Chemophobia, a chemists' construct
Following our public attitudes to chemistry research, Mark Lorch thinks it’s time for chemists to stop feeling so unloved
The other sciences seem to get pride of place in the media’s science pages and TV shows. Whilst chemistry has no celebrity singing its praises, not a single chemist made it into Science Magazine’s 50 science stars on Twitter, and chemistry news just doesn’t get the same coverage as the big physics projects (even when that 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 when the likes of The Food Babe (online pedlar of spurious opinion) decides to start an uninformed campaign against an additive, based on little more than the fact she can’t pronounce it.
Sometimes we throw our toys out of the pram and start ranting about how everything is made of chemicals and how fear of chemicals is rife. God knows chemistry bloggers, broadcasters and writers have gone on about this perceived chemophobia enough. Even Nature Chemistry joined in with a parody 'paper' detailing a comprehensive list of chemical-free consumer products (it contained two blank pages). However, with the publication of the RSC's study on public perceptions of chemistry, it seems those irate blog posts (mine included), radio programmes and lectures got it wrong.
Fear of chemicals?
What is particularly telling about the RSC's findings is not that the public doesn't understand chemists, but that chemists don't understand the public. The RSC started by asking its members how they felt chemistry was perceived. Sure enough most expected a negative attitude. The fear of chemophobia (chemophobiaphobia?) was certainly commonplace. But when the RSC turned to the public the fear of chemicals didn’t materialise in anywhere near the expected levels.
Most people really didn’t have strong feelings about chemicals one way or another: 60% knew that everything is made of chemicals – less than 20% of the public thought that all chemicals are dangerous or harmful. This is despite the use of ‘chemical’ to mean something dangerous being very common. When it came to perceptions of chemistry, 59% believe the benefits of chemistry are greater than any harmful effects (as compared to 55% for science in general). Once again most people were pretty neutral about chemistry as a subject. And it turns out people just don’t know what chemists really do, unsurprisingly most people think we are pharmacists.
the RSC’s study has really changed my thinking
There’s an important message here about what’s going on when ‘chemical’ is used pejoratively. For most people it has a double meaning. So we shouldn’t get upset when ‘chemical’ is used as a short hand for toxin, poison or caustic. 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 so grates. In fact it may even be counter-productive to try and combat others' perceived misuse of ‘chemicals’.
Appetite for science
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.”
At the moment 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 forging that link in people's minds.
Luke Gamon puts it very well in one of the many chemophobia posts in the chemistry blogosphere: "Don’t denigrate, belittle or “punch-down” … lest we lose the battle for the public perception of chemicals."
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 help to fill by telling people about what we do. We all need to do our bit, whether on social media, during outreach in all its forms or even at parties.
There’s a great appetite for science out there, we shouldn’t assume that people aren’t interested in what chemists get up to and we certainly shouldn’t fear a negative reaction from the public. If we don't fill the void in public perceptions of chemistry then we run the risk of something – that we don't control and we don't like – filling it for us.