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When we target chemophobia, are we punching down?

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

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Over at Pharyngula, Chris Clarke challenges those in the chemical know on their use of “dihydrogen monoxide” jokes. He writes:

Doing what I do for a living, I often find myself reading things on Facebook, Twitter, or those increasingly archaic sites called “blogs” in which the writer expresses concern about industrial effluent in our air, water, consumer products or food. Sometimes the concerns are well-founded, as in the example of pipeline breaks releasing volatile organic chemicals into your backyard. Sometimes, as in the case of concern over chemtrails or toxic vaccines, the concerns are ill-informed and spurious.

And often enough, the educational system in the United States being the way it’s been since the Reagan administration, those concerns are couched in terms that would not be used by a person with a solid grounding in science. People sometimes miss the point of dose-dependency, of acute versus chronic exposure, of the difference between parts per million and parts per trillion. Sometimes their unfamiliarity with the basic facts of chemistry causes them to make patently ridiculous alarmist statements and then double down on them when corrected.

And more times than I can count, if said statements are in a public venue like a comment thread, someone will pipe up by repeating a particular increasingly stale joke. Say it’s a discussion of contaminants in tap water allegedly stemming from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction. Said wit will respond with something like:

“You know what else might be coming out of your tap? DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE!”

Two hydrogens, one oxygen … what’s coming out of your tap here is water. Hilarious! Or perhaps not.

Clarke argues that those in the chemical know whip out the dihydrogen monoxide joke to have a laugh at the expense of someone who doesn’t have enough chemical knowledge to understand whether conditions they find alarming really ought to alarm them. However, how it usually goes down is that other chemically literate people in earshot laugh while the target of the joke ends up with no better chemical understanding of things.

Really, all the target of the joke learns is that the teller of the joke has knowledge and is willing to use it to make someone else look dumb.

Clarke explains:

Ignorance of science is an evil that for the most part is foisted upon the ignorant. The dihydrogen monoxide joke depends for its humor on ridiculing the victims of that state of affairs, while offering no solution (pun sort of intended) to the ignorance it mocks. It’s like the phrase “chemophobia.” It’s a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.

The dihydrogen monoxide joke punches down, in other words. It mocks people for not having had access to a good education. And the fact that many of its practitioners use it in order to belittle utterly valid environmental concerns, in the style of (for instance) Penn Jillette, makes it all the worse — even if those concerns aren’t always expressed in phraseology a chemist would find beyond reproach, or with math that necessarily works out on close examination.

There’s a weird way in which punching down with the dihydrogen monoxide joke is the evil twin of the “deficit model” in science communication.

The deficit model assumes that the focus in science communication to audiences of non-scientists should be squarely on filling in gaps in their scientific knowledge, teaching people facts and theories that they didn’t already know, as if that is the main thing they must want from science. (It’s worth noting that the deficit model seems to assume a pretty unidirectional flow of information, from the science communicator to the non-scientist.)

The dihydrogen monoxide joke, used the way Clarke describes, identifies a gap in understanding and then, instead of trying to fill it, points and laughs. If the deficit model naïvely assumes that filling gaps in knowledge will make the public cool with science, this kind of deployment of the dihydrogen monoxide joke seems unlikely to provoke any warm feelings towards science or scientists from the person with a gappy understanding.

What’s more, this kind of joking misses an opportunity to engage with what they’re really worried about and why. Are they scared of chemicals per se? Of being at the mercy of others who have information about which chemicals can hurt us (and in which amounts) and/or who have more knowledge about or control of where those chemicals are in our environment? Do they not trust scientists at all, or are they primarily concerned about whether they can trust scientists in the employ of multinational corporations?

Do their concerns have more to do with the information and understanding our policymakers have with regard to chemicals in our world — particularly about whether these policymakers have enough to keep us relatively safe, or about whether they have the political will to do so?

Actually having a conversation and listening to what people are worried about could help. It might turn out that people with the relevant scientific knowledge to laugh at the dihydrogen monoxide joke and those without share a lot of the same concerns.

Andrew Bissette notes that there are instances where the dihydrogen monoxide joke isn’t punching down but punching up, where educated people who should know better use large platforms to take advantage of the ignorant. So perhaps it’s not the case that we need a permanent moratorium on the joke so much as more careful thought about what we hope to accomplish with it.

Let’s return to Chris Clarke’s claim that the term “chemophobia” is “a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.”

Lots of chemists in the blogosphere regularly blog and tweet about chemophobia. If they took to relentlessly tagging as “chemophobe!” people who are lacking access to the body of knowledge and patterns of reasoning that define chemistry, I’d agree that it was the same kind of punching down as the use of the dihydrogen monoxide joke Clarke describes. To the extent that chemists are actually doing this to assert membership in the Smarter Than You tribe, I think it’s counterproductive and mean to boot, and we should cut it out.

But, knowing the folks I do who blog and tweet about chemophobia, I’m pretty sure their goal is not to maintain clear boundaries between The Smart and The Dumb. When they fire off a #chemophobia tweet, it’s almost like they’re sending up the Batsignal, rallying their chemical community to fight some kind of crime.

So what is it these chemists — the people who have access to the body of knowledge and patterns of reasoning that define chemistry — find problematic about the “chemophobia” of others? What do they hope to accomplish by pointing it out?

Part of where they’re coming from is probably grounded in good old fashioned deficit-model reasoning, but with more emphasis on helping others learn a bit of chemistry because it’s cool. There’s usually a conviction that the basics of the chemistry that expose the coolness are not beyond the grasp of adults of normal intelligence — if only we explain in accessibly enough. Ash Jogalekar suggests more concerted efforts in this direction, proposing a lobby for chemistry (not the chemical industry) that takes account of how people feel about chemistry and what they want to know. However it’s done, the impulse to expose the cool workings of a bit of the world to those who want to understand them should be offered as a kindness. Otherwise, we’re doing it wrong.

Another part of what moves the chemists I know who are concerned with chemophobia is that they don’t want people who are not at home with chemistry to get played. They don’t want them to be vulnerable to quack doctors, nor to merchants of doubt trying to undermine sound science to advance a particular economic or political end, nor to people trying to make a buck with misleading claims, nor to legitimately confused people who think they know much more than they really do.

People with chemical know-how could help address this kind of vulnerability, being partners to help sort out the reliable information from the bogus, the overblown risks from risks that ought to be taken seriously or investigated further.

But short of teaching the folks without access to the body of knowledge and patterns of reasoning that define chemistry everything they know to be their own experts (which is the deficit model again), providing this kind of help requires cultivating trust. It requires taking the people to whom your offering the help seriously, recognizing that gaps in their chemical understanding don’t make them unintelligent or of less value as human beings.

And laughing at the expense of the people who could use your help — using your superior chemical knowledge to punch down — seems unlikely to foster that trust.

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. Physicalist1 8:53 pm 07/12/2013

    As I see it, the dihydrogen monoxide bit is legitimate if and when it points out:

    (i) Just because something might sound like a scary chemical, doesn’t mean that it’s dangerous.

    (ii) Everything — even everyday “natural” stuff — is composed of chemicals.

    So while it’s true that you shouldn’t try to insult someone for not being able to parse a chemistry term, the joke can have a place in emphasizing that it’s a mistake to fear something just because it’s a scary sounding chemical.

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  2. 2. Physicalist1 8:55 pm 07/12/2013

    BTW, when trying to log in using Google, Sci Am asks permission to “Manage your contacts.” Not sure why they want access to my contacts, but I’m not real comfortable with that.

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  3. 3. rkipling 12:50 am 07/13/2013

    Yes, punching down as discussed is self-congratulatory and pointless. I would even argue that someone entertained by the Dihydrogen Monoxide joke isn’t as far removed from those he mocks as he may imagine. But Clarke limits the discussion to mocking ignorance resulting from a lack of access to a good education. This seems to suggest that if only everyone had access to a good education ignorance would not exist, and we know this is not the case.

    I am unconvinced that anything approaching 50% of the population will ever have the interest to learn even the basics of chemistry or the scientific method. It’s my guess that the capacity to learn is similarly absent, but that also comes only from personal observations. I defer to your more informed opinion if you disagree. (This is not sarcasm. As an educator I assume you have better information.) Were there legions of Janet Stemwedels as educators I would be more hopeful.

    Realistically I think we try to arm as many potential leaders as we can with a basic understanding of science and hope for the best.

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  4. 4. David Cummings 12:14 pm 07/13/2013

    I’m sorry, but if you’re a normal mentally-healthy adult (older than a 6th grader, really) and you can’t recognize Dihydrogen Monoxide you deserve to be laughed at. Should the rest of us walk around on pins and needles careful not to offend people who get all their news from late night comedy shows and all their science from reality TV? Sorry, Charlie. If it’s funny, I’m laughing at it. If you haven’t spent the .0001% of your brain power necessary to grasp H2O and someone makes you the butt of a joke because of that fact, well then, that’s just too bad.

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  5. 5. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 3:26 pm 07/13/2013

    @ David Cummings:

    So, you feel entitled to laugh. Does doing so actually help? Even if you’ve concluded that the person at whose expense you’re laughing is utterly unreachable on the scientific literacy and/or critical thinking front (something which I’m inclined to believe is not a sure thing), does it advance the larger cause of scientific literacy and/or critical thinking to do so?

    Or, rather, does it persuade the not-unreachable who may be observing that the scientifically literate tend to be jerks?

    (I take it that this is an empirical question, but until the data are in, I lean towards playing it safe rather than burning potentially useful bridges.)

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  6. 6. David Cummings 4:36 pm 07/13/2013

    I am not a comedian but comedians do laugh at people, don’t they? Ever watch TV? Why is this particular joke (the H2O joke) suddenly so insensitive?

    I know the reason. Because it’s laughing at the “wrong” people. It’s ok to laugh at the “right” people. But when you laugh at the “wrong” people, suddenly long screeds are written about how laughing is “not helpful”.

    What total BS.

    On the larger subject of science education:

    My suggestion would be to emphasize the history of science in the lower grades. Kids should learn early that science is not a bunch of dry facts but a living breathing process that is every bit as every bit as much “human interest” as does, say, the study of battles or empires.

    Just a thought. I’m not a teacher or a scientist. I am an engineer and I have loved reading both science and the history of science since I was a kid.

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  7. 7. David Cummings 4:43 pm 07/13/2013

    And for the record I have never told the H2O joke and in general don’t go around poking fun at any people for any reason but I have to admit I got a good chuckle from a video I saw on youtube once of some college students going around an environmental fair of some kind (maybe an earth day gathering) getting people to sign a petition to ban H20, which a lot of ditsy environmentalist wanna-be’s (and those are precisely the people we are not allowed to laugh at) signed.

    I’m sorry. I thought it was funny. I chuckled softly to myself. I had a visible smile on my face.

    So shoot me.

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  8. 8. Chris Clarke 5:01 pm 07/13/2013

    Thanks for proving the point of my post over at Pharyngula, David.

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  9. 9. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 5:02 pm 07/13/2013

    Yeah, it’s pretty much a Q.E.D. up in here, isn’t it?

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  10. 10. David Cummings 6:21 pm 07/13/2013

    I’m all equal opportunity when it comes to being amused by ignorance. I am very much amused by L’affaire Heffernan; I am also amused by dim bulb chemophobes who lack the wit to recognize H2O in “dihydrogen monoxide”.

    We all laugh when the dim bulb is a “creationist”; we’re not allowed to laugh when the dim bulb is an “environmentalist”.

    Where in L’affaire Heffernan is the voice that says it’s “not helpful” to criticize her? That voice does not exist. Nor should it. Heffernan is an idiot and deserves to be so labeled.

    People who can’t recognize water when they see it shouldn’t be slapped down when they prattle on about the danger of “chemicals”.

    Ignorance is ignorance. Period.

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  11. 11. David Cummings 6:22 pm 07/13/2013


    People who can’t recognize water when they see it should be slapped down when they prattle on about the danger of “chemicals”.

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  12. 12. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 7:49 pm 07/13/2013

    @ David Cummings:

    Virginia Heffernan is not uneducated nor unintelligent. She earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, for goodness sake. Taking her to task for willful ignorance (or, more likely, trolling-for-hits) is not punching down on any reasonable interpretation. (Indeed, it’s hardly “punching” in a post that points out the lack of a coherent argument in language much milder than she would have gotten if she turned her column in as an undergraduate paper.)

    As for We all laugh when the dim bulb is a “creationist”, I am not part of your “we,” nor do I want to be. It’s pretty clear that you and I have different goals in our engagement with others.

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  13. 13. David Cummings 6:48 am 07/14/2013

    Examples of ignorance:

    1. Rich Chinese men buying Rhino Horn Powder to increase their own sexual potency (wiping out a precious species for absolutely no reason at all).

    2. Creationists trying to push an absolutely unsupportable belief about the history of earth and the universe as a science or equal to science.

    3. Americans and Europeans with an irrational fear of “chemicals” seriously not even understanding the basics of what the science of chemistry is, how it works, what it describes and understanding zero about the underlying chemistry of their own lives and yet going on boring endless rants against “chemicals”.

    4. People denying that their is Climate Change on planet earth at this time in our history and that that change threatens to have dramatic consequences for our civilization and for other species on earth besides ourselves.

    These are just four examples of ignorance. There are plenty more, of course. Fill in more as you like.

    Chris Clarke has chosen to defend one of these forms of ignorance. That’s his right.

    I personally am inclined to abhor all ignorance, especially in science.

    I think it’s bad for our planet, our species, our civilization, our country and our selves.

    I apologize if I upset anyone with my remarks.

    Seriously. It’s not my intention to do so.

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  14. 14. David Cummings 7:00 am 07/14/2013

    (I know, typo, their=there)

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  15. 15. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 10:13 am 07/14/2013

    @ David Cummings,

    There’s a difference between abhoring ignorance and abhoring an ignorant person (and a further difference between abhoring that person and treating that person unkindly).

    The whole point is whether it actually does much to address the ignorance — to lessen or end the ignorance — to be unkind to ignorant people this way.

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  16. 16. rkipling 7:18 pm 07/14/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    This topic must have posed quite a conundrum for how to compose your replies to Mr. Commings.

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  17. 17. Mark Lorch 5:42 am 07/18/2013

    I think you are oversimplifying things rather too much. The DHMO joke if used in isolation can lead to punching down. But more often it is used as as an example of reducto ad absurbium. In which case its a valid and helpful use of the ‘joke’.

    Of course with any satirical piece there are always those that fail to get the joke, but in my experience these are often people who DO get the science and are then outraged at the supposedly bad reporting.

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  18. 18. Sugarsail1 5:45 pm 09/1/2014

    Glad this issue is being discussed, but one important point is missing. Chemophobia is not simply due to poor education, but is typically combined with paranoia. A belief that chemical companies are trying to poison them and the government is untrustworthy as a safety regulator. Additionally, the individual’s ego gets a sense of empowerment from KNOWING that these chemicals are toxic, even if evidence suggests they are not(knowledge is power). Unless that person’s ego is first humiliated, as a di-hydrogen monoxide joke tends to do, that person will remain “incorrigible” (Psych: James Hillman) and thus cannot be educated to the contrary as any teacher will be merely seen as a pawn of those that seek to poison them.

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