Earlier this week, I gave a brilliantly titled talk – The Poisoner’s Guide to Communicating Chemistry - at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver.
My speech was part of a symposium on communicating chemistry to the public, organized by ACS President Elect Bassam Shakashiri, a passionate crusader for science literary.
Along the way, I mentioned my own small, personal crusade against the term “chemical-free.” Yes, I know, it refers to the notion of something being toxic-chemical-free. But first of all, our ideas about toxicity exist on an ever-shifting path of knowledge. And second, as everything in world including the laptop I’m writing this on, the chair I sit on, and myself (as well as every other life form we know) is made of chemical compounds, the phrase chemical-free is at best ridiculous and at worst misleading. And it’s the latter issue that troubles me more – the fact that our careless use of this wrong-headed phrase contributes to a general public misunderstanding about not only chemistry but its fascinating and fundamental role in the world around us.
Or words to that effect. After my talk, one of the attending scientists, David Gottfried, of Georgia Tech’s Nanotechnology Research Center, came over to talk about the issue. I brought up my exasperated reaction when the usually excellent newspaper, The New York Times, had used the words “chemical free” and “mineral based” in the same sentence. Oh, he said, but he had an even worse example. This summer, the research journal, Science, had – incredibly – cited a chemical free process in its News and Comment section. Specifically, in describing a method for creating fibers out of milk proteins, the July 29 story’s concluding paragraph noted: “The best part? The process uses no chemicals or pesticides….”.
How, you may wonder and I certainly did, could this appear in a science magazine? How could the writer mention casein biopolymers in one sentence and declare the product free of chemicals in the other? How could an editor miss the illogical nature of the statement?
Because, I suspect, too many people have been conditioned to equate the words “chemical” and “toxic” so that too many people don’t even register the contradiction. Do I worry about what it means for science literary when this kind of thinking even pervades science-focused publications. You bet I do.
“How do we change this?” Gottfried asked me. He’d hoped for more of an outraged reaction to the Science piece than actually occurred. My own feeling is that we’re coming late to this issue, that we’ve got years of casual, chemical-free acceptance to overcome, years of chemistry literacy to build. But that’s it’s never too late to push back. “I don’t know, except to keep calling attention, make an issue of the bad examples,” I answered.
I’ve always liked this point made by the remarkable 18th century French physician René Laennec: Do not fear to repeat what has already been said. Men need (the truth) dinned into their ears many times and from all sides. the first rumor makes them prick up their ears, the second registers, and the third enters.
So, on that exalted note, here is a copy of the bad example in question. Let it register far and wide.