Field of Science

A chemistry decoder

A basic guide to decoding organic compound names
© Andy Brunning/Compound Interest
The August 17th edition of C&EN — Chemical and Engineering News, the American Chemical Society's weekly newsmagazine — was devoted to the intersection of chemistry and the internet.  I have a piece in there on the ways in which the internet allows pseudoscience to spread and what chemists might do to counteract the spread.  I point to Andrew Noymer's work on the mathematical modeling of rumor spread, which suggests that rumors and autocatalytic reactions such as the classic Lotke-Volterra systems are not dissimilar.

Noymer's results suggest that damping down the spread of rumor requires both persistent debunking and increased resistance among the susceptible population.  Though at first glance it seems counterintuitive, just periodically debunking rumors leads to a steady state situation, where there is always a (not so small) part of the population who believe.  Debunking needs to be strong and regular, and even then, if you don't have a resistant population, you land in a steady state regime.  The best you can do is to reduce a rumor to something that periodically breaks out.  Like the "Mars will be as big as the Moon in the sky!" meme which you see circulating on social media every summer like clockwork.  (Spoiler alert: It wasn't. It won't be.  Ever.)

What does it take to make a population resistant to pseudoscience?  Some tactics are not unique to the pseudoscience issue:  teaching critical thinking (as Phil Plait points out and Joel Achenbach implies here). Slower fingers when it comes to hitting "share." But it also means giving the population some basic tools for reading science.  After the Royal Society of Chemistry released a large study of the public awareness of chemistry, I wrote that it might be helpful if instead of periodic tables, chemists handed out a cheat sheet for decoding chemical names.  I wished and voilà, the brilliant Andy Brunning of Compound Interest created this graphic.  Print it out and post it in your kitchen.  Link to it on Facebook.  Browse the rest of his collection.  Buy his forthcoming collection about the chemistry of food and give it to the family member who keeps sending you links to the Food Babe.

Most all, talk about what you do as chemist, debunk garbage science when you hear it, swiftly and without mocking, and grab as many opportunities as you can to help people learn to decode chemistry on their own.