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:
#NegligentChem
#ChemLibel
#IncitedChemophobia
#ChemDefamation

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?