Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Playing defense

Also in this week's C&EN, a great interview by Bethany Halford with science writer Deborah Blum (now the Director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT). I really enjoyed this comment from her on the difficulties with science communication between biology, chemistry and physics: 
That invisibility, Blum thinks, might also be what makes it so difficult for chemistry to capture the general public’s imagination in the same way that biology and cosmology do. “It’s so much easier with some of the other sciences to create a picture in people’s minds,” Blum says. “I think we are a species that responds to image really well, and it’s hard with chemistry.” 
Also, Blum says, chemistry is tied to environmental risk in a way that most other sciences are not. “I do think you have to be honest about that.” Nevertheless, she says, we can’t ignore chemistry just because it has inherent risks. It’s not so much that we have to admire every aspect of chemistry, Blum explains, but it’s important to recognize that chemistry is fundamental to the way we navigate the world. 
“I’m not trying to sell chemistry,” Blum continues. As a journalist, she says, that’s not her job. Rather, she sees it as her responsibility to share her fascination with chemistry. Sometimes that means highlighting when and how the science has gone wrong.
Deborah Blum points to something that is really true about chemistry; industrial chemistry has a legacy that is often less than positive, and it's difficult to give a sense of optimism about chemistry when the likeliest question that you get from folks is "is this stuff gonna kill me?" or "isn't there a natural way to fertilize our crops/cure our diseases/power our society?"

I agree with her that chemistry is fundamental to modern life - and maybe that's part of the problem? So many people are ambivalent about the trade-offs that are inherent to our modern, chemistry-powered life. Perhaps there is an aspect of escapism to physics (and maybe biology?) - that's just something that most chemical research just doesn't have.

9 comments:

  1. There needs to be more stories about analytical chemistry. How do chemists separate minute amounts of harmful chemicals from others that are present in percent quantities. How do they identify and quantitate them? The general public should be made aware of methods of environmental sample preparation and analysis. It's not difficult to do so in a simple, understandable, and interesting way.

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    1. Not sure about that. I fell asleep half way through your comment.

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  2. The Central ScienceJune 8, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    I have always loved Whitesides' answer to the question, "what is it that chemists do?"

    "We change the way you live and die."

    You don't need to pick sides, per se, but rather impress that most of our day-to-day existence is enabled by and improved through chemistry.

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  3. Why don't we simplify most of this and talk about Legos. Everyone is familiar with Legos. Whenever people ask me about chemistry and synthesis and analysis, there is usually a Lego related analogy that can be made. The cool thing is that when you talk about chemistry in terms of Legos, you get more questions. When you talk in terms of orbitals and electrons and protons, most people listen politely and then move on.

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  4. The Iron ChemistJune 8, 2016 at 1:35 PM

    Are any other scientists out there tired of having the entire burden of maintaining communication with the public put on them? Having a healthy interest in how the world works shouldn't be so difficult to justify.

    Maybe I'm becoming bitter decades ahead of schedule or I got the wrong sort of coffee this morning, but I'm finding articles about science communication (and how scientists "just aren't doing it right") more and more grating.

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    1. Chemists don't have to communicate with the public. People like Food Babe are doing so already. If you don't agree with their ideas then you have to get involved.

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  5. Fe Chemist guess I would lean toward suggesting you switch your brew or possibly at least add more milk and/or sweetener since the majority of the time scientists IMO tend to be very poor at communicating their messaging in clearly understood and concise ways. I do not see we have the entire burden but to a degree scientists must have a responsibility to increase awareness and gain support for their efforts whether seeking to expand knowledge or applications to products. There is such a heavy use of unique jargon which various disciplines adopt, even interfering with messages between differing types of scientists, much less translating info to more general public. As most teachers of science illustrate it is a difficult skill (and rarely natural) to convey complex concepts in meaningful ways (RR recommends connectivity to Lego or establishing comparisons to things that should be well known can be useful tools). Having a more receptive audience would always be nice but with attention spans these days being so short it is a hard task not to lose people because inability to appropriately capture their interest to get past preconceived notions against science where again as those who have a message must be sure they are getting correctly across to others.

    My rant is probably can be directed toward Journalism and Marketing, and maybe now the Internet, who have helped promote a "Sound bite/Headline Culture" where the quick memorable modes has largely replaced provision of in-depth details which does make scientist task harder since often info gutted or misdirected because insufficient details provided. I am not meaning to insult the subject of this post but a significant portion of the reports I see about science (mostly newspaper articles) are of poor quality, can be either biased against or over-hyped and basically incomplete of context or implications where there needs to be joint cooperation of scientist and journalist to make sure what the public is getting is both understandable and reasonably sound scientifically.

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  6. I see it as an asymmetry problem - when chemistry works, the average Joe does not credit chemistry. But when something goes wrong, Joe blames chemistry heavily

    Take, for example, your smart phone. If less than a thousand chemicals were involved in its manufacture, I would be surprised. Yet does anyone look at their phone and think "Thank chemistry for all the bounty this phone has brought me?" Of course not. But if some chemical in it causes a problem down the road, you can be sure chemistry will bear the blame.

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  7. Chemistry is the most human science. This basic fact is responsible for all its problems in my opinion.

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