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Clickbait Chemistry

How the Internet helps spread pseudoscience, and how to fight it

by Michelle Francl
August 16, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 32

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Illustration of a bad computer with devil horns.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

As a computational chemist, I’ve coauthored several highly cited methodology papers. But my most widely read article has nothing to do with basis sets for ab initio calculations or atomic charges. Thanks to the Internet, my best known piece of writing is about beaver butts and vanilla ice cream.

Published on the news website Slate in February, my review of Vani Hari’s “The Food Babe Way,” among other things, took down her claim that the vanilla flavoring in your ice cream comes from a pair of sacs on a beaver’s rear end. In a little more than a week, my story drew enough Facebook “shares” to rival the 100 most-cited science papers of all time. Welcome to clickbait chemistry: fast access to a messy, toxic, hard-to-separate brew of science and pseudoscience.

The links are irresistible. There’s formaldehyde in your baby’s shampoo and lead in your red lipstick. Chemists find it especially hard to resist debunking the pseudoscience, pointing out that your baby also produces formaldehyde in his or her cells and that no, gold can’t reduce lead, so testing your lipstick’s toxicity with a wedding ring is nonsense.

But as cathartic as it can be to expose the nonsense that circulates on the Web, it may not stop the transmission of misconceptions. In 2001, sociologist Andrew Noymer modeled how rumors spread. His findings suggested that certain attempts to debunk urban myths can actually do the opposite: keep the rumor alive. Noymer’s work suggests keeping a rumor in check requires not only serious persistence on the part of skeptics but also a population that is more resistant to pseudoscience rumors in the first place.

What should chemists do to knock down the rumors? Be persistent. Fill up the gaps when you can, whether at the PTO meeting or by writing an editorial. We need to keep the facts in circulation alongside the pseudoscience. Today, if you search “beaver butts,” you get my article along with the Food Babe’s.

Be proactive. Talk about what you do and why. Googling “chemicals and cancer” produces lists of carcinogens and articles with terrifying titles, yet it produces nothing about chemistry’s biggest contribution to cancer: treating it. The mortality rate of childhood leukemia dropped from 97% to 10% in 20 years because of the availability of drugs designed and made by chemists. To the general public, the word “chemical” has come to mean a toxic contaminant, not a medicine capable of saving a half-million children’s lives. Forget telling people that everything is a chemical. Instead, share how chemists think about molecular behavior. Give people the tools to ask the right questions about what molecules can and can’t do, thereby helping them become a bit more resistant to pseudoscience.

Chemists need to be skeptical consumers on the Internet as well. We imagine chemophobia, the irrational fear of chemicals, is rampant and that the public thinks we are wicked purveyors of poisons. But a recent survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry suggests that public perceptions of chemists are not so bleak and that people would welcome knowing more about what chemistry does for them. If we don’t tell them what we do, the pseudoscientists will.


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