Chemists, Chemicals and Risk…

There’s a guest bog post on Scientific American this afternoon that’s gotten a few chemistry types (myself included) in a bit of a tangle on Twitter.  It’s been written by one David Ropeik who wrote a book on risk.  In summary, it’s a bit of a chemist bash centred on the notion that International Year of Chemistry exists solely to convince the generally ignorant public, scared of chemical badness, that chemistry is in fact a Very Good Thing.

Warning: there may be scare quotes ahead…

I was vaguely optimistic when I clicked on the twitter link – a Scientific American Guest blog post on Chemistry?  It sounded too good to be true.

It was.

The post begins with an open letter from ‘The Public’ to ‘Chemists’ and serves to remind the chemists that they can launch all the baking soda rockets in the world, but that doesn’t get over the fact that chemicals are just death wrapped up in a convenient molecular package.  The author then goes on to imply that International Year of Chemistry is some kind of desperate yet rationally conceived notion designed to help the public ‘get over it’ and embrace chemicals for the synthetic wonder that they are  (well some of them, because everyone knows that nothing organic or natural would ever be toxic or nasty **sarcasm**).   Apparently chemists need to go figure and make like a bunch of neuroscientist psychologist sociologist types and work out that public perception of chemical risks is an emotional response rather than something that we can rationally engage with and alter opinions on.   Really, there’s no point in preaching at the public that chemistry is all for the greater good when their hearts and instincts are telling them that we’re probably going to kill them all.

Moments like this remind me of why I need to get a cat...

OK then. Here’s the thing (for me anyway, at this point in time). I don’t particularly get the idea of International Year of Chemistry, but at no point has it struck me that its purpose is to demonstrate that there is no risk associated with chemistry/chemicals and whatnot.  I thought,(probably naively, I drink a lot of Evian sometimes), it was just about chemists doing a bit of chemistry, increasing awareness of chemistry stuff and generally saying ‘yep, we’re chemists, you can be one too if you like’.

I am wrong.

Apparently I need to get my conical flask cheerleading kit out and go yell about how chemicals aren’t risky at all and that chemophobia is just the response of an irrational public working on the principle that human-made (nice nod towards gender equality there) risks are scary.

I am doing it wrong.

Well actually I’m not: this article is designed to make us all think (and possibly buy the book), and David Ropeik has done it right.  This will probably be just one of many blog posts written about and linking to the offending post – never underestimate the publicity obtained when you piss some group of people off on the internet.  Yes it’s a fairly cynical view of the motivations behind IYoC but this article is a perfect example of someone holding an extreme position that allows people like me to sit on the fence in the middle ground quite happily.  It is biased, and it should be biased: we were all complaining about the overly balanced reporting of homeopathy last month!

There are little things more complicated than the minefield of public perception – do I think that it is possible for the average non-chemist to be simultaneously enthused by my subject and fearful of the risks? Of course they are, and I am too in many contexts out with my area of expertise (except eating chocolate – I blindly ignore the risks there).  But none of this means that we shouldn’t try, we shouldn’t give up and shrug our shoulders and say ‘well that’s it folks, David Ropeik told us we were all wasting our time so lets get back to the lab’.  International Year of Chemistry is about far more than overcoming so-called chemophobia, let’s not allow one blog post to make it so.



7 Replies to “Chemists, Chemicals and Risk…”

  1. Katherine,
    I think you nailed it here.
    Ropeik’s post indicates that chemicals=fear and therefore that chemists should only focus on that fear. There are no real conclusions for what strategies chemists should take when communicating. I have read Ropeik’s book (and met him when he was here on campus last year) and know that he has a decent understanding of the different types of threats to chemical exposure. He’s put a lot of thought into “why” people react badly to the term “chemical” even if the fears are unfounded. But there is nothing constructive about this particular post. It’s mostly just a thumb in the eye that states: “Chemists, you can’t be trusted even though you are the experts. So, listen to the experts (psych, sociology, neuro) and do what they say.” Very backwards

  2. Yes I’d have preferred something a little more constructive – just like the person that always points out what is wrong but never has any ideas about how to fix it – very frustrating.

    It is interesting to consider why people find “chemical” scary and useful to accept that it is not a rational process, but some suggestions of what could be done would be good.

  3. I think it would be nice if there were suggestions other than “use words other than chemicals.” Personally I would like to see chemistry departments have joint programs with communications on communicating science to the public. Science does fall down on this job and we need to do better. It’s not helpful for another field to come along and say “you need to do better.”

  4. Risk communication must go beyond just explaining the facts and extolling your virtues. It’s a dialog that begins before words are spoken, with acceptance that no matter how low risk and wonderful and beneficial what you do may be, people (you too, by the way) are instinctively loss averse and prone to give more weight to risks than benefits. So the psychological characteristics associated with ‘chemicals’ that make them scary, as unfounded as they may be factually, are powerfully real to creatures intent on survival, and in many cases matter more, and seem more obvious, than the benefits of modern chemistry. Dialog doesn’t mean, as some of your comments suggested, that you have to talk about only the risk and fears. It means that just trying to make people see things your way isn’t enough. If you want them to do that, you have to see things their way too. And frankly, there’s room for improvement there.
    There are specific ways to do this. (And I’d be glad to help!) Here’s just one. Why not use the International Year of Chemistry to reach out to the communities that simplistically and naively criticize and fear chemicals, and engage them in a range of activities to search for common interest and perspective. Not to persuade or advocate or brag about Green Chemistry. Just to listen and establish more constructive relationships. Which should last beyond the IYoC. I don’t see that kind of reaching out and relationship building among the suggested activities in the IYoC prospectus, an absence that speaks to the point I’m raising about the need to consider this stuff.
    Our species is in a mess and chemistry will be important for finding solutions. It can do so more readily if the celebration of and advocacy for chemistry is mixed with at least a little acknowledgement of people’s concerns. Plenty of this has already been done…I’m just emphasizing the need for more. That will contribute to more positive relationships, and trust, and that will help advance the field of chemistry too.
    Gotta go. My vinegar and baking soda volcano is making a mess on my kitchen table.

  5. Of course, as all chemists know, safety is a primary concern. Moreover, as all chemistry know, the “quality of life” we enjoy is in a large part due to chemical innovations over the last 100 years: the list of chemical uses is long and firmly entrenched in society.

    Yes we can use the risk-benefit argument and point to government watchdogs, but with every accident, spill or error, the case builds the negative perception.

    My point is that it is not such a bad thing. First I do not think that any bad press is going to stop chemical research and R&D. But Bad press makes people more cautious and makes the watch dogs more conscientious. I think that is good. We do not want any more Bhopal’s, thalidomide’s and DDT’s etc. The bottom line is, many chemicals are dangerous and we need people to know that and to respect them. I would rather err on the side of caution.

    I have not read David Ropeik book.

  6. Hmmm. I’m not sure that I agree that ‘people… are instinctively loss averse and prone to give more weight to risks than benefits’. If this were always true, then using 2-ton pollutant-emitting steel boxes on highways through towns as a near-universal means of personal transport would not be tolerated by society. Clearly, somehow, we have accepted that a few thousand deaths per year in the UK is an acceptable trade-off for the ‘convenience’ of personal transportation. So I think that the situation is more complex than this. Perhaps risk is OK if we perceive that it applies more to others than ourselves.

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