Guest Re-post: “In defense of chemphobia” by Andrew Bissette
Apr25

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...

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This Week On CENtral Science: Science Visualization Challenge, #Arseniclife Reviews, And More
Feb08

This Week On CENtral Science: Science Visualization Challenge, #Arseniclife Reviews, And More

Tweet of the Week: #RealHardcoreScientists (TM @biochembelle) don't play with their kids; they use emerging methods to train the next generation of scientists— Matthew Hartings (@sciencegeist) February 7, 2013 And a runner-up. Because my late grandmother (and namesake) loved telenovelas. This #ArsenicLife story has officially become a Telenovela. Next week, we unmask the reviewers! Will the evil baron poison the reagents?— Charles Machan (@DrChawz) February 5, 2013 And now, to the network: Grand CENtral: Storify: Reaction to USA Today Investigation Revealing Reviews For Arsenic-Based Life Paper #Arseniclife Just Another Electron Pusher: The "10K BA" — Is it possible in chemistry? Newscripts: 2012 Visualization Challenge Winners Announced and Research Team Steps In It and Amusing News Aliquots Terra Sigillata: Watch Twitter on Saturday for #Chemophobia The Safety Zone: Engineering Safer Syringes and Friday chemical safety round-up (may not be live immediately- if not be sure to bookmark this link for...

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This Week On CENtral Science: Fake Crystal Skulls, Too Many Bachelor’s Degree Chemists, and More
Feb01

This Week On CENtral Science: Fake Crystal Skulls, Too Many Bachelor’s Degree Chemists, and More

Hey CENtral Science readers- I'm in the throes of ScienceOnline2013. A confab of this many scientists and sci-communicators means I had tons of material for tweet-of-the-week selection. I pick a tweet with a purpose. This one, from the #scio13 melee, will be a useful talking point for my session tomorrow with Dr. Rubidium-chemophobia and chemistry in the modern world. (Replace 'denialism' with 'chemophobia'.) "So, how many of you think you can beat denialism by saying, 'Look at these great facts!'?" -@ejwillingham #scidenial #scio13— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) January 31, 2013 Shameless plug: On Saturday at 10:30 Eastern, follow the session live at a watch party, or on Twitter with #chemophobia #scio13. To the network: Artful Science: Fake Crystal Aztec Skulls Just Another Electron Pusher: A glut of chemists with bachelor's degrees as well? Newscripts: Amusing news Aliquots The Safety Zone: Friday chemical safety...

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Gearing up for #scio13 Session 8A: Chemophobia & chemistry in the modern world
Jan09

Gearing up for #scio13 Session 8A: Chemophobia & chemistry in the modern world

ScienceOnline2013 is but three short weeks away. Dr. Rubidium and I will be there to make sure that a major chemistry talking point gets a good airing. I'm talking, of course, about chemophobia - the idea that everything "synthetic" or "chemical" is somehow other, somehow less desirable and less safe than what's "natural" or "organic". (And the gulf between how chemists and the rest of the world define the word organic? Well, that is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.) Our session is on Sat, Feb 2, 10:30-11:30 am, Room 3 CHECK OUT THE SESSION WIKI: We've posted a slew of links there to spark discussion. What have we missed? Tell us in the comments here or on the wiki itself. You don't have to be registered for the conference to comment there. You'll see from those links that we've shared many a facepalm moment about "chemical-free" this-or-that. I can't help but feel that our conversations have a little bit of that dreaded echo-chamber quality. We folks having the conversations are affirming one another. But are we changing any minds? Are we reaching any influencers? I'm not sure. I'll quote Forbes contributor Trevor Butterworth, who said what I'm getting at quite eloquently last August in regard to a particular mainstream media chemophobia flap. Last May, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, published a column pleading with the New York Times’ opinion columnist Nick Kristof to stop writing about chemical risk. ... Blum’s column got a lot of positive coverage, with many commenters further “fisking” Kristof’s apocalyptic claims and the politics behind them. It made, alas, not a blind bit of difference. At the bookend of summer, Kristof is at it again. No one ever said that changing minds is easy. In fact, I think it's one of the hardest things to do. I hope that some of what will emerge from our discussion are some guidelines, some rules of engagement if you will. Chemophobia isn't just happening in NYTimes op-eds. It happens during work hours and off-hours. Maybe by starting small, we can take back the...

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Extra-Tiny Water Molecules
May04

Extra-Tiny Water Molecules

Thank you, SkyMall catalog. Not only do you provide distraction during seemingly endless flights to destinations around the world, you’ve also given me a good laugh on this humdrum Friday. And thank you, Leverett Smith, a Newscripts reader from El Cerrito, Calif., for sending in the SkyMall advertisement that delighted me so. SkyMall, not content just to sell fascinating specialty products like orthopedic dog couches and wall-mountable battle armor, is now reinventing science. Behold, The Ionic Cleansing Facial Steamer! This device “produces ionic steam that penetrates deep into pores to provide deep cleansing that rejuvenates and refreshes skin,” the ad reads. “The unit emits steam molecules that are 1/8,000 smaller than normal water molecules, allowing more moisture to reach deep into the keratin layer and remove impurities while elevating moisture and sebum levels to revitalize skin.” For only $299.95, this miracle product can be yours, folks. And let’s not forget to get some chemophobia in there: “Eliminating the need for harsh chemicals or costly soaps,” the ad continues, “the device uses ordinary tap water and its warm mist opens pores to remove dead skin cells, leaving skin soft and smooth, and improving its tone.” Yup, those costly soaps will definitely set you back more than this steamer, and those harsh chemicals, why, they’ll melt your face off. Smith didn’t have much to say about the ad—it really speaks for itself—but he adds that “ ACS members will doubtless be able, on their own, to come up with a myriad of possible applications for those extra-tiny water...

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