Biotechnology: communication and politics

I had the pleasure of speaking today with Matthew Nisbet, author of a controversial report about communication of climate change. Matt’s full report Climate Shift is well worth a read, but is a bit daunting at almost 100 pages. Andrew Revkin has an excellent play by play discussing Matt’s report as well as the commentary that has surrounded it: Beyond the Climate Blame Game. There were a lot of interesting ideas discussed at today’s meet and greet but I’ve pulled out a two ideas that are relevant to the discussion of biotechnology.

1) When talking about climate change, if we ever want to accomplish real communication, we need to find the scientists that are in the pragmatic* middle. These scientists in the pragmatic middle are more likely to be able to make themselves understood and are more likely to have things in common with the public in the pragmatic middle.

Does this apply to biotechnology? In some ways, I have to say no. Karl** and I are in the pragmatic middle in that, while we generally find the process of biotechnology to be safe and potentially useful, we agree that not all applications of biotechnology are beneficial and that many changes in regulation need to be made in order for biotechnology to fit into a diverse agricultural system. Neither of us are dogmatic about biotech, which you would think, as Matt says, would allow us to better communicate with the pragmatic middle. The problem that both of us face is: where is the public in the pragmatic middle, or how can we reach the public in the pragmatic middle?

The people who are talking about biotechnology in social media are decidedly not in the middle. Biotech is such a minor issue compared to things like the economy, unemployment, and even climate change, that those who are actively talking about biotechnology are firmly entrenched on either side of the badly drawn lines. People like Karl and I in the middle are drown out by the less pragmatic loud voices. I’m not sure what to do about that.

There is the added problem of people not believing the science. In both climate change and biotechnology, it seems that some individuals are insistent in their belief that scientists are somehow compromised, or bribed. In the case of climate change, there are accusations that even public scientists are motivated by greed, although this doesn’t make much sense as there are many other careers that are far far more lucrative than science that a person concerned with money might go into. In the case of biotechnology, there are accusations that all scientists are working for big industry, including public scientists, even when there is no evidence of a connection. Scientists need to learn how to translate their science into forms that the public can understand, but what is the point if people don’t believe scientists are a reliable source?

2) Studies, such as a survey of AAAS scientists, have shown that when it comes to climate change, politics has at least some effect on one’s stance on the science. While a high percentage of AAAS scientists accept anthropogenic climate change, a high percentage of those scientists are politically liberal. When you look at the small subset of AAS scientists that are politically conservative, that subset is much less likely to accept climate change. This indicates that acceptance of climate change science is not as greatly influenced by knowledge of the subject matter or ability to understand complex scientific topics.

Biotechnology does not seem to follow this pattern. Looking at scientists who accept the science of biotechnology, one finds politically liberal and conservative individuals. With climate change, an educational approach that aims to change minds through exposure to the science has not proven successful, possibly because of the strong political associations. With biotechnology, I hope that an educational approach could be more successful. As people understand more about the science of plant breeding and biotechnology, I hope that acceptance of the science, if not of the applications, of biotechnology could occur.

Real changes in policies, regulation, agriculture in general, won’t be possible unless at least some of the public is willing to look at the science and at least some of the scientists and regulators are able to realistically understand the concerns of the public. How can we communicate when perceived bias and political leanings get in the way of one or both sides? How can the pragmatic middles find each other and work towards better policy?

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*pragmatic |pragˈmatik| adjective  – dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations : a pragmatic approach to politics.

** I have taken the liberty of bringing Karl, my co-executive editor in this blogging project, into my discussion here because in our discussions I feel that we have similar opinions on the subject of biotechnology and many other things. If this assumption is in error, it is entirely my fault and not his.

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