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.
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.
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.