Tag Archives: outreach

Chemists need to speak the same language as the public

Chemists and the public need to be speaking the same language


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’ 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.


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?

Registration is open!


About the webinar

James Kennedy will explore the rise of chemophobia, an irrational fear of compounds perceived as ‘synthetic’, and the damage it can cause in this interactive webinar. We’ll examine its evolutionary roots, the factors keeping it alive today and how to fight chemophobia successfully.

What You Will Learn

  • Origins of chemophobia as an irrational psychological quirk
  • Chemistry teachers, Walter White, materialism and advertisements are all fuelling chemophobia today
  • Fighting chemophobia needs to be positive, respectful, multifaceted, and good for consumers

Webinar Details

  • Date: Thursday, August 11, 2016 @ 2-3pm ET
  • Fee: Free to Attend
  • Download Slides: Available Day of Broadcast

Register your attendance here.

Slide from the lecture. Click to register to attend.

‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break

Chemophobia lab.jpg
Kiran Foster/Flickr

We all feel a profound connection with the natural world. E O Wilson called this sensation biophilia: ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. That sense of connection brings great emotional satisfaction. It can decrease levels of anger, anxiety and pain. It has undoubtedly helped our species to survive, since we are fundamentally dependent on our surrounding environment and ecosystem. But lately, biophilia has spawned an extreme variant: chemophobia, a reflexive rejection of modern synthetic chemicals.

Continue reading this article on AEON IDEAS…

On the $$$ fuelling Chemophobia – Part 3

We’ve already asserted that chemophobia is an irrational psychological quirk that gained traction after the environmental movement of the mid-1960s. But I don’t want to make such allegations without proof. In part 3 of this weekly series on chemophobia, I’ll show you some of the irrational conclusions that chemophobia leads us to make, and the psychology that lies behind them. We’ll also look at some examples of companies that are using chemophobia with maximum leverage to inflate the prices of foods and skincare products in stores.

People perceive products with moral claims on the packaging as more effective than those without

Boyka Bratanova at Abertay University offered participants a choice between two cookies: one was normal, and another was labelled “organic/locally-produced/carbon-neutral”. The cookies were otherwise identical.

people believe these organic cookies taste better

Amazingly, when the participants were asked specifically to evaluate the taste of each cookie, they consistently rated the ‘morally-superior’ cookies as more delicious. Bratanova’s study confirms Meng Li’s hypothesis (discussed last week) that people confuse moral claims with actual superiority. Manufacturers are taking advantage of this psychological trick by writing meaningless claims of moral superiority such as “natural”, “pure” and “free from {insert harmless ingredient here}” on their product labels to justify price increases at the point of sale.

The global market for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ personal care products is projected to reach US$16 billion by 2020. But are these ‘natural/organic’ products really any better than their non-organic equivalents? Evidence suggests not.

Take Gaia Natural Baby Skin Soothing Lotion, for example, which sells for 4.4 cents/mL in Coles. A comparable ‘normal’ product, Johnson’s Baby Lotion, sells for just 1.7 cents/mL. Gaia can charge its customers 2.5 times the price compared with traditional Johnson’s Baby Lotion largely because it claims “Pure, Natural, Organic” in large text on the front of the bottle. Unfortunately, these claims aren’t actually true (and this product was recalled in December 2015 because of its ‘inaccurate product label’; read more here).

Gaia makes these three misleading claims on all of its products
Gaia makes these three misleading claims on all of its products

“Pure” is a claim reserved for single-ingredient products only

By definition, mixtures such as baby lotion cannot be ‘pure’. Pure substances contain only a single ingredient (e.g. pure salt, pure white flour, pure cane sugar and pure spring water). No cosmetic or skincare product should ever be labelled ‘pure’.

“Natural” products must be sold as they’re found in nature

Very few products are truly natural. Not only is the definition vague, but there are no enforceable regulations on its use in Australia, New Zealand or the US. The Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom proposes some guidelines: “made from natural ingredients that have not been interfered with by [humans]”. Again, it’s impossible for any cosmetic or skincare product to be totally natural. All cosmetics and skincare products have been ‘interfered with’ by humans, and they the vast majority of skincare products contain artificial ingredients.

“Organic” only makes sense when applied to foods

Adding a couple of drops of ‘organic’ ingredients into your product to justify writing “organic” on the label should be illegal. But that’s exactly what Gaia has done: the ingredients certified ‘organic’ in their Natural Baby Skin Soothing Lotion amount to approximately just 7% of the product.

Because ‘organic’ is a farming technique, farmed foods are the only products that should ever be labelled ‘organic’. It’s impossible for cosmetics and skincare products to be ‘organic’ because many of the ingredients (even in self-proclaimed ‘natural’ brands such as Gaia) are artificially synthesised rather than grown.

Consumers are being tricked into paying a higher price for a product that isn’t necessarily superior.

Natural chemicals can be harmful, too (and the most harmful compounds on Earth are all natural)

Gaia’s “all-natural” baby lotion was recalled because it contained undisclosed allergens. Nine out of the top ten most dangerous compounds on Earth are naturally-occurring. When it comes to skincare, synthetic compounds are often gentler and more suited to their purpose than are their natural counterparts.

Natural compounds are sometimes far more dangerous than synthetic ones. Blue, artificial compounds; green, naturally-occurring compounds.
Natural compounds are sometimes far more dangerous than synthetic ones. Blue, artificial compounds; green, naturally-occurring compounds.

Some studies even suggest that crops on organic farms produce more pesticide within the leaves in order to protect themselves from increased rates of insect predation. Some of these natural pesticides are actually more potent skin irritants than the synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming methods.

In addition, organic crops can be sprayed legally with many pesticides, some of which are potent irritants. Lists of pesticides approved for use on organic farms can be found here and here. There exists a misconception among consumers that organic produce is ‘pesticide-free’, which is a concern considering that ‘no pesticides’ is the most common argument heard in favour of buying organic produce.

Consumers are being tricked into paying a higher price for a product that isn’t necessarily superior, and still might contain harsh (natural) compounds that irritate their skin.

Many brands are making these misleading claims…

Some of Sukin's "fragrance-free" products contain fragrances such as sesame oil and rose hip oil
Some of Sukin’s “fragrance-free” products contain fragrances such as sesame oil and rose hip oil
Envirocare's hair cleanser made extreme 'natural' claims before it was recalled by the Australian Government. Source: recalls.gov.au
Envirocare’s hair cleanser made extreme ‘natural’ claims before it was recalled by the Australian Government. Source: recalls.gov.au
Mustela's milky bath oil claims to be 'natural' but contains mostly artificial ingredients
Mustela’s milky bath oil makes a vague claim about having ‘natural ingredient [sic]’ but contains mostly artificial ingredients e.g. PEG-6 isostearate and propylene glycol
Sukin makes claims that aren't even relevant to the product being sold. Moisturisers are labelled "SLS-free", for instance. SLS should never be in a moisturiser!
Sukin makes claims that aren’t even relevant to the product being sold. Moisturisers are labelled “SLS-free”, for instance.
Sometimes, the ingredients labels make no sense whatsoever. They've put a 'word salad' instead of actual ingredients on this one. This product should be recalled or over-labelled immediately.
Sometimes, the ingredients labels make no sense whatsoever. They’ve put a ‘word salad’ instead of actual ingredients on this one. This product should be recalled or over-labelled immediately.

Update: Gaia has recalled the product above due to its ‘inaccurate product label’

Their signature baby lotion is being withdrawn from sale due to an undisclosed ingredient labelling problem… Gaia was unable to provide any further information and declined to comment on the issue.

Gaia has recalled the product mentioned in this article due to the presence of undisclosed allergens
Gaia has recalled the product mentioned in this article due to the presence of undisclosed allergens. Source: recalls.gov.au

On the Origins of Chemophobia – Part 1

“The Blue Marble” is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon.

The rise of the environmental movement is most often attributed to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which demonised chemicals as it introduced them to the public:

“Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognised partners of radiation entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death” – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962

Later that decade, the Apollo missions and the six moon landings between 1969 and 1972 gave us a new perspective of planet Earth that was so profound that we felt a sudden compulsion to protect its natural beauty. Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson argue this point below.

In 1970, we are still going to the moon, we are still going until 1972, so watch these sequence of events. In 1970, the comprehensive Clean Air Act is passed… Earth Day was birthed in March 1970. The EPA was founded in 1970… Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971… DDT gets banned in 1972, and we are still going to the moon. We’re still looking back at Earth. The clean water act 1971, 1972 the endangered species act, the catalytic converted gets put in in 1973, and unleaded gas gets introduced in 1973… That is space operating on our culture and you cannot even put a price on that. – Neil deGrasse Tyson in April 2012

Together, Rachel Carson and the Apollo missions made the public in Western countries quickly aware of the Earth and its natural beauty. Humans were portrayed as selfish destructors of a planet that was supposedly most ‘beautiful’ when in its ‘natural’ state. The field of toxicology was spawned in wake of this concern, and had the goal of analysing the toxicity of different chemicals on humans and the environment. As the first edition of Human and Experimental Toxicology stated:

“Politicians cannot be expected to come to rational and acceptable decisions without adequate impartial and objective information, and toxicologists have grave responsibilities to produce such information”. – Human and Experimental Toxicology

While the field of toxicology accumulated a wealth of scientific evidence about ‘chemicals’, this evidence largely hasn’t trickled down to the public and certainly hasn’t allayed their fears. There remains a lingering skepticism about chemicals, especially artificial chemicals, which some people still feel are more harmful than those found in nature.

Take the Think Dirty iOS app, for example, which gives cosmetic ingredients a safety rating out of 9. According to the app’s creators, “Fragrance” gets the worst possible rating (9), while “Natural Fragrance” gets the best rating (1). Black-and-white ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ decision-making such as this is completely unfounded and ignores toxicological evidence. This kind of thinking is misleading, has no scientific basis and sometimes causes consumers to make harmful conclusions – no matter how benign their intentions. (More on this in future posts.)

This simplistic thinking is a remnant of the environmental movement back in the 1970s: that ‘selfish’ humans were destroying a ‘pristine’ planet Earth. While the ‘natural/good’ vs ‘artificial/bad’ dichotomy was an effective solution to short-term environmental problems of the time, this black-and-white thinking is actually leading people to make bad decisions today. We can no longer assume that “natural” is always “best”: the issue is actually far more complex than that. Toxicological evidence needs to be made public and easy to digest so that consumers can make more enlightened decisions.

This post is part 1 of a weekly series on Chemophobia. More next week.

Neil deGrasse Tyson – Space as Culture transcript

Why are jeans blue? New Infographic: Chemistry of LEVI’S®

Chemistry of LEVI'S® chemistry infographic jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com

Today’s graphic explores the chemistry of Levi’s® famous blue jeans. It’ll show you why they’re blue, and how the dye is made; why the blue colour survives so well in the wash; and what’s special about the denim cotton weave that makes your Levi’s® jeans so strong.

Indican is a colourless, water-soluble compound extracted from leaves of the Indigofera species. Indican is a dextrose molecule conjugated to an indoxyl group by a glycosidic ether (C–O–C) bond.

The indican is hydrolysed at high pH, which separates the dextrose from the indoxyl group. The resulting indoxyl compound is whisked to aerate it, which causes the indoxyl molecules to oxidise and dimerise into indigotin, which is the famous blue dye used in Levi’s® jeans.

However, the indigotin blue dye isn’t soluble in water, and must be changed chemically before the jeans are dyed. Indigotin is subjected to high pH again, which reduces the indigotin, forming leuco-indigotin (also known as indigo white dye), which is, despite the name, pale yellow in colour.

Jeans are steeped in this water-soluble “indigo white dye”, which is still pale yellow at this stage! However, as soon as the jeans are removed from the vat of dye, the leuco-indigotin oxidises back into indigotin, which is blue in colour. The oxidised form (indigo blue) is insoluble in water, which helps the colour stick to the jeans despite being washed hundreds of times.

Denim is a traditional way of weaving cotton into a thick, sturdy material. Cotton is predominantly cellulose, a strong polymer of beta-D-glucose monomer units. Several thousand glucose monomers are present in each polymer chain. Polar hydroxyl groups form hydrogen bonds with hydroxyl groups on adjacent chains to form strong microfibrils, which the cotton plant then meshes into a strong poly- saccharide matrix. This matrix, and the denim weave, give high strength and durability to your Levi’s® jeans. ●

RSC runs massive crystal-growing competition open to all students worldwide!

RSC Global Experiment 2014 Art of Crystallography

Compete with thousands of other students from around the world by taking part in this epic crystal-growing experiment aimed at students aged 7-16, hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

The aim of the Global Experiemnt is to find the exact conditions that allow you to grow the biggest, most impressive crystals of alum, epsom salts, potassium nitrate, table salt and sucrose. Students do the entire process themselves, then post their pictures and data onto the RSC’s global, interactive results map. Here’s their instructional video:

Through getting your students involved in this year’s Global Experiment, you’ll be teaching them about dissolving, saturation and crystal growth. You’ll be engaging them in a fun, interactive science project they can easily continue at home. The RSC has even provided instruction packs, lesson plans and an instructional video to make the planning process as easy as possible for teachers.

It’s free to take part, and no specialist equipment is required. It can be done entirely using a few cheap things purchased from a local store. It can be done at home, at school or at an after-school science club.

The RSC has teamed up with the International Union of Crystallography to make this year’s Global Experiment officially a part of the International year of crystallography.

The RSC’s Global Experiment has been a great success in recent years. It follows the 2013 Global Experiment: measuring the quantity of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables, and the 2012 Global Experiment: Chemistry in the Olympics.

For more information, or to register, go to http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/collections/online-experimentation/collaborative-chemistry/global-experiment-2014, and check out some existing entries on their Pinterest board.