The Public Image of Chemistry

Of all the scientific disciplines chemistry seems to be particularly concerned about its public image. Indeed, popular associations with chemistry range from poisons, hazards, chemical warfare, and environmental pollution to alchemical pseudo-science, sorcery, and mad scientists. Despite repeated campaigns for convincing the public that chemistry would bring health, comfort, and welfare, chemists frequently meet with hostility in popular culture. As student enrollment numbers has been shrinking, chemistry departments have been closed in several countries. Also in humanist culture chemistry has a very low profile; philosophers in particular keep to their traditional neglect of anything related to chemistry. Of course, chemists have always been complaining about their low prestige, the lack of public acknowledgment of their achievements, and the misguiding popular associations with chemistry, such that we now have a long record of complaints of almost two centuries. More recently, in response to their public image, chemists have tried to launch slogans such as ‘green chemistry’ or even dropped the term ‘chemistry’ altogether and adopted more fashionable labels such as ‘materials science’, ‘molecular science’, or ‘nanotechnology’. Surprisingly or not, chemists have never translated their complaints into serious research programs to understand the public image of chemistry in its cultural and historical contexts. To be sure, chemical societies and, particularly, the chemical industry have commissioned many reports for promotional or marketing purposes. Yet, such reports usually scratch only on the surface and may well have recommended one or the other camouflage tactics. Even the recent boost of academic research in Public Understanding of Science (PUS) has virtually excluded chemistry and, instead, focused on topics such as ‘Frankenfood’ and genetic engineering. The failure to deal with chemistry in PUS studies is more serious than the traditional neglect in the humanities, because stereotypes of chemistry have dominated the popular image of science in general..
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