A Chemist's Fear of the Dark: Dedicated to Chemophobia.

Upon writing a recent manuscript for the most recent chemophobia discussion, I found two essays. Despite the time I spent on my most recent research, this essay contributes to the conversation in so many ways. I wrote this in undergrad for a history of chemistry class, four years ago. The hopes of an aspiring chemist concerning chemophobia. I will say my thoughts back then have managed to morph into something else. A new meaning. 

First, I would recommend reading these articles first so you are familiar with my topic and references:

  1. Hoffman, Roald. Chemistry, Democracy, and a Response to the Environment, Chemical and Engineering News, 68(17), 25-29 (April 23, 1990).
  2. Kovac,Jeffrey. A Weird Insult from Norway: Linus Pauling, the Bomb, and the Ethics ofFaculty Involvement in Public Affairs, Proceedings of Conference on Values in Higher Education Stewardshipand Opportunism: The Moral Roots of Accountability. April 16-18, 1998.
  3.  Bard,Allen J. Politics, Culture, and Science: The Golden Age Revisited, Chemical and Engineering News, Volume 80(14), pp. 44-47.



Brandi VanAlphen
Nature and Dev. Of Chemistry
November 24, 2010


       Chemophobia is a term, more frequently found, when reading about chemistry and society. The ordinary sense of the meaning corresponds to the fear of chemicals. Historically, it is still uncertain the exact translation of chemistry from alchemy but it is certain to be a product of change, subject to evolution. For intended purposes, it can be generally used to describe fear of the unknown. People described as having chemophobia assume all chemicals are undependable and harmful. Then again, those with a familiar knowledge of chemistry argue that this is an incorrect generalization. For chemistry to continue to prosper for/in society, the chemistry professionals and society must work together to achieve mutual respect and trust. There are several issues regarding why there are gaps. First, most people remember large scale tragedies (Bhopal, Chernobyl etc.) compared to the daily requirements that they now take advantage of (pharmaceuticals, house-hold products etc.). The chemical revolution has surpassed our chemical knowledge. Chemophobia is more widespread than ever now that companies are pushing “natural” and “organic” products. The media contributes to this phenomenon because its function is not regulated by scientific ethics. The only solution to conquering these fears would be education reform. This new knowledge and understanding would support more research  by which chemists can demonstrate their intelligent craft and uphold the tradition as benefactors of humankind. That image reflects the absence of chemophobia.


      Education about chemistry does not just extend to the public and our children, but it must be properly managed to academia, industry and the governing bodies that usher them both into power. Roald Hoffman expressed his concern about this in his 1999 Priest Medal Address titled Chemistry, Democracy, and a Response to the Environment. In the C&EN article, Hoffman describes the importance of democracy in our government along with the historical accounts of the chemical industry. From this, individuals maintained liberties for the greater good of society and trade emerged. Over time, individuals and chemicals became an integrated part of society allowing human error and then the daunting environmental concerns. Environmental concerns bred negative attitudes and portray chemists as “the producers of the unnatural, collectively labeled as polluters” and “we [chemists] are surrounded by chemophobia, by unreasonable, irrational fear of what we do[1].” In response to these attitudes of fear, scientists react instinctively with what they know- the science they are taught. Hoffman maintains that “to take the view that even if we do not know what someone else knows and that we should trust that someone else to ensure our health is na├»ve, unscientific and undemocratic[1].” People have an invested interest in their health so they should be somewhat responsible for knowing what they digest or at least have the tools available to them to find out. Scientists have an equal investment in their science and health to not distribute harmful chemicals in food. Hoffman goes on to explain proper responses of chemists to the environment as well as risk assessments. The etiquette and compassion shown towards society should alleviate some fears but his words also caution against reliance upon a single authority. Hoffman’s solution to this is to construct chemistry courses that are aimed at everyone covering a wide-range of issues. These courses need to stress the importance of knowing what goes on in the world so they generate informed citizens. Hoffman believes democracy was built on education and it is everyone’s commitment and responsibility to be properly informed about chemistry and how it relates to us.

One of the responsibilities as a scientist is to pass on safety information to the public. This arrangement is not as simple as it is stated. Complexities can occur that limits a scientist’s public role. A famous example of that is Linus Pauling, 1962 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Pauling believed that he should have an influence in public affairs and readily pursued that right when speaking publicly about the dangers of nuclear testing. His opinion wasn't welcomed because it was against the best interests of Americans at the time. His opinion was so unpopular that when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, LIFE Magazine called the award “an extraordinary insult to America[2].” In an article by Jeffrey Kovac titled A Weird Insult from Norway: Linus Pauling, the Bomb, and the Ethics of Faculty Involvement in Public Affairs, Kovac describes how Pauling’s name in science grew into a notorious one in politics throughout the length of his career. Despite the fact that Pauling was correct in his scientific findings, Kovac finds it troubling that he abandoned his roles and responsibilities as a faculty member in a research university. Perhaps this is because most credible scientists are found working at universities on research that contain empirical data. Pauling was taking to the media on a regular basis without sufficient evidence and was not considered a specialist in regards to nuclear physics. This is where education is important. Society will not accept opinions from a scientist who does not have proper education, peer support and the ability to perceive a risk for their best interests. Pauling was a great respected intelligent man, but Kovac suggests that Pauling faced a great ethical dilemma between education and the preservation of world peace. Kovac portrays Pauling as a citizen activist who left a dent in the Caltech chemical community.by mishandling his prestige. Perhaps they thought he could have  geared his actions more towards education instead of unpopular topics[2]. Educating the public about a specific topic must be an expert collaboration directly related to the topic and field to ensure the interests of a democratic society. 

For scientists to continue to educate themselves and the public, we need professors who are constantly skilled in research and analysis. They end up being important public intellectuals and innovators in technology. Chemistry in academia and industry has a strong history relying on each other’s success, despite public hostility towards one or the other.  Research and analysis is expensive and relies heavily on federal funding. Alan J Bard visited this topic in his 2002 Priestley Medal Address. Bard believes that we need to nourish the spirit of the Golden Age of American science in order to preserve our economy and society[3]. Funding in the beginning of the Golden Age is described by Bard as the “generous support of fundamental research [leading] to the development of a body of scientists and science that became the envy of the world[3].” Not only does education serve an important foundation for science but research cultivates new ideas and discoveries that benefit society. Bard goes on to establish society is playing it safe when taking risks and this affects research as well. Bard says, “I think fundamental research can be justified based on a long history showing that it pays off in societal benefits in the long run and it should be defended on that basis alone[3].” Not only is revolutionizing education an important factor for preserving chemistry but continuing that education through research as well. Research dictates policy and policy dictates our lives. If we don’t do it, someone else will. 

The majority without the knowledge of chemistry contain jobs that control policies affecting science. This is a huge concern. If the people in control do not value this information, it comes down directly on the scientists and educators. For example, since the turnover of the House of Representatives, it is a concern that “science research funding may be a target of a Republican plan to roll back government spending[4].” This affects research, scientists, education and the public. Without pushing knowledge of chemistry, the environment and society will suffer from these consequences. If funds are unavailable, chemists cannot explore safety of chemicals, tragedies will occur and we will all still be left in the dark.



References
1. Hoffman, Roald. Chemistry, Democracy, and a Response to the Environment, Chemical and Engineering News, 68(17), 25-29 (April 23, 1990). 
2. Kovac, Jeffrey. A Weird Insult from Norway: Linus Pauling, the Bomb, and the Ethics of Faculty Involvement in Public Affairs, Proceedings of Conference on Values in Higher Education Stewardship and Opportunism: The Moral Roots of Accountability. April 16-18, 1998.
3. Bard, Allen J. Politics, Culture, and Science: The Golden Age Revisited, Chemical and Engineering News, Volume 80 (14), pp. 44-47.
4. Hess, G., Hogue, C., Johnson, J. and Pittman, D. A Change in the House: Republican takeover of House of Representatives signals new science policies, Chemical and Engineering News, Volume 88 (47), pp. 23-25.





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