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Can we combat chemophobia … with home-baked bread?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post was inspired by the session at the upcoming ScienceOnline 2013 entitled Chemophobia & Chemistry in The Modern World, to be moderated by Dr. Rubidium and Carmen Drahl

For some reason, a lot of people seem to have an unreasonable fear of chemistry. I’m not just talking about fear of chemistry instruction, but full-on fear of chemicals in their world. Because what people think they know about chemicals is that they go boom, or they’re artificial, or they’re drugs which are maybe useful but maybe just making big pharma CEOs rich, and maybe they’re addictive and subject to abuse. Or, they are seeping into our water, our air, our food, our bodies and maybe poisoning us.

At the extreme, it strikes me that chemophobia is really just a fear of recognizing that our world is made of chemicals. I can assure you, it is!

Your computer is made of chemicals, but so are paper and ink. Snails are made of chemicals, as are plants (which carry out chemical reactions right under our noses. Also carrying out chemical reactions right under our noses are yeasts, without which many of our potables would be less potent. Indeed, our kitchens and pantries, from which we draw our ingredients and prepare our meals, are full of many impressively reactive chemicals.

And here, it actually strikes me that we might be able to ratchet down the levels of chemophobia if people find ways to return to de novo syntheses of more of what they eat — which is to say, to making their food from scratch.

For the last several months, our kitchen has been a hotbed of homemade bread. Partly this is because we had a stretch of a couple years where our only functional oven was a toaster over, which means when we got a working full-sized oven again, we became very enthusiastic about using it.

As it turns out, when you’re baking two or three loaves of bread every week, you start looking at things like different kinds of flour on the market and figuring out how things like gluten content affect your dough — how dense of a bread it will make, how much “spring” it has in the oven, and so forth.

(Gluten is a chemical.)

Maybe you dabble with the occasional batch of biscuits of muffins or quick-bread that uses a leavening agent other than yeast — otherwise known as a chemical leavener.

(Chemical leaveners are chemicals.)

And, you might even start to pick up a feel for which chemical leaveners depend on there being an acidic ingredient (like vinegar or buttermilk) in your batter and which will do the job without an acidic ingredient in the batter.

(Those ingredients, whether acidic or not, are made of chemicals. Even the water.)

Indeed, many who find their inner baker will start playing around with recipes that call for more exotic ingredients like lecithin or ascorbic acid or caramel color (each one: a chemical).

It’s to the point that I have joked, while perusing the pages of “baking enhancers” in the fancy baking supply catalogs, “People start baking their own bread so they can avoid all the chemicals in the commercially baked bread, but then they get really good at baking and start improving their homemade bread with all these chemicals!”

And yes, there’s a bit of a disconnect in baking to avoid chemicals in your food and then discovering that there are certain chemicals that will make that food better. But, I’m hopeful that the process leads to a connection, wherein people who are getting back in touch with making one of the oldest kinds of foods we have can also make peace with the recognition that wholesome foods (and the people who eat them) are made of chemicals.

It’s something to chew on, anyway.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. julianpenrod 1:13 pm 01/25/2013

    It’s helpful to be mindful of what’s being proposed here.
    Nurtuering a basically indiscriminate acceptance of all chemicals as harmless, of eliminating the measured approach that can lead to assessing “science” rather than just wantonly accepting everything it says as unquestionably true and everything it does as necessarily “beneficial”, even when it harms untold numebrs of people, and, overall, not holding “science” accountable for crimes it commits.
    “Everything is made of chemicals!”, this project will tout, “Everything you eat, wear, use is chemicals! You are chemicals!” And, in line with the attitude of caution that the article pointedly wants to eliminate, no mention of dangerous substances. Or even of dangers in “safe” substances.
    Using the “‘expert’ effect”, namely, invoking unlimited trust in those without “official” “credentials” of things said by those with “official” “credentials”, even to the point of distilling implications the “experts” did not say and trusting them as if they were said. Including the idea that no amount of any chemical is unsafe. And anybody who says there are chemicals in a wide range of doses should be mocked and abused.
    And do it all in colloquial argot. You see it in all the blogs trying to whitewash “science”. Slang, pop cultural references, written versions of guttural noises, even vulgarity. All calculated to render “science” as “accommodating” and, “therefore”, “reliable” and “safe”.
    All part of the shallow, because they don’t care about anything beyond the bounds of thei laboratories, self seeking, self absorbed, self serving mentality of so many, if not most, for whom “science” is the only “reality”. They live only for the next “experiment” and will misrepresent anything and everything to arrange to swindle the gullible out of taxpayer dollars to support them.

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  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 2:59 pm 01/25/2013

    To reject any scientific description of one’s world (let alone the potential usefulness of that description for some of one’s own ends) because some scientists behave unethically strikes me as akin to treating a facial pimple by decapitation.

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  3. 3. julianpenrod 3:47 pm 01/25/2013

    This may cause this not to be printed or to be removed, but, if Janet D. Stemwedel’s response is aimed at what I said, in fact, all “scientists”, every single last one of them, is complicit if not wholly guilty.
    There was no allied confrontation against thalidomide. Or against fen phen. Or against Vioxx. No “scientists’ challenged the George W. Bush Administration claim of banned weapons systems in Iraq. None of them challenged that patently insipid “Nayirah” claims. None said that simply skidding a few hundred yards down a track wouldn’t kill Dale Earnhardt, Sr.  When it’s pointed out that tornado numbers rose from a constant 180 or so a year before 1950 to ten times that many now, those who wish to hide chemtrail influrnce in the weather insist that it’s only because there are more people in the country to see tornadoes now. No “Scientist” ever countered that by pointing out the population has only risen by 200% while the number of tornadoes is 900% larger, or that the area where tornadoes occur is so limited that population there was always significant and 1700 tornadoes could not be hidden there! No “scientist” ever criticized the sub prime loan policy as dangerous to the economy or that rampant overdevelopment would bring about overproduction that would devalue homes, leaving a market where they wouldn’t even have a buyer. Toi be quite in the face of craven malingering is to be complicit.
    “Scientists” are only interested in the next “experiment”. They’re not going to criticize what they see as the source of all money, as well as many “research” projects, the government or big business. After that, they’re interested in making the “experiment” “work”, which means perverting how the “experiments’ are performed to “force” a “conclusion”. Which is why you see so many articles saying new results are contradicting older ones.
    Nothing “science” says can be trusted.

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  4. 4. Paleoecologist 4:21 pm 01/25/2013

    Julian, you’re clearly not looking very hard. How many scientists have you talked to? We are as diverse in our ideas and purviews as any other group of people. You’re also simultaneously singling out scientists as somehow separate from regular citizens, while also ignoring the fact that we have areas that are and are not within our purview. I am a climate scientist and ecologist, and I did indeed speak out amongst my friends on sub-prime lending; but why should my opinions on that topic be taken any more seriously than an economist claiming climate change isn’t real?

    Your comment about tornados, for example, is a common one brought up by “scientists”– when I teach introductory earth science, this is something my students and I discuss. A very cursory Googling brought up a number of other instances of scientists speaking out on this very topic:

    You have a lot of misconceptions about science, which makes me suspect you don’t talk to many of us. Most of the scientists I know, for example, study their fields because they 1) have a deep-seated fascination with the natural world and its components, and/or 2) have a strong urge to help people/the natural world. We are very outspoken about “the source of all money,” which actually translates to a <10% funding rate, by the way. Like most of the scientists I know personally, I am funded by taxpayer dollars via the National Science Foundation, and so I speak out openly about the importance of science funding.

    Many of your misconceptions would be corrected if you got to know scientists a little better. We're often lamenting that we feel like we're shouting into the wilderness and no one is listening; hearing folks like you say we're not speaking is immensely frustrating. We are– all the time. We tweet (I'm @JacquelynGill), we blog (I'm at, we give science pub nights, we're on podcasts (check out Science…Sort of and Breaking Bio), we're interviewed for magazines and radio programs, we volunteer at schools, we give talks at libraries, national parks, and college campuses, we have Facebook pages. We're out there. We're speaking. Get to know us. Engage. You'll find that most of those assumptions you're making aren't actually true, and are based on straw men of scientists.

    Seriously: I dare you.

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  5. 5. zanemvula 6:40 pm 01/25/2013

    And once again we fall into the trap of over-simplifying things.

    Sure, all things are chemicals. This is not news to anyone who has moved past kindergarten thinking. But of course we’d all rather have a glass of water than a glass of hydrochloric acid, despite both being chemicals. And why is this? Because we *know* that one won’t harm us, and one will. I’m not absolutely sure how we figured this out, historically – hopefully it didn’t involve some poor schmuck drinking some to find out – but it’s a thing we know with high certainty: drinking concentrated hydrochloric acid will kill you, drinking water in most cases won’t.

    However the continuum of knowledge is vast and has many more grayscales than my stupid example above. What about complex substances? How do these affect us at different concentrations? What about interactions with other chemicals, including those found within us, or that compose us? How do these effects vary from person to person? What about environmental effects? “Everything is chemicals” is, when all of reality is considered, a totally useless mantra.

    Science (of which I am a certain fan) has given us many great things, but also many terrible ones. These do not need revisiting here – we all know the headline stories. Despite these imperfections, it remains – at it’s core – the only viable means of converging our simplistic understandings of reality on some form of more absolute truth. Superstition and magical thinking just don’t compare.

    What it lacks, however, is the requisite humility that should accompany such a massive quest for truth – the one thing we should all be absolutely certain of is that we don’t actually know much about anything at all, perhaps even that we can’t (within the hairless monkey substrate that we inhabit) understand reality to the level needed to control it, ever. Yet this is not the attitude commonly found in most scientists, who tend to get caught up in enthusiasm about their field and too often fall prey to positivity bias, thinking they can fix everything.

    (Scientism may take on religious proportions in some quarters, but the real danger is engineerism. Nothing is more capable of reducing a complex reality to a more tractable simplification than a motivated engineer).

    As science gets more complex and specialised, and less possible for the uninitiated to understand, all you get is distrust from the general public and confusion (accompanied by plaintive wails along the lines of “why can’t they see that everything is just chemicals/GMs/medicines are perfectly safe… excluding all those cases where they weren’t”) from the scientific community. This all gets worse when scientific developments are seen as empowering large corporations, which by and large disempower the average citizen. (cf. Occupy movement’s 1%/99% dialogue).

    More holism is required: are the scientific enablers for population growth a good thing, in the long term? Sure it’s good to build a medicine that alleviates suffering and saves a baby’s life, but that brings with it, in the aggregate, issues of having too many mouths to feed. How about the science that enables the exploitation of finite fossil fuels, and the impact of that on climate? Who’s doing that thinking? Not the scientists I speak to, who see this as not of their domain.

    So what am I proposing – the abandonment of science? Hardly. Perhaps a less hostile attitude towards things that seem to work but which we don’t fully understand yet, combined with a large helping of humility and precautionary principle before we leap in to fixing things – and picking up a lot of unanticipated consequences. And also a heap of education to the non-scientific masses so they can more clearly distinguish between the certainty involved in the HCl example above and, say, your average GM project.

    Science is in danger of completely losing the trust of the masses. This is actually not a problem with the masses – science has to earn that trust, with the first step being admitting that we hardly know anything and con’t control much of it. Science needs a touch more maturity to go alongside the mass of knowledge we seem to be accumulating of late.

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  6. 6. hanmeng 8:12 pm 01/25/2013

    Good luck with that.

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  7. 7. julianpenrod 8:16 pm 01/25/2013

    Among other things, the first time “sub prime” was mentioned was ust before the collapse began. If there had been anything like attention paid to it before that, especially by those with a lot of letters after their name, no matter what those letters were, it could have created interest and awareness. The “expertise effect”, that many pay attention to what those with “credentials” say and trust it, even if it’s patently ridiculous. If a block of “scientists” had come forward and condemned claims of banned weapons systems in Iraq, it may not have stopped the invasion, but it would have been heard and influenced acceptance of the event. It was not and it did not.
    And Paleoecologist’s decision to include the articles on tornado numbers is bizarre. I mentioned the increase in tornado numbers and the articles, basically, all denied it was happening. Denying what’s happening is not “speaking out” as much as it is “supporting the propaganda”. “Speaking out” is decrying the prevailing, but wrong, perceptions and doggerel. For the most part, “scientists” do not speak out. There is little, if any, contradiction of “the official story” about anything. “Scientists” largely is not universally condemn “conspiracy theories” and anything that doesn’t go with “the official story”. I don’t have any record of Paleoecology criticizing other “scientists”.
    And, frankly, someone claiming to be a “scientist” claiming all “scientists” aren’t bad, that they are only interested in the welfare of society, is self exonerating and, except where there is particular reason not to see it as gratuitous, should not be extended great consideration. And reproachingly accusing me of not knowing about “scientists” still does not change the fact that going along with connivery by any other member of a group makes you complicit. Paleoecology or others identifying themselves as “scientists” can place as much laudatory material as they want, it doesn’t change what is seen.

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  8. 8. MarkmBha 1:00 am 01/28/2013

    Living kills you!
    Why are people so obsessed with every miniscule detail of life? Enjoy the present!

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  9. 9. Fanandala 5:36 am 01/29/2013

    @ Julianpenrod
    Sorry, but I don’t follow your reasoning. What makes you think that scientists would know about Saddam’s real or imagined arsenal? That would be a matter for spies to find out. What credibility would a scientist have in that matter? Scientists are people like all of us so why should they be all bad? Are only the black sheep in your family involved in science?

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  10. 10. karl 3:52 pm 02/8/2013

    As a chemist I find the problem comes from the way information is exposed to people, if a tank of tetrafluoroethilene breaks and the spill kills the workers nearby in the news due to time and tongue constraints will say “a toxic chemical spill…” using chemical as a one size fits all word, since news are usually bad, people relates chemical with evil, hence when the next salesman tries to sell you his tapwater brand he will say “oh we dont use chemicals we use ozone and chlorine (as if those weren’t chemicals)” or use scare tactics like “BPA is toxic, this polycarbonate bottle uses BPA, so it is toxic (regardless that the plastic in the bottle has less than the OSHA allowed concentration of BPA and that most of that remains in the bottle).
    in reality there are forces (commercial) that profit from labeling chemicals as evil, because they can play the word substance for their “good” stuff and chemical for their competition’s “bad” stuff, I want to see a campaign that proposes water as the good stuff and hydrogen oxide as the bad one

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