Robert Sacerich on Speaking Different Languages: GMOs and Society

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Skepti-Forum is happy to host our guest writer, Robert Sacerich from Rationality Unleashed. In the following piece, Sacerich discusses the complex challenge of science communication where scientists and lay people have different expectations from public science discussion.
Robert is a Philosophy of Science and Bioethics student, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes. You can find his other writing at Rationality Unleashed or follow him on twitter @Rationalityunle.
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Speaking Different Languages: GMOs and Society

By: Robert Sacerich

Effective science communication is difficult, even under the best of circumstances. Your audience could be incredibly scientifically literate, versed in critical thinking, and there can still be something lost in translation. This is because topics in science are very rarely simple, and often require a good understanding of the more specialized field to truly get the topic being discussed.

Imagine if you are a theoretical physicist, and you have spent years analyzing data from the Large Hadron Collider. After exhausting research, a new breakthrough emerges that will revolutionize the way we do physics. After the lengthy publication and peer review process is complete, your department head asks you to handle the press conference. You now need to explain this advanced theory within the realm of the most advanced physics, that you have spent a lifetime barely scratching the surface of, to an audience that will likely have no formal science training beyond their school introductory courses.

That will likely not seem like a fun thing to do for any scientist, in any field. Now, I want you to consider that, and then add in the factor of the topic you need to discuss with the public being a hugely politically charged topic, where people with no real scientific training fighting a vocal political battle against this specific scientific breakthrough. Add to that serious media and financial backing from the other side of your industry who has made, and will continue to make, billions of dollars by discredited the breakthrough that you have been tasked to discuss with the public.

Welcome to the greater conversation in the world today about GMOs.

When you consider the discussions within the scientific community about pretty much any topic, those discussions tend to revolve around the details, time frames, applications, et al. They are scientists discussing science. When you are looking at the intersection of science and society, as is the case with the GMO debate, you have scientists discussing science and policy with laymen. They aren’t even speaking the same language.

The question we need to look at is how do you effectively educate someone who speaks a different language than you do? This is a struggle that science communicators have faced for as long as they have existed. I believe that it hinges mostly on definitions. Once you can instill an understanding of definitions within science, then you can have a more effective conversation.

Here are some definitions as they pertain to the GMO discussion:
  • Studies

When people begin to discuss whether or not GMOs are harmful to people, in the end, it all comes down to the studies. What does the science show?

Scientists view this as the well-formed, peer reviewed literature on the subject. Currently, these overwhelmingly show that GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption.

Laymen often see these as articles or videos by people who agree with their position. In the GMO debate, especially, they will often point to the peer reviewed literature and claim that it is “corporate” science.

This is demonstrably false.

When you look at how science is done, when it comes to studies, and understand the system, you understand the self correcting nature of science. A single study can be biased. Odds are it will be biased. This is why the Seralini study being touted as the definitive proof of harm is so intellectually dishonest. Even if it had been well-formed and accurate, not to mention not retracted, it would still be only a single study. To correct for bias, in science, we rely on replication. Other labs repeat the study in an attempt to falsify the results, not prove them. This is why a body of studies is so powerful. Everyone is trying to prove the others’ results wrong. The best way for a scientist to gain instant renown is to effectively prove an accepted scientific principle false.

  • Chemicals

Chemical has become a buzzword in most conversation revolving around science. The common perception is that chemicals are bad, and natural or organic is good. This is a strange concept. Any and all things break down to chemicals. There are chemicals that are good for you and chemicals that are bad for you. Some chemicals kill at one dose and heal at another. We see this rhetoric, however, all over the GMO discussion.

Typically, when you can boil it all down, what they are concerned about more is pesticides. The conversation about pesticide use and GMO safety are actually two very different ones. In reality, many GM seeds were designed for the express purpose of using less pesticides. Many “organic” pesticides have shown far more harm to people than “chemical” ones, to use the public terminology.

What needs communicated is the concept of what chemicals they are afraid of, what their effects are, and at what dosage those effects appear. Otherwise, it is no more than a conversation about buzzwords.

  • Evidence

Any discussion, especially when you are discussing science policy, comes down to evidence. This is visibly important in the discussion about labeling GMOs. The common rhetoric is that labeling is the “right to know.” The right to know what? We need to circle this discussion back to evidence that GMO foods have any marked difference in how they interact with people, and that comes down to the evidence.

Evidence is not a news article, anecdote, blog, or YouTube video. Evidence is data, with bias corrected for, as described above. The biggest challenge in this type of discussion is to move the person you are trying to speak to away from using “evidence” that would not even be considered valid on a college freshman English paper.

In the end, we have to understand that we are truly speaking two different languages in this debate. Those of us in the science community are speaking about whether the science is good. The laymen speaking against the science are speaking from the place that, in their mind, corporations are bad, so the science must also be bad.

This is one of the hardest barriers to break through, but it is not impossible, and it is very worth doing.

Photo credit: Phil Plait | CC | (Full-sized image can be found here)
  • Mischa Popoff

    You’re quite right Robert that anti-GMO organic activists have taken up the “corporations are bad, so the science must also be bad” approach here. So surely it must be pointed out that there are plenty of HUGE organic corporations and organizations out there, and they are actually in the business of spreading anti-GMO dis-information on a daily basis.

    The Organic Consumers Association and Organic Trade Association comes to mind, but also publicly-traded companies like Whole Foods and SunOpta. And they don’t even adhere to their own rules because according to the USDA National Organic Program which they wrote, there is NO SUCH THING AS CONTAMINATION OF AN ORGANIC CROP BY GMOs.

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