Friday, May 25, 2012

My Favorite Toxic Chemical

Submitted to the Toxic Chemical Fair sponsored by Science Geist

I have loved reading the thoughts of others this week, but after wracking my brain for a week, I decided that I'm not sure that I have a favorite toxic chemical (and I'm comfortable with that).

But the other thoughts I had this week on the subject have largely been around this: As scientists, we are trained to accept diverse and contradictory behavior. The most famous examples are from physics, such as the Twins Paradox in Special Relativity and particle-wave duality. The general public has a hard time with this. If you want proof, just go to any physics forum where questions can be posted and discussed. You won't have to go long before you see someone posting that Einstein and/or quantum mechanics is all wrong, largely because the paradoxical behaviors that they describe don't match with everyday reality. But regardless of what these people may think, we all know that these dilemmas are factual and reproducible, so we ignore the naysayers and go on.

So is the idea that a chemical can be both good and bad just as large a dilemma as the Twins Paradox? Just because we as chemists are comfortable with it doesn't mean that everyone else is. We see the one-or-the-other-and-nothing-in-the-middle mindset in chemophobia, where people believe that all (synthetic) chemicals are bad, while all natural chemicals are good, when the actuality is that in both cases, the chemicals can be both good and bad. We as chemists know this on a factual and reproducible basis, so why do the the naysayers get to us? Should we just ignore them?

Are we expecting too much of the general public to accept this dichotomy that chemicals are both good and bad? Sadly, I think that our comfort with the dilemma blinds us so that we can't see how big a gap it is for others to bridge.

On a lighter note, I submit that there may be one group of people who should have no problem with this duality, but just not in public when the microphones are on...

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