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!