Consider the audience when addressing chemophobia

In recent months, there has been an ongoing discussion among chemists and other scientists in social media on how to best communicate concerns and responses to those who espouse chemophobia.  Since the ScienceOnline conference in early 2013, I’ve seen a movement that is slowly maturing, as some fundamental questions are debated in this community. What are effective approaches to dealing with people who believe, or insist, that “chemicals” are dangerous and that natural products are not chemicals?  Is it as simple as just educating those who don’t get it?

An article by Chris Clarke, published on July 11th (a week before this post) caused some ripples among chemist bloggers.  He chides those who use the dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) joke as a response to people who express concerns about scary-sounding chemicals.  He argues that the joke “punches down” by mocking those who don’t already get that DHMO is just water, thus exposing the target’s ignorance without actually helping them understand anything.  Responses from Janet Stemwedel, Andrew Bissette, Chad Jones and Mark Lorch agree that the joke may not be appropriate if the intention is to educate (although there may be some rare occasions when ridicule is the objective).

Their posts have opened up more discussion on how to better reach the masses in the fight against chemophobia.  There are important questions that each science communicator must consider: Who is the audience?  How do we approach that audience?  Most scicomm people would answer these questions with a variation of “I am writing for the general public, and I want to educate them and help them understand the part of science that I enjoy and/or am good at”.  However, there is always a danger of writing articles with a wink and a nod towards fellow communicators and scientists who “get it” – which gets back to the essence of Chris’s article and his refuting of the DHMO joke.

Let’s face it: not everyone is going to read or hear our message, and not all readers or listeners will get it.  It’s not a question of communication ability or intelligence, it’s a question of motivation and human nature.

  1. Some people have a vested interest in promoting chemophobia.  They need others to be fearful of chemicals (toxins, anyone?) in order to sell books, products or services.  These people will not admit publicly that they are wrong, even though they may privately know that we are right; instead, they will do their best to counter with logical fallacies, ad hominem attacks (yes, it’s happened to me) and more fears – even implying that we are the ones with the sordid agendas, funded by Big Something to promote and keep people dependent on dangerous chemicals, and certainly not looking out for the public good..
  2. Some people have a mistrust of scientists.  Maybe they really hated science classes in school, or they always found it difficult to understand and irrelevant in their lives.  Their community, church or political allies make it clear that science is but one more set of opinions. They hear or read about constant “debates” or mistakes in the scientific community, or the new discovery that seems to refute a past discovery, and assume that scientists don’t really know what they are talking about.
  3. Some people just don’t care.  They’ll just go along with the latest fads, following what a family member, friend or celebrity is doing, and not really care what scientists have to say about it.  Consider, as I pointed out in a previous article, that one-quarter of American parents trust Jenny McCarthy when she talks about vaccines.  (There may be some mistrust involved as well.)
  4. Some other people, while open to learning more, get defensive if they are told that they have a phobia or given information in a condescending manner.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, describing a communicator addressing chemophobia:

    “It may be cathartic to lecture a person advocating alkaline water by mocking their assertion that the body needs to maintain an alkaline pH. But even well-intentioned explanations can seem quite demeaning; what seems like a simple chemistry primer can sound to someone else like ‘if only you were smart enough to understand this – and frankly, it is really really easy to understand – then you wouldn’t be a chemophobe’ “.

We won’t reach everyone, and we won’t convince all of those that we do reach.  Therefore, we must consider our audience as we prepare our message.  We must also consider how to approach them – and some chemists are now asserting that the so-called “deficit model”, which champions filling the gaps in a person’s scientific knowledge to ensure they make better decisions about scientific matters, may not be the optimal approach to dealing with chemophobia.  Michelle Francl, in an article in Nature Chemistry in June, considers this through the lens of cultural cognition theory:

“people are biased not only in the information they retain, but find it easier to recall information that supports their position; […] Perhaps unsurprisingly, we don’t select experts solely based on objective credentials, such as training or experience, instead we search out experts whose broad world view matches our own, liberal or conservative, hierarchally inclined or community minded.”

Michelle makes the point that simply being “the chemistry expert”, filling in the gaps in a person’s scientific knowledge, may not be the best approach, particularly among those who mistrust scientists:

“The temptation, of course, is to repair the deficit by adding these pieces of information to my neighbour’s database, with the hope that she will adjust her view of the consensus. […] It will be to no avail suggests cultural cognition theory, unless she believes that I share her key values. My doctorate in chemistry doesn’t make me credible, my parenting abilities and political party might.

When I read that last sentence, I can’t help but think that information packed in a “news you can use” format gets more attention – it’s not an expert sharing their wealth of information with the masses, but a concerned individual helping friends and colleagues deal with, or avoid, a problem.  Individuals and groups peddling chemophobia do this very well, expressing their points in simple terms that anyone can understand and project into their lives, and leading them to their product or service that will easily take care of that problem.

As I write general articles for Atoms and Numbers, I realize that my style doesn’t work for everybody.  Some readers want quick answers and will not read through my 1,000+ word essays, especially when the opposite viewpoint is expressed in three snappy paragraphs.  Nevertheless, I aim for those who are willing to read a bit more background, and will take the time to see how everything fits together.  If you maintain a science blog, continually ask yourself: who do you see as your audience?  Does your style fit with that audience?  Is that who you are actually reaching?  (You do maintain website analytics, right?)

I do believe that most people simply want what’s best for themselves and their families, and they are sincere in their concerns that they may be poisoned by all those chemicals.  They will also consider what experts have to say when they make their decisions. As science communicators, it is our challenge to create good quality content that is not only “textbook-correct”, but also accessible and relevant to our audience.

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