This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Chemical Industry’s Travelling Circus
by Jim Tobias
This article is a product of the Berkeley SftP chapter’s recent work on science education. Its subject, the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) travelling exhibition, will be going to all the major US cities in the next few years, and its schedule accompanies the article. We feel that this exhibit may be a useful target for local SftP activists. It will likely generate significant press reaction.
The Berkeley chapter has also been working an energy show now on display at the University of California’s Lawrence Hall of Science. It is possible that another article may result from this, covering our struggle with the Hall and including a general critique of the Hall and science museums as a whole.
The chapter is seeking comments, criticism, and especially encouragement. See the inside cover of the magazine for the address.
The American Chemical Society, the professional body of the USA’s corporate and academic chemists, is celebrating its centennial this year. As a public relations effort, the Society has commissioned an exhibit, which will be travelling the country informing an increasingly skeptical public of the benefits of the chemical establishment.
Certainly all segments of the nation want and need more information on the issues of chemistry and society, but to present one-sided “discussions” in a context of clear corporate bias is a public disservice. There are no serious factual errors in the show, but that, of course, does not make it an accurate presentation. It is the pattern of gross omissions and distortions which make this travelling circus typical of the way the American public is deliberately misinformed on science issues.
This process begins at the entrance to the show, an elaborate construction of a linked series of geodesic domes. We are told we are about to see “a public exhibition of chemistry in its various relationships to people—to all of us.”
Inside we see a section on food which explains that: “Some food chemicals must be added to meet nutritional requirements. Some nutrients have to be removed, then replaced. For example, to make flour both stable and generally acceptable, wheat germ is removed in the milling process. The essential B vitamins that make wheat germ valuable are then replaced.”
However, white flour was not developed in response to an existing public demand. Instead a flour with a long shelf life and ease of transport had to be developed and marketed in order for the milling industry to concentrate and centralize. Chemists have lowered nutritional values and raised prices in the service of an ever-monopolizing food industry.
The display on brain chemistry is even more deceptive and oversimplified. Light bulbs symbolizing central nervous system synapses blink on and off in a regular pattern, representing “normalcy.” Pushbottons upset this pattern, and other buttons restore it. The “tranquilizer” button neutralizes the “anxiety” button, the “antidepressant” button counteracts “depression” and the “antipsychotic” button cures “psychosis.” This model of mental illness which underlies this display could well be summed up as “Pop them pills, cure them ills.” But where does “anxiety” come from? Do the drug companies care, as long as Valium and Librium remain the most prescribed medicines in the country? In a profit-oriented society, we can never be sure that any therapy is medically justified. Certainly this display goes far in confirming that those largely in charge of curing mental illness view their work as just another commercial enterprise.
A panel on insect control demonstrates the way exhibits like this are handy tools of public relations. The display emphasizes biocontrol methods, those which use juvenile hormones, sexual attractants and traps to eliminate pests. This is an environmentally progressive approach, in comparison with the use of pesticides. Yet, pesticides are still by far the most used method of insect control, both in research and in the field. By emphasizing the newer and safer approach to insect control, without discussing how widely it is used, the display implies that pesticides are no longer a cause for concern, thus implicitly defending the chemical industry.
Further on, a large photo of a commercial chicken roost is embellished with an extensive list of the wonderful supplements chemists supply to the poultry industry. Vitamins and hormones for forced growth, antioxidants for increased storage time, even pigments for “healthy-looking” skin and yolks: All are a part of the chicken industry’s dream of a standardized high-profit product. Again, consumers pay the price for these advertised improvements.
Packaging is another “contribution” made by the chemical industry to feeding the world: “Modern packaging not only protects food, it makes world-wide distribution possible.” This is the main point; if not for modern packaging techniques, there could be no international trade in food products. Large firms continually enter local markets, push novel products, and undercut local firms in Third World countries, where nutrition is a critical problem. Making developing countries dependent on foreign food sources is not a positive change, but continues the colonial policy of forced underdevelopment, in which the colonized nation is discouraged in every way from attending to its problems with its own resources.
The energy section details the dubious wonders of new fuels and their contribution to the aerospace industry. Pushbuttons are used to compare the power and reliability of the various energy sources. Wheels spin at different rates to “prove” that only fossil and nuclear fuels are effective. Solar power, on the other hand, is “too diffuse to be used in central power plants.” In reality, there already are several schemes for solar electric generation, but these potentially compete with the established profits derived from the production, refinement and distribution of coal, oil, gas and uranium. Corporations cannot be expected to advocate solar power until they have gained control of the market for this form of energy as well.
The final section in the show discusses the ways in which advances in chemistry have expanded our range of choices in various matters, ranging from life extension to pollution. The show does attempt to deal with the ramifications of chemical practice, but its discussion of the “hard personal and public decisions” involved is really just as misleading as the rest of the exhibit. These much-advertised “options,” however, remain completely out of our hands. Decisions are made, by and large, by the major corporations and the government walking arm-in-arm together down the road to increased profits and social control. Are consumers asked if they want heavily processed and packaged foods? Are citizens informed and asked about the pollution levels they prefer? Are patients asked for their feelings about new medications? American citizens are systematically under-informed and misinformed on technical matters in order to freeze them out of participation in such disputes and in order to obtain their silent acquiescence.
At heart, this is what these exhibits are all about. They are Skinner boxes, flashy and simplistic; prepackaged curricula that offer pushbutton reinforcement and a dazzling, theatrical world devoid of depth, balance and analysis. They push the idea that “science is magical,” further mystifying the public and alienating us from policy debate. But leaving science to the experts means leaving it to those who base their decisions on profits alone, most often to the detriment of the public good. “Chemistry” is not an abstraction. It is a collection of technical functions, which are performed in a social context. In this country, that means performed by corporations, solely on the basis of profits. The “all of us” referred to in the show’s introduction is a fiction. Most people have no interests in common with those who make the decisions about chemistry in this society.
ACS CENTENNIAL EXHIBIT ITINERARY (Tentative)
April 16-June 12, 1977
Detroit Historical Museum
June 25-September 4, 1977
Museum of Science and Industry
September 17-November 13, 1977
Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
November 26, 1977-January 22, 1978
Franklin Institute Science Museum and Planetarium
February 4-March 26, 1978
Hall of Science of the
City of New York
April 8-May 28, 1978
Museum of Science
June 10-July 30, 1978
Buhl Planetarium and Institute of
August 12-0ctober 1, 1978
Maryland Science Center
October 14-December 3, 1978
John Young Museum and Planetarium
EXHIBIT CONTRIBUTORS (Abridged)
American Cyanamid Company
Amoco Foundation, Inc.
Armco Steel Corporation
Continental Can Company
The Dow Chemical Company
E.I. duPont de Nemours and Co.
Exxon Chemical Company, U.S.A.
Exxon Research and Engineering Company
Firestone Tire and Rubber Company
General Electric Company
The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company
Gulf Oil Chemicals Company
Johnson and Johnson
The Johnson Wax Fund
Eli Lilly and Company
Arthur D. Little, Inc.
Merck and Co., Inc.
Mobil Oil Corporation
PPG Industries, Inc.
Phelps Dodge Refining Corporation
Phillips Petroleum Company
Shell Oil Company
Standard Oil Company of California
The Standard Oil Company (Ohio)
Texas Instruments Incorporated
Union Carbide Corporation
The Upjohn Company
Velsicol Chemical Corporation
Jim Tobias works in science education and design for the handicapped. He has a science and engineering background.