We're History: Risk, Perception, and the International Year of Chemistry in Chemical Engineering Progress 

November 1, 2011 - New York, NY

By Neil Gussman

As the International Year of Chemistry (IYC) celebrations wind to a close, a culminating event, of sorts, will take place in New York City on November 15 - when AIChE will host an International Year of Chemistry Gala at New York's Gotham Hall (www.aiche.org/iycgala.aspx). A primary purpose of this gala is to raise funds for AlChE's new Center for Energy Initiatives and the AlChE Water Initiative - two of the Institute's major projects aimed at addressing modem engineering challenges. Guests of honor will include company leaders from DGW Coming, Johnson & Johnson, and LyondellBasell - with sponsors and attendees from other technology-based enterprises scheduled to participate.

This gala follows many IYC celebrations and related educational events over the past year - including recent activities at the AIChE Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, MN, where major sessions were devoted to IYC and to chemical science innovation and the future of the U.S. chemical enterprise.

IYC events have generated a measure of goodwill and science awareness, with authences ranging from young people learning about career opportunities and the scientific method, to science professionals - who can appreciate IYC as an opportunity to reflect on their achievements and responsibilities as scientists and engineers. At the same time, events like the IYC Gala will provide an occasion for corporate leaders, policy-makers, and media professionals to recognize the importance of chemistry in the public consciousness, and the substantial amount of work that still needs to be accomplished to help citizens more-clearly understand the position of science and chemistry in their lives. This consciousnessraising needs to happen both while the nominal IYC celebrations are still in progress, and most importantly after the galas and special events of 2011 are over.

On April 1, the 101st day of the International Year of Chemistry, a guest blogger for Scientific American published what many people think when they hear about IYC 2011. David Ropeik's post began:

"Happy International Year of Chemistry. We hope things go well with your effort to increase public appreciation of chemistry and increase the interest of young people in chemistry and generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry . . . But let's face it. Maybe when you hear 'chemicals/ you think of the periodic table or how hydrogen bonds work. When we hear 'chemicals' we think death, harm, cancer, birth defects, danger, pain, poison, pollution, hazardous waste. Love Canal, Bhopal. Oh, joy!"

For those of us who preserve the history of chemistry and for over-the-top geeks like me who love science, Ropiek's editorial is the general reaction I expected to hear when the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year of Chemistry.

Ropiek - an instructor at Harvard Univ. and author of the book How Risky Is It, Realty?: Why Our Fears Don 't Always Match the Facts - is also very clear on why the public perception of chemistry is so poor:

"It is hardly in the spirit of the International Year of Chemistry to say this, but such fear makes sense. Not, certainly, in terms of the actual physical risk from chemicals which, while real and in some cases severe, is often not commensurate with how worried people are. But the fear does makes sense in the context of the psychology of how humans perceive and respond to risk. And those academics and chemists and scientists who scorn these fears as irrational, are themselves guilty of the same thing, selectively and irrationally denying what the sciences of risk perception tell us to see things not as they are, but how they would like to see them."

In 2003, the Chemical Heritage Foundation hosted a conference entitled "Perceptions of Risk in Medical Technology." From anesthesia to vaccines, the conference chronicled how tolerance of risk tracks perception much more than reality.

We live in a world that operates primarily on anecdotal evidence. In an essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik said the greatest hindrance to progress in any area of human endeavor is entrenched ignorance. Public perception of chemistry and chemicals is a toxic mix of misperception, half truth, and quotes from bad movies....

Link to CEP (Subscription required)

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