The progress of mankind in the last 150-200 years, extremely much higher than in the previous 5000 years, is thanks in large part to chemistry. Over these last 200 years the chemical industry has absolutely transformed human life. The products of chemistry underlie the very base of modern civilization. No one can imagine aircrafts without alloys, medicine without drugs, crops without fertilisers or any plastic-made artefact without plastics. And yet chemists have to deal with an increasingly distrustful society whose reactions to chemistry range from suspicious to neurotic.
The main problem is that almost any criticism of chemical technology relies on emotions, and if there is one thing we have learnt from marketing is that is much easier to sell emotions than facts. Emotions and fear come out of the usual fear of the unknown, of things that don’t make intuitive sense. Primary and high school offer only a superficial venture into chemistry and in college, unless you study chemistry or a related degree, there is only some limited approach to the field.
The media in all of its forms (bloggers, journalists, filmmakers…) know how to exploit this and only report on the negative aspects of chemistry and chemicals, greatly skewing the danger presented by chemicals. Statistics, context and objective evidence are often neglected while anecdotal data and generalizations always rule. An example is the introduction of nonsensical terms like “chemical-free” or “eco-friendly” to suggest a product is safer or better in some way. The word “chemical” has begun to take on the meaning toxic and synthetic, and that’s what public read it as. In that sense, chemistry needs more journalists talking about it in a constructive, disinterested and “non-populistic” way. Good chemistry journalism should transmit the fact that, on balance, chemistry has done much more good than harm.
It’s difficult to counter misunderstandings about chemistry, especially if we consider that we are fighting emotions with evidence. Here are some hints on what we, the chemists, can do about this issue:
1. First of all, and very important, chemists in particular need to be critical of chemicals too. No one else understands better their bad side-effects and benefits; thus, we have to be vocal critics on the safety of drugs, food additives and any sort of chemistry-made material.
2. For the same reason, chemists should be first to talk to scientists and organisations that are not being honest in their interactions with society. Those with scientific expertise certainly have a better capacity to do this than do non-scientists.
3. Chemists should not act in a defensive way when an anti-chemistry point is made. They need to join in the debate, ask questions and find out where/how the other person got their information and why they are concerned.
4. And finally, chemists should not try to convert everyone to be a chemist. This means it doesn’t help to lecture people about chemistry. Instead, their aim should be to provide people with the basic skills and tools, so they can make their own judgements.
Whatever the strategy, it’s crucial that we’re intelligent about the way we navigate our chemical world. There is no doubt that fighting against chemical superstition will be a permanent concern for chemists in the future.