Are students inspired to go into physics because of a television show like "The Big Bang Theory"?  Probably not, or else 60% of America would be cops and lawyers.

But chemistry has a bad reputation, argues a recent editorial in Nature Chemistry, and "Breaking Bad" gets some of the blame for keeping its reputation bad.   It's a cable show on AMC, so not exactly on the minds of all that many people, but it chronicles the transformation of Walter White from suburban high school chemistry teacher to crystal meth dealer and criminal mastermind who uses his chemistry expertise (poisons, noxious gases, and acid) to eliminate rival meth dealers. 

On the positive side, he was previously an under-performing teacher so when he discovers he has terminal cancer, he decides to create a legacy for his family.  Still, it's not good for chemistry's public image says Matthew Hartings, assistant professor of chemistry at American University.  

"Breaking Bad is an entertaining and truly fantastic show. And, it's amazing how much actual chemistry they weave into each episode. Unfortunately, though, the show plays into our preconceived notions that chemists are mad scientists and that chemicals are bad for you," Hartings said. "This reinforces some people's belief that chemicals are things to be avoided when, in fact, we eat, breathe, sleep, and work in a world of chemicals."

Hartings and Declan Fahy, an assistant professor of communication at AU, deliver their take on why they believe chemistry has perhaps the worst public image and how chemists can help turn that around through improved communication. 


Hartings and Fahy say chemistry's bad rap is a result of "chemophobia," a term coined by chemist and popular science writer Pierre Laszlo referring to the terms most people associate with chemistry: poisons, toxins, chemical warfare, alchemy, sorcery, pollution, and mad scientists.

They have a point.  The progressive assault on science has consistently portrayed scientists, and especially chemists, as immoral and bent on knowledge at any cost. At least conservatives only believe scientists are in it for the money, not to poison rivers or create better ways to kill the planet, so they are slightly less anti-science.

Chemophobia is why publishers and television/film production companies avoid using the word "chemistry" in the titles of creative works, they say. They fear that potential consumers will shy away from their products because of environmental activist insistence that 'chemicals are bad for you'. 

Five Steps to Improve Chemistry Communication

Hartings and Fahy outline five communication strategies to help chemists increase public engagement with chemistry and improve the field's public image. 

  • Practice research-driven communication. Focus groups, surveys, and interviews can help chemists identify various publics (their attitudes, values, and beliefs) and understand how they get information and form their opinions about chemistry.
  • Understand the audience. Because chemistry is a broad field, it can be relevant to numerous topics, like pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, and nutrition. 
  • Participate in the new communication landscape. More chemists should use social media, blogs (like Science 2.0, obviously) and online videos to communicate with their peers as well as nonchemists/nonscientists.
  • Relate chemistry to society. Relate chemistry to social issues or broader themes that touch the lives of everyday people. 
  • Frame key messages to prompt engagement. Because chemistry is a broad, complex field and can appeal to numerous publics, chemists need to learn frame their messages to encourage public engagement (present a specific issue in a way that shows people the issue's relevancy and application to their lives).
They have a point.  Trying to put on a Science Cafe-type event and getting any scientist to talk is difficult, but getting a chemist is bordering on the impossible.  Maybe writing on chemistry is easier, though.