It has become conventional wisdom among chemists that “chemophobia” is the root of many people’s trepidation about chemicals. Framing the issue as an irrational fear may not be the best way to improve chemicals’ public image, however. This is a concept that Matthew Hartings, Raychelle Burks and I discussed during a panel at the American Chemical Society’s 250th National Meeting & Exposition in Boston on Monday.

When we invoke chemophobia in discussions about why people don’t “get” science, we often end up patronising—or “punching down” as others have put it—by ridiculing a lack of knowledge or education. After all, are we even sure we really understand how people feel about chemistry?

We know quite a lot about the public opinion about science but there is relatively little data about chemistry specifically. Anecdotal evidence suggested that there is low public awareness and recognition of what chemists do, but my colleagues and I recently decided to take a more objective measure of the situation.

What my colleagues and I have found is that public perception of chemistry, chemists and chemicals is far more positive than we believed. Like other sciences, people think the benefits chemistry brings to society outweigh the risks. The problem, as described in a report published by the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry, is that many people are confused about what chemists are and what they do. Additionally, people tend to be neutral about chemistry and don’t see how it’s personally relevant. They have limited “encounters” with chemistry and low awareness about its applications and the role it plays in various industries and sciences. But they are not “anti-chemistry”.

Courtesy of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Click to enlarge

When we looked into chemists’ attitudes towards the public we found that our community tends to paint a very negative picture compared to the reality of public opinion. Many are particularly worried that chemicals have a bad reputation and we found that chemophobia is often mentioned as the cause and/or the effect of this reputation. This is now a well-established narrative in many discussions, but one that our community developed without real evidence.

We found that people’s views on chemicals do not impact their opinions about chemistry or chemists. But if chemists persistently cite chemophobia when trying to combat perceived misunderstandings, we actually risk activating fears, playing into existing stereotypes or feeding feelings of inferiority.

In fact, most people know that chemicals and chemical elements form everything in the universe, but when they use the term “chemicals” in everyday conversations, that is not what they mean. We must accept that the word “chemicals” is commonly used as a shorthand for “toxic” and “poisonous.” It’s a meaning that emerges not from the pages of a dictionary or textbook, but rather from a common and powerful heuristic—a mental shortcut—where something “natural” is considered better than something man-made. This idea is centuries old, and it’s deeply embedded in our culture and language.

Understanding this, I have to agree with University of Hull senior lecturer and science writer Mark Lorch who argues that “chemophobia is a chemist’s construct” and that “it’s time for us chemists to stop feeling so unloved.” According to Lorch, “It is almost as if we are experiencing the fear of chemophobia: chemophobia-phobia.”

Before we can hope to influence public attitudes we need to change our attitudes towards the public. We need to create new, positive associations instead of focusing on the old negative ones. We should avoid talking about chemophobia (Lorch suggests we hang up the #chemophobia hashtag) or framing our communications in negative terms such as “fighting ignorance” or “debunking errors”. Instead we should try to be more positive, showing people how chemistry makes us feel and championing the cause of chemistry in society. Let’s not forget that we are all acting as ambassadors for chemistry.