How do we decide who to listen to about something chemical? I have a piece in Slate this week (on the brouhaha around the teenager in Florida and the exploding water bottle), and someone in the comments feed there thought to comment on my expertise:
I just finished a new Thesis column for Nature Chemistry about the ways in which chemists can (or cannot) communicate with general audiences about chemistry. Is it possible to have nuanced conversations using the word "chemical" and chemistry, or has the word itself chemical accreted so many toxic associations that it can't be rehabilitated? Can chemists have a role in these conversations by virtue of their expertise? (Short answers: Problably not, probably yes, probably not.)
A session at ScienceOnline2013 earlier this year still has me thinking about the disconnect between how chemists want to talk about their field ("did you know that everything is chemicals? just look at how this works! isn't it cool?") and how people process the information we are so enthusiastically providing ("she is a working mother who probably feeds her kids fast food five nights a week and can't possibly care about her family's nutrition so why should I listen to what she has to say about the molecular structure of NutraSweet™?") Addressing the deficit in science knowledge may not in fact help people assimilate what they need to know make informed decisions about things chemical.
For a society who in many ways is so keen on credentials (or how else do those online diploma mills spammers make money), social science research suggests we don't necessarily consider purely those credentials into our decision when we decide who is an expert in a given field. Dan Kahan and colleagues at the Culture Cognition Project suggest that we assess expertise through the lens of our cultural and social affinities as much (or more) as we do through objective credentials.
So when it comes to deciding who you should believe about aspartame, you believe Dr. X who is an "nutritionist, aspartame victim and single mother of three boys" (her doctorate comes from an unaccredited online school) not Dr. Y who does research on molecular structure and is the mother of two boys and is not an aspartame victim (her doctorate comes from a top accredited school).
As for the Slate commenter, I'm rather fascinated that someone could generalize from you don't know what is in toilet bowl cleaner (is the subtext here that I would be above cleaning my own bathrooms?) to you apparently know no chemistry. Could you imagine that a well-trained scientist would not think to look this up even if she doesn't do bathrooms? (The police report gives the brand of cleaner, which the manufacturer says contains 20% HCl. Of course, practically it doesn't matter -- both the acid and the base oxidations of aluminum produce three equivalents of hydrogen gas.)