Monday, February 10, 2014

The Blogversation Continues: A New Approach to the Hash-Tag and Ideas for A Course of Action

This post is part of an on-going dialogue between chemists on Twitter in an effort to unite the chemistry community do something about negative portrayal of chemicals in a positive and productive manner. I responded to Renee Webster's kick off post and we've gotten a lot of excellent feedback both on Twitter and from bloggers. I'd like to respond to all these amazing ideas by way of a response to bloggers Dr. Dorea Reeser (Chemicals Are You Friends) and Dr. Luke Gamon (A Radical Approach) who have upped the ante with their contributions to the blogversation. These posts are a wake-up call to the chemistry community by way of a completely new take on the situation.

Before I read these responses I wanted to figure out what to call the fear of chemicals in such a way that it didn't lend itself to ridiculing people's legitimate fear. I've argued that (#)chemophobia not only falls short of this but it perpetuates a negative image of chemicals. There was also the matter that (#)chemophobia inaccurately describes the way that the media and advertising capitalizes on this fear. I joined other chemists on Twitter in their search for alternatives but felt odd with our second attempt: (#)chemsploitation. Why is a term/hash-tag so important? I am of the opinion that it provides a way of checking that we do not damage our credibility with the way we represent ourselves. These responses elegantly change the focus of the debate on whether or not we need to get rid of (#)chemophobia.

Dr. Reeser explains that she avoids using the term chemophobia because it sends out the wrong message and because to those outside the debate and non-chemists, the term suggests something having to do with chemotherapy. She proposes the term/hash-tag (#)ChemMisConcept both to describe those that fear chemicals and those that perpetuate that fear. It meets all the criteria that I discussed in my previous response and has the added bonus of working in all contexts. The concept of chemical misconception(s) is as specific as it gets and this changes the way we approach the real problem: the fear of chemicals. This fear of chemicals is very real and rational considering that people have these misconceptions given the information they can access. Dr. Reeser reminds us that we have to acknowledge that chemical(s) include: dangerous substances which we should have a healthy fear of; substances where the danger depends on the dosage and those substances that are completely harmless. I agree that it is our job as chemists to explain which is which.

Dr. Gamon* agrees with Dr. Reese when he states that the energy that's going into debating the word could be put to better use. He calls all chemists to take action with a cool head and in a respectful way and I couldn't agree more. (#)Chemophobia just doesn’t serve this purpose and the term has outlived its use. Dr. Gamon reminds us that we are all brand ambassador, and I agree that we need to act like if we are going to take back the word chemical

Dr. Gamon's response agrees with a post Dr. Reeser directly cites, and I would be remiss for not addressing Chemophobia-phobia by Dr. Chad Jones* (@TheCollapsedPsi). Dr.Jones also suggest that we should hold ourselves, government agencies and other chemist/companies to higher standards. Education/information, policies and enforcement should be directly informed by evidence-based chemistry. I’d add that as chemists we need to make sure that this evidence is accurate. Dr. Jones and I don't necessarily agree on our approach (we battle it out in #chemopocalypse, a podcast prosposed by @Chemjobber and had under the supervision of @ScienceIsntScary [link pending]) but I am 100% behind this idea.

Whether we have two terms to accurately define how people use the word chemical, is still insufficient to get chemists to act instead of react. In our pod cast, Dr. Jones warns that when we take on another term (say #chemsploitation) we run the risk of falling into the same attitudes as before. So as catchy as the catch phrases we have are, and whether or not we make sure to use them respectfully, they are still not inspiring action to reclaim the word chemical. Let’s retire them, accurately address the misconception and with taking back the word chemical.

Thus far @CompounChem's marvelous info graphics are an excellent start. I enjoy them as a chemist and the non-chemists I’ve shown them to have loved understanding a little more about the chemicals that they enjoy every day (coffee, etc). They are a great way to start discussions. I am open to more ideas on how we can start educating folks about what chemical (and other appropriated words) really means, thoughts? What are some ways we can start doing this now? The more ideas we have, the merrier, and the more resources that we have to talk with different audiences. Do any non-chemists out there have suggestions for what they would like to see?

*The people that I refer to as doctors here have their doctorates or are close enough for me to respectfully add the title.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Portents of Chemophobia: A slippery slope into -isms

Mark Lorch (@Sci_ents) commented on my blogversation response  to @reneeweb stating that he has seen no evidence of people being offended/felt punched down by chemophobia and asked why I was making such a fuss. 

I wrote a detailed response and it boils down to this: when we use #chemophobia to mock others we walk that fine like between venting and revealing the bully within. Were it not so, here is your evidence* Mark. Before I proceed I'd like to make it crystal clear that:

I am in NO way defending the actions of USA Today or "Food Babe." The first is an example of the poorest kind of journalism and the latter an example of fear mongering at its most nefarious.

Long story short, USA Today published a piece about how people had come together to pressure Subway to stop using the additive Azodicarbomide in their bread, further it sings the praises of 'activist and influential blogger' "Food Babe." The article mentions nothing of why this additive is dangerous, what concentration is used and more importantly at what concentration Azodicarbomide dangerous. The article is an example of negligent journalism at best. I looked up "Food Babe," and while I do respect that her position comes from experience, she has a background in marketing and uses zero science.  My take is that "Food Babe" goes beyond the usual level of scare tactics and instead draws power with one sided arguments that have no regard for people making educated choices. There is a lot to say on this, but that is for another post.

Naturally the Chemistry community is outraged and disturbed by these developments but their comments and discussions have been very professional, insightful and specific about what their issues with what's happening. This is Chemistry community at its best, even when it came to using #chemophobia, it was in the best way possible and I, against the term as I am, could roll with it.

Then I saw @thecuriouswavefn's, a proponent of using #chemophobia in an insulting fashion, retweet of a post by @SJFriedl titled "Pretty girls make us stupid." That's as far as I got. From what comments I've seen about the post, I may even agree with some of the things @SJFriedl says but I cannot and will not condone blatant, unrepentant sexism as being okay because we vehemently disagree with someone. This title rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and they called him out on it but he remained unperceptive and outright dismissive. This sounds somewhat familiar for other reasons that have nothing to do with mansplaining. @SJFriedl took the fact that Ms.Hari calls herself "Food Babe" as licence "to go there." Really? Was she asking for that by virtue of her nom de plume/pseudonym?

Let me say this again: Disagreeing with someone does not give ANYONE permission to go down the slippery slope right down to -ism's territory. The fact that this happened at all sickens me to the same level of the way "Food Babe" uses her blog and that's saying something. It's a new low.

How does this contribute to any outreach we do? Or better: how does this contribute to our credibility? How does this in any way help dispel the fear of chemicals and change the way chemistry is portrayed? Let me break it down for you: it doesn't.

Looking through the lens of #chemophobia as a call to punch down is not the way to go. It blurs the lines between venting and outright harassment in ways that have been all too familiar in the scientific community lately. Same goes for how some made allowances for @SJFriedl's words. 

Some might claim that I'm over reacting. I'm good with that. When a male feels that it's okay to say "Pretty girls make us stupid" it speaks to a lot of the problems plaguing the scientific community. @SJFriedl is using the way that Ms.Hari represents herself and her gender to discredit her and there is not enough I can say to explain how wrong that is. Ms.Hari does fit into the conventionally attractive female category and she is powerful, just like many of my role models in the sciences. Many of these powerful female role models of mine have been punched down and threatened for speaking their mind. How is this different other than the fact that we seriously and unequivocally disagree with the way she is defaming chemistry and misrepresenting the truth? 

If we have sunk to this level, are we better than the people that incite #chemophobia, both the fear and the insult?

I think that @Chemjobber put it best: "It's the chemophobia that makes us stupid." And lest I misquote him the whole tweet is:

IMO: it's the #chemophobia that makes us* stupid. | us*=those of us that agree with her (and none of us do)

*For the record, I know that "not a fan" may not directly mean "insulted" but this does not detract that this statement is not cool with people.

Monday, February 3, 2014

#Chemophobia Blogversation: A response to @Reneeweb

Superstar blogger and twitterkith @Reneeweb suggested that we take the on-going discussion of the word and hash-tag (#)chemophobia out of the 140 character format of twitter and onto the more free flowing format of a blogsogversation. This is my response to A Discussion of #chemophobia on Twitter: in blogversation with @Chemtacular.

As @reneeweb explains, the conversation about the role of (#)chemophobia had evolved in terms of our relation with the world outside of chemistry. Posts by @MustLoveScience and @docfreeride (said posts are linked via Twitter handle) as well as my own heated interactions with friends and colleagues inspired me to take a critical look at the word I'd latched onto to vent my frustration about scare tactic marketing and/or reporting the evils of "chemicals". 
I noticed this pattern:

  • The media/advertising character attacked Chemistry 
  • Then chemists would claim #chemophobia and circle the wagons (read massive venting and laughing at those people who felt threatened by dihydrogen oxide (water)).
  • Non-chemists would feel dismissed if not insulted and they would rally against "chemicals" and thus chemists even more
  • Chemist would wonder why everyone distrusted them despite their best efforts to reach out to the non-chemist/non-science communities. (You read that right, other scientists vehemently distrust chemists too. I found this out the hard way when I started my physics minor.)

Given that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity, I decided that it was crucial that we change out approach and the way we think about this problem. This necessarily had to begin with taking a step back from #chemophobia. I believed, and to some extent still believe, that if we are going to reach out to people the hash-tag has to go entirely if we can't separate the hostility with which some chemists use it from what it should be describing: a fear of chemicals. I stand at the critical point that unites other science, environmental groups, frighted people, people who love #chemophobia and the people who want to change it. With respect to the latter two, we both want the exact same thing, we both love chemistry. Now consider everyone else. We all want similar things but it's impossible to see that if we continue to look at the situation through the lens of #chemophobia.

To start a proper dialogue between all these groups, the first thing that has to happen is for us to find a new hash-tag. If we (chemists) want to change the "us vs them" mentality we need a term that said that the media and/or advertising was misleading in such a way that we were not being dismissive of people's concernes or insulting them for having misconceptions. Back in July, I joined the conversation by way of suggesting new hash-tags. Some of them included: #SuspectScience and #QuestionableChem. Some chemists said the latter was close but that it didn't take into account that there may be actual chemistry but misinterpreted. Others disagreed claiming that the problem wasn't the science but the marketing. This process went back and forth for a some time over a couple of days and several twitter conversations until @MustLoveScience suggested #BogusChem. We put it through its paces. 

Does it account for:
Lack of scientific fact - yes
Misunderstood, misinterpreted/misused facts - yes
False claims - yes
Is it insulting people who are scared - no
Is it catchy enough to replace #chemophobia - Kind of?

I decided to start adding #BogusChem whenever people tweeted or re-tweeted something tagged as #chemophobia to get the term out there. The new tag did not meet a lot of chemists expectations and then another issue surfaced: Is this term including genuine fear of chemicals? This spilled out to some Twitlonger posts with @Chemjobber and @BlackPhysicists. The West Virginia spill convinced me that we needed two terms:
1) Fear of chemicals/dangerous exposure (the one acceptable use of #chemophobia?)
2) Misrepresentation of chemistry. Irresponsible statements about chemistry/chemicals. 

I put this out on Twitter suggesting the terms below to kick things off:

Other scientists weighed in with other suggestions. @reneewebs, mentions that I took issue with some. 

#ChemAbuse - This makes me think of "substance abuse" or people improperly using chemicals, but when looking at the criteria above it goes from sounding great to meh.

Some chemists wanted something more positive, #ChemLove was suggested but I wasn't sure it stood on its own to call out blatant lack of facts/fear mongering.

@MustLoveScience comes to the rescue again by suggesting #Chemsploitation. This I LOVED. I covers everything! Then I took a step back. When we first started trying to find a replacement for #chemophobia, I came across #chemsplain. I loved it. It was short, it was catchy, it said that we were about to break it down - and then some one brought up that it was too much like #mansplain, which is a tag used to designate dismissal/justification of sexism. So I thought of #Chemsploitation carefully. It does mean that people, whether it be in media or marketing, were exploiting chemistry for their own purposes... 

Is it insulting to people who are legitimately afraid (say for example the people dealing with a chemical spill in West Virginia)? I don't think so, their drinking water has been compromised by the negligence of a chemical manufacturer. Both the people and "chemicals" (and by extension, chemists) are being exploited by an irresponsible company and government officials. Is #Chemophobia is a better hash-tag to describe this situation?

And here lies the root of the problem and the reason I think there is a need to be very specific about what term we use. This is a legitimate use of the word #chemophobia, or so argue the hash-tag's supporters. If said hash-tag is used to mean that there is legitimate fear I'd agree entirely, but then I think that #chemophobia still has two problems:

1. Phobia is often defined as an "irrational fear." I don' think this is the case in West Virginia, people are afraid of what they don't understand -especially when they are told the concentration of the chemical is a cause of concern.

2. Chemophobe is constantly being thrown around the chem community as an insult meaning extraordinarily stupid and possibly worse than xenophobe or homophobe. Unless this stops #chemophobia will continue to be a problem. (I'll speak more to alternatives to how we describe venting below.)

Let's get back to #Chemsploitation. The first thing it makes me think of is Blacksploitation. I'm a POC and I have to immediately take a step back. I'm not of African American descent, and there hasn't been a Latinosploitation but I'm frustrated by the way Hollywood treats Latinos enough to give this terms some thought.

I'm more than alright with saying that people who misrepresent chemistry for their own purposes are exploiting it and I think this is the best term so far but I do want  to be mindful that we aren't alienating anyone by being insensitive.

This is a long way of saying, yes, there is an English word for this concept. I think we're closer to stepping away from #chemophobia than we have been since the start of this discussion 7 months ago. Other chemists are taking a long, hard look at this hash-tag even if they think it is still the way to go. 

Chemists will vent, there is no shortage of reason to be frustrated with the portrayal of chemicals and chemists, but I think that even the way we vent is changing. I'll even suggest #ChemVent replace our Bat Signal if we want to blow off steam. By all means let's vent, but let's direct our frustration at the proper target: those that perpetuate fear of chemicals for their own gain, or dare I say #Chemsploitators?

NOTE: I do feel like it's quite daring to say that last bit. What do people think? Is taking on #Chemsploitation a responsible move?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Research By Any Other Name

A couple of days ago I opened a hard copy of an organic chemistry journal to the page where I'm listed as a co-author of an article. I was stunned. The boss had surprised me with the news over the weekend, but not even the swagger in my end-zone dance could capture how life changing it was to see my work and my current name in print for the first time. 

Seeing my current name on a paper also gives me chills for a darker set of reasons.
1. I suddenly find myself in the big pond of published research, knowing nothing of it except it operates on one law: Publish or Perish. As I suspected, and other chemists have confirmed, there is a lot more to publishing than that.

2. The past two weeks have shown that there are people in power taking names and retaliating when their actions are questioned/criticized. These people include editors of journals.

3. A scientist's name carries their authority and determines how their research will be received. Most importantly however, a scientist's name identifies them as a set of interactions with other research and journals in the collective memory the world of published research. Journals are run by people in this community of knowledge, usually ones that have been in said community a long time and are therefore very likely to remember the set of research interactions a particular name conveys. While there is great benefit to their experience, everyone has their own memories/versions of events, biases and grudges. This last element presents a problem in all cases, but especially when a more established member of the world of published research direct their hostility to an up and coming researcher who has called out a more experienced researcher for being wrong. Unfortunately, some researchers have chosen their ego and hierarchy over the scientific spirit of learning and I can't help but wonder if this is because of who is calling them out. We have to consider that the face of science is slowly changing (both literally and in terms of the norms that govern it) and it is doing so faster than some people can handle - people that include those that run journals.

At the behest of my friends and mentors, I'm now writing under a pseudonym. 
I'd started Twitter under my future name, and when they saw that I approach people on line the same way I do in real life, they wanted me to be careful. Ironically, the more I move away from my current name, the more I stand out. My current name is ridiculously common. After reading the first paragraph, you know my area of chemistry and unfortunately that narrows it down extremely. The name I'm taking narrows it further. My pseudonym is me hiding in plain sight. Though as Chemtacular, I am in the cross-hairs of everyone I'm responsible to.

In the 6 months I've been on Twitter, I've seen plenty of folks take issue with people writing under pseudonyms., claiming our "anonymity" allows for us to eschew accountability for what we say thus giving us free reign to attack established scientists' work. 

Needless to say, using a pseudonym is not the same as being "anonymous." As Chemtacular, I still own my words. I participate in scientific discourse as a consistent entity but that is still enough to scare some in the old guard. Pseudonyms provide the only space in which we can remain true to science, which point is an open discourse where all claims are (should be) based on quantifiable research. Anonymity doesn't work this way. Anonymity is a disembodied comment, a critique without a name, and while this can be used to hit and run on the internet, it is at the heart of publishing scientific research in the form of "anonymous peer review." By being anonymous, reviewers for a particular journal can determine if the research submitted merits publication, but like all systems this is far from perfect. Oddly the folks that vehemently argue against pseudonyms don't seem to have a problem with anonymous peer review.

Some papers get through peer review, editors etc., but still include some issues with the research and people writing under pseudonyms have been able to call them out without committing career suicide. As far as I know, we become scientists because we never stop learning, feedback provides an opportunity for everyone to learn, so I don't understand where the disconnect is. People with credentials, authority and deeply entrenched in the world of published research missed these issues when the paper was submitted for publication, so whether pseudonymous critics are 'qualified' isn't the problem. The fact that the person/s had to use a pseudonym or risk never being published again strikes me as a much more serious problem. 

In light of the position that the people at Nature have taken on gender issues and one of their editors openly stating that he has a 'hit list', I began to wonder why it was so important to publish in glam journals and how glam journals obtained authority. Being new to science and even newer to the wider forum of published research, I'm taking a look at this situation as any good scientist would: by talking to a lot of other scientists. Rewind a week or so, and you can find this tweet:

Turns out I'm wrong. I took on-line and off line conversations with Twitter folk in the know and pieced together that though people wish it weren't so: in a publish or perish world, scientists need exposure. Glam journals like Nature and Science give the maximum exposure and being published there gets scientists the big grant money. The next best thing are of course the big journals in particular fields. So in my case, I should be shooting for The Journal of the American Chemical Society (that might be glam too, I'm not sure), Angewandte Chemie, The Journal of Organic Chemistry (ACS publication) and the like. Big names in the field publish with these journals and that gives the journals authority. In turn, getting published in a glam/big journal gives scientists authority and access to a lot of grant money. Up and coming scientists want to get in on the validation a glam journal offers precisely because they need the grant money to continue to publish and thus not perish. This makes sense until you remember that journals are run by people with biases and that therefore, up and coming scientists are expected/forced to keep their head down.

My natural instinct is: break the cycle! I agreed with others on Twitter that called for scientists to take their papers elsewhere. One of my very established Twitter connections saw my posts and privately requested I take a second to talk to a specific set of people on the other side of my argument. One of these ended up being a mentor of mine, who had also seen my posts and had an answer ready. They pointed out a couple of things that hadn't occurred to me but are key:

1. People run journals (see above). All journals. And thus taking our work to another journal may not solve the problem.
2. Even if every Nobel laureate took their work to a small journal, by virtue of their authority that would then become a glam journal, and it would still be run by people who had their own prejudices, biases, and grudges.

This didn't change the sentiment of wanting to break this cycle, but I did start to think about it another way.
As far as I know, journals rely on editors and anonymous peer review to get their content. If you're an author you send your paper out to them, with your name on it and it is accepted or it isn't. I was told that this was the worst way to publish scientific research, but it is the best that we've come up with so far. I say that it’s high time for a change: what if the predominant system became a double-blind system? Keep the editors and the anonymous peer review, but have a separate department of the journal assign a random code or number to the particular paper. In this way, only the merit of the research and the true spirit of science remain. When everyone has weighed in, the decision goes to this separate department once again, and they communicate with the scientists.

Clearly this suggestion is far from perfect but it’s a start.*
In fact, I'm sure someone has already come up with this, but have journals tried it? And if so, how many? Did it fail and if so how was the failure determined? Would it be so crazy to try again- presuming of course that better technology and resources are available to do so since the last time it was attempted?

I know that I just got here, but you can't tell me that scientists capable of genetically engineering goats in an attempt to reproduce spider silk can't fix this relatively simple problem. I am not so naive as to believe in a utopia of fairness, but what we have now is ridiculous. At what point is it still science if scientists are afraid of an inquisition led by other scientists?

* It turns out that double blind reviews are a hotly debated way of moving towards “greater transparency” but I've decided to address this in my next blog post. Nature itself has written about double blind studies and I want to make sure that I make a space in which to give proper attention to how the world of published research responds to the start of a potential paradigm shift.  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Quick Word on Chemophobia

First, two definitions:
Chemophobia: a fear of chemicals, esp as used in artificial food products or industrial processes (OED

Chemophobia is a "fear of chemicals". It is most often used to describe the fear that "chemicals", usually meaning man-made products or artificially concentrated but naturally occurring chemicals, are bad and harmful while "natural" substances are good and healthy.(Wikipedia

However this is not the way that it is used and this has created a great deal of friction between chemists, environmentalists, and the general public (anyone from your local baker to people with multiple doctorates in physics), all who generally have completely different reactions to the media's portrayal of "chemicals."

Now I'm not questioning that this fear exists - anyone who knows brand new parents is well aware of how real it is. Just as a very legitimate fear exists, so does extreme frustration chemists have about being so negatively portrayed.  

My issue is that this term is used by chemists to describe a negative portrayal of chemistry (that's not what it actually means!). I also have a hard time with this word because it is used in such a way that it strengthens the rift between the public and chemistry when there doesn't have to be one. How? Well, we are still recycling the idea that chemicals are something to be afraid of by using this term. Yes, there is a general confusion about what chemicals are but this term doesn't contribute to solving that problem. People aren't scared of chemicals, they are afraid of toxins. I also find that chemophobia  dismisses the issue at hand instead of taking that opportunity to educate.We just need a new term. 

Coming up with one isn't as easy as it sounds. I spent an afternoon tweeting with chemists across several time zones and the best we could do to come up with a term that wasn't dismissive, punching down, or dissing chemistry was #BogusChem which means both lack/misuse of facts and negative portrayal of chemistry.

I've been asked why I'm so hung up on this a couple of times. As scientists we chemists have to reach out to the public so that everyone can make informed decisions. The only people who benefit from this divide are those that promote this negative perception of chemicals with scare-tactic marketing. While we argue, they're laughing all the way to the bank.