Chemists need to speak the same language as the public

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Chemists and the public need to be speaking the same language

Chemicals

The public uses the word ‘chemical’ to mean ‘synthetic substance’. Chemists have traditionally opposed this definition and stuck with ‘substance’ instead, responding with “everything is a chemical” in defence.

Arguing over definitions is futile and avoids the elephant in the room – that there’s been almost no public outreach to support the field of chemistry in the last few decades to counteract growing public skepticism of science (and of chemistry in particular).

Furthermore, it’s even more futile arguing over definitions when the Oxford English Dictionary provides a clear answer to this debate:

chemical (noun) – a distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified

I ask all chemists to embrace the dictionary definition of ‘chemical’ and stop bickering with the public over definitions.

My main concern here is that if “everything is a chemical”, then it therefore follows that ‘chemophobia’ is the fear of everything, which is nonsensical. If we’re going to talk about chemophobia, we’re also going to have to accept the definition of chemical that the OED and the public have been using for a long time: that “chemical” = “artificially prepared substance”.

So what do we call non-synthetic chemicals? Try using a word with less baggage such as “molecule”, “compound”, “substance” or “element” where it’s relevant. By using these words, we avoid the natural=good/artificial=bad divide, which is the central assumption of chemophobia.

Chemophobia

‘Chemophobia’ is an irrational aversion to chemicals perceived as synthetic.

The word ‘chemophobia’ refers to a small subset of people who are not only disenfranchised by science, but who have subscribed to alternative sources of knowledge (either ancient wisdom or – sadly – Google). Many people with chemophobia are protesting against the establishment, and this is particularly evident in the anti-GMO movement. At the core of most people who oppose GMOs is a moral/political opposition to having their food supply controlled by giant corporations. No number of scientific studies concluding the safety and reliability of GMO crops will succeed in persuading them otherwise because the anti-GMO movement is founded on moral/political beliefs, not on science. By throwing science at them, we’re wasting our time.

More important than chemophobia

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s recent report on Public Perceptions of Science showed roughly a 20-60-20 range of attitudes towards chemistry.

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No matter how the RSC phrased the question, roughly 20% of the UK public who were surveyed indicated a negative attitude towards chemistry, and another 20% showed a positive attitude. The 60% in the middle felt disconnected from the subject – maybe disliked it in school – but felt neutral towards it when asked.

Chemophobia afflicts some people in the bottom 20%. They gave negative word-associations with ‘chemistry’ (e.g. ‘accidents’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘inaccessible’).That bottom 20% group is so vocal (e.g. Food Babe) that they distract chemists from the 60% in who are neutral. The ‘neutral’ crowd is a much larger audience that’s much easier to engage/persuade through outreach efforts. We should focus on talking to them.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said in interviews that his huge TV hit show COSMOS was aimed at “people who didn’t even know they might like science”. That’s the middle 60%. Brian Cox’s amazing Wonders of the Universe was aimed at a similar audience – but chemistry has nothing similar to offer. We’re engaging those who are already interested (with academic talks and specialist journals) and we’re engaging with the bottom 20% via social media and comments on foodbabe.com… but why haven’t we started engaging the middle 60%, who gets most of their science information from TV? How many chemistry TV icons can you name? Where are the multi-channel launches of big-budget chemistry documentaries*? Chemistry is lagging far behind biology and physics in that regard.

*BBC Four’s Chemistry: A Volatile History (2010) doesn’t count – it was only three episodes long, got no further than ‘the elements’ and was presented by a PHYSICIST!

Focus on the 60% who are ‘neutral’

I ask chemists to focus on addressing the disinterested 60%. From an outreach perspective, this is much more fun and is positive rather than reactionary. By engaging those who feel neutral about chemistry, we might even empower enough of the public to fight chemophobia (online, at least) by themselves – without our direct intervention.

I urge chemists to tell the public what you do in simple terms. Describe your work to the public. Tweet about it. Participate in your university/faculty’s YouTube videos by explaining your work and its relevance. Offer advice as a science correspondent for local media outlets (many universities have ‘expert lines’ – get involved). Give your ‘talk’ at local schools – it make a HUGE difference to students’ perceptions of science. Devote 5% of your working time to doing outreach. As a teacher, I’m practically doing it full-time.

Plus, we urgently need a chemistry TV hero. Could someone do that, too, please?

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