Monday, January 28, 2013

Podcast: Dr. Rebecca Guenard and Chemjobber on chemophobia, parenting

A couple of weeks ago, Rebecca Guenard (a Ph.D. chemist and freelance writer) wrote an insightful post on the rational and irrational roots of chemophobia and how chembloggers communicate chemistry to each other and the public. She concludes with:
By reducing chemistry’s spotlight to an argument about the good and the bad of chemicals, you lose the bigger, beautiful picture of chemistry.  Argument outreach, lovable chemicals outreach, neither are affective because chemistry is not just about chemicals.  Maybe it is not that big of an issue, most of what I read seems choir directed anyway.  But as a member of that choir, I would like to request a different tune.  
As the author of the occasional post that cracks wise about the ignorance of chemicals and the public's chemophobia, I thought this might be a fun opportunity to talk to her about it. She also had a fantastic section in her post on chemophobia and parenting, which (as a parent), I was in profound sympathy with.

Better yet, this coming Saturday will be Carmen Drahl and DrRubidium's session at ScienceOnline 2013 on chemophobia, so this is our contribution to the pre-conversation:

(I was a little more aggressive with the editing, and I'm concerned that it shows. Any oddities with the sound are my responsibility, and not Dr. Guenard's.)


0:00 - 1:44: Introduction, parenting and chemicals
3:03: Rational concern about chemicals for your offspring
3:30: Rebecca and the phosgene plant
4:20: Parents and BPA
6:30: CJ, his kids and kilo-scale work
8:35: CJ dislikes "Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families"
11:45: Rebecca: "Dose makes the poison", not matter how true, isn't particularly effective
14:00: Did you have a Nalgene bottle?
17:10: Are some adults just lost to chemophobia?
18:30: CJ's rant about Facebook, and Rebecca's excellent response
21:09: Rebecca is going to #scio13 -- lucky!
22:00: CJ: Why ranting against chemophobia is fun
24:00: Rebecca: Different ways to talk about chemistry to different people (so true!)
26:00: Rebecca: "Chemists are nuts" -- a fun way to talk about chemistry is to talk about the chemists.
28:00: Who communicates chemistry well?*

*Rebecca also notes that Prof. Michelle Francl communicates chemistry well; I agree heartily. Sarah Everts' fantastic oral history of East German chemists is here. 


  1. CJ- thanks to you and Rebecca for sharing your conversation. It's touching on many of the topics we hope to cover Saturday. The great thing about ScienceOnline is that the audience for a given session can be jam-packed with experts on the topic, like Rebecca and Prof. Francl herself. We'll miss you at the session!

  2. Note to listeners: I'm hearing reports that the player is cutting out at odd points, maybe? My apologies.

  3. I have my degree in Chemistry and do not consider myself irrationally afraid of chemicals. When a food product advertizes that it is free of chemicals I am aware that it contains chemicals in the scientific sense- H2O, amino acids, fatty acids, alcohols, etc. But I also know that the company isn't using the word chemical in the scientific sense, it is using an alternate dictionary definition, that of a product that does not contain synthetic additives or preservatives. As far as I am concerned the point of language is to make one self understood. If I understand what the wording indicates about a certain item and the wording is not ambiguous to the general public, then is it really a problem? There are products of chemical industries that are inferior (and cheaper) than agricultural products. I find the smell of artificially flavored coffee revolting, a boxed cake with artificial vanilla does not have the complexity of taste that a dessert made with a vanilla bean does, polyester doesn't feel the same on my skin as cotton or silk. Was the switch to crisco from butter really a triumph of modern science and Chemistry? It is off-putting and patronizing when scientists go on a propaganda bender and start ranting that everyone who doesn't want to buy a product with "chemicals in it" is an uneducated, fearful moron. I don't want to do three cheers for chemistry, I want to accept that the scientific discipline can be applied in many ways some of which are extremely useful, some of which are neutral, and some of which have negative repercussions.

    1. Anon 6:57 - I generally agree with your point of view, but I think that surrendering the word "chemical" as an umbrella term leaves an open door for those who seek to demonize them. The potential harm or benefit of chemicals not only has a concentration-dependence (as discussed in the podcast) but there is also a contextual aspect. And even within a given context, such as the food industry you mention, there are certainly gray areas. Preservatives, for example, may have a negative effect on the taste/appeal of a food product, but its shelf life may also allow it to be shipped long distances to impoverish areas. How does one begin to weigh these pros/cons?

      Due to these ambiguities, I don't think it is fair to assume that manufacturers or consumers can navigate what should and shouldn't be branded as a "chemical" in the convention that you proposed to be acceptable. Rather, more descriptive language ("preservative", "artificial flavoring/coloring", etc.) should be used, rather than "chemical". And, yes, ideally the public should have an appreciation of the positive/neutral/negative implications associated with particular chemicals.

  4. FWIW, I also become irrationally angry when I see signs touting "organic food" that isn't salt or water. Ditto with I see "organic beer".


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20