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UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson wants a "constructive, well informed and evidence-led" public discussion on GM foods. Any advice?

I received a thoughtful message from Jonas Kathage, who related interesting news about public discussion of GM foods in the UK and asked for my reaction.  Since “he asked for it,” I let him have it—blasting him with  a massive barrage of verbiage.  Putting content aside, I do think the length of my responseis is an accurate measure of the importance and difficulty of the issues his query raises. I reproduce the exchange below & of course invite others to offer their advice (whether or not they have the time & patience to work through my own) on how Secretary Paterson can achieve his objective of initiating a a “constructive, well informed and evidence-led” public discussion of the risks and benefits of GM food technology.


UK environment secretary Owen Paterson recently delivered a speech on genetically modified crops, calling for relaxing the restrictions on their cultivation we have in Europe. The speech is broadly supportive and points to various benefits of gm crops for people and environment. The full speech is here.

Now aside from the predictable outrage among anti-gmo groups, I was struck by a piece in the Guardian that seemed happy about efforts to restart a public discussion about gm crops, but at the same time argued Paterson wasted the opportunity by following the outdated deficit model and suggesting people are stupid. Here's the Guardian piece.

I'm turning to you because you are an expert on the science of science communication. While I remember you don't consider the communication environment to be polluted in the US, I feel it's a bit different in Europe. I'm wondering whether you agree with the Guardian commentator that Paterson's speech represents a wasted opportunity. Since I couldn't get a good idea from the piece or my follow-up on twitter about how the speech could be improved, what are your thoughts?

My response:

This is a very interesting development and a nice example of the challenges that are involved in promoting engaged and constructive public interaction with decision-relevant science. Thanks for pointing the story and the Guardian piece, and also for your thoughtful framing of the issues -- without that I'm confident I wouldn't have been able to appreciate the value that reflecting on Paterson's speech presents.

I agree, the issue is about how to address a “polluted science communication environment.”  I’m sure ours—in the US—is as bad as yours.

Or really what I’m sure is that we both have problems that can be characterized this way, ones in which the ordinary, and ordinarily reliable rational faculties that ordinary people use to identify the best available decision relevant science becomes enfeebled by “toxic meanings,” which turn positions on facts into badges of group commitment and loyalty. You have a problem like that on GM foods; I don’t think we have it on that particular issue, yet. But obviously we have it. On lots of issues.

That said, I feel obliged to risk disappointing you by adopting a decidedly uncertain stance.  For two reasons, one general and one specific.  I hope I won’t wear out your patience in making you invest the time it will take to work through what I feel impelled say in order to get what I agree will likely be a modest return (more in the nature of an investment strategy rather than a return in fact).

1. To start, I think affecting a posture of certainty and confidence on "how to communicate" on issues that feature or are vulnerable to cultural polarization will quite often be a mistake.  

We do know a good amount, as a result of careful empirical study, about the dynamics that generate toxic meanings; about steps that can help neutralize them; and about strategies that can help detoxify the science communication enviornment if those steps fail, or weren't taken to begin with.  

But the sort of knowledge we have tends to be very general.  It concerns the mechanisms of consequence and how they interact with various influences.

Having that knowledge is extremely valuable, because there are many genuine mechanisms of social psychology and the like that could be playing a role, and without knowledge about which really are and how, then the likelihood that anyone will ever figure out what to do or not do (or even know whether what they did contributed to making things better or worse) will be essentially nil.  We will drown in an ocean of just-so stories.

But most of that knowledge was gleaned in studies carefully designed to bear in on the mechanisms of interest and exclude everything else.  That’s essential for one to be able to manipulate the mechanisms in revealing ways and to observe with confidence how they are responding (I’m sure you likely know all of this, so forgive me for the wind up).

But those kind of pristine settings are—by design--simplified models. The settings in which one has to act will be much more complicated.  One knows from the studies—from the models—what sorts of mechanisms it makes sense to try to engage in those settings.  But one doesn’t know precisely how.

There’s only one way to figure that out: through use of the same methods that one used to identify the mechanisms of consequence in the first place! One has to engage in empirical field studies aimed at testing hypotheses about what sorts of “communication strategies” (very broadly understood; the strategies necessary to avert or treat a polluted science communication environment will often involve things other than just uttering words) can reproduce in the world the effects one attained in the “lab.”

Indeed, if one doesn’t do that, we will simply find ourselves again drowning in stories. For just as there are more plausible accounts of why we see cultural polarization than are actually true, there are more plausible accounts about how to use the genuine insights of the science of science communication to treat that pathology.  The currency of storytelling is just as valueless, and will buy us just as little real progress, at the “how to” stage as it did at the “what’s the problem” one.

I feel very strongly about this. So at the cost of an opportunity maybe to enjoy flattering attention, when you or some other thoughtful person in the middle of a communication problem (as I gather you are) asks me, “So what do we do, given what you’ve told us you know about the psychology of cultural polarization and science communication,” I feel constrained to say w/o equivocation, “I don’t know.”

But to recover – what? maybe some semblance of dignity! but more importantly the opportunity to be of use – I then add:

You tell me! And I will help you at that point by helping you to collect the evidence that will help you to figure out if you are right.

You are the one in the middle of this real world situation. You know lots of specific, relevant things about it—much more than I (or anyone else who studies the dynamics of communication for a living) does.  I’ve told you things that are important for you to know and that can help you make informed decisions about which of the things you were thinking about doing (likely one of them is the right thing; but which one?) is likely to work.  So the likelihood that you’ll know what to do is higher than the likelihood I will if I just make a wild-ass guess.

So tell me what you think--now that you have the benefit of knowing what I do--what you think it’s possible for you to do that might produce the effects I’ve been describing to you.  Indeed, tell me four or five such things, and we’ll talk them through

Then I will again do what I am equipped to do.  I will help you set up your communication operation in a way that is suited to generating evidence that will help you assess whether the things it occurred to you might work really are working. And just as important, help you recognize why they have and haven’t—so that you can refine and adjust and extend.

Then, I’ll add, that while I’m genuinely willing to help in this way, the only condition I myself would impose on assisting is that this person agree to share what we learn from this exercise with anyone else interested in helping to promote .  Because the situation you are in, you agree, is both maddeningly familiar and bad.  If enough of the others who had been in this kind of situation had done what I’m proposing and shared the results—each building on what the other is learned—then maybe you, and me and millions of others wouldn’t still be in this situation, or in it so often, and on so many issues. . ..

2.  So—that was the general part!

On the specific.

I am going to be modest, and in an even more “local” way here.  I don’t know enough of the background to have an opinion on whether the Guardian columnist is right about Paterson.

I will say, though, that I do have an opinion—and every strong one!—that the columnist is right to be thinking along the lines reflect in his essay.

For sure there is “more to it” than just getting “the information” out.  In addition, the “more” includes things in the nature of the ones that the columnist emphasizes.  For sure, those engaged in communicating need to address those on both sides in a manner that avoids conveying any sense that those on the other side are “stupid” or “anti-science”; absurd! Absurd in the U.K., absurd in the U.S., absurd in every nation that has had the benefit of being passing over the threshold of social development that marks a society’s entry into the privileged domain of liberal market democracy.  That sort of reckless, obnoxious talk is a form of science communication pollution—or in any case, should be reserved for the serious occasions when we are looking at the real thing.

Those engaged in the “debate” also have to show that they recognize why other reasoning citizens feel differently from them.

They have to demonstrate too– by seizing every opportunity that presents itself—that they are themselves not “recommitted,” and are thus willing to take seriously claims and proposals one might have expected them to resist. Also that they unwilling to tolerate any of their own number engaging in distortions of fact.

The columnist is thinking, and demonstrating how to think clearly, abut those issues.

But I don’t know if he has cause to see Paterson’s proposal for a “debate” as insensitive to these sorts of concerns.  I just don’t know enough to know.

Also—and I’d be shocked if the columnist disagreed—while it’s foolish to carry on as if “the facts,” the “evidence,” the “science” were all there were to it (a form of presentation that evinces contempt for those with whom one disagrees; one is implying, necessarily, that they are “idiots” or “liars”), it certainly is part of what there is to it!

Indeed, it is the most important part.  We are—or at least I am—motivated by the goal of assuring that the best available decision-relevant science is actually made use of by all those whose welfare it can enhance.  The problem ofa polluted science communication enviornment is that it makes it so much harder for people to recognize what the best available decision-relevant science is and what its significance is for them.

What’s it significance is is for them to decide; as free, reasoning individuals and citizens.

But what free and reasoning person is confident he or she can reliably see what the best evidence is or what it implies given his or her values through the toxic fog of cultural recrimination that pervades issues like climate change, nuclear power, and—in the UK, I gather –GM foods?

So I think Paterson is surely right to want the UK to engage the best available information. And to want to be sure that citizens can recognize what the best available evidence is.

That’s not a goal anyone could be criticized for. The only issue involves means.

And I’m so useless, sadly, on that for you!  I don’t know whether the means contemplated by Paterson are the wrong ones.

I’m sure too, though, the columnist would agree that what the right means are of promoting informed public engagement with GM foods in the UK are is not “obvious” but rather something that requires the sort of evidence-based orientation that I described in part 1.

Well, you asked!  That’s my reaction.

And thanks again for giving me something very interesting to think about.


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Reader Comments (4)

I thought that article in the Guardian was really, really good.

FWIW, I would love to see what would happen with a participatory democracy/collaborate planning type approach: Just for the hell of it, I will embarrass myself by taking a brief off-the-cuff stab at describing what I'm talking about below. I'm sure that if someone actually knowledgeable about this type of participatory planning process were interested, they could describe a much more well-thought out, sophisticated and comprehensive process - but I would be curious whether anyone willing to endure the pain of actually reading my outline of a proposed process would provide feedback on where they see flaws or omissions or reasons why what I describe would be ineffective or futile.

1) Heavily publicize a well-funded, and large-scale participatory democracy-style forum on GMO. Start casting a wide net for participants - regular Joe Schmoe citizens, representatives from various enviro groups, civic groups, trade organizations, farmer organizations, various industrial groups including the food and agricultural industries, biologists, government representatives from federal, regional, and municipal levels, etc. Make it clear that the groups will be organized into a non-hierarchical framework and charged with making a consensus-based, non-binding policy recommendation. Have a completely transparent process of selecting the representatives.

2) Start the forum with a thorough examination of the concepts of motivated reasoning and cultural cognition - which includes role playing type exercises to examine the effect of those phenomena on other issues.

3) Have a series of well-publicized educational forums as the first stage of the recommendation development process. "Expert" presentations would be one part of those forums, but as much effort as possible would be made to create multilateral flow of information. In other words, not only would the "expert" presentations be from biologists or food scientists to the lay audience, but representatives from the enviro groups and civic groups and trade groups, etc. would all have an opportunity to give "expert" presentations. These meetings would also be open to the public with opportunity for pubic input.

4) Form a series of committees comprised of representatives from the various groups and charge them with generating a series of questions to be researched and then conducting the research to provide answers to the questions they generated. Schedule a series of public meetings where those questions and answers were presented, again, with the provision of time for public input.

5) Have the committees elect a group of representatives to form a steering committee. The steering committee would be charged with creating a meeting schedule for their group, and drafting a policy recommendation to bring back to the larger group. After the preliminary draft policy was formulated, the steering committee would organize a series of successive meetings to present drafts of the policy recommendations and to elicit and gather feedback from the larger group - refining the draft policy with each successive round. The feedback from the larger group would be documented and made available to the public and these meetings would also be open to the public.

6) After this process of drafting and revising, have the policy recommendation be presented to the larger group by the steering committee, with some sort of consensus-based approval process outlined. If consensus is not reached, no policy recommendation would be made. Obviously, the structure of the consensus-based approval process would be bear to design and a logistical nightmare to implement. Maybe it would need to be replaced with a majority vote approval process.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Maybe we can get John Gastil to weigh in & 2d (or anti-2d; seems unlikely) your advice

p.s. This response was caught in the site spam filter & languished there for days -- due to my inattention, whcih itself is a consequence of my having been abducted by aliens (from alpha centauri, not Mexico or Canada or any other exotic place). In fact they still have me in their custody & I have only now been able to gain access to internet temporarily

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Well, that brought the blog comments to a grinding halt, now didn't it?

June 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Maybe we can get John Gastil to weigh in & 2d (or anti-2d; seems unlikely) your advice

Either way - it would be great if he'd comment.

June 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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