Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Holiday Chemophobia: Can't We All Just Get Along?

Know what this is?
Me neither.
Source: LWON
First: A belated 'Happy Holidays' to all those chemists already returned to work.

Second: From the Twitter-verse comes a post from the (normally) fine writers over at Last Word on Nothing

Titled "Secret Satans: Chem101" (get it?!), the post fits in with a holiday series at LWoN. I'll let the editors explain:
"We are choosing our most daunting subjects and writing about why they scare us."
As a reader, I expected to hear some gripes and groans about the unfairness of chem grading, those interminable labs, perhaps pronunciation of long IUPAC-mandated noms-du-chem. But instead, right in the introduction, I spot this: "cold sweats," "freaked out," "deep dread," "chemophobia."

Yes, readers, this is a science blog.

I can hear the commentary now: "Calm down, SAO, this is a snarky, fun, satirical holiday piece. Right?" Well, no. "Hate" and "hatred" both appear, as does "loathe," "disaster," "evil plot," and "screwed up." Cue up the sardonic comparisons, like "cryptic as Arabic" or "esoteric knowledge, secret formulas kept by early metallurgists and alchemists." One of the authors speaks of a safety mishap involving [sic] "bromide gas," which recounts how her inadvertent calculation error caused a building evacuation. Fun stuff!

And then there's the graphics. How many times must we plead - Don't let art directors draw your molecules! I don't know exactly what these "animal tracks in the snow" represent, but if the piece aims to vilify simple chemical knowledge, it certainly does that (P.S. I know they're from Shutterstock, but that doesn't excuse their inclusion).

So why am I so critical? Shouldn't we just give LWoN a pass, have a chuckle at a favorite scientific punching-bag, and move on? 

No. Blogs, and especially science blogs, should try to take the high road. We're the voice of reason, the nagging suspicion, the social conscience of the wild, woolly online world. We should aim to advise, not attack, and question where others condemn. That cute anecdote at the end? Doesn't make up for the 709 words you just used to drag chemistry through the muck.

You can do better.


  1. I read the LWoN post waiting for the part when the authors recall the end of their chemophobia. Instead, the post ends with a story highlighting the usefulness of a good chemistry demo. An unsatisfying ending - especially when the set-up seems to be that chemophobia will be resolved. I was left wondering what the point of the post actually was - besides a public confession of a hatred of chemistry.

    1. I think you've hit the metaphorical nail square on its philosophical head, Dr. R.

  2. I dunno, SAO. There are bigger chemophobic fish to fry. These folks are fine writers who, I believe, will listen to your reasoned thoughts here. (You might comment on their blog too!) There's a difference between outright chemophobia, and acknowledging the truth that a lot of high school chemistry classes are not-so-great experiences. I could write a similar post to theirs about phys.ed.