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Dear chemists

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Happy International Year of Chemistry. We hope things go well with your effort to increase public appreciation of chemistry and increase the interest of young people in chemistry and generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry.

Fat chance that’s going to get us to relax, though. Sure we know that chemistry has produced some pretty cool stuff, like DVDs and DNA, and when you mix vinegar and baking soda you can make a volcano, which is really cool. But let’s face it. Maybe when you hear "chemicals", you think of the Periodic Table or how hydrogen bonds work. When we hear "chemicals" we think death, harm, cancer, birth defects, danger, pain, poison, pollution, hazardous waste, Love Canal, Bhopal. Oh, joy!

So, happy IYC and all. But forgive us if hearing a word like "chemicals" doesn’t get us in the mood to celebrate or appreciate or enthuse. We know everything is made of chemicals and that without chemicals, life would be impossible. But just keep that stuff away from us, okay? It’s dangerous.


The Public

It’s not hard to understand why the world’s academic and industrial chemists would have asked UNESCO to give its official imprimatur to the International Year of Chemistry. Chemistry has taken its lumps over the past few decades. Well, maybe not the science itself. But certainly chemicals, and the chemical industry, which have produced wondrous benefits to be sure, but have also given us so many things to worry about that they have engendered their own place in the lexicon of fear: chemophobia. And their own body of law: toxic torts. And their own form of agriculture: organic (which initially simply meant chemical – as in pesticide – free). In fact the whole modern environmental movement was initially, and largely remains, a response to fear of chemicals.

It is hardly in the spirit of the International Year of Chemistry to say this, but such fear makes sense. Not, certainly, in terms of the actual physical risk from chemicals which, while real and in some cases severe, is often not commensurate with how worried people are. But the fear does makes sense in the context of the psychology of how humans perceive and respond to risk. And those academics and chemists and scientists who scorn these fears as irrational, are themselves guilty of the same thing, selectively and irrationally denying what the sciences of risk perception tell us to see things not as they are, but how they would like to see them.

While neuroscience and psychology and sociology may not be among the sciences in which chemists are trained, these fields have studied the psychology of risk perception, rigorously, for decades. Work from those disciplines, supported by the overwhelming reality of evidence from the real world (Exhibit A –Chemophobia), establishes beyond any question that while there may be some basic facts about "risk" that we can know, the perception of risk by individuals is subjective: an affective mix of the facts and how those facts feel.

The findings from this rich body of research make incontrovertible that risk perception is not, and can never be, a purely fact-based process. And no flag-waving International Year of Chemistry will make it so. Here are just a few of those findings, pertinent to Chemophobia:

- Risks that are human-made are scarier than those which are natural.

- Risks we can’t detect with our own senses, or that we can’t understand, are scarier.

- Risks that lead to particular painful results – cancer – are scarier.

- Risks imposed on us – by industrial chemicals in our air and water and food – are scarier than risks we take voluntarily.

- Risks created by industries whose behaviors have taught us not to trust them, are scarier.

In addition to these emotional inputs, people use several heuristics and biases – mental shortcuts – to make judgments about things under conditions which Hebert Simon called "bounded rationality"; the real life limitations of not having all the facts, or all the time to get all the facts, or all the intellect and training necessary to understand the facts, before we have to decide, quickly, moment-to-moment. These largely subconscious information processing tools also contribute to feelings that sometimes don’t match the hard cold facts.

- ‘Representativeness’ helps us make sense of partial information by comparing the clues against patterns of what we already know (we assess the first few hints about some new chemical risk against what we already know about chemical risk…dangerous, cancer, birth defects, untrustworthy industry, etc.).

- Loss Aversion. Humans are inherently precautionary, so in a choice between benefits and risks, the risks carry more weight. (Which seems to carry more weight to you: flexible plastic bottles or reduced sperm count, spotless apples or liver cancer?)

- ‘Availability’ – the more readily and powerfully something comes to mind, the more powerfully it fuels our self-protective fears. (Bhopal, Love Canal, Seveso, Times Beach, DDT, thalidomide, DES babies…need I go on?)

And finally, for the rationalists who still dismiss the mountains of evidence about the instinctive subconscious tools that shape our decisions and judgments, here’s the topper. Neuroscience (a "hard" science) has found that the wiring and chemistry of the brain guarantees that we react to potential risks with instinct and feelings first, and cognitive reasoning second. And after the initial stimulus, in the ongoing dynamic of how the brain figures out what to be afraid of, feelings carry more influence than rational conscious thought. It is inescapable neural reality that we can not divorce our subconscious affective instincts from conscious reason, and that between the two, feelings can more easily overcome reason than the other way around.

What all this evidence means is that it is no more rational to call people irrational for this risk response than it is to call them irrational for not having eyes in the back of their head or four legs. This is the intrinsic reality of how we have evolved to perceive and respond to danger. It may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer for cutting through complicated modern risks with all their tradeoffs and messy but important details. But at this point in our evolution, it’s how we do it.

So rather than ignoring this reality, and dissing it as dumb, and trying to change people’s minds by recognizing only the benefits of modern chemistry, perhaps the International Year of Chemistry might also be a good time for chemists to show a little respect for the other sciences which have revealed a lot about why "chemicals" = "scary".

That, in turn, might produce a bit more respect for people’s fears, as irrational as they seem. And that, in the end, might make for a more open and honest consideration of the real risks that come along with modern chemistry’s fabulous benefits…which can help make the conversation about risks more of a conversation and less of a battle…which in the end might do far more to help people keep their understandable worries about modern chemistry in perspective.

About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.


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

Comments 18 Comments

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  1. 1. matthartings 10:55 am 04/11/2011

    I appreciate your arguments, and I fully agree that chemists need to be more upfront about any danger the chemicals that they work with/create may have.
    However, I have two points of contention with your post.
    First, as a chemist, your opening "letter" completely alienated me from wanting to read on. It was dismissive and condescending and took on the same air of self-righteousness that you are trying to convince chemists not to take.
    Second, you suggest that chemicals=scary, but not all of them are. How do you suggest that chemists approach discussion of chemistry/chemicals that pose no threat? Do we always need to bring up the "scariness" factor? Do we need to let that fear define who we are and how we communicate?

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  2. 2. amrendra 11:12 am 04/11/2011

    World was a safe place before nuclear bombs and safer before AK-47.

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  3. 3. dropeik 11:43 am 04/11/2011

    Forgive me if you found the opening letter offensive. It wasn’t personal. Wasn’t from "me" either, but represents how a lot of people feel when the words ‘chemicals’ or ‘chemistry’ come up. Which is the point I was trying to make, based on my understanding of the sciences of risk perception. My chemist friends (I have a bunch) all lament this phenomenon and, frustrated, call people irrational and wonder what to do. As you do. My suggestion, in the piece and here, is that an understanding of AND RESPECT FOR the underlying reasons for people’s worried and (sometimes) unfounded fears can help you understand where people are coming from, emotionally, and in any relationship, knowing that lets you interact with the other person more respectfully, and effectively.

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  4. 4. Unstable_Isotope 11:44 am 04/11/2011

    <i>the International Year of Chemistry might also be a good time for chemists to <b>show a little respect for the other sciences</b> which have revealed a lot about why "chemicals" = "scary".</i>

    Seriously, are you trying to help chemists or are you holding a grudge. The tone of this article totally turned me off. Chemists are well aware of the chemicals = scary in the public’s mind. I certainly agree that scientists need to get in front of communication instead of reaction but what advice are you offering here? You only say that chemists need to know this. We do. What now?

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  5. 5. PersiaGirl 12:01 pm 04/11/2011

    I loved this. Excellent read. Experimenting with chemicals is no different than the practice of medicine. Those reacting harshly will succumb to the adverse risk of your bodily chemicals constricting coronary vessels. Laugh a little people.

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  6. 6. mihondo 12:32 pm 04/11/2011

    Discourse between practioners ("chemists") and the public is hampered by language – different definitions of words, and the evolution of the use.

    "Organic" is a really good example. Before the understanding of carbon bonding ("Organic Chemistry"), it refered to the stuff that made life possible. Then later on, it was re-branded as "lacking bad chemicals". But to a chemist, it is the study of carbon chemistry.

    It used to be that risks were from "poisonous chemicals" or "toxic chemicals". But the adjectives have been dropped, which makes chemical synonymous with toxic or poisonous.

    So if chemical = toxic to the public, what does a chemist call a chemical (the things that everything is made of?)

    Maybe chemists need a new words which for all the benficial chemicals (‘benefics’ ?) or all pure materials (purifics).

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  7. 7. semill17 12:42 pm 04/11/2011

    Show a little respect for the other sciences? Who are you to accurately judge how chemists view other fields of science – you are neither a chemist nor a scientist in a different field… You are a mere reporter and report the "evidence" you choose fit. In bashing how chemists view people’s fears as irrational, you fail to acknowledge the actual work chemists have been doing to try and educate the public. However, the reason people have this fear (rational or irrational) is because people like you don’t even take the time to educate yourself before spouting how chemicals hurt you to the public or how real this fear is… It’s people like you that could convince people to buy "organic water" or some sham like that. Leave the explanation of science to the people who actually know and understand, not by giving a one sided argument of how chemists need to do more in respecting other sciences and etc.

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  8. 8. David Ropeik 1:05 pm 04/11/2011

    Dear Persia Girl,
    Thanks for getting that the letter at the top, which people seem to be taking personally, was a satire.
    Dear Mihondo,
    Semantics do matter, but what also interferes is the hubris of SOME scientists who treat people who get risk "wrong" with this patronizing "they just need to be educated" attitude, which overlooks the reasons their perceptions don’t match the evidence in the first place, and kind of slaps them in the face that they’re just too uninformed, or dumb, to get it right. Which, Dear Semill, only makes things worse. THAT’s the point of my piece.

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  9. 9. matthartings 1:22 pm 04/11/2011

    I’d like to say a little something on Mr. Ropeik’s behalf. I have read his book "How risky is it really" and have met him very briefly. In the book and the lecture he gave on our campus, he does show that he has a very real understanding of the relationship of the interplay between chemicals and exposure and safety. I don’t think that in any way he is chemist-bashing.
    Also, there is a very dangerous point of view in deeming that scientists should "educate" the public and give them information that they "need". Unfortunately, that is how I perceived David’s blog to be communicating to me. To my perception, this post said: "Chemists shouldn’t expect people to listen to them just because they are experts. Here are a list of expert opinions (from other fields) that chemists should adopt." This logic seemed a bit backwards to me.
    And as @unstable mentions, I really hoped that there would be some more concrete examples/ideas of how to approach communicating chemistry.

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  10. 10. suitti 2:40 pm 04/11/2011

    High school chemistry taught me to have a healthy respect for pure chemicals of any kind. I have a similar respect for trucks or cars moving at high speed. Clearly, not everyone does. I hear that even water purified enough is potentially toxic (though i’ve no idea if this true or not – certainly Yahoo!Answers isn’t authoritative).

    But we survived IYA – the year of astronomy. And clearly a small mountain hitting the Earth 65 million years ago didn’t do anything good for the dinosaurs. And there are, gamma ray burst, nearby supernovea, and lots of other possible disasters (see Phil’s book "Death from the Skies!" for details). You can see meteors with just your eyes (and maybe glasses) any clear night, if you want proof. You get grains of sand any night, and bigger stuff less often.

    Astronomy clearly has some cool stuff. Learning how the Sun works is really hot. How about chemistry? What could be cooler than learning how your own body works?

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  11. 11. beige 4:00 pm 04/11/2011

    One note about the use of the origins of "organic" in agriculture. Initially, the use of the term in agriculture was consistent with the use of the term in chemistry. The defining characteristic of "organic" agriculture was the source of plant-available N, coming largely from mineralization of complex C-based organic material, as opposed to direct addition of inorganic N from ammonia synthesis. Though some of the pioneers of organic agriculture did not shy away from the naturalistic-fallacy-rhetoric that is now firmly entrenched in the marketing of today’s ‘organic’ food products, their terminology was, at least, initially consistent with the science of chemistry. The use of this ‘organic’ term in agriculture actually pre-dated any of the modern pesticides that have, in the public imagination, become synonymous with "conventional" agriculture. So, it was all about carbon to begin with.

    This carbon-focused characteristic of organic agriculture has remained largely unchanged, despite the vastly changed public meaning of the term "organic." The problem is that "agriculture largely relying upon ecosystem-mediated C-N coupled nutrient cycling" doesn’t have the brand power that "organic" has.

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  12. 12. beige 4:01 pm 04/11/2011

    One note about the use of the origins of "organic" in agriculture. Initially, the use of the term in agriculture was consistent with the use of the term in chemistry. The defining characteristic of "organic" agriculture was the source of plant-available N, coming largely from mineralization of complex C-based organic material, as opposed to direct addition of inorganic N from ammonia synthesis. Though some of the pioneers of organic agriculture did not shy away from the naturalistic-fallacy-rhetoric that is now firmly entrenched in the marketing of today’s ‘organic’ food products, their terminology was, at least, initially consistent with the science of chemistry. The use of this ‘organic’ term in agriculture actually pre-dated any of the modern pesticides that have, in the public imagination, become synonymous with "conventional" agriculture. So, it was all about carbon to begin with.

    This carbon-focused characteristic of organic agriculture has remained largely unchanged, despite the vastly changed public meaning of the term "organic." The problem is that "agriculture largely relying upon ecosystem-mediated C-N coupled nutrient cycling" doesn’t have the brand power that "organic" has.

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  13. 13. djfatsostupid 4:51 pm 04/11/2011

    It makes more sense to call someone irrational for letting their emotions overtake their rational thought than it does to call someone irrational for not having four legs. Similarly, it makes more sense to call someone two-legged for not having four legs than it does to call them two-legged for non-rational thinking. Not thinking or behaving rationally is what irrational means.

    Human beings are largely both irrational and two-legged, and we should be looking to do better when it comes to the former.

    We should be more forgiving to one another on most fronts, and dismissing people’s beliefs by calling them irrational people is not a good way to start a conversation – I can certainly agree with all of that. But people are still irrational, even if their irrational emotional baggage around the word "irrational" prevents them from recognizing this fact.

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  14. 14. David Ropeik 8:56 pm 04/11/2011

    Dear Chemists,

    I deeply respect and admire what you do as professionals, and my chemist pals are all really wonderful people. But , some of you are a bit defensive. Understandably, I guess. For decades your field has far too commonly been thought of simply as producing dangerous substances and processes. Who in such circumstances wouldn’t feel a bit defensive, and want to improve things…to “increase the public appreciation of chemistry” and its role in “advancing economic progress and fostering a wholesome environment”? Those are a few of the specific goals of the International Year of Chemistry, and they are good and fair goals, and as a fan of what you do, I support them. But they, and the whole IYoC, reflect a defensiveness about the generally negative way some people think about what you do.
    Defensiveness is okay, depending on how you do it. My provocative post was intended to challenge how some of you have tried to combat negative views of chemistry in the past, efforts that have worked against you, in the hopes that you might avoid those mistakes going forward.
    Once again the world of chemistry, via the IYoC, intends to explain the facts, and rightly and proudly describe the wonder and the brilliance and the value of what you do. That will help, but it’s not nearly enough. As my blog suggested, an attitude adjustment for some might help too. In my 25 years as an environmental journalist, and 11 now as someone studying the history and practice of risk communication, I am afraid I must tell you that many of you (not all, but many) have too readily displayed an ignorance of, and even open frustration at, the emotional way people respond to the risks that chemistry also sometimes creates. Which is no way to win friends and support.
    (By the way, the origins of risk communication go back to the post-Rachel Carson growth-of-environmentalism 70′s, when chemical and nuclear professionals sought social science advice for how to talk to people to make them less afraid of chemical and nuclear risks. Not to respect and understand their fears. Just to manipulate them, to get them to calm down and see things the way the scientists wanted them to. Which mostly didn’t work.)

    (continued in next comment…)

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  15. 15. David Ropeik 8:57 pm 04/11/2011

    Risk communication must go beyond just explaining the facts and extolling your virtues. It’s a dialog that begins before words are spoken, with acceptance that no matter how low risk and wonderful and beneficial what you do may be, people (you too, by the way) are instinctively loss averse and prone to give more weight to risks than benefits. So the psychological characteristics associated with `chemicals’ that make them scary, as unfounded as they may be factually, are powerfully real to creatures intent on survival, and in many cases matter more, and seem more obvious, than the benefits of modern chemistry. Dialog doesn’t mean, as some of your comments suggested, that you have to talk about only the risk and fears. It means that just trying to make people see things your way isn’t enough. If you want them to do that, you have to see things their way too. And frankly, there’s room for improvement there.
    There are specific ways to do this. (And I’d be glad to help!) Here’s just one. Why not use the International Year of Chemistry to reach out to the communities that simplistically and naively criticize and fear chemicals, and engage them in a range of activities to search for common interest and perspective. Not to persuade or advocate or brag about Green Chemistry. Just to listen and establish more constructive relationships. Which should last beyond the IYoC. I don’t see that kind of reaching out and relationship building among the suggested activities in the IYoC prospectus, an absence that speaks to the point I’m raising about the need to consider this stuff.
    Our species is in a mess and chemistry will be important for finding solutions. It can do so more readily if the celebration of and advocacy for chemistry is mixed with at least a little acknowledgement of people’s concerns. Plenty of this has already been done…I’m just emphasizing the need for more. That will contribute to more positive relationships, and trust, and that will help advance the field of chemistry too.
    Gotta go. My vinegar and baking soda volcano is making a mess on my kitchen table.

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  16. 16. Obreption 5:31 am 04/12/2011

    I have been applying chemical insight to the appalling pseudo-science which in Britain passes off as scientific. While we do have some interesting programmes on science, they are inevitably of the large hydron collider type, chemical environmental disasters, and essentially pharmaceutical issues. I also cringe when I hear among some of the religious fraternities the misuse of terms such as ‘entropy’ and exponential. In order to do this I have written up a piece concerning the award of the Templeton Prize to Martin Rees ( It caused a stink here and I’ve thrown in some aspects of Tellurium chemistry as well as a mystery spectrum. Can anyone guess it? I found it in an old research paper, but have removed some of the clues.

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  17. 17. FMacNab 2:13 am 04/15/2011

    Sorry I am bit confused.

    Are you saying that chemists should make an effort to calm the irrational fears of lay people? Should they also calm their fears of nuclear power, terrorism, people of other cultures and races? Should we illuminate the general population about the incredibly terrifying things that they aren’t concerned about, like global warming, overpopulation, peak oil, or economic collapse.

    Perhaps the irrational fears of the general population are not irrational at all but result from a rational reaction to being poorly educated.

    Perhaps the ACS should hire some ad men and some lobbyists! The entire premise of your argument is absurd. It has nothing to do with chemistry but with lack of critical thinking skills.

    But what is the origin of this lack of critical thinking ability? As a young father my research into the state of public education has revealed to me a backward and poorly implemented system, which rejects a scientific approach to improving education outcomes. Perhaps you should focus your attention on the ironically named social sciences. Jump math, tools of the mind, comprehensive performance metrics and other quantitatively proven teaching techniques are the way to address not only chemo-phobia, but problems that actually matter to society.

    Perhaps you should write you next book about that.

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  18. 18. ikennedy 3:47 am 05/8/2011

    I think David does a great service to chemists. Having just experienced a failure to prevent the listing of the insecticide endosulfan as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) his piece provides me with the reason for unreason. It is easy to show using extensive research data from many countries that neither its of its two isomers nor its toxic product, endosulfan sulfate, meet the Stockholm Convention’s criteria for persistence in soil and water or possibly air by a wide margin; so I must conclude that the recent decision to list endosulfan by the Conference of Parties 5 in Geneva (April 29, 2011) was driven by fear and politics rather than arguments based on environmental chemistry. The molecular proportion of endosulfan in Arctic air (ca. 4 pg/cubic meter) is less than 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000 (or 10 to the power fifteen). This will equilibrate with water at only 1 part in 100,000 of the level in water that would be required to kill the most sensitive species of fish. While this is testament to the skill of the modern mass spectroscopist in trace analysis, United Nations Environmental Program should have determined that all of endodulfan’s toxic effects on humans and in the environment are acute from direct exposure or short range (less than 1 km) and and the Convention has no reason now to expend hundreds of millions of dollars required by listing endosulfan as a POP — proof that fear will usually win out over reason even in the expenditure of large amounts of money.
    That fear must be addressed effectively if global food security is not to be threatened by further expression by the public of their fear of chemicals, lest the world will be forced to grow food organically (currently only about 5% and a luxury of affluent societies), a task probably needing twice the availale arable area for crops, which is simply not available.

    So efforts to educate the public in this International Year of Chemistry will do well to take heed of Ropeik’s timely message.

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