Check out the Halloween costumes for “Mad Scientist,” and you’ll discover a whole spooky array of chemists, holding beakers full of bubbling concoctions.
Chemicals can scare and confound many people, even other scientists. AAAS Member and chemist William Carroll, Jr. has seen it firsthand. The public is bombarded with stories about lead in drinking water, carcinogens in weed killers, BPA in water bottles, often with confusing or contradictory warnings.
“People are not crazy about chemicals. And they have questions about individual chemicals that they use, and are exposed to. A lot of us who are chemists think that the public hates chemistry,” said Carroll.
“And in many cases, we are our own worst enemies. We are uncomfortable talking about things, so we use jargon, because it makes us feel superior,” he said.
After 37 years, Carroll retired from Occidental Chemical Corporation in 2015 as Vice President of Industry Issues. He now runs his own company, Carroll Applied Science, LLC; does career counseling as an Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Indiana University, and serves as chief technical adviser on a United Nations Environment project in China involving the elimination of the industrial use of mercury.
It was early in his career, after earning his Ph. D in organic chemistry at Indiana University, when Carroll found the niche that would shape his career.
“I was a good enough scientist, not a great scientist. But I was a pretty good communicator, and the role I was placed in, the marvelous thing is, there’s a place in the world for that person,” said Carroll.
He works to counter public fears, misconceptions, even conspiracy theories about chemistry; things many of his colleagues are skittish about tackling with a non-scientific audience.
He says a lot of scientists, especially those who may have had a bad encounter with a journalist, simply avoid the mass media, sticking instead to the comfort zone of peer reviewed journals. Many scientists are afraid of putting themselves in a position where they answer a newspaper or TV reporter’s question incorrectly, or are challenged on policy and advocacy, and risk the possibility of “looking stupid.”
“If you are giving a paper at a technical conference at least the damage is contained to the people in that room and you can have reasonable arguments back and forth about the scientific stuff. But when you are on “Good Morning America” or “60 Minutes” it’s a different story,” he said.
Carroll believes outreach can lead to good chemistry between scientists and the public.
“So, done correctly, we have an opening to talk about the things that we do as chemists; in a way that can be interesting to people and doesn’t have to be off-putting.”
According to Carroll, a younger generation of scientists can make trust easier to earn by broadening their horizons. He urges students not to cram strictly science and engineering courses into their schedules. When reflecting on his own career, he says the skills he learned in speech, debate, theatre and radio certainly paid off.
“You are not going to live in a science world. You are going to live with other human beings. And having some understanding of their experience, from having been exposed to these other aspects of human life, I think is incredibly important,” said Carroll.
Whether dealing with climate change deniers or those who condemn vaccines, Carroll says applying a scientific argument to a belief structure is a losing proposition.
“The best you can do is tell the truth as you perceive it. The way human beings transmit information is by telling stories. Whether they are legislators, or whether it is the general public, I am not above telling them a story, to try to explain to them in a way they can understand, if they choose to understand,” he said.
Whether communication or chemistry, solutions in our modern world are complicated. Carroll spent five years at Occidental working on plastics recycling, calling it the most difficult but satisfying project he ever tackled. He said whether he was dealing with the public or policymakers, he learned to quickly dismiss those with magic bullets, who told him, “All you have to do is…..”
“Anything you do has consequences. And a problem that is as complicated as plastic recycling, climate change or renewable fuels wouldn’t be perceived as that complicated if ‘All you had to do was,’” said Carroll.