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How to Extinguish Hot Air

BY: Toni Tarver

Bev PostmaSixteen years ago, the movement to ban genetically engineered foods (GMOs) began. With the passage of a new federal GMO labeling law, it may seem that pseudoscientists are winning the battle, but Bev Postma, an international policy specialist and founding member of Food Industry Asia, said that there is still reason for hope. During session 076, “Taming Dragons in the Age of Pseudoscience,” on Monday, July 18, Postma said that back then, “My colleagues and I were baffled that this small but very vocal group was able to gain traction.” The views of anti-GMO activists were at odds with her scientific training, and their conviction was daunting. As she listened to close friends and relatives who seemed to be on the side of naysayers, she realized that it wasn’t the technology that they feared; they just had a major distrust of scientists. She started referring to anti-GMO activists and other scientific naysayers as dragons of pseudoscience because their arguments were filled with hot air.

Postma explained that some pseudoscientists are motivated by ego, greed, and fame while others are motivated by distress and confusion. Although she believes that self-styled pseudoscientists have a right to voice their concerns and position, sometimes their rhetoric is too dangerous. They like to make a dramatic impact, and their weapon of choice is fear. “Pseudoscience and scaremongering can do real harm,” she said. And despite two centuries of good scientific research, pseudoscientists still doubt the validity of it. Nonetheless, they often use their own “experiments” to prove their irrational views; not surprisingly, their research fails to adhere to accepted scientific methodology. She used the example of Andrew Wakefield’s bogus research that vaccinations caused autism, which has led to the return of childhood diseases that were nearly banished.

Pseudoscientists are also savvy with social media, which means they can spread their irresponsible messages far and wide. “Let’s face it, as food scientists, we’ve never been that good at talking about new technologies,” she said. Postma believes that leaders and experts in public and private industries must break out of their comfort zones to send unified messages based on sound scientific principles. “We cannot work in silos if we want good science and technology to prevail,” she said.

Postma asked food scientists to expand beyond their comfortable peer groups to have meaningful conversations about science. “There’s never been a more important time for real science to conquer fear,” Postma says. “Together, we can demystify the scientific process.” In the face of such transparency, good science, and rational conversation, many fearmongers will be overwhelmed into silence. But even this cannot deter all pseudoscientists: Human brains are programmed to feel first (emotion) and think later (logic/reason). Emotion and instinct usually overpowers purposeful reason.

Postma concluded her presentation with ways for scientists to have better conversations with consumers and pseudoscientists: 1) enter every conversation assuming there is something to learn; 2) keep calm and ask questions—don’t just fire off facts and evidence-based opinions because it is very important to express empathy; and 3) listen more (most people don’t listen with the intent to understand—they listen to form a reply). Once the emotional barrier is breached, scientists can steer the conversation to the many ways that science and technology benefit society. As Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared; it’s only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.”

3 Responses to “How to Extinguish Hot Air”

  1. Brian Sterling says:

    In the resource extraction industry, they use a phrase ‘social license to operate’. This is an expression that is used to describe the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions. It is built on trust, and the outcome is a more mutually beneficial relationship between industry and communities of stakeholders. It also happens to be an effective way of getting in front of issues before they become “the next GMO”.

    It is time for the food industry to consider its approach to building social license; science also includes social science.

  2. Sam says:

    There is nothing sinister, or “anti-science” about questioning the value of GMO crops which merely allow for the application of increased volumes of proprietary herbicides. The whole “it’s safe to eat” argument is a straw man at best. Those of us who take a global view understand that genetic modification of crops comes with all kinds of dilemmas beyond the capacity of humans to digest these crops.
    Denigrating customers, telling them “you are doing it wrong” will only alienate them further. This article is not going to change any minds, and will serve only to insult those of us who simply wish to know how our food is produced!

  3. Ellie says:

    Dear Sam – the anti-science part of your comments are reflected by selectivity of your questions and comments about GMOs. If you want to be accepted as science-driven with your questioning about the safety of food production practices, then the approach is to insist on full disclosure/labels for all agricultural practices that have a risk (known or perceived). For example, insist that organic farmers include the certification on their food labels that they used pathogen-free fertilizers (since pathogenic bacterial contamination of foods have caused numerous food recalls due to illness and, occasionally, deaths, around the world). Similarly, demand that all applications of “natural” pesticides are disclosed – like neem oil (where a key component in neem oil is azadirachtin, a complex tetranortriterpenoid, with known toxicity). But ignoring this type of full disclosure approach is “anti-science”. And ignoring the mountains of data from many sources: European Commission sponsored research over 10 years and 300 million euros showing GMOs are safe; the US National Academy of Sciences report, the fact that ALL commercialized GMOs have been reviewed by dozens of regulatory agencies around the world – with each concluding that each GMO product is safe – that makes your comments “anti-science”.

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