Scientific Breakthroughs Aren’t Always Pretty
When it comes to food, it is often assumed that transparency maximizes informed choice, but informed choice assumes that people are able to use that information wisely. As a consequence, the transparency being adopted by food companies could come back to haunt them. During the Sunday morning featured session, “Science Versus Sensationalism and Soundbites: How Can Consumers Make More Informed Choices?” Jacques Rousseau of the University of Cape Town in South Africa said that many modern consumers take pride in finding ways to support whatever preconceived notions they have about the food supply. Often that notion revolves around disparaging experts and authoritarians and lauding bloggers or television hosts who may be just as uninformed as consumers are.
Rousseau says that there used to be a space for experts, but that space is shrinking as experts are widely reviled or ignored. This is especially true when it comes to food science. Although most consumers are willing to accept technology in some areas of their lives, they are reluctant to accept technology as it applies to their food. Fifty-seven percent of consumers believe that GMOs are generally unsafe, and sales of gluten-free foods are skyrocketing because consumers think that gluten is somehow dangerous for them. “We’ve got these peculiar reactions based on fear—based on panic,” he said, but “food isn’t out to kill you,” he said.
Rousseau explained that society is participating in a state of “aware unawareness,” which is based on selective reception and transmission of knowledge, uncertainty, and an unwillingness to know facts. The internet and social media have become highly effective tools for people who participate in “aware unawareness.” Through confirmation bias, a person can use the internet to find more and more information that corroborates his point of view and, through social media, get many people to accept and adopt his distorted beliefs. Rousseau said that humans are naturally predisposed to finding confirmatory beliefs that prove their beliefs. This is why food bloggers with no formal education in food science, nutrition, or related area of expertise feel confident in espousing erroneous information.
Consumers aren’t the only ones to blame. Rousseau said that scientists and other researchers are partly responsible for the misinformation being spread and for the distrust directed towards them. Science provides the basis for knowledge, but it does have limits: Scientists and researchers can cherry-pick data or otherwise exaggerate the outcomes of their research to get notoriety and additional funding. For example, a study that involves measuring something across a small sample size makes it very easy to find the correlation one is looking for. To combat the hype, Rousseau said that it is important to remind people that good science takes time and further conclusive studies. Being open to correction is the main virtue of science.
Effective science communication and debunking misinformation are very difficult. Both require long, slow, hard work, Rousseau said. The best way to promote scientific literacy is to teach people to understand the basics of scientific method. Popular sentiment is no substitute for expertise, and “scientific breakthroughs do not happen on Dr. Oz,” he said. People making scientific breakthroughs are not particularly photogenic or social: They’re not on social media or television taking selfies and giving interviews; instead, they’re tucked away in laboratories or in front of computers focusing on research. People may think food science and technology are evil, but they exist to make food safer. And that’s the scientific message consumers need to receive.