July 24, 2017
“In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”
― Galileo Galilei
Scientific progress requires scientific debate. Ideas come from questioning the status quo, technologies develop when innovative solutions are sought, and science advances when flaws are dissected, discussed and ironed out.
But there is a different, growing, and deeply worrying trend emerging in scientific debate. That phrase is being recast not as debates in science, but debates about science, where scientific insights and research are discarded by public opinion and alternative facts.
The main actors in this debate are not the scientists, but politicians. Some find it hard to distinguish between science and ‘pseudo-science’, others choose to ignore it for purely partisan purposes (think climate-change deniers), but others – and much more commonly as political actors answerable to the electorate for their jobs – tend to be stuck between the rock of scientific fact and the hard place of public opinion. Politicians – because, yes, they are human after all – are also driven as much by emotions as by facts. We have heard senior EU officials admit that while the scientific argument is sound, they struggle to endorse it in the face of public opinion.
Chemicals spark some of the most heated discussions among lawmakers. This is due to a number of reasons.
The term ‘chemical’ has become something of a mantra for the media, where it is almost synonymous with ‘toxic’: a news search of the term ‘chemicals’ will bring up stories like “5 Staple Foods Often Tainted with Chemicals” or “Mars covered in toxic chemicals that can wipe out living organisms, tests reveal”. While not all stories are necessarily negative towards chemicals per se, they do often promote a negative connotation with the substances.
Another common canard is that ‘chemical’ is equivalent to ‘unnatural’. Indeed ‘natural’ and ‘chemical-free’ have become common marketing terms, with many consumers assuming that they are healthier and better without any explanation as to why this should be. A higher price often also makes these products feel more luxurious and exclusive.
Lastly, there have been cases in the past where chemicals have caused damage and where a negative connotation is warranted, e.g. chemical weapons are a particularly nasty tool of warfare. For that reason, the European Chemical Agency constantly updates the list of ‘Substances of Very High Concern’ to include new scientific findings and ensure that risky chemicals are taken from the market, to ensure that cases such as of Thalidomide, a drug which was sold in the 1950s to combat morning sickness, which however led to children being born with birth defects, is not repeated. What should be avoided however is tarring all chemicals with one brush.
These negative feelings about chemicals are nothing new and have been around since at least the 60s. However, what is new is our constant access to information where the wildest of opinions can find support in a world of self-reinforcing, closed social media communities. In an era of clickbait where reaching the widest audience is king, reliance on expert opinions has given way to assessments of self-proclaimed pundits, many of whom are ignorant of the science or simply oversimplify.
Despite the valiant effort by serious outlets such as the Scientific American which in 2013 published an article entitled “”Chemical” Is Not A Bad Word”, readers who disagree with this statement can easily find reinforcement for their opinion in articles such as “10 Harmful Chemicals to Avoid” in Parents Magazine.
Take Parents Magazine as an example. It mentions formaldehyde as a chemical to be avoided, but it doesn’t mention pears as products to avoid – even though they naturally contain formaldehyde. We can’t say with certainty why pears are not listed, whether because they are ‘natural’ or because they don’t contain enough formaldehyde to actually pose a risk. Nowhere does Parents Magazine talk about scientific principles like dosage and exposure. Instead, its tells people to stay away from “quaternium 15” or “bronopol (also written as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)” with no further explanation. The result is that parents (and other readers) have the impression that these chemicals, present in household items such as disinfectants should be avoided at all times.
One example is a product that millions across the world are exposed to daily. It contains more than 1,000 chemical compounds, including acids and anhydrides, alcohols, aldehydes, alkaloids, carbohydrates, esters, furans, hydrocarbons, lactones, lipids, minerals, nitrogenous compounds, oils, oxazoles, phenols and phenolic compounds, proteins, pyrans, pyrazines, pyridines, pyrroles, sulphurs, thiazoles and amines, thiophenes, volatile components, water, and waxes. It contains a stimulant called methylxanthine. Former EU Chief Scientific Adviser Dame Anne Glover said that if it were proposed for approval by EU officials today it would be banned based on its chemical composition. Sounds terrible, right? Well it’s called coffee and that scary-sounding methylxanthine is just another name for caffeine.
Sloppy journalism and popular scaremongering call into question the decisions of the regulators and toxicologists who have authorised the use of substances after testing their properties and taking into consideration the realistic and likely exposure of a person to the substance – and then multiplying that by a safety factor of 100, to err massively on the side of caution.
This erosion of trust in experts is reinforced by the so-called backfire effect: the theory that, presented with rational evidence that contradicts their strongly-held beliefs, people will reject that evidence out of hand and reinforce their convictions even more strongly. For example, if somebody believes all chemicals are bad and is then told that natural is not necessarily better, chances are, the person’s belief in the evilness of chemicals will only be reinforced.
The open question remains on how to tackle this growing debate without harming consumers, the reputation of scientific organisations and democratic principles. Fostering and growing common understanding between politicians, regulators and toxicologists of the work they do and within what remit they operate is an important first step to building trust. More general education of chemicals, especially that the line between natural and synthetic is not equal to good and bad, is also necessary, as well as trying to remove the hysteria from the debate. One concrete suggestion could be for lawmakers to focus their debate on the implementation of toxicological recommendations rather than discussing the toxicology behind them – after all, politicians would not likely be very happy if scientists started drafting laws.