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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 -

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. Excellent and much needed synopsis of a harmful propaganda meme.