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Where’s the chemistry lobby? On why we need a National Center for Chemical Education

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

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Part of the mission of the NCCE would be to point out chemistry's astonishingly diverse connections to almost every other field and aspect of our lives (Image: Chadron State College)

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.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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

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  1. 1. David Cummings 11:58 am 07/11/2013

    ‘ these assertions range from “unproven” all the way down to “bullshit” ‘ — Derek

    Good one!

    Good for Derek for smacking down the High Priests of the Phony Religion of the Almighty “Organic”! (A word, BTW, that the High Priests themselves don’t even understand.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Cummings 12:01 pm 07/11/2013

    Excellent idea linking Creationism to chemistry-science-illiteracy.

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  3. 3. TheCollapsedPsi 2:18 pm 07/11/2013

    “…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.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I think the issue is money. Not only does it take time to prepare and present a scientific argument, but it also isn’t very profitable. It also doesn’t “go viral” very easily. I’ve read Derek Lowe’s rebuttal, chemists I know have read it, but who else?

    On the other hand, chemophobia is very profitable – an audience loves to hear about the eight chemicals in foods that will kill you. It sells ad-space.

    “The NCCE” certainly sounds like a good idea. I can’t disagree that it should be done. I really think the problem comes back to money. A good lobby organization needs good lobbyISTS – who need to COMPLETELY dedicate their time to the ideal they’re lobbying. I don’t think it would be a problem to find people willing to put in the work. I do think it would be difficult to raise the funds to support those people.

    Another problem, ironically, is convincing chemists that there is a problem. Or at least that this is an urgent problem that must be addressed. We (chemists) need to be convinced that this is OUR problem to deal with. It’s easy to say “Oh, silly BuzzFeed, you’re so wrong!”, but it’s not really solving the problem, is it? Making the right information available is only half the solution.

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  4. 4. M Tucker 2:32 pm 07/11/2013

    Ash, I totally agree about that inane article in Buzzfeed but it is just tip of the iceberg. It seems that most of those types of articles show up in the so called ‘health magazines’. I ignore them, just like I ignore almost every science article written by a non-scientist. Articles written by scientists or science journalists get my critical thinking skills activated and I automatically question all extraordinary claims. I have learned that ‘health magazines’ are no better than the NYT when it comes to science articles and they almost never employ trained science journalists.

    That said I must admit that I am suspicious of some chemicals. I know that many come to market without any testing or with minimal testing. Most of the ones I am concerned about are not in food but in the household products many commonly use ones like pesticides and some cleaners. I grew up in a world that was very comfortable using asbestos in home insulation, fire retardant clothing, and brake linings. We were happy with our lead based paints and our leaded gasoline…until! The products had been used for many, many years BEFORE any problems had been noticed.

    Why do food dyes always show up on those inane ‘dangerous food’ lists? Well, it might have something to do with orange dye #1 and red dye #2. Both in use before any problems were suspected. Now some people are suspicious of most artificial dyes. I was happy to eat my treats colored with red 2 until it was banned. Some in England are content to eat red 2 colored cherries today. We have no definitive answer on red 2 but the FDA has banned it. That gives some of the extreme ‘organic’ people ammunition to hammer at all other “artificial” food additives.

    I think we should be suspicious of some (not all) commonly used household products. I think we should be suspicious of any industry that keeps secret the chemicals that are added and the research on their environmental dangers.

    I am reminded of the work done by Dr Ernst Wynder MD and how he was attacked by the tobacco industry. I am sympathetic to the work done by Devra Davis and I tend to agree with her concerns. Also I tend to reject the work done by Dr William Davis and his outlandish sounding warning about wheat. To me he sounds like Inhofe and his hoax theory and a cardiologist does not compare with an epidemiologist.

    For me this chemical additive thing is complicated and I like to see multiply tested research before I am willing to make up my mind. BUT I always remember that these chemicals are already IN the marketplace.

    Now that I have gotten several of my concerns aired I want to say that I do like the idea of a National Center for Chemical Education and I wonder how it might either be different from, or might even be allied with, the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. What do you think of the work done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest?

    Thanks for this post Ash!

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  5. 5. Scienceisnotagenda 3:51 pm 07/11/2013

    There is so much bad science in the media but for the most part I really don’t care. Science plods along regardless whether it be in the USA, China, Germany or wherever.

    Lobbies would just add more noisy clutter and have zero impact. There are no ‘experts’ to agree universally on issues.

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  6. 6. marclevesque 7:50 pm 07/11/2013

    @Curious Wavefunction

    I’d go for the NCCE. Great article and subject. But I’m wary of posts like the one you link to by Derek Lowes, and I think posts like his are counter productive, among other things he disingenuously translates Ashley Perez’s use of the words “linked to” as “causes” and then goes on to attack claims Perez did not make, and on BVO, he appears to belittle concerns that in some people two liters a day of sports drinks and citrus-flavored sodas containing BVO can cause health problems and four liters a day can land you in an emergency room. Overall, the post Derek is ‘taking down’ is little more than a promotion of food choice based on caution and common sense : If these ingredients are not useful and not clearly safe (like in the case when there are 100 studies for x and 100 studies againts x) why would we even consider feeding them to ourselves and our children.

    That said, I think a more measured choice of words is the way to go, you can’t attack bad language or bad logic use with bad language or bad logic, also choosing worthy targets is a must, and why not even do things like lobby for a warning on sports drinks and citrus-flavored sodas that contain BVO because it appears, contrary to what Derek implies, that it is not an extremely unexpected behavior to drink 2, 3 or even 4 liters of sports drinks every day.

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  7. 7. newalexandria 11:54 pm 07/11/2013

    So pure of an intention is almost irrevocably on course for corruption. Still, I applaud the goal.

    The core publicity challenge to chemistry is pollution. Regardless of the true severity or extent, industrial pollution holds special symbolism in the public mind. It sets the ground for all suspicion. Any chemistry-PR org that doesn’t touch that issue is seen as whitewashing it, and thusly sinks under the “shill” label. Address the issue in any way, and corporate sponsorship will push for labeling your organization as “activists”.

    Safely build up reputation away from issues on the public mind, and you remain safely boring.

    I think the EWG (Env. Working Group) had a long run of being a good model here: more fair than ‘either side’ really wanted.

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  8. 8. hb 9:17 pm 07/12/2013

    Of course, there is a lot of anti-chemistry and other anti-science nonsense on the Internet. But the public’s “chemophobia” can’t solely be blamed on their ignorance of basic science. It is in large part the result of the irresponsible behaviour of chemical, agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations, something that Ash is well aware of.

    Creating a lobby dedicated to promoting the undoubted benefits of chemistry isn’t going to overcome the negative images of irresponsible corporate behaviour. As long as chemical companies won’t, or cannot be forced to, clean up their acts you cannot expect society to trust their products.

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  9. 9. marclevesque 6:39 pm 07/14/2013


    I’m not satisfied with the sloppiness and tone of my last comment, I’m in effect doing some of what I’m criticizing in others.

    I do feel Derek Lowe has valid overarching points — but his methods …

    “The whole point is whether it actually does much to address the ignorance — to lessen or end the ignorance — ”

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  10. 10. Page J 10:02 am 07/15/2013

    Educating the public on the importance of chemistry is a noble cause. However, the author makes a valid point by stating that most scientists don’t have time to debunk many of the myths in the media.

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  11. 11. bucketofsquid 2:47 pm 07/19/2013

    I am perfectly willing to change careers and become a lobbyist for the NCCE. I don’t have much of an understanding of chemistry but I like to eat food and digestion is purely a chemical process. I understand that all life is a giant chemical process.

    I have the added benefit that I’m a Christian and I reject the whole “young Earth” postulate because the Bible never makes that claim. The goober that came up with that claim also believed that since he was “saved” nothing he did including murder was a sin. The bulk of the Christian world rejects his bizarre delusions.

    Who better to discredit the reformed fundamentalists than a rational Christian? In combination with other branches of the NCCE that don’t specify theology, the Christian branch can help promote science and specifically chemistry education at all grade levels. By having a broad spectrum of people we can avoid stereotypes and provide models for the vast majority of children to follow into chemistry. If we push for laws requiring before market testing we can be viewed as trustworthy and caring while still promoting that almost all medication and technology, including game consoles and smart phones are essentially made via chemistry.

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  12. 12. curiouswavefunction 10:07 pm 07/19/2013

    bucketofsquid: Thanks for your comment. We indeed need a variety of people to support each other in this kind of cause.

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