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.


  1. I really fail to see the connection you're making between sexism and chemophobia.

    1. So you didn't see the post by @SJFriedl? I kid.

      I'm saying that when chemophobia is used to bash people who promote fear of chemicals (or people who are legitimately afraid for that matter), it opens the door to the uglier side of chemists. We allow ourselves to go beyond venting and into outright attack and when that attack is based on the attackee's sex you get sexist nonsense like the "Pretty girls..." post. You also get people defending/justifying posts like that - because they agree, 'and I mean its just the title right? The rest of it does a lot of good.' Just the fact that he felt he "could go there" because he disagrees with her and further because of the way she presents herself?

      I'm not saying that chemophobia makes people sexists. Sexist people make themselves sexist. When we're in the "us vs them" mentality of chemophobia (when used as an insult), then people will allow themselves to say things that are unacceptable. Better?

  2. I'm with Chad on this. I can't see the link either. I certainly don't agree with the sexist tweet. But still don't get the link with chemophobia or how its an example of chemophobia being used to mock others.

    1. First, I'm not saying that the sexist post is an example of chemophobia being used to insult or mock others. This misses the point of the argument.

      @curiouswavefn is one of the people I've seen using chemophobia pejoratively on Twitter so you might want to look through his posts if you're not convinced and would like convincing. More to the point, he retweeted a sexist post with his endorsement - sparing no thought to the title because he agreed so much with the post's claims. @curiouswavefn later acknowledges the issues with the title but continues to defend the post: "yeah, sexism, I mean she opens herself up to that but hey the argument of the post is awesome."

      What I'm saying is that when chemists ardently get caught up in accusing others of chemophobia they easily slip into insults and then easily slip into -isms because 'those people are chemophobic and its okay." Can we really say this use of chemophobia is healthy?

      I don't know how to explain it more clearly than that.

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