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Vol. 27 No. 4
July-August 2005

Public Images of Chemistry

by Nicole J. Moreau

Majorities of people in many parts of the world hold negative opinions of chemistry and the chemical industry in particular. Enhancing the public understanding of chemistry is a major concern for IUPAC and many other organizations around the world. But a necessary precursor to improving perceptions about chemistry is understanding why, how, and from where people form their opinions about chemistry.

A pathbreaking conference held in Paris from 17–18 September 2004 explored the images and messages that people receive about chemistry from a variety of media: literature, advertising, the news, movies, cartoons, and exhibitions. The conference, titled The Public Images of Chemistry in the 20th Century, investigated how these portrayals affect public perceptions of chemistry and how chemists present themselves to the public.

The conference began with a reality check of public opinions in Europe. The consensus was that opinions about chemistry varied widely across different countries, but that overall opinions across Europe were improving slightly. Alain Coine from Rhodia (France) stated that more than 65% of the French public has a bad image of its chemical industry. He said that this is the worst view in Europe after Sweden, where 80% hold a negative view. More specifically, Coine pointed out, 40% of French people do not think that their standard of living would decrease if there were no chemical industry, 63% do not think that the chemical industry makes efforts to decrease risks to the public, and only 55% feel that it makes efforts to protect its employees.

Marc Devisscher from CEFIC (the European Chemical Industry Council, Belgium) gave an overview of public opinion in Europe over the past 12 years. For the first time since 1992, the overall image of chemistry among Europeans is positive (see figure 1), and after years of decline, the position among eight benchmark industries has improved by one rank from 7 to 6 (see figure 2). However, Devisscher stated, the chemical industry’s reputation is still not good enough and there is room for improvement. For example, he pointed out, the highest approval rating in Europe is only 62% (in Germany and Italy).

Figure 1: The overall image of chemistry is improving in Europe.
(CEFIC Pan European Survey—Image of the Chemical Industry 2004).

So, how has the portrayal of chemists in books, movies, and popular culture contributed to public distrust and suspicion? Rosslyn D. Haynes (Sydney, Australia) and Philip Ball (UK) examined the treatment of chemists and chemistry in literature.

Ball explained that many twentieth-century novels explore ideas in contemporary physics and biology, but chemistry is much harder to find, beyond the occasional use of chemical poisons in murder mysteries. However, Ball stated, a clutch of novels by modern American writers tell another tale: they portray chemistry as a pervasive aspect of contemporary life, providing the smells, colors, textures, and tastes of everyday experience. Ball discussed three books in particular—“Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon, “White Noise” by Don DeLillo, and “Gain” by Richard Powers—and said they seem to display a love-hate relationship with the discipline, portraying chemical science both as an essential and inescapable element of modernity and as an ominous, potentially dangerous force in industrialized society.

Figure 2: Opinions about the chemical industry are also improving.
(CEFIC Pan European Survey—Image of the Chemical Industry 2004).

Haynes argued that portrayals of chemistry in literature often rely on the old archetype of alchemists: sinister, dangerous, secretive, and possibly mad. This archetype can appear simplistic, even outdated, but its recurrence suggests that it embodies complex ideas, desires, and fears that each generation must work through. According to Haynes, this archetype has endured because of our obsession with power, perfection, and horror. This is why, she stated, that despite all the beneficial outcomes of chemistry, fiction, film, journalism, and the media continue to focus on disastrous consequences.

Peter Weingart (Bielefled, Germany) discussed his quantitative analysis of how chemistry and other sciences were portrayed in 222 movies made between 1920 and 2001. He found that the representation of science and scientists reflects stereotypes and myths about science that are deep seated in Western culture. According to Weingart, when movies portray wrongdoing or misconduct by a scientist, it is frequently a chemist that is being portrayed. In the case of horror movies, he said, chemists were cast as evildoers in 24% of such films, while other types of scientists accounted for less than 10%.

Opinions about chemistry are also formed through still photographs or graphics as Joachim Schummer (Columbia, USA) and Tami Spector (San Francisco, CA, USA) showed in their lecture. They discussed the public image of chemistry and chemists as codified in clip-art cartoons and in digital images found through Internet searches. Their analysis of clip-art cartoons demonstrated chemistry’s principle role as a visual indicator for science and its stereotypical associations, while their detailed analysis of photographs showed a more nuanced assessment of chemistry’s visual image. According to Schummer and Spector, “mad scientists” portrayed in their cartoons are chemists 50% of the time. Whereas images of physicists were dominated by famous scientists, the chemist was often represented as an unknown, unshaved, and unkempt old bearded man wearing a white jacket and glasses, working in a laboratory. Such images, they said, reinforce the idea of chemists as isolated people, asocial, mad scientists, or alchemists.

Another lecturer traced America’s ambivalent involvement with plastic and how this has shaped public perceptions of chemistry. Focusing mostly on the post-World War II period, Jeffrey Meikle (Austin, TX, USA) explored the strategies used by manufacturers and promoters to gain public acceptance for plastic and discussed the symbolic hold of plastic on the popular imagination. He showed how America’s enthusiasm for everything plastic—and by extension chemistry—has been complicated by environmental doubts and by the plasticity of the postmodern existence.

Anxiety or fear about chemistry can also be traced to how it is taught in school . . .

Anxiety or fear about chemistry can also be traced to how it is taught in school, according to R. Emmanuel Eastes (Paris, France). In his lecture, Eastes asked, “Which child does not dream of a chemistry kit or of a real chemist’s classroom visit? Who never tried, in the secrecy provided by temporary parental absence, to mix food or household chemicals in order to transform them, sometimes even harboring the secret desire to see them ‘blow up’?” Yet, Eastes said, if you ask their parents or their neighbors what they think of chemistry, they will invariably say: “I always hated it,” or “I never understood it.”

What happened between childhood and adulthood? asked Eastes. What repercussions does such a dislike bring, on the one hand, for the image of our discipline among laypersons, and on the other, for the phenomenon of disaffection with chemistry studies at the university level? Without condemning school curricula, Eastes showed that between “disconnected spectacle science” and “theoretical coded discipline,” chemistry’s image suffers from the disequilibrium between (1) the pleasures of practical experimentation, (2) the hardship of formal learning, and (3) students’ own questionings.

Valuable lessons on making chemistry education interesting were provided by Robert Hicks (Philadelphia, PA, USA), who discussed the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s interpretive outreach effort, Science Alive! This Web-based program teaches science through a historical presentation that combines biography, a narrative structure, and science activities. According to Hicks, Science Alive! intends to realize national (USA) educational standards concerning the history and nature of science, standards usually ignored or minimized in most curricula.

Broadly consistent with national standards, Science Alive! teaches that science is a human endeavor that relies on acute observation of nature, an essential curiosity, cooperation and collaboration, and a disciplined process of reasoning, inquiry, and analysis. What distinguishes Science Alive! from other science educational resources, said Hicks, is the emphasis on the history and heritage of chemistry and the molecular sciences, and the program’s multicontextual, multidisciplinary perspective.

The pilot project for Science Alive! focuses on the life and work of African-American chemist Percy Lavon Julian (1899–1975). The grandson of slaves in Alabama, Julian sought a career in chemistry, which took him to the University of Vienna (Austria) to obtain a doctorate before World War II, and to a lifetime of research based on plant products such as soy and the calabar bean. Julian’s work led to the synthesis of physostigmine (esserine), for the treatment of glaucoma, the bulk synthesis of progesterone, testosterone, and cortisone, and during the war a flame retardant, Aerofoam, which saved lives aboard aircraft carriers. Julian held more than 150 chemical patents, and his career included the founding in 1953 of his own successful company, Julian Laboratories, and later Julian Associates, Inc. and the Julian Research Institute.

While education plays a major role in forming opinions about chemistry, advertising, news coverage, and social movements can strongly shape ideas throughout an individual’s life. David Rhees (The Bakken Library and Museum, USA), director of the science library in Minneapolis, discussed how the public image of chemistry in the 20th century was significantly shaped by corporate needs and modern public relations techniques. He talked about how the “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry” slogan came to epitomize the public image of chemistry in the United States for generations.

According to Rhees, the DuPont Company invented this slogan in response to a major public relations crisis that stemmed from its role as a munitions producer during World War I. This crisis, in which DuPont was branded as a “merchant of death” in the public press in 1934, triggered more than a slogan, but gave rise to a broad-based advertising campaign that utilized a wide variety of educational and popular media. These techniques included sponsorship of a national radio show, films, pamphlets, a speaker’s bureau, and a remarkable series of exhibitions on the theme of the “Wonder World of Chemistry” which appeared at major science museums and state and world’s fairs. To design, execute, and evaluate this campaign, DuPont relied on a bevy of new experts including industrial designers, public relations counselors, and even psychologists. However, DuPont dropped the tag line “through chemistry” in the 1980s, perhaps because of the declining image of the field.

The impact of media coverage and the opinions of other scientists were explored by Guy Ourrisson of the French Académie des Sciences. Specifically, he discussed the “Appel de Paris,” a 10-page document released at a well-attended meeting on “Cancer, Environment, and Society” held 7 May 2004 in the UNESCO building in Paris. As Ourrisson explained, the document, which received media coverage, denounces the dangers for human health of chemical pollution. The Appel has been signed by many well-known scientists, and has been distributed by many organizations—such as Greenpeace and consumers’ associations—which encourage people to sign the Appel.

According to Ourrisson, the Appel is constructed in a very clever way, since it begins with a long list of undisputable statements, to which anyone is bound to subscribe, concerning the Rights of Man, the Protocols of Rio, Stockholm, Kyoto, etc. What follows is somewhat different, he said, since it is a series of scientific considerations, which are indictments of chemical pollution for all kind of diseases and the disappearance of biodiversity—all being a consequence of the irresponsible behavior of chemists and of the chemical industry.

Ourrisson then answered to each of the 15 points in the Appel, estimating that even the affirmations which were not simply false, were presented in a tendentious way, leading to undue blame and nefarious actions against chemists. He pointed out that no allusion can be found in the Appel concerning the irresponsible behaviors of consumers. Furthermore, he argued, chemists are not responsible for tobacco use, fine particle emissions by cars, naturally occurring toxins in the environment, or the use of illicit drugs.

The public has a very traditional image of chemistry, Paul Caro (Académie des Technologies, France) explained. Hence, there is a need to show people that it is a central science. However, he said, it is very difficult to explain to the public what your fellow chemist does not understand! Although the wide array of new techniques used by the chemist is an enlargement of his capacities and offers a deeper view on matter, there is a perverse effect. As chemists enter more deeply the mysteries of their specialities, the communication lines with fellow chemists in other specialities are cut and isolation, perhaps incomprehension, may result. He argued there is a need for chemists to learn and teach across the full spectrum of chemistry, even in a superficial way, to be able to understand each other and to help popularize chemistry.

The increased specialization of chemistry and the intricate languages developed for each field further distanced the public from chemistry, according to Pierre Laszlo (France). During the second half of the twentieth century, he stated, the self-image of the chemical profession was determined to a large extent by a symbiotic relationship between the science and the industry. Until the 1980s, chemistry’s joint roots with pharmacy continued to be strong and mutually nourishing, he noted. Chemists veiled to themselves the cyclical character of the industry with an ideology of growth—exponential growth being viewed as excellent. The existence of a language of chemistry, which its practitioners had taken years to master, was held as a prerequisite to any communication, which ran against popularizing rudiments of the science (or of the industry). Hence, Laszlo argued, chemophobia was able to feed on industrial accidents (Seveso, Basel, Bhopal) and on the spectacular expansion of the chemosphere during that period.

Nicole J. Moreau <> is a professor at the Chemical Sciences Department of the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) in Paris, France.

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