policies.

Image from Sackler Colloqium II "The Science of Science Communication"

Chemistry – the least shared science*

What about chemophobia in the media and beyond? The simplest way to combat the problem is at its most basic level and that is through education. We need good science education in primary school to get kids excited about doing science. This needs to be followed through to high school education too. How many people have you met that have said “I never GOT chemistry”, “too hard for me!” or “never got past year x science!”? As long as chemistry is viewed as an abstract and complex entity we will continue to lose this battle. We need to pick up our game and make chemistry more relevant, interesting and exciting to the wider society (see diagram below!).

Some of my most valuable classes were spent doing media and language analysis in English class, learning how to pull apart newspaper articles and radio transcripts. Perhaps we could encourage teachers to do critical analysis of some (basic) science news articles in a school setting. Some have suggested we could lobby for a large chemical body (eg. ACS or the RSC) to respond to poorly informed media coverage.

At the end of the day, I agree with Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist, who says “Chemistry needs more journalists talking about it” and James Kennedy, of All-Natural Banana fame, who says “Chemistry needs a hero [like David Attenborough or Brian Cox]”. As long as we continue to promote chemistry and show its relevance, chemophobia in marketing and the media will start to lose some of its shine.

*Taken from the Sackler Colloqium on “Science of Science Communication II”

#Chemophobia Blogversation – Taking back “chemical”


First off, a short introduction. For those that don’t who I am, I’m Luke Gamon (@lgamon – twitter/instagram) and I’m currently doing a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Melbourne. Our research group focuses on free radical processes with a bit of a love for atmospheric and environmental pollutants. Simply speaking – we synthesise molecules, use them in radical reactions and either perform kinetics or do product analyses.

Spurred on by Renee Webster (@reneewebs) and @chemtacular I have decided to write my first chemistry blog post! This post is a response to the “blogversation” between @reneewebs and @chemtacular concerning the ongoing use of the word chemophobia.


Certified organic (Vegetables)

Let’s continue the discussion by talking about words. Words like chemist, chemical or organic. It seems to me that we do a lot of talking about semantics. The word “organic” is derived from the Greek organikos meaning “of, or pertaining to an organ” and was later generalised to “from organized living beings” in the 1700s. Eventually the term was taken on by chemists to mean “carbon containing compounds” and then confusingly popularised to mean “free from peticides and fertilizers” in 1942. The definition is now purely contextual.

Certified organic (Chemistry)

Certified organic (Chemistry)

I feel we’re slowly losing the word “chemical”. To us chemists, it is a catch all for every material thing in the universe that is made of atoms. To the public it increasingly refers to synthetically produced materials. I’ve asked friends and family what they think when they hear the word “chemical” – you hear words like toxic, synthetic, dangerous. The rise and rise of “chemical free” cookware, teddy bears and assorted goods is capitalising on the growing negativity surrounding the word “chemical”. Don’t even get me started on the whole “made in a lab” thing – I know plenty of great things made in labs (antibiotics, IVF, solar cells, etc etc ).

"Chemical-Free" cookware

“Chemical-Free” cookware (also see post by @reneewebs)

So, what do we do? How can we improve the perception of chemistry and chemicals? Do we concede that we’ve lost the battle for the word “chemical” or do we fight on?

I see a lot of you fighting. When we see chemistry being referred to in a negative light it is very tempting to cry #chemophobia! However, we should avoid using such loaded language (i.e. irrational fear of chemicals) when it comes to individuals. Flippant use of the hashtag #chemophobia does little but to damage the “brand” of chemistry. That said, the targeted use of “chemical-free” by marketing departments is deplorable and should be highlighted (follow @chemfreebear on twitter!). If a corporation is making a false claim, we should make a complaint to the relevant authority (eg. ACCC).

Let’s not worry too much about finding the perfect hashtag or catch cry. The most important thing is that we all act in a well-reasoned, respectful way. We are all acting as “brand ambassadors” for Chemistry. If you see chemical ignorance – engage and discuss the science. Remind people of the virtues and successes of chemistry! Don’t denigrate, belittle or “punch-down” – remember to laugh with, not at – lest we lose the battle for the public perception of “chemicals”.