Et tu, Science Magazine?

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.

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20 Responses to Et tu, Science Magazine?

  1. Mary says:

    Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

  2. Gaythia says:

    One of the things that seemed true to me at the ACS Nat’l Meeting was that many of those attending did not seem to cross divisional boundaries. This frequently seemed to be true of those with with greater investment in one particular research area than myself. But I think that this means missing much of the cross fertilization and introduction to new and innovative ideas that can take place at meetings such as this.

    More scientists learning about communication and more communicators learning about science is only one example.

    Your talk was great!

  3. Dave says:

    Well, good luck on your crusade. I gave up on Science after one too many garbled news reports on the biological sciences – I think it was calling the green crab a mollusc that finally led me to cancel my subscription. That was a long time ago and they haven’t gotten any better.

    I think the problem is deeper than just the lack of erudition and clear thinking exhibited by your ‘chemical-free’ examples. Like newspapers, the news sections of the major science journals are controlled by non-scientists (publishers, editors and their writers) and seemed to be designed more for establishing or defending political positions, than for reporting science. I’m sure no self-respecting major science journal would want to promote a new, artificial chemical fibre that would touch our skin. Yuk! They know their readers would like their bodies to be chemical-free both inside and out and would probably never touch their journals if they knew what inks and paper were made of.

  4. Dave says:

    You too are now chemical-free: I found my way back to this blog by googling “chemical-free professor of journalism” and your blog came out right at the top.

  5. mark brown says:

    yes- deborah- i find these hip labels disturbing and inaccurate and dangerous. if you really want to ignite a nuclear debate- take on the use of the word “organic” especially in its relation to food. somehow organic which, and i am a history major financial advisor, i thought had to do with the existence of carbon, has been bastardized to be the hallmark of food that contains no pesticides or insecticides. Never mind that most all fruits and vegetables still need fertilizer. Last time i checked- if you were to swallow pure nitrogen- you would be like- dead. am i stupid- or was it a fertilizer based bomb that just happened to destroy the oklahoma city federal building- oh well . that’s just not what we mean by organic. glad to see that science magazine has now pandered to the chemical -toxin free side of thing.

    also im not a scientist but fibers from milk proteins- doesnt nature already give us milkweed and other reedy plants whose fibrous leaves and milky stems have been known to us? am i off base here?

  6. Laura Dodd says:

    Keep fighting the good fight. I’ve been railing against this verbal misuse on a personal level for quite a while. I suppose if we only educate a few people, that’s a good thing.

    It’s frustrating to find so many people so science-illiterate that they spout some nonsense that they heard on TV or (heavens to betsy!) Facebook. They have no basis to critically question the information, but take it as gospel because it had truthiness.

  7. Deborah Blum says:

    This one made the day. Being a “chemical free professor of journalism” just cracked me up. Many thanks.

  8. Deborah Blum says:

    You’re completely smart on all counts here. And also completely right – the term “organic” is another classic example. Those guys do not handle being challenged well though.

  9. Deborah Blum says:

    Yes, but coming from a background of science journalism, I’d like to see journalists held to a tough standard too – or at least a good basic one: do your homework, think about what you’re writing, and get it right.

  10. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks so much, Gaythia. I hadn’t been to ACS for quite a while and I was really impressed also by the diversity of the presentations and the attendees. Great experience. And a pleasure to meet in person!

  11. Louis Elrod says:

    I agree with you about terms such as “Chemical-free” and I work to educate people about them at every opportunity. However, if we are to correct others on their mis-use of language, we should work to make our own language entirely accurate. To that end, I respectfully point out that ACS stands for the American Chemical Society, not the American Chemistry Society.

    By the way, I am about to complete the audio version of your book, “The Poisoner’s Handbook”. The book is quite interesting, but the reader could be better.

  12. Deborah Blum says:

    Aaargh. Can’t believe I wrote “chemistry society.” It’s now completely and forever fixed. Glad you’re enjoying the book (despite reader issues!)

  13. mph says:

    I once found cookware that boasted Enamel is Organic – No Chemicals! A list of the organic chemical-free mineral constituents was provided.

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