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Oct142012

Resisting (watching) pollution of the science communication environment in real time: genetically modified foods in the US, part 2

Just as the health of individual human beings depends on the quality of natural environment, the well-being of a democratic society depends on the quality of the science communication environment.

The science communication environment is the sum total of cues, influences, and processes that ordinary members of the public rely on to participate in the collective knowledge society enjoys by virtue of science.

No one (not even scientists) can personally comprehend nearly as much of what is known to science as it makes sense for them—as consumers, as health-care recipients, as democratic citizens—to accept as known by science. To participate in that knowledge, then, they must accurately identify who knows what about what.

When the science communication environment is in good working order, even people who have only rudimentary understandings of science will be able to make judgments of that kind with remarkable accuracy. When it is not, even citizens with high levels of scientific knowledge will be disabled from reliably identifying who knows what about what, and will thus form conflicting perceptions of what is known by science—to their individual and collective detriment.

Among the most toxic threats to the quality of a society’s science communication environment are antagonistic cultural meanings: emotional resonances that become attached to risks or other policy-relevant facts and that selectively affirm and denigrate the commitments of opposing cultural groups.

Ordinary individuals are accustomed to exercising the faculties required to determine who knows what about what within such groups, whose members, by virtue of their common outlooks and experiences, interact comfortably with one another and share information without misunderstanding or conflict. Because antagonistic cultural meanings create strong psychic pressures for members of opposing groups to form and persist in conflicting sets of factual beliefs, such resonances enfeeble the reliable functioning of the faculties ordinary people (including highly science literate ones) use to participate in what is known by science.

Antagonistic cultural meanings are thus a form of pollution in the science communication environment. Their propagation accounts for myriad divisive and counterproductive policy conflicts—including ones over climate change, nuclear power, and private gun ownership.

In part one of this series, I described the complex of economic and political forces that have infused the issue of genetically modified (GM) foods with culturally antagonistic meanings in Europe.

I also noted the signs, including the campaign behind the pending GM food-labeling referendum in California, that suggest the potential spread of this contaminant to the US science-communication environment.

What makes the campaign a pollutant in this regard has nothing to do with whether GM foods are in fact a health hazard (there’s a wealth of scientific data on that; readers who are interested in them should check out David Tribe’s blog). Rather, it has to do with the deliberate use of narrative-framing devices—stock characters, dramatic themes, allusions to already familiar conflicts, and the like—calculated to tap into exactly the culturally inflected resonances that pervade climate change, nuclear power, guns, and various other issues that polarize more egalitarian and communitarian citizens, on the one hand, and more hierarchical and individualistic ones, on the other.

But as I adverted to, there is at least one countervailing influence that didn’t exist in Europe before it became a site of political controversy over GM foods but that does exist today in the US: consciousness of the way in which dynamics such as these can distort constructive democratic engagement with valid science, and a strong degree of resolve on the part of many science communicators to counteract them.

Science commentators like Keith Kloor and David Ropeik, e.g., have conspicuously criticized the propagation of what they view as unsubstantiated claims about GM Food health risks.

Both of these writers have been outspoken in criticizing ungrounded attacks on the validity of science on climate change, too. Indeed, Kloor recently blasted GM food opponents as the “climate skeptics of the Left.

Precisely because they have conspicuously criticized distortions of science aimed at discounting environmental risks in the past, their denunciation of those whom they see as distorting science to exaggerate environmental risks here reduces the likelihood that GM foods risks will become culturally branded.

Science journalists, too, have been quick to respond to what they see as the complicity of their own in participating in dissemination of questionable science claims on GM foods.

In one still-simmering controversy, a large number of journalists accepted an offer of advance access to an alarming study on GM-food risks in return for refraining from seeking the opinion of other scientists before publishing their “scoop” stories. Timed for release in conjunction with a popular book and a TV documentary, the study, conducted by a scientists with a high profile as supporter of GM-food regulation, was in fact thereafter dismissed as non-credible by expert toxicologists—although not before the alarming headlines were seized on by proponents of the California labeling proposition as well as European regulators.

Writing about the controversy, NY Times writer Carl Zimmer blasted the affair as a “rancid, corrupt way to report about science.” It was clear to the participating reporters, Zimmer observed, that the authors of the study were seeking to exclude any critical appraisal from the initial burst of attention” in the media, thereby “reinforcing opposition to genetically modified foods.” “We need to live up to our principles, and we need to do a better job of calling out bad behavior…. [Y]ou all agreed to do bad journalism, just to get your hands on a paper. For shame.”

Ars Technica editor John Timmer amplified Zimmer’s response. “Very little of the public gets their information directly from scientists or the publications they write,” Timmer pointed out. “Instead, most of us rely on accounts in the media, which means reporters play a key role in highlighting and filtering science for the public.” In this case, Timmer objected, “the press wasn't reporting about science at all. It was simply being used as a tool for political ends.”

One reason to be impressed by these sorts of reactions to GM foods is that they suggest the possibility of using professional norms as a more general device for protecting the quality of the science communication environment.

As I indicated in my last post, there is nothing inevitable about the process by which a risk issue becomes suffused with antagonistic cultural meanings.  Those kinds of toxic associations are made, not born.

It follows that we should make protection of the science communication environment a matter of self-conscious study and self-conscious action.  The natural environment cannot be expected to protect itself from pollution itself without scientifically informed action on our part. And the same goes for the quality of the science communication environment.

I’m of the view that the sorts of collective action that protection of the science communication environment requires will have to come from various sources, including government, universities, and NGOs.

But clearly one of the sources will have to be professional science communicators. Timmer is clearly right about the critical role it plays—not just in translating what’s known by science into terms that enable curious people to experience the thrill of sharing in the wondrous insights acquired through our collective intelligence (I myself am so so grateful to them for that!), but in certifying who knows what about what so that as democratic citizens people can reliably gain access to the knowledge they need to contribute to intelligent collective decisionmaking.

Animated by diverse motivations—commercial and ideological—actors intent on disabling the faculty culturally diverse citizens use to discern who knows what about what can thus be expected to strategically target the media. Strong professional norms are a kind of warning system that can help science journalists recognize and repel efforts to use them as instruments for polluting the science communication environment.

Unlike centrally administered rules or codes, norms operate as informal, spontaneous guides for collective behavior. They get their force from internalized emotional commitments both to abide by shared standards of conduct and to contribute to enforcement of them by censure and condemnation of violators. Norms are propogated as members of a community observe examples of behavior that express those commitments and see others responding with admiration and reciprocation. That all seems to be happening here. 

This unusual opportunity to watch an attempt to inject a new toxic meaning into the science communication environment also furnishes a unique opportunity to learn something about who can protect that environment from pollution and how.

Oh!  I said I would share some data on cultural perceptions of GM food risks in the US in this installment of the series. But don’t you agree that I’ve already gone on more than long enough? So I’ll just have to present the data next time—in the third, and I promise final, post in this (now) 3-part (I actually imagined only one when I started) series.  (But here's a sneak preview.)

Part one in this series.

Part three.

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Reader Comments (7)

"To participate in that knowledge, then, they must accurately identify who knows what about what."

I would say there's a severe risk with that sort of argument from authority that the scientific authority will get get attached to the people rather than the circumstances of the arguments, people have political views, and so scientific authority will come to have political views. If people uncritically take their opinions from other people, everything gets reproduced and magnified, including errors. If they take them from other people selectively, the differences will be magnified.

I would suggest a change of emphasis. The issue is not about deciding what people to believe, it's about deciding what arguments to believe. There are lots of signs of good arguments versus bad ones - do they discuss points both for and against, are they structured as chains of implications, do they say so when they simplify or skip over steps, do they rely on science you already know to be uncontroversial, do they say what they don't know, and what doesn't fit. Are there opponents out there, do they agree on parts, what are their core differences, do the arguments seem equally credible, equally honest, can experiments distinguish the claims. Do they spend lots of time denouncing their enemies or expounding on the global significance of their discoveries.

You can tell a lot from the way people argue, even without understanding any of the science.

Another of the signs is when people are obviously trying to work out what would persuade you of something, rather than what would help you to understand. Obvious marketing techniques, emotional appeals, framing/spin, selective reporting, drama.

It's usually easy to tell if something is controversial or not, it's a lot harder to sort out which side of a controversy is correct.

Actually, it doesn't require much knowledge of science to understand the GM issue. The main thing you need to know is that all food naturally contains chemicals, many of them known to be toxic at high doses, the vast majority completely unknown, sometimes highly variable and unpredictable, and the body is very effective at sorting them out. The changes brought about by GM are in comparison small, controlled, and thoroughly tested.

The fundamental problem with the GM debate is that the science of GM foods is discussed in isolation. What you need to do to 'detoxify' it is to discuss the science of 'ordinary' food in the same terms, to discuss the effects of selective breeding. Natural foods are themselves risky, many people die of food poisoning, not all plants are edible, and those that are are sometimes marginally so. (Do you know what the lethal dose is for nutmeg, for example?) Then people would be able to understand the risks in context.

That's not simply to say that the problem is an information deficit regarding food biochemistry - the problem is the *different* cultural contexts applied when discussing the natural and the technological. They're in different frames, discussed in different language, so we can't easily compare them.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I've really enjoyed these posts. Not sure I've grasped it all, I'm still processing. I agree that the self-policing of good science journalists and scientists who blog are really helping here.

But I realized today that one of my issues with this is that the pollution in this case comes not only from the good professional science communicators. There are folks in this discussion who are not "science communicators" per se, but food writers are getting stuff wrong a lot--and they don't seem to be subject to the same peer pressure or standards. Activist groups are regularly publishing slanted "reports" and other materials that are amplified through that network. And I'm afraid to say that readership is larger.

And this stuff is "red meat" so to speak for their readers. What mechanism do we have to change that?

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary

@Mary-- good question. I don't think misinformation from food writers or anyone else is *per se* a likely precipitant of cultural conflict. There is misinformation on all manner of risk issue out there -- really, you name it, there will be dozens of sites -- that get ignore, dismissed, etc. The real problem kicks in when there is culturally grounded public motivation to credit the misinformation. Of course, the cultural motivation comes from information, too. But the informatoin that creates it conveys credible cultural *meanings* -- one that effectively cue members of the public that the risk in question is one that members of their group are or will take a position on. Not all misinformation providers or information providers of whatever sort are created equal in this regard, nor are all the sorts of messages the create. The sources to worry about here are ones who manage to connect an issue to various cultural resonances that attend issues that already divide people (indeed, some of the sources of antagonistic meanings might not be peddling *misinformation* at all & might even be people who are arguing *for* valid science but in ways that convey to public that issue is culturally charged....). That's what I was worried about in this series -- and it was the special competence & position of the science writers mentioned in this post to counteract this form of communication that caught my attention.

What do you think?

Some more bkrd on this view here .

October 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Precisely because they have conspicuously criticized distortions of science aimed at discounting environmental risks in the past, their denunciation of those whom they see as distorting science to exaggerate environmental risks here reduces the likelihood that GM foods risks will become culturally branded."

I disagree with this assessment (I have said as much to Keith on his blog), and in the very least, I think that you have no solid substantiation for this statement of opinion written as fact.

I think that Keith's approach increases polarization. "Liberals" become defensive and dig in their heels deeper on GMO,and "conservatives" feel vindicated in their condemnation of liberals. The same phenomenon is seen in the debates about climate change. Attacking the opinion of the "consensus" as being the product of a liberal mindset (or political orientation) puts the same forces in play - as does attacking the opinion of "skeptics" as being the product of a conservative mindset (or political orientation).

Where is the evidence that you use to make a determination that calling out liberals for being anti-GMO will have any positive impact? IMO, Keith's association of positions on GMO (to a political identity) falls into the same trap of confusing the symptom with the disease. The disease is motivated reasoning - which influences all of us - not the hypocrisy of liberals.

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

Fair points.

1. Yes, the point about Kloor & Ropeik is a conjecture. The basis for it would be evidence -- from studies like this and also experience generally -- that people who one knows share one's outlook & who have taken thoughtful positions one agrees with on other issues merit being listened to.

2. Likely I have a view of Kloor in general & on this issue that is different from yours. I gather you see him as someone whose point is to catch liberals being anti-science or inconsistent & call them out on it. If that's right, then yes, he'll come off at least as annoying & perhaps polarizing, & in any case not very credible. But my view of him is that he is someone whose normative goal is to make science as consequential as it ought to be in our political life & who sees mischief in the way certain actors are framing GMO.

3. On "falling into the trap"-- This is related to the last point. I myself think that it's not true, at least not yet, that liberals (or egalitarian communitarians) are disposed to see GMOs as being risky. I do think Kloor is warranted in worrying that the issue is *vulnerable* to taking on a meaning that would provoke risk concern by liberals, though; I think that engrafting such a meaning onto GMOs is exactly the strategy that some actors are pursuing. If so, then of course they are the ones Kloor is going to be condemning. But that's my reading of what Kloor is doing & why. Is yours that he thinks ordinary members of the public w/ liberal sensibilities are anti-GMO? Or that he is motivated by a sort of free-standing desire to go after liberals?

4. In any event, it's almost certainly an overstatement for either of us to say that what Kloor or Ropeik does in particular will have a big impact in signaling people with particular worldviews to engage GMOs in any particular way. So I'm happy for the chance to qualify & clarify. I think those two are important members of a class of thoughtful science & policy commentators who, because of how they approach things & positions they've taken in the past, are likely, as a class, to play a role in imparting meaning to the GMO issue. I like the way those two members of that class are doing it; I think their example thus deserves to have attention called to it so that others who play roles similar to theirs might via their own efforts reinforce & amplify what those two are doing. That is, if they agree with me, on reflection, that K & R are doing their jobs in an admirable way on this issue.

--dmk38

October 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

Thanks for the response.

First a general statement. It has been my experience that when I discuss the impact of motivated reasoning with folks, they often react as if I were questioning their motives. I see motives and motivated reasoning as being to a large degree independent of each other, as motives are reflective primarily of conscious intent and motivated reasoning is a product of deeper emotional, psychological, and cognitive (mostly related to the pattern-finding fundamentals of how we assimilate information) attributes in how we reason.

More specifically - while I don't really want to make this about Keith, my interest is more the general issue and less about Keith in particular - I am not questioning Keith's motives. I don't think that his point is to catch liberals being anti-science. I think that his motive is to find anti-science rhetoric and ideology more generally, and specifically to hold liberals accountable in that sense (largely because he identifies as a liberal). That is his focus at a conscious level. But that leads to a deeper emotional, psychological, and cognitive (that pattern-finding component again) tendency in his reasoning - which could be described as motivated reasoning. While Keith has more balance than most in the climate wars, his "schtick" at this point is largely to hoist liberals on their own petards, and lately it has narrowed even further, to address "anti-science" rhetoric from liberals and food celebs in the GMO debate.

Personally, I think that focus is helpful and good - but there comes a point where you can cross the line into feeding the same counterproductive and partisan interactions that are ubiquitous in these debates about science and in the myriad debates that similarly cross into cultural, cultural, and social identifications. The problem with the GMO debate isn't liberals being hypocritical - the problem in the GMO debate is motivated reasoning. Pointing out hypocrisy amongst liberals can advance the goal of fostering greater understanding of the impact of motivated reasoning - but at the point that it becomes a "schtick," and the focus on motivated reasoning becomes secondary to the focus of hypocrisy amongst liberals, then the efforts become counterproductive. Conservatives feel vindicated in their motivated reasoning-based ideology and liberals become defensive. Finger-pointing continues and no one looks at the underlying, structural, systemic problems in how we debate these issues.

The way to combat motivated reasoning is get people to be open to its existence. It is only when people explore their own motivated reasoning - without the threat of having their motives impugned - that they can begin to control for its effects.


---]] "3. On "falling into the trap"-- This is related to the last point. I myself think that it's not true, at least not yet, that liberals (or egalitarian communitarians) are disposed to see GMOs as being risky. I do think Kloor is warranted in worrying that the issue is *vulnerable* to taking on a meaning that would provoke risk concern by liberals, though; I think that engrafting such a meaning onto GMOs is exactly the strategy that some actors are pursuing. If so, then of course they are the ones Kloor is going to be condemning. But that's my reading of what Kloor is doing & why. Is yours that he thinks ordinary members of the public w/ liberal sensibilities are anti-GMO? Or that he is motivated by a sort of free-standing desire to go after liberals?" [[[===

This goes back to the distinction I am drawing between "motive" and motivated reasoning. I don't think that Keith is motivated to go after liberals - in fact his motivation is probably the opposite - to protect liberals. But I think that his reasoning is motivated here to prove his "schtick" - that liberals as a group are hypocritical in their environmental advocacy. Hence, he has stepped over the line to advance a narrative about "liberals" - that they are anti-science when it comes to GMOs w/o validated data to show that there even is such a correlation. I would still have a problem with the focus on liberal hypocrisy even if he had those data (as I think it would be focusing on the symptom rather than the disease) - but for him to largely imply such a correlation w/o validated data is, for me, a flashing sign of motivated reasoning. Drawing conclusions of correlation w/o validated data is motivated reasoning at its heart.

==]] 4. In any event, it's almost certainly an overstatement for either of us to say that what Kloor or Ropeik does in particular will have a big impact in signaling people with particular worldviews to engage GMOs in any particular way. [[==

I agree there. But I have told Keith that I think that he does have a chance to be somewhat unique in these battles - and as such, I think there is an "opportunity cost" when he fails to focus on the disease and instead likely adds one more table in the junior high school cafeteria food fight.

November 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- I agree about "motivated reasoning" vs. "motive"-- very unfortunate element of that phrase.

The "I'm a liberal who sees what liberals get wrong" schtick is annoying, in part b/c becomes so predictable; it's reason I stopped reading New Republic (probably 20 yrs ago; likely they aren't like that anymore).

You've seen the "reverse tribalism" back & forth between Revkin, David Roberts & others on "causation" & Sandy? Very much on point.

One thing that would be different from that schtick but still result in the "policing role" that you see you see & are worried about is that I think some people who are distressed w/ the reliable assimilation of scientific knowledge into democratic deliberations suspect that *some* climate-change advocates are being opportunistic or strategic when they focus on what it signifies for authority of science & in fact are pretty hostile to science themselves. I've seen that & am very bothered by it. Still, it shouldn't be turned into someone's mission to get exercised about that; there are too many bad things going on to devote all one's energy to that problem.

--dmk38

November 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

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