Guest Re-post: “In defense of chemphobia” by Andrew Bissette
Today’s guest re-post comes from Andrew Bissette, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines with co-blogger Emma Hooley. They are the keepers of the popular Twitter hashtag #chemclub, where chemists post and discuss interesting papers from the literature. Originally posted exactly one month ago, Andrew’s musings about chemophobia (or chemphobia as he calls it) are timely this week given the discussion at David Kroll’s blogs both at Forbes and here about chemophobia and the cinnamon challenge.
#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We’re often confronted with examples of people selling ‘chemical-free’ products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible ‘chemicals’ lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.
One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don’t typically discriminate between different materials. They’re all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst – effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.
Naturally, I’m sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone – but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there – such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive “all matter is chemical” response, for two reasons:
Chemphobia is reactive
Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.
Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the “water is a chemical!” response risks falling into condescension.
Material does not equal chemical
As I noted above, a common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. Even Wiktionary agrees.
This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.
Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.
Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It’s a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining “chemical” as “all stable matter” is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.
What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh’s recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn’t facepalm and groan “idiots”. Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn’t chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.
Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.
Update: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you’ve missed them.