July 11, 2013 | 12
Veteran chemistry blogger Derek Lowe’s takedown of the nonsensical Buzzfeed article about eight “food chemicals” that you should stay away from was an excellent rejoinder to what was essentially a pile of sensationalized opinions disseminated by someone who does not bother reading up on basic science, but it also gave me a sinking feeling that is encapsulated by the following basic existential question.
How long can we chemists do this?
Over the last few years bloggers like SeeArrOh, Derek, Chembark and others have regularly pointed out instances of the growing epidemic of antiscientific, fact-free chemophobia that abounds on the Internet. In fact most of it is not even chemophobia, it’s just plain ignorance of basic science. But as far as the sheer amount of chemistry-related nonsense floating around goes, all this worthy debunking is no more than a drop in the ocean. Those who don’t understand science and chemistry are going to keep foisting the same falsehoods on us ad nauseum. The problem is that even if chemistry bloggers decided to debunk no more than 10% of the nonsense that goes around, they will be at it all day and night. The pile of anti-chemistry garbage that dots the landscape of the internet and print media is like a Hydra. You debunk one head and ten grow in its place.
Plus the fundamental challenge in countering half-baked science is well-known: it takes only a few minutes to throw around unsubstantiated claims and link to random secondary and tertiary sources, but it takes dedicated time and effort to trawl through the primary sources, analyze the data and come up with a reasoned refutation. For instance it took me almost an hour to go through all the sources alluded to in a post about “toxic couches” and to write a post countering the claims. In fighting anti-chemistry forces chemists face a challenge similar to that faced by evolutionists fighting creationists. It takes only a minute for a creationist to make a statement like “There are no transitional fossil forms” but it takes time for an evolutionist to then go into the details and counter with the list of known transitional forms. Whether it’s creationism or chemophobia, time is inherently biased against the responders. There is essentially no realistic possibility that a group of dedicated chemistry bloggers who are doing this in their free time are ever going to get around to refuting more than a fraction of all this fear-mongering, fact-free antiscientific piffle.
About the only remedy that I can see to counter this chemophobia and spread of ignorance is a dedicated chemistry lobby. The United States, after all, is the land of lobbies. So why not have a chemistry lobby? The task of the chemistry lobby would be simple; to have a dedicated group of chemists and people who actually care about the benefits of chemistry make a concerted effort to combat misinformation and ignorance, using every print, online and social outlet available, directing their efforts so that they reach every imaginable kind of citizen, from the man on the street to Congressmen on the Hill. The lobby would include contributions from chemistry researchers, teachers, students, policy makers and regulators. They could join hands with the American Chemical Society and any other organization that wants to further the cause of chemistry; in my personal opinion, while the ACS has done some admirable work in improving the public image of chemical science, its efforts have been sorely lacking in proportion to the work that actually needs to be done.
Anyone who actually understands chemistry at a basic level would be welcome to contribute. The chemistry lobby could have their own TV channel, radio program and newsletter. Perhaps they could start a series that does for chemistry what “Cosmos” did for astronomy, replete with a charismatic and credible Sagan-like figure (Roald Hoffmann could fit the bill quite well). They could run campaigns to educate people about the facts and benefits of chemistry while admitting upfront to the misuse that chemistry has been put to over the years; they should also underscore the fact that misuse of chemistry has been no different from misuse of any other technology developed by flawed human beings. Their task would not be to whitewash the evils of the chemical, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries but point out the good that the industry has done in people’s lives on a deep level. Chemistry largely underpins modern civilization, and it would be the task of the chemistry lobby to educate people about this fundamental fact.
The chemistry lobby would not solicit financial contributions from industry. Members of the lobby are probably going to be painted as industry shills by their opponents anyway, so it would not help being funded by massive contributions from industry. Instead the organization I am envisioning would be a non-profit group akin to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), funded mainly by member contributions and grants. The National Center for Chemical Education (NCCE – as sound a name for the lobby as any other) would do to counter chemophobia what the NCSE has done to combat creationism. The official mission of the NCSE is to keep evolution in the class and creationism out of it. The official mission of the NCCE would be to keep chemistry in the public arena and chemophobia out of it. Just like the NCSE is not the official spokesperson of any university, atheist organization or political or social group, the NCCE would not be the official spokesperson of any body. It might support or reject the views of specific organizations, but official affiliation would be eschewed. At the same time it could fund the activities of specific bloggers, professors or citizens whose efforts to educate the general populace about chemistry are especially noteworthy. The NCCE could also fund studies and surveys designed to simply find out more about what people think about chemistry and its various incarnations in our lives.
The NCSE has done an immense amount of good over the decades to combat the forces of darkness that threaten to invade the school curriculum. At the same time they have taken no official position against religion and have in fact emphasized their respect for people’s personal religious beliefs. The NCCE would similarly debunk basic ignorance of chemistry and fear-mongering without insulting the real concerns that environmentalists, parents and concerned citizens have. It is only by taking a stand against objective falsehoods while still respecting the emotional reactions that the public has about the growth of technology that we can make a dent in fostering dialogue between disparate factions and bridging the gulf of differences. I look forward to the day when a rational, enthusiastic and expansive chemistry lobby starts to achieve this goal.