Timely resistance to pollution of the science communication environment: Genetically modified foods in the US, part 3

Okay: some data already!

As explained in parts one & two of this series, I’ve been interested in the intensifying campaign to raise the public profile of—and raise the state of public concern over—GM foods in the US.

That campaign, in my view, reflects a calculated effort to infuse the issue of GM-food risks with the same types of antagonistic meanings that have generated persistent states of cultural polarization on issues like climate change, nuclear power, the HPV vaccine, and gun control.  To me, that counts as pollution of the science communication environment, because it creates conditions that systematically disable the faculty that culturally diverse citizens use (ordinarily with great reliability) to figure out what is known to science.

But as I commented in the last post, the campaign has provoked articulate and spirited resistance from professional science communicators in the media. I view that as an extremely heartening development, because it furnishes us with what amounts to a model of how professional norms might contribute to protecting the science communication environment from toxic cultural meanings. Democratic societies need both scientific insight into how the science communication environment works and institutional mechanisms for protecting it if they are to make effective use of the immense knowledge at their disposal for advancing their citizens’ common welfare.

But where exactly do things stand now in the US?  Historically, at least, the issue of GM-food risks has aroused much less attention, much less concern, than it has in Europe. That could change as a result of culturally partisan communications of the sort we are now observing, but has it changed yet or even started to?

John Timmer, the science editor for Ars Technica, actually posed more or less this question to me in a twitter exchange, asking whether there really is “anything like” the sort of cultural conflict toward GM foods risks that we see toward climate-change risks in this country. Questions like that deserve data-informed answers.

So here’s some data from a recent (end of September) survey. The sample was a nationally representative one of 800 individuals. One part of the survey asked them to rank on a scale of 0-7 “how serious” they viewed a diverse set of risks (I call this the “industrial strength risk perception measure”).

The question, essentially, is whether GM foods are at risk of acquiring the sorts of cultural meanings that divide “hierarchical individualists” and “egalitarian communitarians” on various issues. Accordingly, I have constructed statistical models that permit us to see not only how GM-food risks rank in relation to others for the American population as a whole but also whether and strongly GM-food risks divide those two segments of the population.

There are a number of things one could say here.

One is—holy smokes, the US public is apparently more worried about GM-food risks than they are about global warming, nuclear power, and guns! The “average American” would assign a ranking of 4.3 to GM foods (just above “moderately risky”) but only 3.9 for global warming (just below), 4.0 (spot on) for nuclear, and 2.9 (between “low” and “moderate”) for guns.

But that wouldn’t be the way I’d read these results. First of all, while it’s true that GM foods are apparently more scary for the “average” American than guns, nuclear power, and climate change, the striking thing is just how unconcerned that “person” is with any of those risks. “High rates of taxation for businesses” are apparently much more worrisome for the “mean” member of the American population than the earth overheating or people being shot. Given how unconcerned this guy/gal is with all these other risks, should we get all that excited that he/she is a bit more more concerned about GM foods?

Notice too that the “mean” member of the population isn’t as concerned with GM foods as with high business tax rates (4.5)—or as illegal immigration (4.7) or government spending (5.3)? What to make of that?…

But second and more important, look at the cultural variance on these risks.  Global warming turns out to be the most serious risk for egalitarian communitarians. Indeed, that group sees nuclear power as much riskier, too, than either business tax rates, illegal immigration, or “government spending,” which are about as scary for that group as gun risks.  Hierarchical individualists have diametrically opposed perceptions of the dangers posed by all of these particular risk sources.

Bear in mind, hierarch individualists and egalitarian communitarians aren’t rare, or unusual people. They are pretty recognizable in lots of respects—including their political affiliations, which amount to “Independent leans Republican” and “Independent leans Democrat,” respectively.

Given this, it’s not clear that it makes much sense to assign meaning to the “average” or “population mean” scores on these risks. Because real people have particular rather than “mean” cultural outlooks, we should ask not how the “average” person perceives culturally contested risks, but how someone like this see those risks as opposed to someone like that?

Yet note, the risks posed by GM foods are not culturally contested. We are all, in effect, “average” there.  Moreover, for both cultural hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians, GM-food risks are in the “middle” of the range of risk sources they evaluated.

So what I’d say, first, is that there is definitely no cultural conflict for GM foods in the US—at least not of the sort that we see for climate change, nuclear power, guns, etc.

Second, I’d say that I don’t think there’s very much concern about GM foods generally. The “middling” score likely just means that members of the sample didn’t feel nearly as strongly about GM foods as they felt—one way or the other—about the other risks. So they assigned a middling rating.

But third, and most important, I’d say that this is exactly the time to be worried about cultural polarization over GM foods.

As I said at the outset of this series, putative risk sources aren’t borne with antagonistic cultural meanings. They acquire them.

But once they have them, they are very very very hard to get rid of.

In both parts, I likened culturally antagonistic meanings to “pollution” of the “science communication environment.”  Given how hard it is to change cultural meanings, it’s got to be a lot easier and more effective to keep that sort of contamination out—to deflect antagonistic meanings away from novel technologies or ones that otherwise haven’t acquired such resonances—than it is to “clean it up” once an issue has become statured with such meanings.

Consider the debate over climate change, which is highly resistant to simple “reframings” strategies. Perhaps it would have worked to have put Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich on a couch together before 2006. But today, the simple recommendation “use ideologically diverse messengers!” is not particularly helpful.

So I believe the data-informed answer to John Timmer’s question is, no, GM foods don’t provoke anything like the sort of antagonistic meanings that climate change expresses.

And for that reason, I’d argue, the efforts of reflective science journalists and others to resist the release of such contaminants into the science communication environment is as timely as it is commendable.

Part one in this series.

Part two.

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