Science Literacy and Language

A longstanding pet peeve of mine is the misuse of the word chemicals. A chemical is not a very specific noun. Its definition does not imply toxicity and the word does not have a moral weight. Chemicals are not bad or dangerous or man-made necessarily. A chemical is simply a type of matter that is consistent throughout, like water.

Scientists don’t often bother using this word to refer to substances because it isn’t very specific. But many non-scientists use it to refer to nefarious substances that chemists alone encounter and understand. For example, “When big brewing companies started adding chemicals to beer in order to produce beer more quickly and cheaply, the beer started to taste worse and now causes disease and hangovers and birth defects. This is why I only drink beer without any added chemicals.” This is an example (paraphrased) that I recently heard at a seminar on the “Science of Beer.”

Sure, some chemicals are toxic at certain doses or for certain organisms. Some are man-made. But if these meanings are intended, then be specific! Use the word you mean. Maybe you are referring to metals, maybe fertilizer and pesticide (both of which occur naturally as well as artificially), maybe preserving substances (which are also often not man-made, but natural). *

I recognize that the the reason for the misuse of the word chemicals is a lack of information and understanding. The fear that is often behind the word chemical is the fear of the unknown. The definition of the word chemicals in Merriam Webster confirms the fallacy that a chemical is a mysterious substance that any non-scientist won’t be able to grasp. A chemical:

1: of, relating to, used in, or produced by chemistry or the phenomena of chemistry <chemical reactions>

2 a : acting or operated or produced by chemicals <a chemicalfire extinguisher> b : detectable by chemical means

Really? How about “a chemical is a form of matter that has constant chemical composition and characteristic properties. It cannot be separated into components by physical separation methods, i.e. without breaking chemical bonds. They can be solids, liquids or gases.” That is not so bad now, is it?

A non-scientist can understand what a chemical is. Of course they can. All I am wishing for is basic scientific literacy in the way people understand the world and in the way they describe it.

I have hope. Sites like Wikipedia that spread information about science worldwide contribute to scientific literacy. Cool science and scientists help promote scientific literacy. And I have been to several science festivals that do a terrific job of spreading the word about science.

So, what do you think about language and science literacy? Have you heard the misuse of the word chemical? Or the misuse of other scientific terms? Do you care if others understand the basics of science?


*The assumption that harmful chemicals are normally man-made is entirely incorrect. Plants produce plenty of toxic chemicals and so do animals. Radioactive substances occur naturally. Oil often naturally seeps from the ground and underwater.


About pickledtoo

I am currently a marine educator on my way to grad school in the next year or so. I want to be an industrial chemist and I want to make things that might make peoples lives better. I love to talk and write and think and dream about science!
This entry was posted in Chemistry, Rant, Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Science Literacy and Language

  1. bryansanctuary says:

    When my colleague made the press because of his new spectroscopic technique, the first chemical he studied was water. When the reporter asked him why water, such an uninteresting chemical, my colleague replied because it was so common in our lives, “For example, potatoes are 90% water.” I will let you imagine what the headlines where concerning this new experiment.

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