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?


  1. I honestly don't see what all the fuss is about. Chemophobia seems like a perfectly good word to me, its clear what is meant i.e. an irrational fear of chemicals. And I don't get why people think it is punching down, any more than any other phobia. Why go muddying the waters with #boguschem? It's taken me ages to figure out what you meant by it. At first I thought you were claiming that the chemistry in my tweets were incorrect.

    And I haven't seen any evidence of non-chemist feeling dismissed or insulted and then rallying against chemistry.

    So why get hot under the collar about semantics?

    1. Here is the problem: when other people are involved, it stops being semantics. When we post things on the internet it’s not just chemists who read them for a good laugh and this costs us dearly in terms of credibility.

      I’ve seen your defense of the DHMO ‘joke’ and can tell you people with PhD’s in physics, who do understand the science and then some, are very much insulted. Yeah, they are upset at the bad reporting/advertising but they are even more upset that chemists ridicule and accuse them of being irrational/stupid etc. This goes double for the grandmas in my knitting group, for example, who were sprayed with DDT when they were kids and are scared that said exposure caused some of their health issues. I grew up in the shadows of several refineries and brown fields and I can tell you that many of my friends and former students’ fear of chemicals is far from irrational. Like all of us they want to make informed choices but who do they turn to for reliable information? Chances are it isn’t going to be chemists who dismiss them as stupid. So what’s left?

      I have spoken with several environmental groups both on Twitter and face-to-face, and for the most part I can bring them around with respect to some issues. The first step is always to validate their concerns and the second is to explain that all reporting/advertising is not always a fair representation of any science behind it, if there is any science at all. The response is for the most part positive, that is, they stop worrying about all chemicals and they ask questions about what the media claims is dangerous.

      I’m not a social scientist and I have no intention of publishing a study for you to have some evidence but the fact that we are alienating people negates any outreach we do. As long as this continues we are going to see crazy defamation of chemistry. So now I’ll ask you is this defamation of chemicals/chemists/chemistry really chemophobia? Is there a difference between the cause and the effect? The defamation of chemistry is all that most people ever see, so how does this make their fear irrational?

      Every time I see a post tagged #chemophobia I tag that as #BogusChem. If nothing else it gets people thinking and or discussing why the tag is there. Is it the best term? No. It’s why we are trying to come up with a new one. There is a time and a place for #chemophobia (both the word and the hash-tag) but when it doubles to mean both the fear of chemicals (whether you deem it rational or not) and as an insult, we need to check ourselves.