Do Chemists have Chemophobia? An Update #vicephec15

This is the blog post that accompanies my talk at #VicePhec15, Variety in Chemistry Education. If some presenters can elect to flip their presentation, no reason why I can’t blog mine!

ETA:  The presentation may be viewed on SlideShare

I use the word Chemophobia advisedly. As I state in my presentation, there are multiple definitions of chemophobia; anxiety about learning chemistry(think maths phobia)[1], anxiety or ignorance of chemistry[2], and anxiety about chemicals.  I’ve also used the Google Ngram Viewer to find the frequency of ‘chemophobia’ in books [4]. I omitted the y-axis scale because I felt relative frequency was more important than the 0.00000005% scale! The essential thing is that the term chemophobia’s use peaked in the 90s, wasn’t used before 1950 and the data are only available up to 2005.

The RSC’s Attitude survey is a great piece of work [5]. It has been carried out by a company who specialise in this kind of thing and they have ensured that it reflects the demographics of the UK public. This does not, however, mean that we should simply accept it’s findings without thinking. We’re all still scientists and we should apply the same critique to this type of survey as any other. Indeed many of the good sources of attitudes towards things like chemicals are surveys of this type and it is often very difficult to really get to grips with the methods used. In the RSC Attitude survey, my personal opinion is that it is a good survey into attitudes to chemistry or chemists but not chemicals as such. The survey itself starts to point towards some inherent contradictions there: chemists are highly regarded by the public but most people think chemists work in pharmacists. That’s perhaps an inherently British contradiction (thank Boots the Chemist). To me the results show that people don’t really know what chemists do beyond medicinal applications and that has massive implications for outreach.  And only 60% of the public agreed that everything is made of chemicals…

The use of the word ‘public’ causes some angst amongst people. I think there is a letter in RSC News to this effect. The argument usually goes ‘expert group X stop being so arrogant because you are also part of the ‘public’ that you are criticising’. Well yes but as you consider varying x you have to contemplate that fire fighters are members of the public but we’ll accept their expertise in putting out fires, similarly medics, police, army and any other trained professional.  Studies like this look at how a small specially trained subgroup of the public interact with the whole. But this point of view falls down when we view our sub-group as the experts with nothing to learn from the public whole – dialogue people!

This work was carried out by two students doing their final year projects. Each student devised their own studies with guidance and went a good few rounds with the ethics committee to straighten out what they wanted to do. There was limited peer review literature available and the projects were very different to the research that typical undergraduates are ‘trained’ for.  This type of research is also fairly subjective, I suspect my colleagues in law would ask if it was normative or descriptive. The key would be to identify how you view chemicals yourself and ensure that any personal conceptions are challenged long before talking to study participants.

Both students found terminology a useful window into attitudes towards chemistry. I’ll note at this point that we consider these studies preliminary – they were good and had reasonable response rates (40 and 160) but need a tighter focus. One student looked at different chemistry words (working out what vocabulary to use to describe chemicals was a challenge) and asked participants to rate or rank them on a variety of scales. The other asked more direct questions with free text responses and included examples of things that are ‘known’ to be harmful (e.g. nicotine) alongside things that are ‘known’ to be harmless (e.g. water). But all things are relative.  The quotes from those free text responses are interesting.

The charts presented today are my own reanalysis of the students data.  The timeline of running these projects is fairly challenging because initially we moved in a linear fashion: proposal – ethics – tool – data collection – analysis. I’d suggest that: data analysis (of pre-existing set) – proposal – ethics – tool – data collection and analysis is a better order.  Data analysis takes a lot longer than students imagine it does, the type of analysis you want to do directly influences the design of the research tool and how you collect it and so having them analyse a small set of existing data at the start of the project would help. I’d also recommend emphasising the need to keep a lab book to record the analysis rather than just working on excel or the like. That track of what you tried and found remains essential.

The next steps are to carry out more tightly focussed surveys, particularly around the issue of chemistry vocabulary and how it impacts perceptions of safety. This seems important with undergrads in the lab. I have no students working on this project this year sadly but have just submitted the ethics forms for a September start. The research tool will be a short questionnaire asking some demographic questions then three rating or free-text questions. I’m hoping to deploy it electronically or by paper copy to a wide range of students.

[1] R Eddy, J. Chem. Ed. 2000

[2] Smith, J. Chem. Ed. 2008

[3] Berdonosov, J. Chem. Ed. 1999




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