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.


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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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