The Phobia of Chemophobia and a Better Path for Science Education

I’ve long been annoyed by complaints about chemophobia and by those on war path to combatting it. But I stumbled upon some fresh air when I read a Scientific American guest blog by Chiara Ceci, who at the time of writing worked for the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“We found that people’s views on chemicals do not impact their opinions about chemistry or chemists. But if chemists persistently cite chemophobia when trying to combat perceived misunderstandings, we actually risk activating fears, playing into existing stereotypes or feeding feelings of inferiority….Understanding this, I have to agree with University of Hull senior lecturer and science writer Mark Lorch who argues that “chemophobia is a chemist’s construct” and that “it’s time for us chemists to stop feeling so unloved.” According to Lorch, “It is almost as if we are experiencing the fear of chemophobia: chemophobia-phobia.We should avoid talking about chemophobia (Lorch suggests we hang up the #chemophobia hashtag) or framing our communications in negative terms such as “fighting ignorance” or “debunking errors”. Instead we should try to be more positiveshowing people how chemistry makes us feel and championing the cause of chemistry in society. Let’s not forget that we are all acting as ambassadors for chemistry.” 

The study on public attitudes towards chemistry that they refer to was conducted by TNS of the Royal Society of Chemistry. They conducted 2104 in-person interviews with adults above the age of 16 in February of 2015. One interesting result was that “chemophobia” only affected 1/5 th of the population. Yet many media personalities and members of “offices of science and society” have been preoccupied with its ” grave dangers” for decades.

Contrary to what the graphic states, EVERYTHING, ironically, does not consist of chemical compounds.

I do find it amusing that the Royal Society’s graphic reports that “60% of the public knew that everything is made up of chemicals?” I made sound pedantic, but EVERYTHING, ironically, does not consist of chemical compounds. The entire electromagnetic spectrum, including radio, microwaves, visible light and X-rays among others does not consist of compounds, ions or radicals. Astronomers will remind us that the universe is mostly dark matter, which is probably non-baryonic in nature; it may be composed of some as-yet-undiscovered subatomic particles.

A far bigger problem than chemophobia and the phobia of chemophobia—and it’s an issue that’s not only relevant to these, but one that is less often addressed—is that the tools of science education are disjointed and not at the fingertips of young minds. Older minds in retired bodies who want to improve their skills face a similar dilemma. Science blogs and popularizations(including mine) are cute, but they don’t do much to teach chemistry or any specific science. To learn it involves far more tools and far more work. But why invest the energy when life is so short?

Our subject is essential— not so much because without it we wouldn’t have clean water in cities or the keyboard that we are typing on or the computer receiving our ideas—but because it’s one of the three fundamental sciences that gives us key insights into the living and material world. But what led to the discovery of chemical concepts is not the ambition to invent something practical, but the curiosity into the nature of things.

After complaining to my Grade 6 teacher, who was unprepared to teach science, and was doing nothing but telling us the names of different glassware, I still got turned on to chemistry in junior high after stumbling upon a library book on the parts of an atom. More importantly, since science involves doing, I also did garage experiments suggested in an encyclopedia. One used hydrogen peroxide and manganese dioxide powder from a used battery to produce oxygen. But what I benefited from depended too much on good luck, which does not necessarily fall on the lap of other children.

So what should things be like?

In that same grade 6 class, we participated in an SRA reading program. It ran parallel to the rest of our English curriculum. Depending on our prior reading comprehension and vocabulary, we started at a certain color, read texts, answered questions and if we succeeded, we moved to more difficult colored levels at our own pace.

That basic idea should be used throughout science education. But unlike the SRA program, to make a difference from the current state of affairs, an equivalent science-program couldn’t just involve texts in a big colored box. Each echelon would have to include an indexed internet of sorts to keep students out of the current online jungle; a bibliography of appropriate textbooks and some computer simulations along with real experiments in and out of a lab; and there would have to be a cultivation of relevant math skills. At the higher echelons, students would have more freedom to explore and experiment with what interested them. That would be made clear beforehand to motivate them, and there would be no pass/fail or grades-structure within the SRA-like-program. Exams and all the other traditional stuff would be reserved for the regular part of the science curriculum that would run parallel to this.

Is this going to happen? Probably not! Knowing what educational bureaucracies are like at district/ board or state/ provincial levels, they rarely latch on to something sensible. Besides, developing the program would take a lot more input and development from dedicated people whose time would have to be freed up.

If you agree that my plan might be too ambitious, look to Great Britain, which does a lot of good work in developing teaching tools and labs for chemistry. Continuing their good work might be as good as it gets.

The Royal Society’s study found that overall engagement with chemistry is low, with 1/4 of respondents at the extreme end. In general, physics education at the high school level is even more mediocre than that of chemistry, and yet more adults tend to be interested in physics. It could be the nature of the subjects themselves. As fundamental as chemistry may be, its symbolic nature and language is not something everyone has an affinity for. Perhaps more importantly, astrochemistry aside, the problem with chemistry may be that it’s too much down-to-earth. That’s why the everyday chemistry approach won’t win most hearts over. Physics, with its ability to explain both stars and black holes, and more direct connection to space travel, appeals more to the imagination than chemistry. Moreover, physics’ giant intellects ( Newton, Einstein and Majorana— Fermi found him to be more brilliant than he was, but he mysteriously disappeared) cast large shadows over the likes of Lavoisier and Pauling.

In light of these, focusing on chemophobia is an even more colossal waste of time.

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Into the Mind of an Adolescent Learning Math

I came across a clever application of the quadratic formula on Youtube. Tom Rocks, an Oxford mathematician and the video’s creator, uses the dimensions of a soccer net (“football net” anywhere in the world outside of US and Canada) and the maximum diving range of a goalkeeper in all directions, to obtain the radius of the target circle for a penalty kick. In other words, it figures out the best two places where the kicker should aim the ball.

The key to solving the problem the “long way”, as a student would often put it, is to draw a right triangle (in blue, above), deduce its dimensions, apply the Pythagorean theorem and then use the quadratic formula to obtain the value of the radius.

If you’ve taught math or recall being in a high school algebra class, you know that at some point, a student will inevitably argue that a reasonable estimation in the context of this problem can be obtained with a scaled drawing. I’ve done that too in the illustration, and it works.

So on the surface, it seems that this strategy of attempting to demonstrate the practicality of the quadratic formula can easily backfire. The extra decimals are totally useless to a real soccer player. Someone who has played the game can also argue that if he can get the goalie to move first, there is a higher likelihood of scoring if he just kicks low and in the opposite direction.

The teacher facing such valid points should never take it as a personal affront but use them as launching points for a brief discussion of mathematics’ role in the real world.

The issue of the bluff-move is an example of how the real world is more complex than a mathematical model. This is what we have here. It’s assuming that both the kicker and goaltender act as robots, when in fact, the minds of the players add additional variables that cannot be quantified.

What do you say to a teen who has come up with the answer of 0.65 meters by simply drawing the situation accurately? For starters it’s a wonderful way to verify that our math is valid. But to truly persuade the human brain that is so often committed to conserving energy, we can to do better as teachers. Whereas basic arithmetic permeates everyday life, high school math on the surface seems to be a twilight zone and applications are often contrived or, as in this case, involve problems that can be solved more easily with simpler math. We have to explain to teens that high school math will soon appear in other high school subjects such as chemistry, physics and economics, Moreover, a lot of it is a foundation for higher mathematics, which is not only far more practical in the real world than basic algebra, but it opens the path for learning pure mathematics, which is pure joy and a worthwhile endeavour in itself.

Once can also argue that although the extra accuracy of the Pythagoras-and-quadratic-formula-route of determining the radius of the target circle is useless in this case, in other applications, a rigorous approach and the extra-decimals obtained can be crucial. The classic example is GPS positioning. For a satellite to pin down location within a 3 to 4 meter accuracy, the math of the Doppler effect, of general relativity and special relativity all have to be used.

And guess what was used to derive the gamma factor involved in obtaining relativistic time, length and mass? Yes, the Pythagorean theorem.