Conservatives are often accused (wrongly and idiotically) of being ‘anti-science’. There are so many thoughts I have here that it will be very hard to avoid digressions of every sort. Due to the massive ignorance pervasive in modern America it seems that, in fact, the most ‘anti-science’ institution int he country is the educational system. Fighting words, I know, but consider: the guiding belief of almost everyone who teaches in schools, elementary, high, and college, is that absolutes, truth, facts, do not really exist outside the reference frame, or narrative, of the person or people who believe it. I can hardly think of any philosophy more antithetical to science than that.
The infection of this belief into the academic disciplines is not uniform, but it is spreading. For instance, the humanities are almost entirely overwhelmed, since it is easier to subvert objective fact. (Witness Howard Zinn, who’s seminal work would not have even been glanced at if it had been instead ‘A Peoples Perspective of Inorganic Chemistry’ and contained several sections that ‘played fast and loose with the facts’.) While it has yet to make its way into the main body of chemistry there is a serious attempt by some chemists and many non-scientists to mug the whole meaning of science and replace it with the idea that a consensus of smart people determines the facts, and questioning their agreement is ‘anti-science’. The serious trouble is that most people, who have been taught this philosophy of thought and truth treat science the same way as they treat anything else, as if some things can be true for some people and not all people.
And this brings me to the topic I really wanted to mention: what my new favorite (well, the only one I read) chemistry blog calls ‘chemophobia‘.
Personally, I think the greatest failure of our field over the past three decades has been the steady decline of the public image of chemistry. Our “brand” has steadily deteriorated from an apex of “better living through chemistry” in the 1970s to the ever-worsening current climate where “chemicals are bad” and products are nonsensically advertized as “chemical-free”.
These are people who don’t want fertilizer on the plants that grew their food, or pesticides, or fungicides, or genetic modifications. These are people who have been swept up in outright fear of anything chemistry. They want to be soothed by ‘all-natural’, ‘no GMO’ markings. They don’t know, or purposefully forget that these chemicals are why more and more people can eat from the agricultural produce of less and less land. They also seem happy to forget that every single medication they take, (every drag of marijuana), every breath of air, is chemistry. Its odd, and ChemBark has some theories as to why people are afraid of chemicals, and some thoughts of fighting back in the public awareness.
Here is one more theory. Some time ago, while chemistry was in its most recent hey-day, the professors of chemistry, the researchers, started receiving more and more of their money from government funding. This coupled with the growing dislike, and then even sometimes hatred, in the academic world of the kinds of companies that actually use chemistry (Oil companies , pharmaceuticals, etc…) caused chemistry’s best advocates to secluded themselves, doing arcane and sometimes pointless research. And so, little by little, even the chemists became embarrassed of chemistry, because everything chemistry that non-academic people were in contact with were things that they 1) had not financial or academic interest in, and 2) from business sectors that they found repugnant.
So, I think to help chemistry’s image, we chemists should do two things. First, gather together with all scientists and engineers and bite the awkward bullet that they will be making common cause with fundamentalist theologians, and fight for the recognition of knowable, absolute truth. And secondly, be proud enough ourselves of what chemists do for people in the industries that chemists are indispensable to. We should certainly teach students about the horrible things done with chemistry (Horrible only if you have an immutable moral truth, by the way…) but we should also teach them about the things that people have saved with chemistry. That and we shouldn’t stand for defective education, either in the sciences or in the humanities.