Embracing rational irrationality and a 200th birthday celebration.
“When we hear ‘chemicals’ we think death, harm, cancer, birth defects, danger, pain, poison, pollution, hazardous waste, Love Canal, Bhopal. Oh, joy!” This was part of a letter addressed to ‘chemists’ from ‘the public’ to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry, written ironically by David Ropeik as part of his guest blog for Scientific American. I’m sure you’ll forgive us for not chuckling as we read, much less ROFL’ing. Ropeik’s point, if bluntly made, was that chemists need to address the fact that the public has real fears about their exposure to ‘chemicals’. Whether or not those fears are entirely rational, he argues, chemists should embrace them as part of a wider dialogue if they are to get the public to appreciate the benefits of chemistry.
Quite a few people on Twitter thought Ropeik was at best guilty of ignoring his own advice by successfully alienating the community he was trying to advise. But KJHaxton on Endless Possibilities was able to see past the “chemist bash centred on the notion that [the IYC] exists solely to convince the generally ignorant public […] that chemistry is in fact a Very Good Thing.” Haxton concludes that the IYC “is about far more than overcoming so-called chemophobia, let’s not allow one blog post to make it so.” Neil Gussman on The Chemical Heritage blog took the advice on board: “[chemistry needs] the reality check Ropiek provided: the most powerful tools do the most damage when misused.” Magdeline Lum, however, leapt to the Defence of Chemists at Philosophically Disturbed because the “public know plenty about chemistry. They may not recognise their existing knowledge as chemistry knowledge but this doesn’t make them ignorant.”
And finally… showing chemistry in a more positive light, Google used the 200th anniversary of Robert Bunsen’s birth to create a great ‘doodle’ of the eponymous burner that brightened everyone’s day. Of course, there was more to Bunsen than just a burner, as we were quick to point out here on the Sceptical Chymist, and Michelle Francl even showed us the link between Bunsen and quantum mechanics at the Culture of Chemistry.