“Where there is respectful discourse, it is my experience that we get better-quality outcomes in the public interest.”—Molly Jahn
This workshop focused on how people process information, how context shapes how people view and use science, and the intersection of politics, policy, and science. The case of GMOs illustrated how those factors come into play around a specific science issue in the public sphere. On the final day of the workshop, participants engaged in breakout sessions, and plenary discussions about scientists’ practical application of the lessons of the science of science communication.
To set the stage for a discussion of conceptual and practical take-homes, Brooke Smith, executive director of COMPASS, summarized key conceptual points made by speakers and panelists during the course of the workshop (Box 5-1). As a self-described optimist, Smith noted that although participants had expressed feeling depressed about how little facts appear to matter in how people make decisions, she had come to believe that “science matters a lot and facts matter a lot, and there is a big role for science and scientists in society.” She reiterated a comment made by David Goldston of NRDC that scientists should not overcorrect for the deficit model and conclude that facts do not matter at all.
The workshop demonstrated that “we know a lot about the science of science communication, how people make decisions, how opinions are formed,” Smith said. “Now that we know those two things, what does that mean that we should do?” Smith reminded workshop participants that the principles of how people process information, make decisions, and engage with the world apply to everyone—including scientists. She urged participants to keep those principles in mind as they consider the specific cases of public interfaces with GMOs in breakout group discussions. The breakout groups focused on three specific cases of GMOs: the reintroduction of the American chestnut, the Oxitec mosquito abatement program, and the issues surrounding Bt (transgenic) corn and the monarch butterfly. The plenary reports—which included the science claims, societal implications, and public-engagement considerations—of the breakout group discussions are described in Boxes 5-3, 5-4, and 5-5 at the end of this chapter.
Over the course of both days of the workshop, the presenters and participants shared their thoughts on practical take-homes that may help life scientists and their supporting institutions to prepare for and conduct public engagement in science. The ideas emerged from presentations and panel discussions during the first day of the workshop, from the reports from the breakout groups on the second day, from audience discussion, and from a final response panel that comprised of Rick Borchelt of the Department of Energy, Helene Dillard of the University of California at Davis, Molly Jahn of the
Brooke Smith synthesized the key points that she took from the first day of workshop presentations and discussions:
- The public trusts scientists but might not listen to them when scientists’ information conflicts their own worldviews or values.
- The deficit model is the idea that if people had more information, they would agree with scientists and make better decisions. But that is not how people make decisions. Better explanation by scientists and better listening by the public is not the answer to the science-communication problem.
- Many decisions are based on emotions more than on cognitive processing or reasoning.
- People use mental shortcuts to make sense of excessive and complex information.
- All people engage in motivated reasoning, the tendency to seek information from others like them, which reinforces their own views.
- People are subject to confirmation bias, the tendency to look for information that supports what they already believe and to dismiss disconfirming information.
- Bringing people with diverse viewpoints together is one way to resist confirmation bias.
- The context of science communication includes multiple cultures and values.
- All information is framed, regardless of the intent to frame.
- Some believe that the GMO issue has already been negatively framed, and others see GMOs existing in an unpolluted science-communication environment because so many people are not engaged on the topic.
- Scientists can assume various roles in a policy discussion—pure scientist, science arbiter, issue advocate, and honest broker—and all the roles are needed in a robust society.
- The pure science communicator, uninvolved in politics, does not exist.
- There are different types of problems—tame problems and wicked problems. Communication needs to be suited to the problem, especially when there are conflicting values.
- Closer examination of the case of GMO labeling indicated that one of the roles of natural scientists involves asking ecological questions that are not being asked and that one of the roles of social scientists is to help people to understand what labeling decisions would trigger in consumer behavior.
- Everyone has a role in a public policy debate, including scientists, although GMO labeling may ultimately not be a scientific question.
University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dan Kahan of Yale University. The take-away ideas—from improving translation of social-science research to wrestling with personal biases—are described below.
Kahan emphasized that the presence of small groups of passionate stakeholders does not suggest that the wider public is in a state of division about GMOs. He cautioned participants about generalizing from their own experiences, noting that the reason that many workshop participants are involved in controversies about GMOs is that they “live inside an environment in which everyone actually is a stakeholder.” He argued that social marketing campaigns to address controversies about the technology would not reflect the values of the larger public and that ensuring that people get all the information on the science issues around GMOs would be the wrong science-communication goal. Taking the time to study and identify the true issues to develop appropriate strategies is a better approach, according to Kahan. He challenged participants to consider how they could foster a science-communication environment that supports basing decisions on diverse values and interests while gaining access to the best information available. He noted that people have to recognize and act on more information than they can comprehend. Most people get information through other people in their communities who have an interest in a topic and show that to others through
their attitudes, words, and actions. Kahan explained that some of the worst problems caused by miscommunication in science occur because people are being prevented from having a reliable view of the cues that they use to recognize what is known in science. He emphasized that engaging key stakeholders and ensuring that they know that their concerns are being taken seriously is an important step because others in the community often take their cues from them.
Scheufele challenged the notion that GMOs exist in an unpolluted science-communication environment. In some settings, the opposition to GMOs is intense and includes regular threats to people and property, he said. But in agreement with Kahan, Scheufele urged participants to resist the temptation to believe that simply finding a way for people to get more reliable information—a return to the deficit model—will solve the science-communication problems surrounding GMOs.
Kahan noted that discussion in his breakout session focused on the idea that “if you do a good job in managing the science-communication environment, and in particular the stakeholder settings, if you don’t just try to impose something on people, if you enter into their lives in a way that shows that you are respectful of and solicitous about their stake in what you are doing, you will have a community that is less likely to be vulnerable to being misinformed.”
To illustrate the point about needing a communication plan, Dillard pointed out that a lot of her communication as a dean of a school of agriculture is about damage control. She added that there are always two sides to the issues that she must address: “one side is happy, and the other side is angry.” Borchelt emphasized that managing the communication process around GMOs can follow only from understanding what the problem is. The science community lacks an overall “game plan” for managing communication about GMOs, he added.
Multiple participants emphasized that scientists who communicate their work and engage with the public could benefit from learning from social-science research that helps to explain how people process information and to explain the effectiveness of different approaches to communication. Trevor Butterworth of Sense about Science remarked that making use of social-science research can keep scientists and science communicators from “reinventing the wheel”. Kahan echoed the need for communication about GMOs and other science topics to begin with evidence about how people come to know what they know and with the context of communication. He concluded by saying that “our common enemy is that we might not get the benefit of the common knowledge. It does not matter what our positions are, because whatever our values are, we will not be able to achieve what we want to achieve if we do not understand all the best evidence that we have.”
Butterworth emphasized that creating a repository to manage, house, and share knowledge about best and worst science-communication practices is critical. Such a repository, perhaps maintained by an academic center or a national science organization, would be vital in ensuring that public engagement about potentially controversial science issues is informed by the lessons of social science from the outset, not as an afterthought, he added. Bruce Lewenstein, of Cornell University, noted that institutions can also devote the needed time and resources to monitor the science-communication landscape that scientists themselves do not have.
Learning from the experience of those who are in the field and are communicating with the public may be an important step. Kahan said that companies, such as Oxitec, that are engaging the public or conducting surveys about science should record, study, and share their experience in communication. Doing so could help to reduce future missteps for themselves and others.
Training is an important step that scientists can take to be prepared for engaging with the mass media, explained. “If you are publishing in a journal like Nature, which a lot of advocacy groups are going to be paying attention to, you have to be ready to look at the big picture when you are communicating about your research,” Snow observed. She emphasized that scientists need to
think carefully about where they will publish, whether to talk to the press, and what types of reactions people might have to their work. Preparation and planning in a university setting should be coordinated with the university’s press office. Often, the press office has a greater interest in generating hype, although some are more conservative. Having a strategic plan in place for handling inquiries can be advantageous. As Snow stated, “we cannot control how these stories are going to unfold, but we can be aware of the possibilities and try to prepare to get good information out there from all of different people who are providing the information.”
Tamar Haspel a food and science journalist discussed the importance of examining your biases. Haspel pointed out that most people want to parse data accurately, understand the issues, and communicate persuasively. How can that be done? Haspel affirmed that pushing back against the human tendency to seek confirming information (confirmation bias) is especially important in her role as a journalist. Haspel has devoted much effort to understanding her own biases and has developed a series of steps to improve how she and others communicates about science (Box 5-2).
We must be convinced that we, ourselves, are subject to motivated reasoning, Haspel said. It is tempting to believe that only other people are subject to motivated reasoning, but in fact all people do it. “We have to wrangle our own elephants before we can start thinking about other peoples’ elephants,” Haspel stated. She suggested two exercises that can help people to recognize and address their biases:
- Be convinced. Elephant wrangling begins at home.
- Reconsider bias.
- Vet your sources, and manage your media.
- Acknowledge both risks and benefits.
- Find the smartest person who disagrees with you, and listen.
- Understand and appeal to values. Tell stories about people.
- Reach across the aisle.
Source: Haspel, workshop presentation, slide 23.
- Identify a position that you are wrong about. Haspel noted that one’s own position always seems right and it is easier to see the inconsistencies in the positions of others. She emphasized that it is challenging for people to get used to the idea of being wrong in some of their positions.
- Think about instances in which you have changed your mind on a substantive issue. Haspel remarked that it can take a long time for people to change their minds. “The idea that we go out and expect people’s minds to change in an evening or in a discussion is unrealistic,” she said.
“We must reconsider bias” Haspel said. She stressed that bias “is not something that is bad,” but we must be able to negotiate between our biases and those of others. Haspel remarked that it is important to vet your sources of information and manage your media. There is a strong temptation to believe that sources are credible when they agree with one’s beliefs. Haspel’s test to determine credibility is to find a source that will acknowledge both risks and benefits associated with an issue. “In any kind of complex issue like genetic modification, there are going to be pluses and minuses, there are going to be compelling arguments on both sides.” Sources that note only one side of an argument may not be wrong, but they probably have “an ideological dog in the fight”, Haspel stated. She also looks inward and tries to identify and acknowledge both the risks and benefits associated with science and technology. To be exposed to multiple viewpoints about those risks and benefits, Haspel suggested that people manage their media. “Are there people on both sides of the GMO debate on your Twitter stream? Make sure that there are,” she said. She also stated that in addition to diversifying her media sources, “I try to find the smartest people I know who disagree with me and call them and ask them questions, and then I listen.” Haspel explained that although that practice allows her to learn the best argument for the opposing position, it also causes her to change, temper her own opinions, and become more open-minded. She pointed out that it is good practice to talk not just about scientific facts but about the
stories and values of the people involved with science. She commented that citrus-greening story written by Amy Harmon23 is so good because “it told the story not just of a plant but of the people whose livings depend on the plants and how they are struggling with the issues.” However, the most important thing that people can do is talk to one another. “I am pretty convinced that the key to peace in our time on GMOs is getting people with various points of view together in a room.” She concluded that recognizing that bias is part of the human condition rather than a shortcoming can advance how we engage with others about science in a rational way.
Dillard noted that ensuring that there is a human side to the story is important if we are to avoid allowing people to be portrayed as villains, as is acknowledging when new technologies have consequences that need to be addressed or mitigated. Lewenstein added that attaining the right mix of storytelling and evidence about a topic is an approach that science communicators have been discussing.
Borchelt pointed out that science does not have a unique pull on people’s attention. He added that scientists need to take into consideration that a particular finding or subject of research will become salient to people at different times, depending on personal or societal contexts. However, “at the end of the day, few of these conversations are national conversations that are going to affect any national political outcome,” he stated. In a similar vein, Jahn pointed out that a wide array of regulated technologies are relevant to food systems and that “the vast majority of them no one ever hears about.” She said that regulatory processes are “critically important for negotiating the public discourse about the fate of a technology and its implementation in food systems” and that often, “no news is good news.”
Some workshop participants emphasized that it is critical for multiple viewpoints to be represented. Engagement and discussion about science issues occur in a large framework in which scientists do not have the only voice, Scheufele stated. Borchelt noted that there is no consolidated “anti-GMO” message or group, but rather multiple publics with various interests. Tim Schwab, of Food & Water Watch, commented that “it is worthwhile to respect and include a diversity of scientific opinions” in both conversations about GMOs and events like the present workshop that focus on public engagement about GMOs.
Jahn stated that, particularly for those who have been immersed in the controversy surrounding genetic engineering and foods, the conversation has been idiosyncratic and expensive. She observed that early in the discussions about genetic engineering, insufficient attention was paid to the different values that people place on innovation. “The science and technology community tends to think that innovation equals great, but that is not how everyone feels. The science community has had a huge blind spot, and probably also science communication, on this particular issue.” She added that communication about the unintended and foreseeable consequences of innovations should be improved, and she called on her colleagues to avoid dismissing and discrediting or otherwise failing to respect legitimate concerns about the consequences of new technologies.
Brossard emphasized that communication has a role to play in limiting polarization and controversy. She challenged participants not to shy away from communication “that promotes meaningful public engagement.” Borchelt and Jason Delborne of North Carolina State University pointed out that engagement between scientists and citizens is not synonymous with persuasion. “You need to be able to put yourself at intellectual risk to have true engagement with other parties,” Borchelt commented. According to Haspel, distinguishing engagement from persuasion involves ensuring that people who have diverse interests are truly
23 Harmon, A. “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA.” July 27, 2013. New York Times.
represented in a conversation and making an effort to find common ground.
Jahn noted that one of the highest costs in how GMOs have been debated is that the scientists who have been involved for many years cannot have open-minded two-way conversations, because they have been injured by the roles that they have played over the years. However, everyone cares about food, Jahn noted, and more nuanced, complex conversations may be more feasible for younger scientists.
At times, scientists and academicians are approached by members of the public who have not formed an opinion and want information about a new technology, such as GMOs, Dillard stated. “What do you want us to use if we do not fall back on the data?” she asked. Delborne suggested that such questions from the public form the entry point for a conversation, rather than only an invitation to provide information. Such a conversation could begin with returning the question and asking them what they know and care about with regard to this issue before offering to share their own information and cares. Another way to consider the questions that people have about a new technology, Brossard suggested, is to keep in mind that concerns may not be limited to health and environmental concerns but may also include ethics, corporate monopolies, or the right to know. Those concerns need to be represented in important conversations.
A number of presenters and workshop participants emphasized that high-quality discourse should be at the heart of public engagement about conversations about food-related technologies, the science issues. Although a number of public institutions have effectively brokered productive existing regulatory system has failed in that regard, Jahn said, particularly with regard to addressing the vested financial interests of various parties. Yet, in her view, when the discourse is respectful, better-quality outcomes in the public interest emerge. “Here is a message I have tested many times in many frames: Everybody knows that food is important. That is well beyond the fact that it is our source of survival, our source of nutrition every day. No one wants to wreck the planet by growing food. Diversity is the sign of a healthy system. ” No one argues with those points, and they can be used to frame many discussions, as she has done in her roles as a scientist and dean.
Robert Goldberg of the University of California at Los Angeles recalled the success of dinners before the release of reports from the National Academy of Sciences. In his view, those dinners provided a setting for nearly 100 stakeholders to gather, to hear about a report from its authors, and to have full discussions about it. He found such dinners to be respectful and ultimately more useful than speeches and press releases that occur after the release of a report. He thought that the dinners, although expensive and labor-intensive, promoted civil discourse in later public conversations, and he suggested that such dinners be reinstated. Jahn concurred that such social gatherings help diverse stakeholders to find common ground before starting conversations that may be contentious. She added that beginning with common ground does not make everyone in the room agree or care about an issue, but that “the quality of the fight is better when we can acknowledge some shared commitments before we begin the really difficult conversation,” she said.
The breakout discussion report was given by Todd Kuiken, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The American chestnut tree “was basically decimated by a blight” introduced into the United States when the Chinese chestnut was brought from China. Two competing strategies being developed to save the American chestnut so that it can be reintroduced into the wild are traditional cross-breeding with the Chinese chestnut, which has resistance to the blight, and “taking a gene from wheat, which has resistance to the blight, and inserting it into the American chestnut”.
Most Americans probably do not know that the American chestnut has all but disappeared. A small group of American Indians is concerned about reintroduction of the chestnut, but it is unclear how much the other members of the public is engaged in or cares about this issue.
Reflections on Public Engagement
There discussed the many different frames around this topic, including the ecological implications about reintroducing a species, a positive food frame about creating a new food supply, a negative GMO frame that affects most discussions about biotechnology, and a species-conservation frame. “We may believe that scientists have successfully framed the issue in terms of what they are looking for. . . . Now, the question may be how,” Kuiken said. Once this is known, the other frames come into place. In looking at all these frames, regulation and the decision-making process to create a trust factor for when these types of technologies are approved are important.
The breakout discussion report was given by Trevor Butterworth of Sense about Science.
The object of the breakout discussion was the introduction of genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress the spread of Dengue fever, Butterworth explained. Dengue is an infectious disease endemic in the developing world which, due to a warming climate, has the potential to spread along with other tropical disease into North America.
Oxitec, the biotechnology company that developed the genetically modified mosquito, encountered resistance in the Florida Keys about its potential release. People have concerns about the potential environmental effects of the release and the lack of communication from federal agencies conducting environmental risk assessments of a potential release. In addition, “Oxitec is a company with interests in both disease and agriculture and could be perceived as throwing a Trojan horse into the agriculture debate through the introduction of the mosquito,.” Butterworth said.
Reflections on Public Engagement
Oxitec conducted public surveys to inform its engagement practices, but they seemed to have poor methods. The breakout group discussed best practices that should accompany discussions about the release of genetic-modification technologies, including “know your audience,” “do not presume to know how people feel,” “do not underestimate the value of consent” or the amount of time required for public engagement processes, and “use existing research in social science” and seek out the experts. Butterworth pointed out that some members of the group also thought that a “repository for best and worst practices in science communication” is badly needed.
Allison Snow, of Ohio State University, summarized the breakout discussion of transgenic corn and the monarch butterfly.
Three waves of publications built the science story about the relationship between transgenic corn and the monarch butterfly. In 1999, John Losey, of Cornell University, published results in Nature of a small-scale laboratory experiment that found that one type of transgenic corn, which is not widely grown, harms monarch larvae.a In the same year, Tony Shelton, also of Cornell, published an article criticizing the Losey findings. The second wave occurred in 2001, when the results of six studies on a type of pollen that is widely used were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). The studies showed a lack of risk to the butterflies. The third wave is occurring today, and it involves the fear that herbicide-resistant GMOs are resulting in a decrease in milkweed, the food source for monarch caterpillars.
The Washington Post published an article about the Losey paper titled ”Gene-Altered Corn May Kill Monarchs,” and referring to the butterfly as “the Bambi of the insect world.”b “This is a framing of unexpected effects of genetically engineered crops,” Snow said. Cornell University released press statements about both the Losey and Shelton articles, but a mass-media flurry around the Losey article had already taken hold and had a dramatic adverse effect on public perceptions of transgenic corn. The six PNAS papers in 2001 did not receive as much publicity as the Losey paper, probably because they were published around the same time as the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City.
Reflections on Public Engagement:
The breakout group looked across the three waves of publications and brainstormed about what could have been different. The group discussed whether scientists should be more careful about going too quickly to publication with small scale findings and, perhaps wait for results from larger scale and more thorough studies. The group also discussed whether scientists would benefit from mass-media training, especially before publishing research that could be publicly controversial. Likewise, some members of the group suggested that universities need strategic plans for times when controversial research is published. Finally the group discussed the need for science writers to consider the whole context of a story (for example, small laboratory study vs. large field study.) and take care with the frames provided by headlines. Several of the breakout group participants noted that it is hard to predict how a story will unfold, but scientists should be prepared for any possible outcome.
aLosey JE, Rayer LS, and ME Carter. (1999) Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399, 214. doi:10.1038/20338.
bWeiss, R. 1999. “Gene-Altered Corn May Kill Monarchs,” Washington Post, 20 May 1999, Page A3.