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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Do You Suffer From Chemophobia?

Have you heard? A great affliction is sweeping the globe! According to sources, a significant portion of the public is suffering from 'chemophobia' - being defined as an irrational or extreme fear of chemicals. Chemophobia is rampant and it threatens each and every one of us...or does it?

The way the word is being used, you'd sure think so.

I unfortunately did not have the pleasure of watching this ACS webinar,  but I think by taking a look at James Kennedy Monash's blog, we can get the gist of what he was teaching there. Some of it I think is great and totally agree with - whereas other parts - not so much.

For instance, JKM starts out strong:

"I ask all chemists to embrace the dictionary definition of ‘chemical’ and stop bickering with the public over definitions."

I agree that picking on people for using the colloquial term chemical is a waste of time, it will only serve to further polarize issues and make you look like a jerk.

Now here is where things get hairy, as James goes on to define 'chemophobia':

"‘Chemophobia’ is an irrational aversion to chemicals perceived as synthetic.

The word ‘chemophobia’ refers to a small subset of people who are not only disenfranchised by science, but who have subscribed to alternative sources of knowledge (either ancient wisdom or – sadly – Google). Many people with chemophobia are protesting against the establishment, and this is particularly evident in the anti-GMO movement. At the core of most people who oppose GMOs is a moral/political opposition to having their food supply controlled by giant corporations. No number of scientific studies concluding the safety and reliability of GMO crops will succeed in persuading them otherwise because the anti-GMO movement is founded on moral/political beliefs, not on science. By throwing science at them, we’re wasting our time."

By using the word 'irrational' in defining chemophobia, it invokes a particular feeling. Irrational is defined as 'not logical or reasonable'. He then goes on to state that it refers to a small subset of people and uses the 'anti-GMO movement' as an example.

Mr. Monash has now entered weapon word and Celeber Cavilla Fallacy territory.

The Celeber Cavilla Fallacy

In one fell swoop, James has painted anyone who questions the use of genetic engineering and  companion industry chemical products in agriculture, as not just irrational, but unworthy of even being dignified with your time. Neutralized.

In the third section of his blog, James shares where the 20% figure comes from: The Royal Society of Chemistry’s report on Public Perceptions of Science polled just over 2 thousand people over age 16 on their perceptions of chemistry. So, using the results coming from this informal poll, JKM draws some conclusions.

"No matter how the RSC phrased the question, roughly 20% of the UK public who were surveyed indicated a negative attitude towards chemistry, and another 20% showed a positive attitude. The 60% in the middle felt disconnected from the subject – maybe disliked it in school – but felt neutral towards it when asked."

He then goes on to add:

"Chemophobia afflicts some people in the bottom 20%. They gave negative word-associations with ‘chemistry’ (e.g. ‘accidents’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘inaccessible’). That bottom 20% group is so vocal (e.g. Food Babe) that they distract chemists from the 60% in who are neutral. The ‘neutral’ crowd is a much larger audience that’s much easier to engage/persuade through outreach efforts. We should focus on talking to them."

JKM isn't clear about exactly how many he deems afflicted with 'chemophobia' - he just says it 'afflicts some' in the negative 20% - and then uses Food Babe as a scapegoat, I mean, an example.

He sums up his blog post with the idea that focusing on the 'neutral' majority is where chemists need to focus their efforts, and that if things go as planned, that the public may help them out in the fight against the enemy of 'chemophobia'.

"By engaging those who feel neutral about chemistry, we might even empower enough of the public to fight chemophobia (online, at least) by themselves – without our direct intervention."

Now, despite not having personally viewed the webinar, I was lucky enough to be apprised of some of the highlights by my good friend mentioned above, Ms. @mem_somerville.  Credit goes to her for sharing all these lovely slides! Piecing this together with James Kennedy Monash's blog post, we can get a better idea of what was being taught there.

While I agree that more science and chemistry education for the public is important, and that chemistry needs their own Brian Cox or David Attenborough, and that there are some very valid points being made here, what I can't abide is the use of pejoratives and (tired, played out) scapegoats.

Seriously. Getting REALLY OLD, people.

The general public has every right to question the safety of manufactured chemicals without being painted as extremists. At this point in time, the chemical industry has no one to blame but themselves for the lack of trust their unsafe products have inspired in consumers. Given that the testing and regulation of new chemicals is a joke, and the once 'safe' but now banned chemical list keeps growing, people are skeptical of manufactured chemicals for good reason. One very recent and egregious example is the trouble with perfluorinated chemicals, also known as PFCs for short.

An excerpt from a New York Times article about Rob Bilott, the lawyer who took on an environmental lawsuit against DuPont.

"DuPont pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder through the outfall pipes of the Parkersburg facility into the Ohio River. The company dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into ‘‘digestion ponds’’: open, unlined pits on the Washington Works property, from which the chemical could seep straight into the ground. PFOA entered the local water table, which supplied drinking water to the communities of Parkersburg, Vienna, Little Hocking and Lubeck — more than 100,000 people in all."

Bilott, speaking on the thousands of Dupont documents he went through for the case:

"DuPont had for decades been actively trying to conceal their actions. They knew this stuff was harmful, and they put it in the water anyway."

Chemophobia? To this I say please, Dear Chemical Industry -

Censorship or Consequences?

On today's episode of Degrassi Junior High, a tempest is brewing at the Social Skeptic table over the removal of a Facebook page called We Love GMOs and Vaccines.

The page owner, Stephan Neidenbach is claiming his page has been censored via Facebook reporting. There is no way to know exactly who made reports or how many people made them. It seems the page was removed and then restored a few times prior to Facebook finally deleting it due to the number of reports.

This has led to a concerted attempt to get Facebook to restore the page under the assumption that it's being 'censored'.

Steven Novella from Skeptic's Guide and Science Based Medicine has come to the defense of WLGV in a new blog post.

Recently the Facebook page, We Love GMOs and Vaccines, was permanently taken down by Facebook and its founder, Stephan Neidenbach, was banned from Facebook for 30 days. What offense did he commit to warrant such draconian treatment? None. He was simply using a Facebook page to promote a pro-science and skeptical attitude toward GMOs and vaccines, specifically to counter the gross misinformation about these technologies by anti-science fringe groups.

If you are going to defend someone and write a piece supporting them, best do some homework first and make sure that support is well placed. Shall we, then?

Is WLGV really some innocent babe in the woods, just trying to promote 'a pro-science and skeptical attitude'? Mr. Neidenbach has already accurately described his own behavior leading up to the removal of his Facebook page here in this now deleted blog titled dramatically; 'The Image That Brought The Queen of Anti-Vaxxers to Her Knees'. Lucky for us, it's in an online archive and you may view it in its entirety here.

This is regarding Erin Elizabeth, (girlfriend of Dr. Joseph Mercola) who runs a Facebook page called Erin at Health Nut News. Stephan describes how he attempted to 'bait her into action' with this insensitive meme making light of the suicide of Dr. Jeff Bradstreet.

Again, a day before the blog post was published Neidenbach is seen here bragging on Twitter about baiting Erin Elizabeth to Steven Novella's Science Based Medicine co-contributor David Gorski (@gorskon):

Note too, that Neidenbach references how he got around having his personal account put in time out:

"The image was unpublished by Facebook some time over night. Fortunately I used an alternate account to post the image, so my personal one was not put in time out by the Facebook “bots”."

He admits to using a sockpuppet account so he would not have to face the consequences for posting content that would be reported for violating Facebook community standards (the Bradstreet meme). This sounds like someone who knows full well what he is doing.

At some point after this the WLGV page was removed, presumed by WLGV admins to be by followers of Erin at Health Nut News. This led to one page admin asking for help from Kevin Folta.

Kevin advised them not to retaliate, and ended up having a dialogue with Erin Elizabeth. It resulted in Folta publishing a chastising blog post about the incident.

At first, it seemed as though the WLGV admins were taking his advice regarding frivolous reporting.

But it didn't last long.

Now, as far as Novella's claim that Neidenbach was 'simply using a Facebook page to promote a pro-science and skeptical attitude toward GMOs and vaccines', I present to you a sampling of WLGV posts made in between sharing other SSkeptic blogs and links to American Council on Science and Health and Forbes articles:

Making autism a punchline

Accusing sick people of faking for attention

In case you thought the first one wasn't clear...

Comparing people to Stalin and Hitler

Page Admin encouraging fraudulent negative reviews in GMOLOL

And on WLGV

A new grocery store opens near you. What do you do? Destroy them, of course!

Did he even step foot in the store? Who knows...

Targeting Laura Krantz who wrote about Calsetous Juma's ties to industry in the Boston Globe.

Still here? Great, there's more!

Comparing GMO labels to Holocaust badges?
Targeting Joseph Norman, postdoc at NECSI and co-author of the Precautionary Principle (with application the the Genetic Modification of Organisms)
Trolling the online Lyme community.
Edited to add the location in addition to the full name of organic farmer and Etsy shop Farm Fairy Crafts. WLGV doxxed them multiple times on Facebook as well as on Twitter.

The idea that WLGV was much of a science communication page to begin with, is a hard stretch of the imagination. They encouraged trolling and going after pages they did not like with negative reviews, and they frequently made personal attacks on people that the page creator, Neidenbach disagreed with. He even went so far as to create a 'Derp of the Month' series on the WLGV website to target individuals he does not like.

Joan's response can be found here on her Facebook page.

After Joan's daughter defended her mother on twitter, Neidenbach complained that Facebook had 'censored' him.

"The daughter of a quack peddling a juice diet to cure cancer, who I wrote about last week decided to take to Twitter in an attempt to “report” me. Apparently she finds it offensive that I called out her mom for encouraging people to starve themselves free of cancer. Since many groups hostile to science have a habit of attacking teachers, I made the graphic above as a hyperbole. The Zuckerberg bots just saw the flags and put me on a three day Facebook time out and removed the image."

None of this is science communication, clearly. So let's just put that to bed right now.

However, is this truly censorship as is being claimed?

Facebook is a free service - when you sign up, you agree to their set terms of service and community standards. Any violation of community standards will be removed. Facebook relies solely on reports to bring content in violation to their attention.

If WLGV were in violation of these standards or not was up to Facebook to decide - and decide they did as part of the agreement entered into by both parties. And whether or not there was a coordinated effort to report the page, one can begin to see that the page incited this type of back and forth. It really should come as no surprise to them that people eventually got tired of being a punching bag for the amusement of the page admins and their followers.

Despite this pattern of behavior, the SSkeptics are out in full force defending the honor of their club members, all in the name of free speech and science. At the moment there have been several articles written aside from Steven Novella's mentioned at the start.

Kevin Folta: 'Silencing Unpopular Thought with Swarm Complaints',
Genetic Literacy Project hosted two: Science Communicators Condemn Facebook's Censorship of Pro-Science "We Love GMOs and Vaccines" and Stephan Neidenbach's account: Facebook bows to anti-science activists, shuts down ‘We Love GMOs and Vaccines’

Erin Elizabeth who had her page removed shortly after WLGV was deleted gives her account here: The Trolls Took My Page Down, We Won't Be Silenced and This is How to Get My Page Back Up 

In response to Health Nut News's removal, both WLGV and Chow Babe have unpublished their pages in protest of the situation.

Look, your Facebook page was removed. Your brother's scooter was not trashed by Hubie Pyatt, Mr. Pyatt did not try to molest you in the office, and you are not an 80's movie character - no matter how bad you want to be.

Fair is fair! (Except on Facebook, kids.)

Not that I blame you for trying. But, maybe instead of all this drama of reporting pages, unpublishing pages, shouting censorship! with righteous indignation and grandstanding, perhaps people could oh, I don't know, start acting their age and be accountable for their online behavior?

Maybe if you have a page that says you 'love' something, you should promote that love instead of promoting hate for people who don't love the same exact things, the same exact way you do?

I know that's too much to ask for a lot of people, just like being sure that you if you are going to defend someone publicly that you first be sure they are not actually a bunch of immature cyberbullies who played a stupid game and are now stomping their feet crying because they don't like the consequences of their own behavior.