Friday, 12 July 2013

Punching Up: chemophobia and DHMO

Over at Pharyngula, Chris Clarke has some pointed words for douchebags chemists about a popular satire of chemophobia: the dangerous and ubiquitous chemical DHMO, or dihydrogen monoxide.

It's a pretty popular hashtag on Twitter and I'm not exempt from joining in the joke, so Chris' criticism includes me. In brief, his point is that this joke unfairly mocks the uneducated:
The dihydrogen monoxide joke punches down, in other words. It mocks people for not having had access to a good education. And the fact that many of its practitioners use it in order to belittle utterly valid environmental concerns, in the style of (for instance) Penn Jillette, makes it all the worse — even if those concerns aren’t always expressed in phraseology a chemist would find beyond reproach, or with math that necessarily works out on close examination.
(Emphasis in original)

I largely agree with Chris. As I've noted before, when responding to chemophobia we have to avoid the temptation to mock others' ignorance or to be condescending. It's unpleasant and counter-productive, and risks alienating people we ought to be communicating our work to and helping to educate. It gives us a bad name, makes us look arrogant and out of touch with the public, and is dismissive of legitimate or at least understandable concerns. None of what follows is intended to defend making jokes at the expense of the uneducated, or knee-jerk tribalism that 'belittles utterly valid concerns'.

Despite these important criticisms, I do think the DHMO trope has some merit. Conveniently, there's even a recent example to illustrate this for me. Buzzfeed recently ran a list of 8 food additives that are supposedly banned everywhere but the US. It's a classic of the chemophobia genre: scare-mongering, entirely (and probably deliberately) ignorant, and widely-read (over 5.2 million views and over 500,000 likes/tweets/shares at the time of writing). It's also a great example of churnalism and seems to have been lifted directly from a health food book.

The fears the article tries to whip up are pretty much baseless: Derek Lowe has pulled apart this article at length and he illustrates that the average high school student has a better grasp of chemistry than the author of this rubbish. Mark Lorch responded differently, with a satirical piece in the Guardian listing six chemicals that ought to be banned... including DHMO.

Mark's response illustrates the correct (in my view) application of the DHMO trope. He takes the same approach to everyday chemicals as the BuzzFeed writer: cherry-pick alarming-sounding properties, overextrapolate from extreme conditions to everyday conditions, and generally try to whip up as much unfounded fear as possible whilst ignoring logic at every turn. In doing so, he exposes these flaws in the original piece and hopefully provokes some thought amongst those who might otherwise have bought it. 

It's not an approach that's to everyone's taste, but I think it's in the tradition of great satire: it punches up and is instructive rather than cruel. The authors of the BuzzFeed article and the book it's based on are not uneducated and have a huge platform: hardly the same demographic Chris rightly defends. Chris' comments are a welcome reminder that satire has to be deployed deliberately and at the right targets.

A final thought: how widespread do you think the ignorance Chris describes (and the BuzzFeed article preys upon) is?

Less than 10% of those who read the BuzzFeed article 'liked' it on Facebook, assuming everyone who 'liked' it read the damn thing first. Only 2-3% shared it on Twitter or Facebook. This isn't an unusually high attrition rate for articles like this, but I have to wonder how many people who didn't share it either knew outright that it was crap, or quickly googled it and found out.  

Edit: I spelled Chris' surname incorrectly and have now rectified it. Sorry about that.

At SciAm Blogs, Janet Stemwedel has responded to Chris' post. Her response is considerably more interesting than mine and worth your time.


  1. Thanks for the analysis of my Guardian piece.

    I thought my piece was an obvious piece of satire targeted at an intelligent and sceptical audience who would get the joke. However it was clear from the comments that many took it at face value.

    All in all it was a good lesson on the pitfalls of publishing satire on line. Chris may well be correct that satire has to targeted correctly, I thought I had done just that. But audiences shift online, once word spreads via social media there is no telling who will read it. And then Poe's Law runs riot.

    Here's another even more bizarre example of satire gone wrong.

    1. Your article was my favourite thing that's happened on the internet all year! :p I thought it was excellent and just unfortunate that it wasn't universally understood.
      My head is starting to hurt after attempting to comprehend the latest recursion of Dean's article...

    2. Mark - I also thought it was obvious satire, but I suspect any piece of satire will necessarily be lost on a percentage of the audience. Seems to be part of the medium and not your fault. I'm not sure you're responsible for what people do with your writing.

      I think your satire was targeted appropriately. The author of the BuzzFeed piece, Ashley Perez, is an editor for the site; given the size of the operation and in the absence of other information (her website isn't working currently) I am going to assume she's a professional writer and is presumably reasonably well-educated. The article was based on a book ( by two successful food writers, one of whom holds a PhD. Your piece was not exactly mocking the uneducated or oppressed.

  2. I'm curious about your view on his distaste for the term "chemophobia" which he calls "a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe." This is really where I lost him. How does "chemophobia" mock anyone's ignorance? Is using a sufficiently large word (one that is easily self-defined if one understands the word "chemical" and the suffix "phobia") to aptly and tersely describe a phenomenon a form of elitism now? WFT?

    1. Andre - I think Janet Stemwedel's piece at SciAm blogs sums up a lot of my feelings on this part of Chris' article.

      Effectively: he's probably misunderstood the motives of people (like us) using this term, at least on the chem blogs; perhaps the way he describes people using it is more prevalent in comment threads elsewhere. I didn't want to address this in my response simply because I want to be brief and focus on one point.

  3. ≎ It seems that some don't quite get why "punching down" makes for bad satire. The point of satire is to expose folly, wrongdoing, and injustice, but if your target is disadvantage, you expose your own folly, wrongdoing, and injustice.

    It's also supposed to be funny, but "dihydrogen monoxide" is an old, old joke, inanely repeated many times. Basically, if your cutting edge of wit depends on something that's been played out, that says something about your own ignorance. Never mind Wikipedia's silly Internet-only history, this joke goes back to the 1970s and was intended to ridicule people who were opposed to Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs. Funny thing is, they turned out to be right, so whose ignorance does the joke actually ridicule?

    Alongside the introduction of this joke was a public relations push from companies with a financial stake in toxics, mutagens, and carcinogens. "Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible" was Monsanto's tag line, equating organic compounds in an orange with specific chemicals that people had valid concerns about. In other words, the industry was PROMOTING the very same kind of ignorance that the pathetic satirists were trying to make fun of. Yet the two were making common cause against the people who turned out to be right.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jym. I think we largely agree about the proper use of satire (though maybe I expressed it poorly in my original post).

      I didn't really realise the DHMO joke goes back so far and it's definitely something scientists should bear in mind. I don't feel any particular kinship with companies like Monsanto, but from the outside I don't imagine there's much distinction between chemical companies, academic chemists, and others in our field. Your point (and Chris') that we have to be very careful not to dismiss valid concerns - such as those about DDT and PCBs - when attacking invalid scaremongering such as that in the Buzzfeed article is spot on.

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