Fine. Chemophobia’s Based on Ignorance, but So Is Chemophilia


picture of Faustus opera from New York Times

Complaints about chemophobia have become a broken record. Reiterated by both well-meaning science educators and shills, we are reminded that it’s silly to say things like “we should avoid food with chemicals”.  Of course it’s an ignorant claim because the matter in food and drinks is chemical by nature. But there’s at least an equally detrimental problem out there known as chemophilia.

Chemophilia is the love of compounds for the sake of profit. A chemophiliac is not really interested in chemiosmostic theory that helps us gain insight into photosynthesis, respiration and the origin of life. Insight and beautiful concepts don’t sell and rarely bring in research grants from industry. A chemophiliac will pretentiously claim that “...Anything that the human is capable of doing through the mind is duplicable pharmacologically..” He could not care less about why drano feels slippery; he just wants to put in a bottle, give it a different brand name and sell it to you remove an oil stain on your driveway, which never would have appeared if you had walked, cycled or taken public transit.

Whether it’s attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity or Alzheimer’s, chemophiliacs dismiss environmental hypotheses and place all faith in stimulants and cholinesterase inhibitors, respectively. I recall once falling into the trap of chemophilia when thinking about carbon dioxide emissions. I had reasoned that it’s a pipe dream for Westerners and their Asian copycats to change our lifestyles. So the way to solve the problem was to use some kind of chemical filter. But that in itself is a pipe dream because although there are many ways to chemically sequester CO2, they all consume energy because of the thermodynamic nature of the compound. Global warming involves lifestyle issues, and that’s precisely why there’s so much resistance to solving the problem.

Chemophilia has seriously disrupted the nitrogen cycle through the naive notion that we could reap nothing but benefits from pumping more nitrates and ammonium into the soil. Instead less than half of those compounds added to soil actually end up in harvested crops. And less than half of the nitrogen in those crops actually ends up in the food we eat. Some of the wasted nitrogen pollutes both the atmosphere and waterways. But while the National Academy of Engineering has recognized it as a major problem, mentioning it in their Grand Challenge Scholars Program, they seem to be be falling into a chemophiliac’s trap by focusing on denitrification. That mindset will not investigate whether overfertilization is due to prevention of world starvation or whether it exists to sustain the overeating habits of the first world. He will not seek other solutions such as massive composting programs to condition soil or growing leguminous crops at the expense of nitrogen-mongers like corn.

Teach the public chemistry primarily to reveal it as knowledge for the sake of discovering ourselves and the universe. Expose both chemophobia and chemophilia. Explore the nuances. Yes that’s a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. But a trite, single-minded attack on chemophobia won’t solve anything.