Has #Chemophobia Outgrown Its Use?

The term Chemophobia has gotten a lot of attention this past week, specifically around its use and the perception of its use. If you’ve been following the discussion, skip over the next paragraph which contains the obligatory recap.

[Chris Clarke brought up the subject by branding the dihydrogen monoxide joke and chemophobia unproductive, only serving to mock the ignorant. Andrew Bissette and Janet Stemwedel provide thoughtful responses describing the nuances of why and how chemists use #chemophobia. All are in agreement that condescension and mockery are poor strategies to communicate science. I pretty much agree with all three pieces, except the sentence from Chris’s article that says chemophobia is a “clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.” I prefer “clan marker for the people who study chemistry tribe” because I don’t think it’s normally intended the way he suggests.]

A paraphrased tweet from Janet Stemwedel (@docfreeride) sums up the discussion: “The point: if we want [everyone else] to trust science/scientists, we need to be better.” This is where I want to join the conversation. As a self-identified science communicator, I’d like to take a hard look at the hashtag chemophobia, the purpose it serves and if it should have a place in science outreach.

Tweets sharing cases of chemophobia often look like this:

Phrase indicating sadness, frustration, incredulity, sarcasm, disgust or outrage. “Article or product that perpetuates the fear of chemicals and contains inaccurate science.” #chemophobia

Chemists find #chemophobia useful because it’s instantly recognizable and the meaning has been well established in the chemblogosphere. To echo Janet, using #chemophobia is like “sending up the Batsignal, rallying [the] chemical community to fight some kind of crime.” Indeed, the hashtag usually does attract support from the scientific community. This is especially helpful for your sanity if faced with willful ignorance. A search for tweets containing chemophobia shows that the replies come almost exclusively from other chemists.

That brings me to the heart of another recurring conversation within the chemistry community, which is that most science outreach ends up more like science inreach. See this post at The Collapsed Wavefunction for details. I think #chemophobia is really only useful for alerting other scientists with the occasional breakthrough to a willing listener. That’s fine, as long as we acknowledge that it’s not accomplishing much more than that.

So what about that huge group of non-scientists, the ones #scicomm is dying to reach, that can benefit from the chemical knowledge we possess? For that demographic, I propose we devise new hashtags, ones that more accurately target the offensive article/product without condescending to the people who might fall prey to such falsehoods. Whether or not it’s our fault, chemists/scientists have a bad rap and it’s only getting worse. So if we actually want to make a positive impact, I think we have be open to new strategies.

I don’t think that shiny new hashtags are a cure-all, but it is a step in the right direction. That said, I will throw some out there to get the ball rolling: #ShadyChem, #ShoddyChem,  #FakeScience, #ThatsMadeUp, #ThatShitAintRight, #Fearmongering, #FactCheckPlz, #MobilizeTheTroops

These problems won’t be solved overnight but as researchers we should be all too familiar with incremental progress. Happy tweeting!

#Chemsummer – Grilling with Family

Sometimes I get intense cravings for a succulent beautifully medium rare steak. I’m talking about a piece of meat the size of my face.  It has to be seared over an open flame, and if that is not the plan I don’t even bother looking at those rib-eyes, NY strips, and T-bones at the store.

westpointsteakhouse steak

[Image credit: http://www.westpointsteakhouse.com/]

I don’t often succumb to the temptation of buying steaks. My family all agree that I am the cheapest member, so if I’m going to buy a steak it’s going to be done right. I season my steaks with just salt and pepper then sear them to a deep shade of brown. For this effect, I rely on the Maillard reaction. In this reaction high heats cause amino acids and sugars to react then break down into new compounds that give meats the distinct color and flavor. I’m also looking for some nice caramelization which happens when sugars are broken down by heat.

As soon as the steaks hit the grill, they have my undivided attention. Overcooking an expensive piece of meat is not only emotionally tragic, it’s also bad for your health. The National Cancer Institute has identified that heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in charred meat, are mutagenic, which mean they cause changes in DNA and increase the likelihood of cancer.

“HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat.” – National Cancer Institute

That means if I’m watching a steak on the grill, don’t talk to me.

Last month I had the good fortune of going on a parent sponsored vacation to Portland for my sister Thuy’s graduation from medical school. The trip was an great break from subsisting on a graduate program stipend.  Upon arriving to our AirBnB rental home, equipped with an outdoor grill and lovely backyard, a cookout was immediately suggested and approved, starring steak from a local butcher.

Yo dog all up in my grill

[Image credit: http://bit.ly/181TlJ8, LOVE this cartoon, that makes it relevant ]

We fired up the charcoal grill with my brother-in-law Nolan elected to the helm with three enthusiastic helpers in Thuy, Ryan and I. We each had uninvited but valuable insights to share regarding the cooking of the steak. I commended him for having the foresight to start the fire early. We had to let the lighter fluid, most likely petroleum based, burn off so our precious meats wouldn’t take on an unpleasant taste.

Then there was some serious debate over whether or not to cover the grill while it heated up. Nolan had the lid on with just the flue open to let in air, a member of the fire triangle along with heat and fuel. Like The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, it takes all three to be successful. Thuy was campaigning to go lidless to let more air in for a hotter grill, anxious to get the right sear on the steak. Ryan and I chimed in with our support, oh yes the grill definitely should be hotter and why don’t we add some of these briquettes.

Nolan disagreed but feeling outnumbered, he tried to distract us by telling a story about the origins of charcoal briquettes. Apparently in the 1920s, Henry Ford was amassing tons of excess wood scraps and sawdust as by-products of his assembly line. He decided to form them into briquettes for outdoor cooking and sold the idea to his cousin E. G. Kingsford. So Ford started the popular American tradition of grilling out and the Kingsford Company is still the nation’s leading manufacturer of charcoal.

Ford charcoal

[Image credit: http://bit.ly/182XqAe]

To our advantage, Nolan had to leave to pick up his parents from the airport, and we immediately dumped in the rest of the briquettes. Within ten minutes the fire became so hot that we had to put oven mitts on just to hold the grilling tongs. The Korean BBQ spareribs and the prawns cooked in about thirty seconds flat. I mentioned this was a vacation, right? Finally the steaks hit the grate with three pairs of eyes on them that didn’t quit their gazes until the meat was safely resting on the plate. We agreed never to tell Nolan how close we came to ruining the food. A vow we promptly broke that evening as we all laughed about the story over a delicious family dinner.