If you think the title of this post is funny, and you have anything to do with science communication, we really need to talk.

In the couple of weeks I've seen infographics going around which try to correct non-technical people about the ways in which they use terms like "chemical" and "toxin", with varying degress of helpfulness, condescension and outright sarcasm. This is not a new idea - see dihydrogen monoxide for an early example - but it's a really bad one, and people need to cut it out.

It is a bad rhetorical tactic to think that you can argue someone to your position by insisting that their use of certain words is a comical error and your use of them is the only valid and correct one.

The phrase "organic salt" is a shibboleth for this attitude. Almost everyone I know with a science or engineering degree thinks that "organic salt" is ridiculous, because salt, sodium chloride, is an inorganic compound, organic chemistry being the study of compounds based on carbon chains. Part of this is because science and engineering types like laughing at hippies and discovering incongruous uses of language, but it's also because of a kind of blindness to the fact that almost all words have multiple senses. "Organic" also means a system of food production which avoids the use of certain classes of pesticides and fertilisers: I don't know exactly how traditional salt production used chemicals in a way which prevented it getting organic certification, but there's nothing per se incoherent about the idea of organic salt. This is not the only sense of "organic", of course. If I say that a symphony works as an organic whole, I'm not arguing that it's based on hydrocarbons. Even though it might be, in a sense.

This blindness is in some sense a cornerstone of the nerd mindset (nerds: I'm now using "nerd" in its pejorative sense). Allowing technical precision within a specialised field to trump all other values, including courtesy, understanding how human beings use language, using this understanding to persuade people, and so on: this is exactly the opposite of what science communicators need to do.

Words have multiple senses and scientific terminology is no exception to this, and it is the part of a professional in any field to accept that the specialised senses which your own discipline has for certain words are secondary to the popular senses, especially when you are trying to communicate with people outside your field.

When people who are not scientists talk about "chemicals in their food", they are using the term "chemical" in its popular sense: an artificially manufactured or refined substance which has been added to food and drink for technical reasons and with a reckless disregard for its effects on consumers' health. People dislike the idea of chemicals in this sense because the food and agriculture industries have a history, going back for more than a century, of adding artifically manufactured or refined substances to food and drink for technical reasons and with a reckless disregard for their effects on consumers' health.

This suspicion is not just hippie paranoia. There's a reason why the traditional onus of "buyer beware" was reversed, and legislations for consumer protection introduced, after food production became a large-scale industry. People are leery about additives because they have reason to distrust this industry, not because they are ignorant of the scientific definition of a chemical.

More generally, if your attempts at STEM communication are all about insisting that your discipline's use of language is the only correct one, or based on jokes of the "organic salt" variety, you're not just preaching to the choir, you're telling the choir to sing "you're all a bunch of idiots" to the congregation.


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