Watching (resisting) pollution of the science communication environment in real time: genetically modified foods in the US, part 1

Putative risk sources are not born with culturally divisive meanings. They acquire them.

Something happens—as a result perhaps of strategic manipulation but also possibly of accident or misadventure—that imbues some technology with resonances that selectively affirm and denigrate the outlooks of opposing groups. At that point, how to regard the risks the technology poses—not only what to do to ameliorate them, but whether even to acknowledge them as real—becomes a predicable occasion for disagreement between the groups’ respective members.

By highlighting the association between competing positions and competing cultural identities, such disagreement itself sharpens the antagonistic meanings that the technology bears—thereby magnifying its potential to generate conflict. And so forth & so on.

But the thing that imbues a technology (or a form of behavior or a type of policy) with culturally antagonistic meanings doesn’t have to happen. There’s nothing necessary or inevitable about this process.

It’s this contingency that explains why one putative risk source (say, the HPV vaccine) can provoke intense cultural conflict while another, seemingly equivalent source (say, the H1N1 vaccine) doesn’t. It explains, too, why one and the same risk (nuclear power, e.g., or “mad cow disease”) can provoke division in one society but indifference in another, seemingly similar society.

Consider genetically modified (GM) foods. Historically, GM foods—e.g., soybeans altered to resist diseases that otherwise would be controlled by chemical pesticides, or potatoes engineered to withstand early frosts—have not provoked nearly as much concern in the US as in Europe.  Such products can be found in upwards of 70% of US manufactured foods.  In Europe, the figure is supposedly closer to 5%, due to enactment of progressively stricter regulations over the last decade and a half.

But it’s certainly possible that something could happen to make US public attitudes and regulations move in the direction of Europe’s. Indeed, it could be happening.

There is now a concerted effort underway to raise the risk profile of GM foods. The most conspicuous manifestation of it is a California ballot proposition to mandate that all foodstuffs containing GM foods bear a label that advises (warns) consumers of this fact.

The proposition is supported by organic food producers and sellers, who funded the effort to get the initiative on the ballot and are now funding the campaign to secure its approval, as well as by certain environmental groups, which are playing a conspicuous public advocacy role.

A label is not a ban. But it can definitely be a precursor to something more restrictive.

Consumers logically infer from “advisory” labels that there is a reason for them to be concerned.

Psychologically they tend to greatly overreact to any information about chemical risks—including information that tries to prevent them from overreacting by characterizing the risks in question as small or uncertain.  It’s thus in the nature of modest, informational regulations to breed concerns capable of supporting stronger, substantive regulation.

Dynamics of cultural cognition, moreover, can fuel this sort of escalation. If the source of initial concern is transmitted in a manner that conveys antagonistic resonances, then the resulting division of opinion among members of different groups can feed on itself.

The movement to promote concern with GM foods seems ripe with antagonistic meanings of this sort. The information being disseminated to promote attention to the risks of GM foods in general, and to promote support for the California initiative in particular, are suffused with cues (stock characters, distinctive idioms, links to already familiar sources of conflict such as nuclear power & climate change) that are likely to resonate with those who harbor an egalitarian-communitarian cultural style and antagonize those with a more a hierarchical and individualistic one.

This framing of the issue could thus end up pitting members of these two groups—already at odds over climate change, nuclear power, gun control, and various other risks—against one another.

In that case, the US will have arrived at a state of cultural conflict over GM foods that seems to be the same one European nations followed. There, small, local farmers took the lead in proclaiming the health risks of GM food products, which were being supplied by their larger, transnational industrial-farm rivals.

Egalitarian environmental activists enthusiastically assimilated this charge into their broader indictment of industry for putting profits ahead of human welfare. Among the ironies here was the impetus such political activity imparted to blocking the production of so-called “golden rice,” a nutritionally enhanced GM grain that public health advocates hailed for the contribution it could make to combating afflictions (including preventable blindness) in malnourished children in the developing world.

I don’t know or even have a particularly strong intuition on what risks GM foods pose.

But I do have a very strong opinion that a state of cultural polarization over GM food risks would be a bad thing. As myriad controversies–from the nuclear power debate of the 1980s to the climate change debate of today–have made clear, when risk issues become infused with antagonistic cultural meanings, democratic societies are less likely to enact policies that reflects the best scientific evidence, whatever it might be.

Okay. Enough for now. In the next in this two part series, I will identify one important countervailing influence that didn’t exist in Europe before it became a site of conflict over GM food risks but that does exist now. I’ll also report some data that bears on the current degree of cultural polarization that exists in the US over the risks that GM foods present.

Parts two & three in this series.


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