Field of Science

Exploding expertise

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:

Jack Stephens
The author is apparently ignorant of chemistry. The active ingredient in toilet bowl cleaner is not hydrochloric acid, it is sodium hydroxide. Aluminum and sodium hydroxide react to form hydrogen gas.
Franz Liebkind
Some toilet bowl cleaners (e.g. Lysol's) contain hydrochloric acid in 10-ish percent concentration. It is there to dissolve calcium carbonate deposits (i.e. scale) found in hard water areas. Both HCl and NaOH react with nonbulk Al to produce, among other things, H2 gas. Iirc in the HCl case the reaction should go faster.

Sodium and HCl (or just water!) is much neater and more spectacular. Adolescent pyromaniac curiosity inspired many of us to major in chemistry.
Franz Liebkind
P.S. USGS says that the water from the Upper Floridian Aquifer, which supplies most of Polk County and Bartow, is moderately to very hard.

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.)


  1. I wouldn't read too much into the comment - there's always a know-it-all who's ready to put you in your place.

    And besides, if I didn't care to do any further research and used the same NaOH-based toilet bowl cleaner all my life, I might assume all cleaners were NaOH-based as well.

    re: "Could you imagine a well-trained scientist would not think to look this up even if she doesn't do bathrooms?" This is the internet we're dealing with; I could imagine a well-trained scientist (at least, "well-trained" according to claimed credentials) pushing a lot of questionable things.

    1. I really don't read all that much into the comment, other than the general superficiality of comments on articles. But it continues to beg the question, what do we mean by well-trained? Are we willing to assert that most tenured faculty members with 30+ years of teaching experience and a verifiable PhD from a well regarded university are well-trained? Cultural cognition theory predicts "no" ...

      And compared to the comments the last time I wrote for Slate (, the comments on this piece are delightful.

  2. If someone presents themselves as a chemist and posted something that contradicts what I thought I knew, I'd look up another source to see who's right. If they were wrong I wouldn't start a comment by insulting the author, I'd simply ask about the statement in question.

    But maybe I'm just too polite for this cutthroat Internet world...

    Your Slate article was excellent and well-written, although it might be a bit too soon to be making hypothetical comparisons to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev... I wrote a post last week giving my thoughts on this case, I think we are in general agreement that she needed to be more careful and it could have been worse, but that the punishment was far too harsh for what she did.

    1. I tend to be of a similar mind -- but that is definitely not the preferred rhetorical approach in web comments (or for that matter in chemistry journals of a century back).

      The word that comes to my mind when it comes to consequences is "proportionate" -- this all or nothing approach reminds me of the SF story, "The Cold Equations" where a young girl is ejected into space because she snuck on board a ship. Why space her and not an equivalent mass of food and water and stuff?

      I agree with you that I don't think this will discourage the most persistent, and scientists as a bunch tend to be persistent, but I think it might slow their development. Students are leery of picking up stuff in lab and part of that I think is years of "do only what I tell you when I tell you".

  3. I actually was sitting at my computer, contemplating a reply to Jack Stephens, when I saw that Franz Liebkind had just jumped in and I figured I didn't need to do so. And like chemchad above, I was slowed down by an urge to take into account that thinking of toilet bowl cleaners as containing NaOH was also a legitimate assumption on the part of the commenter. And could also potentially produce hydrogen gas. (I hadn't read the police report at that time). I was dismayed however to realize in a search for a listing of toilet bowl cleaners and their possible ingredient concentrations, how many list themselves as "chemical free".

    On a Google + post, I pointed to your Slate piece with a headline that said: "What happens in Polk County Doesn't Stay in Polk County Anymore". So on the plus side, the internet offers the opportunity to reach outward and connect with other like minded people, and in many cases receive the help you need. I've done work in the past on the board of Colorado Citizens for Science, in conjunction with the National Center for Science Education. The ability for people with issues regarding science and public schools, a creationist teacher for example, to access help can be very powerful.

    On the negative side, the internet also supplies a platform for people to spread misinformation. And a good post can be derailed by a malicious comment. But these sorts of comments and posts also provide windows into what others are thinking and saying. And that can be very informative.

    Recently, I used this post from a right wing blog; as a springboard for discussions of modifications to an Ocean Acidification seminar to meet in advance the potential questions and concerns of the audience. It is true that the ocean is not becoming acidic. Since the logarithmic scale of pH seemed hard to explain to a public audience previous versions of the talk had relied on percentages. I proposed that the same sort of full pH scale as shown in the attack piece needed to be used along with explanations that emphasized that while the expected changes would be small in pH units they were still highly significant. Knowing where the attack points in the scientific arguments were expected to be helped in refining the talk and making it more informative and better able to answer public concerns.

    1. Listening seems like a good tactic, particularly when trying to respond to a huge array of concerns!

  4. This is fascinating. There's no way to know what's known to science w/o reliable ability to recognize who knows what about what (or who knows what they are talking about & who doesn't). (It's easy to see this is so for non-experts; but it's actually true for experts, too -- except that they will have much richer stock of criteria, cues, etc., reflecting professional training & experience.) Turns out, too, that people are *really* *really* good at this; confusion over what experts know is truly exception, not the rule. The exceptions -- climate change, e.g., -- are much more spectacular; no one writes news stories on how we all manage to converge on efficacy of antibiotics or pasteurization of milk etc (yes, yes, I know some dispute these things too but they are viewed as odd, quirky; they are clear outliers, at least in US).... But if one accepts all of this, the use of this ability when people are making sense of information on-line becomes even more intriguing -- since the on-line environment can be either very thin in the sorts of cues people usually use (the example here), or rich w/ misleading or counterfeit ones...

    1. I'm curious what turns some issues contentious - and others not. Artificial sweeteners, but not antibiotics. Climate change but not water pollution.

      But I'm really curious about how we sort information online, partly because of the way my students react to internet sources. Some will discount a journal as a source because it is "online" as if it was more reliable if they walked upstairs and found the print copy.

    2. Marketing has known about getting people to identify with an image. Politicians also. The Marlboro Man, for example. Use of the same techniques by the tobacco lobby to battle health regulations probably seemed fairly natural. Some of the issues mentioned above get help from corporate sources that also plug into these techniques. Climate change segues into fossil fuel regulation. The anti-ocean acidification blog I mention above says it's information originated with a source that SourceWatch says is funded by ALEC.

      I think that there were economic eras when a given thing seems economically "necessary". There was plenty of denial about air and water pollution in the past.

      I think that most of us have done the experiment and experienced the efficacy of antibiotics, and at least in places I've lived, there's been instances of raw milk dairies getting people sick.

      But we can't develop and retain such things as antibiotics without very organized systems of science education and research and corporate regulation. If we don't have those overall structures, I'm not sure I believe that humans do just naturally migrate to good decisions.


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