From chemical weapons to organic food…

Today I will lament on the choice of words when popular culture and the news media describe anything related to chemistry. It is well known that the corresponding outlets consistently represent chemistry in a very negative way. I am not talking about junk such as National Enquirer and the likes. Here is a high profile case: the Nobel Peace Prize, which was given today to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”. I have always had a big problem with this wording “chemical weapons”. Are they chemical as opposed to all those other types of weapons that are composed of/made without chemicals? Show me those, please. I know, I know… I am being a little bit facetious since we all know what the intended meaning is. However, for many people the horrors of chemical weapons are merely associated with the word “chemical”, which carries a negative connotation in our society. It is clear that nerve gases have to be banned and destroyed. But I do point at the label “chemical” to show how science-illiterate our society has become. These sorts of blunders are ingrained in our language and have been with us for a long time. Dangerously, poor wording often allows people to knowingly misrepresent stuff. How about I give it a shot now?

Take the so-called organic food as an example. Out of sheer curiosity I once asked a worker at a local supermarket what an “organic” vegetable is meant to represent. Try it yourself. You will hear that “organic” represents a chemical-free way of growing vegetables. Wow… not even water (a chemical) for irrigation?

There is a silver lining here: to be an organic chemist makes me feel really good. From now on, I will tell people that in our lab we run chemistry without any chemicals. After all, if the moniker “organic” means what it is supposed to mean according to its (mis)use, then deal with it. Lastly, I really wonder how all those inorganic chemists look at themselves in the mirror each day. They are INorganic, after all (“IN” is a negative)… I guess whatever they do in their labs runs counter to the virtuous discoveries that we, organic folks, work so hard to make without any chemicals…

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