The Trusted Communicators Who Shape the GMO Discourse

By Keith Kloor | September 25, 2013 4:08 pm

At The Conversation:

There is a classic position in the science communication literature which goes, roughly, if you meet resistance to science, throw facts at those who resist. If that doesn’t work, throw more facts at them, and throw them harder.

This approach, though roundly debunked, is unfortunately still a common default.

The author did not write this in relation to the climate debate (though of course it applies). He is discussing counterproductive language, such as use of the “anti-science” tag, to characterize the purveyors of anti-GMO misinformation and scaremongering.

Now I’ve done my share of snarky commentary on this issue, so I’m not blameless, though I have shied away from calling people anti-science. I explain my reasoning here. (I have, however, used it as headline bait, for which I’ve been called out.) In any case, with respect to GMOs, I’ve always been more interested in drawing attention to influentials who spread myths and bad science.

Influentials are the information brokers that have major media platforms and big receptive audiences. For example, on the GMO issue, top influentials include Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Dr. Oz, and Vandana Shiva. Each of these influentials have been responsible for spreading or endorsing nonsense about GMOs via social media and other highly trafficked venues.

Shiva travels around the world spreading the lie about farmers committing suicide because of GMOs and repeats the lie in prestige outlets like the Guardian. Because she is much admired in the environmental community, many take her word for it. Shiva is a charismatic speaker and a perceived champion (in green and social justice circles) for the downtrodden. She’s been a globe-trotting information broker for decades. If Shiva says GMO cotton has driven hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to suicide–and says it over and over again–it must be true, right? Remember, environmentally inclined journalists and writers view her as a credible voice; they attach importance to what she says. They certainly don’t question any of her claims, though some will use her in a typically false balance manner. And yes, it’s because of her that a documentary based on an urban myth got made and then was publicized widely (at places like Huffington Post and Grist,) perpetuating the Indian farmer suicide/GMO myth.

In a similar vein, Dr Oz serves as a vessel of misinformation on genetically modified foods by providing a platform for anti-GMO activists to peddle nonsense. (See Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker piece on the latest example.) Millions of health-conscious people respect Oz and look to him and his highly watched show for guidance on what foods to eat and avoid. That he lends his credibility to junk science is maddening. For as Yale’s Dan Kahan notes:

Most of the things that people are making informed decisions about that depend on science are not going to be ones they have consulted scientists for information about. Most of what people know – the decisions they make that are informed by scientists – is based on information that is travelling through all kinds of intermediaries. Scientists aren’t on television giving marching orders. That’s not a good model of how people come to know what’s known by science – from the mouth of the scientist to the ear of the citizen. People figure these things out because they are situated in networks of other people who are part of their everyday lives. And those networks ordinarily guide them reliably to what’s known.

Susan Fiske, a Princeton scientist who studies social cognition–”how people make sense of other people”–phrased this another way in a talk this week at a symposium on science communication:

People trust people they think are like themsselves. This is human nature. They trust people who they think share their values and goals.

Anyone interested in science communication would be wise to watch her talk (here’s a Storify of the soundbites–and Storifies of all the symposium panels), which starts at the 1:48 mark of this video.

For the GMO discourse, the larger implication of this insight is worrisome if you consider who the trusted figures are in the food movement and in green circles–and what they communicate about genetically modified foods.

  • Robert Wilson

    The original piece seems to suggest scientists should be less condescending, yet includes this advice:

    “Explore, understand and accept that science doesn’t know everything. Take your time if this is difficult, but try to accept this broadly, and come to terms with it deeply.”

    We scientist spend all day thinking about things that science does not know. If science did know everything, what would be the bloody point of scientific research in the first place? The author should probably reconsider his own communication style before lecturing scientists on theirs. Talking to scientists as if they are a bunch of ignoramuses is a bit of a communication fail.

    This kind of condescending tone however is almost always used by those attacking scientists for being condescending. Of course they also have a habit of hammering scientists over the head with facts in order to tell scientists to not hammer people over the head with facts. Exactly what the science communication industry has to tell scientists I don’t know. The only thing they seem to do is grab attention by attacking those scientists who can communicate with the public, and tell the rest of us to read research on science communication.

    • mem_somerville

      This ↑ . Exactly what I thought when I read it: Oh, good–another ‘ur doin’ it rong’ missive, and once again no demonstration of a strategy that is a winner.

      I get it. Facts and data have no value, and that’s the foundation scientists are on. So sure, it is hard to have conversations in another language.

      But who is telling the “anti-science activists” (words from Lambert’s title, not mine) to get a grip and focus on the real issues? They rely on plenty of bad science, anecdote, and sundry other fiction to make their claims. Why is Keith among a small few who call that out?

      Show me how scientists could have prevented the Golden Rice destruction. It was totally driven by the likes of team Shiva and the inflammatory BS they serve up. It wasn’t because some scientist gave some facts with a tone someone disliked.

      • Robert Wilson

        You need to be fully read up on the latest post modern mambo jambo that passes for thought in some academic disciplines. Then you can engage in a fully informed discourse with anti-GM activists.

        But what exactly are we to do once we understand this value system? Turn around and tell them their values are wrong?

        This is rather like telling scientists they should convince religious people that evolution is not inconsistent with their religious beliefs. The argument is as intellectually sensible as the plot from the average Michael Bay film. The problems are often people’s beliefs and values to begin with. Of course if we were to start criticising people’s values and beliefs to make them change their views on science the same science communications types would come along and attack us.

        • mem_somerville

          Right. Or I’m supposed to act like I’m interested when they tell me about chemtrails and the sundry other Monsanto conspiracy theories? Sorry–I’m not playing that game.

          I couldn’t even begin to keep straight face, never mind a civil tongue. As if I could pull it off that I value their interest in chemical atmospheric government plots, or Illuminati sterilization plans.

        • Buddy199

          The resistance to GMO scientific fact is driven by leftist, anti-capitalist values more than objective evaluation and rejection of the data. You can’t change people’s foundational values except by massively monopolizing the media conversation and marginalizing any dissenting opinion. Think of how public opinion about race or gay marriage was flipped in the past generation. The anti-GMO crowd monopolizes the conversation today. Most in the media sympathize with their left-leaning, anti-corporate ideological slant so that dynamic isn’t going to change any time soon.

          • Loren Eaton

            Buddy, I agree that 99.9% of the anti GM ding-a-lings are way left of center. But I would also propose that well over half of the people doing GMO research are also left of center. Heck, most of the conservatives are in accounting and sales;-)

          • Dave Wood

            Buddy: I don’t agree about your conclusion of `leftist, anti-capitalist values’. They want us to think that to increase their impact in, for example, Africa. Their real aim is to stop developing countries adopting GM crops because they saw what happened in South America: multiple billions of dollars of GM crops being exported to Asia in direct competition with GM crop exports from North America. So attack GM crops in the Philippines, India, China, Africa. The funding for this red-flag – waving activism – Shiva included – comes from export protectionists in North America trying to protect their own GM crops in a global market.

    • marcbrazeau

      I took the answer to mean that there are questions concerning values that science doesn’t know the answer to.

      For instance: If
      you are looking to say, reform IP rights, the goals of reform are
      defined first by values – what should IP rights accomplish, and then
      evidence informs how you shape policy to accomplish your goals. Is our
      goal to ‘increase innovation’, ‘protect the rights of the individual’,
      ‘protect the group against monopoly’, ‘protect the consumer’? Those
      questions need to be clarified prior to deciding what evidence is
      relevant.

      The labeling issue is also one that is really about the proper scope of government, not whether GMO’s are safe. If you think GMO’s are safe AND you believe that the government should only be involved mandating labeling when there is a clear public health interest you are likely opposed to labeling. But you can’t think that GMO’s are safe AND believe that government should mandate any information that a majority of the electorate decides is important for making informed consumer decisions. Science per se can’t adjudicate that divide.

      Switching to another part of the discussion:
      I think one of the strength of the book Tomorrow’s Table is that they tell a story that let’s the reader get a sense of who the authors are and what their values are. I think it’s possible that many GMO skeptics will read that story and see that PR and RA are demographically part of the same tribe. I think framing arguments in stories is an important strategy.

      I’ve certainly spent plenty of time during the fluoride vote in Portland debating people who had spent more time wading through the scientific literature than I did. It was ludicrous to tag them as anti-science. They were more sci literate than I was. Where I think I was successful in those debates was not by trying to play wack a mole with each study, but telling a story to undecideds about how I made up my mind by limiting myself to credible sources and realizing that there was no debate and then making a choice to accept that. The story didn’t work with anti’s but it did with undecideds.

      I was a pretty died in the wool Pollanite when I first stumbled across Biofortifed. I stuck around because I wanted to really know my stuff so that I could argue the food movement point better. A big part of what changed my mind or at least opened it was the absolutely patient, respectful, helpful tone of the discussion there. It was certainly a much more pleasant place place to be than the paranoid, name calling discussions you find with committed foodies.

      We can’t change anti’s minds very often, but we can do a better job of isolating them.

      • http://geneticmaize.wordpress.com/ Anastasia

        So glad you found Biofortified to be useful! Please keep coming by to comment and join in the discussion! :)

    • Mike Bendzela

      “This kind of condescending tone however is almost always used by those attacking scientists for being condescending. Of course they also have a habit of hammering scientists over the head with facts in order to tell scientists to not hammer people over the head with facts.”

      Robert, you brilliantly describe Michael Pollan in his book “In Defense of Food” here!

      I inherited this text in a course I’m teaching, and I continue to use it to show how lay persons should NOT approach science.

      Pollan continually sneers and hisses in the book, “reductionist science,” being his favorite hissy pejorative. The most infuriating aspect is that, on almost the next page, he’ll cite reams of statistics to show why “reductionist-nutritionist-scientism” is wrong, not getting the point, right there before his own eyes, that science is self-correcting.

      He’d rather have us go back to “tradition,” and grandma’s recipes, and “other ways of knowing,” and the wisdom of “holistic dentists,” and all that other horseshit Liberals like to embrace when they get all squirrelly about science they can’t understand.

      And, oh, yes, I consider myself liberal, too–very–just not “A Liberal.”

      • Martin

        Academic research is ‘self-correcting’ but only in the way that gossip is self-correcting. Science on the other hand… well there’s the ‘thing’ science – the established knowledge – and there’s the ‘doing’ science, and they are so not the same thing.

        But I take your point about the rejection of well-established knowledge for the sake of fantasy wishes, I just get quite narked by conversations that divide people into ‘scientists’ and ‘non-scientists’ as if there were any such categories, and, worse, statements that start ‘as a scientist…’

    • William Reymond

      Mr. Wilson,

      If you notice, this article talk mostly about non-scientist “influentials” who are shaping the discourse by spreading rumor, innuendo, and outright fiction. You may be correct in your complaints about the “original piece”, but they seem out of place in ‘this piece’.

      I would think that as scientists we would both agree that Mr. Kloor’s complaints about these non-scientist “influentials” is rather on target and is not scientist bashing at all.

    • detribe

      I was the recipient of the advice. I took it kindly, and tried to say in a gentle nuanced way in his comments, hell will freeze over before the anti-tech zealots listen to facts and logic, so why on earth would we think they were a useful target audience? for our comments

  • jh

    Let’s face it: “effective” communication, in the parlance of modern media, is essentially BS. Hence Oz, Pollen, Romm, Nuttycello etc. None of these people seek to communicate science. The seek to co-opt science to bolster the legitimacy of their views, when such science is available, and use any other available lever when cooperative science isn’t available.

    The age of the “trusted science communicator” – the Sagan-esque, all-knowing wise person – is over. If he were alive today, even Sagan would be controversial.

  • William Reymond

    Trusted is not the same as trustworthy, as I’m sure we can all agree.

    I would paraphrase Ms Fisk slightly, ‘People trust people who think like themselves’. Most people don’t think like scientists [apparently not all scientists do either]. People, in general, are highly resistant to having their minds changed. Some people in particular are possessed with enormous, and unwarranted self-confidence in their convictions, even in areas where they have no real training or expertise. If they thought of it it must be true, correct?

    People who have an open minded world view and are non-paranoid, can be persuaded by facts. Most other people the best you can do is gently provoke the idea that they may have biases and filters to information about what they hold to be true and who they trust. People who are paranoid and the hypo-psychotic can almost never be persuaded to adopt a non-paranoid position.

    Then of course, there are the truly sociopathic, who lie without remorse and continue to lie and deceive until they meet the yawning grave, or an arranged visit to the penitentiary. What categories do Dr. Oz and Ms. Shiva fall into? Who knows. I will add that the hypo-psychotic and paranoid, even the outright sociopathic can be incredibly charismatic and persuasive.

    People *love* to be persuaded into what they already believe. The “influentials” *love* to fill the role. Once an “influential” has fallen to spreading disinformation, by what ever path, it becomes almost impossible to reverse their position, even if they aren’t hypo-psychotic, paranoid or sociopathic. Its the nature of the pedestal we’ve put them on.

    People want certainty; people want to be correct. There are many only too willing to oblige.

  • Martin

    The argument seems to go: “I am intelligent and rational and objective, maybe because I call myself a scientist, therefore I am a scientist, therefore I am scientific. I have looked at the evidence, and have come to the clear conclusion that X. Other people who I associate with are also bright etc and agree with me. *You* on the other hand have come to a different conclusion – this must therefore be because you are stupid / ideologically motivated / materially motivated / paid for it / anti-science’

    In fact, of course, few people really consider the data, certainly not all of it. We are limited usually to other people’s interpretation of it or *claims* to have it, and we can only bandy that around on their behalf.

    So while someone might claim to know about farmers committing suicide without a proper evidence chain, we also have academic researchers who make claims about safety without a proper evidence chain. So people have to base their trust on the source on what seems ‘reasonable’, which depends very heavily on their starting viewpoints, even before we start including how people like to socialise or who they like to identify with.

    • Kevin Folta

      Or you can base your trust on science. You can base your trust on the physical nature of the universe. I base my interpretations on data– nobody else’s interpretations. I can think for myself. I’m skeptical of every claim (especially my own) and as a scientist demand evidence and then place it into the context about what is known in the broad sense of science.

      So I can make claims about safety. There are good data consistent with safety and no good data showing harm. This, plus the fact that I can’t ponder a realistic mechanism for harmful effects, makes my interpretation extremely sound.

      As an academic researcher you are targeting with your comment I can tell you that we spend our time devising interpretations of the literature and formulating the next hypothesis to test. If someone gave me a bottomless paycheck to search for harm in transgenic crops, I don’t even know where I’d start. I don’t know what up-and-coming postdoctoral researcher would sacrifice a career to work on that.

      There is no hypothesis to test– just a fishing trip to look for some statistical blip (like the anti-GM heroes do). What decent scientist would take on a project where the vastly most likely outcome is “it is safe, just like we knew it was”? Where would you publish that? Not any place exciting!

      If you look at the breadth of the data with a critical eye and then hang it on the structure of what we know about biology we can make excellent interpretations that really stand up as conclusions.

      • Martin

        It’s all very well saying you trust ‘data’, but no-one can be an expert in more than a small area of science. Collecting and interpreting data in areas outside that expertise for all problems is beyond a lifetime’s work, let alone likely to provide reliable conclusions.

        To some extent we can trust method – for example if a medical treatment as gone through a double-blinded controlled trial with a certain size and effect then we can trust the result. My issue here and elsewhere is that we have no ‘trust chain’ to assure that the trial was even run, let alone run as described, let alone alone actually provided the data given.

        As an academic researcher myself, I am constantly amazed at the lack of skepticism applied to research methods. And the politics and personalities that shape not just what gets researched, but how. And the odd conventions and traditions that screw up systematic research. For example as you say, spending a lifetime showing that something is not dangerous in a range of ways is not interesting news and not usually publishable. Finding a case where it does appear to be dangerous *is* publishable.

        As for trusting ‘science’, well ‘science’ might be defined as reliable knowledge and so should be trustable. But just because someone ‘does science’ doesn’t make what they produce reliable. So there’s often a quite a gap between academic research and reliable knowledge, even though both get called ‘science’. Usually by academic researchers!

        • Kevin Folta

          Martin, good points, but I’m very comfortable working outside of my immediate area. Actually, it is really tough to learn a new literature, new techniques, etc. However, it is necessary for survival in today’s science climate, as research has to follow the ways to support it. I’m working in areas I’ve never dreamed of working in because they are intriguing questions where I can get USDA/NSF/NIH support. Methods are based on the infrastructure available, the training of the person doing it in my lab, or the ability to find a collaborator. As a scientist I’m always trying to poke holes in my own techniques and data. Stuff stays in print a long time. It has to be right.

          I agree with your last point in that we assume published work to be reliable. Many people trust Seralini, Wakefield, etc. The beauty of science is that if a hypothesis yields compelling results there is a mad dash to get a piece of that pie. As one friend put it, “In science, everybody wants to be number two.”

          In this sense revolutionary concepts are self correcting. For instance, when that paper on microRNAs shook science last August you’d have expected fast follow up, especially from the same lab (crickets, crickets, crickets… ). Science is self policing and self correcting. The trick for all of us is to have the desire to acknowledge the corrections.

          • Martin

            Yes we should look outside our own realm of expertise (I have enjoyed getting outside my own comfort zone!) but that doesn’t make us qualified or knowledgeable enough to interpret that data, whether we feel comfortable doing it or not!

            In any complex discipline – and most are complex now – we have to rely on intermediaries for extra-discipline data that is used to build new science; medicine for example is a subject far too big in itself for one person to understand the ins and outs of all data.

            And indeed, because methods are often limited by circumstance, we should be *very* wary of calling the results ‘science’.

            Otherwise I must pick up on a couple of comments that always make me wince: the first is ‘as a scientist’ which is nearly always followed by an idealistic notion of behaviour; even if you do follow this (and few do properly), there’s no reason to believe that everyone who calls themselves a scientist does.The second is that ‘science is self-policing and self-correcting’; this is a frequent claim, an untested assumption without a time-span, and not at all borne out (plate tectonics? ulcers?), and again conflates ‘science the reliable knowledge’ with ‘science the research activity’. Over the very long term we can say that our knowledge has got better and/or broader and/or more reliable, but then gossip performs the same function.

            Academic research is not very good at its policing, and it really should not be left to communities to police themselves (banks? the police? teachers? the church? pharmaceutical companies?); there are too many incentives to do it badly.

            I would say the trick for all of us in research is to back away from the hubristic and authoritarian ‘scientist’ label. And maybe even add an external inspection agency that forces us to acknowledge corrections; or at least forces us to assure the data we publish is in fact data we have collected in the methods we have described.

  • detribe

    I am the author and chief writer of the Tribe and Roush piece that Keith graciously comments on. It may interest you-all that the slant of the piece was decided by the editors and was part of the article commission. In other words, we didn’t naturally choose it ourselves, and if you look carefully in the text you will see us say “in that sense..they are anti-science”. The label was thus operationally defined in the article as a set of non-scientific behaviours defined by example, and we understood it lacks nuance.

    My point its use may have been deliberate bait by The Conversation editors, and was reused by them as headline-bait in a follow up article they ran criticising our article for misunderstanding the audience, so maybe it was all a deliberately contrived argument of extremes not devised by us.

    But it did get attention, and the point was widely understood I think. I think Keith understands thise media area much better than Rod Lambert did

  • jh

    Today my 86 yr old mother read the “pro” and “con” for the food labeling initiative here in Washington state. She said:

    “What the heck is wrong with those (pro-labeling) people? Why do they want to stop everything that’s good?”

    just goes to show ya, you don’t need a PhD to have good sense.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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