Intuitive Toxicology

Intuitive can be defined as "using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning." Humans have always been intuitive toxicologists via the use of the senses of sight, taste, and smell to try to detect harmful or unsafe food, water, and air.

Intuition and Professional Judgment in Toxicology

Even well-established scientific approaches used in human risk assessment depend on extrapolations and judgments when assessing human, animal and other toxicology data. This led to the study of intuitive toxicology—the intuitive elements of expert and public risk judgments involved with exposure assessment, toxicology, and risk assessment.


Photo of Albert Einstein

“I believe in intuition and inspiration. At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.”

— Albert Einstein

Figure 1. Albert Einstein understood the importance of intuition along with knowledge and experience
(Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain - original image)

Studies of Intuitive Toxicology

The studies of intuitive toxicology have surveyed toxicologists (for example, members of the Society of Toxicology) and others about a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions regarding risks from chemicals. These have included basic concepts, assumptions, and interpretations related to the effects of chemical concentration, dose, and exposure on risk, and the value of animal studies for predicting the effects of chemicals on humans.

Two questions that have been studied repeatedly in intuitive toxicology are:

  1. Would you agree or disagree that the way an animal reacts to a chemical is a reliable predictor of how a human would react to it?
  2. If a scientific study produces evidence that a chemical causes cancer in animals, can we can then be reasonably sure that the chemical will cause cancer in humans?
Illustration of two human heads looking at one another, each with gears in their head, and a large question mark between the two. A thought bubble arises from the figure on the left, with a thumbs up icon inside it. From the figure on the right, a thought bubble arises with a thumbs down icon inside it.

Figure 2. Understanding and application of toxicology sometimes involves elements of expert judgment and intuition
(Image Source: Adapted from iStock Photos, ©)

Examples of Findings from Intuitive Toxicology

Examples of the findings from studies of intuitive toxicology in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom include:

  • The public is more likely than toxicologists to think chemicals pose greater risks.
  • The public finds it difficult to understand the concept of dose–response relationships.
  • Much disagreement between toxicologists about how to interpret various results.
  • Technical judgments of toxicologists were also found to be associated with factors such as their type of employment (for example, academia, government, or industry), gender, and age.

These types of studies have identified misconceptions that experts should try to clarify in interactions with the public. The results also suggest that disagreement among experts, especially as perceived by the news media and the public, can play a key role in controversies over toxicology-related risks.

Learn more about Intuitive Toxicology


Knowledge Check

Intuitive toxicology studies show that:
Which of the following statements is correct?