DO YOU SOCIAL MEDIA?(cont’d from Part III) Don’t get me wrong. I loved what I was doing as an academic researcher, but I found myself feeling a bit disconnected from the real world. I felt isolated in that ivory tower and I didn’t always ‘fit in’. I was hungry to connect with public, with farmers in particular. I wanted a stronger connection with the people that grew our food and, of course, the consumers that ate it.
My students in a third year Research Methodology class that I was teaching at the University of Calgary dragged me kicking a screaming onto Facebook in 2007. There, and on Twitter, I found a voice. I was able to share what I knew and learned and engage in dialogue about agriculture from my unique perspective.
I was an early entrant to the social media space on this topic. At the time, I predicted that social media would radically change the conversation around food and agriculture. And not necessarily for the better. While my colleagues in academia saw social media as a passing fad, we soon discovered that things played more or less how I expected. And throughout all this, I continued to engage online — and I even got into it with some basement-dwelling trolls.
I co-led the organization of the very first Biotech Bootcamp at the University of Florida. There have since been 4 more in North America. I even had the opportunity to present on a panel with renowned journalist, Mark Lynas.
And this all lead me to my current role with Bayer where I get to be part of an organization doing so much to advance modern agriculture and improve lives.
This was my unexpected journey through agriculture. There was some planning, a few accidents along the way (happy and unhappy ones), a bit of serendipity, and a lot of good luck. I was blessed with some amazing mentors and I learned from mentoring moments – both good and bad.
Amid the grief, loss, chaos, and some very marvelous milestones, I learned a few things:
We are told these days to tell our stories in agriculture. But life’spersonal triumphs and tragedies cannot be disentangled from our vocation in ag. I encourage you to let your skeletons dance. Embrace your vulnerabilities and share them. Because without darkness there can be no light.
Lean into discomfort: for example, engaging in new conversations with new people who may think a bit differently than you do. There are great rewards in it and, I promise you, some very pleasant surprises.
Self-doubt. It’s a universal, and a very human response to some of the crap that life deals you. But don’t let self-doubt define you – allow it drive you. When that renowned plant scientist tells you that you won’t amount to anything, prove him spectacularly wrong. Don’t get one degree, get two.
This sounds cliché but don’t take any moment in your life for granted. Personal stories have a way of gaining new meaning over time. In the mid-90s, my feet were firmly planted in the middle of a story that I had no idea I was part of. That team of scientists that I served coffee to in Saskatoon was the same team that brought genetically engineered canola to the market. That was huge event in Canada’s agriculture history. And while I didn’t get the significance of the story I was living out then, I certainly get it now.
Speaking of things coming full circle, remember that farm boy I married back in the 80s? Well, guess what, after almost two decades after our divorce, we rediscovered one another and have since remarried.
Final words of wisdom:
“For every one person that tells you you can’t do something, surround yourself with five more than tell you you can.
AN UNEXPECTED LIFE (cont’d from Part II): But guess what? I had two kids to raise. And to say that they saved my life is an understatement. They breathed life back into me. They alone are what drove me to seek out a brighter path. Our little family eventually healed. Therapy helped. By 1994, I took personal inventory and basically broke up with my former self. I took a bookkeeping course sponsored by the provincial government’s social assistance program. I also took night classes in graphic arts.
A kind uncle hired me to help out with his market garden. This was probably my first formal foray into agriculture. We would spend hours in his huge garden, preparing produce for the market in Saskatoon. That uncle also decided to diversify. He wanted to establish a u-pick orchard on some uncultivated spaces on his farm.
A small plant biotechnology company in Saskatoon was using tissue culture technology to clone fruit trees. This represented something new to Saskatchewan and the prairies. I guarantee you that most, if not all, Saskatoon berry orchards in western Canada were established with this kind of technology.
I eventually got a job with this company – where I wore many hats: bookkeeping, payroll, developing marketing materials. I even got to gather and record data from our experimental growth chambers 1000 ft below the surface of the earth at a mine in Flin Flon. We also worked on cloning indigenous plant material in northern SK to reclaim areas disturbed by mining.
This job opened the door to another opportunity. I was hired by a large multinational ag company to work in the greenhouse and labs. My job was to make coffee, autoclave agar, order lab supplies, and develop informational materials for the lab and greenhouse for tours. Innovation place was a booming canola research centre. Scientists across the public and private sectors worked collaboratively in collective spaces. It truly was a remarkable time in Canada’s agricultural history.
I loved the job. Mostly, I loved the people I worked with. The opportunities and the intellectual stimulation made me want more for me and my family.
So, every year – from 1993 to 1996 – I had applied for and was accepted to the University of Saskatchewan.
And every damn time I chickened out.
While I had grown so much; gained so much confidence. I was still paralyzed by self-doubt.
“Self-doubt is a powerful thing.
And when you are scared to do something, you can find every reason in the world not to do it.”
Family and friends did not really encourage me to “go rogue and be a single-parent-student” thing either. They probably held some of the same beliefs that I did. And, for a long time, I allowed their doubts to reinforce my own fears.
But it turns out all I needed was a nudge. And that nudge was a rather unpleasant one.
EDUCATING CAMI: One day, I was standing with a group of colleagues in the greenhouse, watering plants, and talking about opportunities. A world-renowned plant geneticist was there and he said…
“Cami, you will never amount to anything because you are a single parent.”
His words still haunt me. Those words also lit lit a fire under me.
Enter the College of Commerce, University of Saskatchewan. I was a 32-year keen-to-learn single mom amidst a bunch of business-driven 18-year olds. Yet I found brains that I never knew I had. I got scholarships and bursaries. I graduated with distinction and as one of the first graduates from the College’s Biotechnology Management major.
One of my favorite classes during my undergrad was Organizational Behavior taught by my favorite prof, Maureen Sommers. In my fourth year, Dr. Somers approached me:
Maureen: Have you thought about doing a master’s degree, Cami?
Me: Masters? Me?! [imposter syndrome] What? No way. If I do advanced studies, I won’t be finished until I’m 40 years old!
Maureen: Well, Cami, I hate to tell you this but you’re going to turn 40 anyway. Wouldn’t it be great to turn 40 with a master’s degree?
It was hard to argue with that logic. The long story short is that the master’s degree turned into a PhD.
Between 2001 and 2007, I worked with some of the most amazing political scientists and ag economists from all over the globe. I traveled all over the world presenting at conferences. I published chapters, academic articles on intellectual property rights and plant breeding, and how networks of scientists work together to create new innovations in ag and food production.
By the time I defended my PhD in 2007, I nailed down a joint post doc fellowship with the Universities of Calgary and Saskatchewan and I was working on another book with my colleagues. The good works continued.
THE DARK YEARS (cont’d from Part I): At the time, I was 8 months pregnant. And while the farm boy and I came out of that hit and run accident relatively unscathed, our son Abraham didn’t survive. We were both heartbroken and emotionally bankrupt. I’m sure that there are a few of you out there that can relate.
“Stillbirth and miscarriage bring with it a special kind of grief.
It’s a very lonely, unvalidated kind of grief.”
Quite honestly, I didn’t think that I would ever sleep again. A debilitating anxiety consumed me — 24/7. I was haunted. I found myself in the first of a handful of soul-sucking depressions that I have since experienced periodically throughout my life.
While that farm boy and I carried on with building our little family, we just couldn’t heal. We were so young. We didn’t have the tools or resources to work our way through the grief. We didn’t know how to bridge the growing gap between us.
Sadly, we eventually parted ways.
Like a bad movie, I found myself alone, a single parent, juggling three jobs and doing my best to pay rent in a crappy single-wide trailer on the outskirts of a small town in Saskatchewan. My farm boy was gone.
This wasn’t the idyllic path that I had hoped for nor had I planned on.
By this time, I felt that I needed to fix my life; fix my broken family. I was desperate for a life of stability in a safe place. I still craved that white picket fence that seemed to evade me. It just made sense to get remarried … and I did.
To another farm boy.
I thought it was a good idea at the time. But guess what? Two tragically broken people together does not make for a good marriage. The union was brief, painful, and wholly dysfunctional. In the interest of brevity, I can say to you that in those few short months, I was shown the shape of a life and a person that I didn’t realize could even exist. No day-time talk show had prepared me for that.
So, there I was. 28 years old, divorced. Twice over.
An unmitigated failure.
I struggled to make ends meet for me and my kids. When I first entered a food bank, I felt defeated. When I applied for social assistance, I was broken.
This was a deeply dark time for me. My confidence was completely shot. Everything that I thought I was and what I wanted had been an illusion. And that illusion had been shattered…
How does a girl from small town Saskatchewan, Canada, find her way through life and end up working at the headquarters of a multinational crop science company in St Louis, Missouri?
I’d like to tell you that it was a straight path; you know – ‘as the crow flies’. I’d like to tell you that it was intentional, planned, strategic.
But it wasn’t.
This is not your typical agriculture related story. This is my story; the story of my very unlikely journey that got me to where I am today. This story is one part navel gazing (so, yeah, I might brag a little) but it’s probably two parts heartache. I am going share some personal and surprising artefacts about my life. I will also share some learnings at the end.
I will begin with one key learning I’ve had: Life is a path. And there are only two rules: you begin, and you continue. You may not have the choice of how you begin but I’ve learned that you always have the choice about how you can continue – the paths you choose.
THE EARLY YEARS: I grew up the daughter of the Canadian prairies. A small-town girl from a farming community.
A dreamer, an idealist, a romantic.
My childhood was unstable in many ways. We were a nomadic family. My dad moved from job to job and town to town. Because of this, my grandmother became an enormously stable influence for me. Mostly because her place – near the family homestead – became a pitstop along the path of many moves.
This less-than-stable early upbringing probably led me to choose several wrong paths throughout my life (more on that later). To be sure, instability undermined my confidence. In fact, for most of the first three decades of my life I felt paralyzed by self-doubt and shame.
You see…I was that kid. The wrong one … or at least I felt that way. I was an accident – born an only child who eventually evolved into being the middle child of a blended family. I was a cliché. I was the author of “firsts” in the family: first to drop out of university, first to get pregnant out of wedlock, first to divorce, first to be a single parent…the list goes on and on.
Ironically, however, there was a wild and naïve ambition that drove me as a young adult. These ambitions were unrealistic, shaped by aesthetics, and a bit of insecure vanity. And for some reason, these things seemed wholly achievable in my mind.
This dreamer and idealist wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be famous.
And I suppose the genesis of what drove those ambitions was when I won a regional pageant in Saskatchewan and went on to compete in the Miss Teen Canada pageant in 1983.
When my mom remarried, we had settled in Nipawin, Saskatchewan when I was in grade six. It was there I’d finally found the “home”town I’d been craving all my life. I developed friendships. Lifelong ones.
I began to test the waters on who I was or at least who I thought I was. And while my hometown (Nipawin) still warms my heart, I suppose I was not much different than other 18-year-old pageant queens. I could hardly wait to get out of my hometown and move to the big city of Saskatoon.
SMALL TOWN GIRL, BIG CITY: Life was good. I started dating a nice young farm boy from Delisle, Saskatchewan soon after I arrived in Saskatoon. My experience in pageants lead me to modeling and acting. I joined a theater group and found a good agent in Saskatoon.
The next couple of years whizzed by at a rapid pace. By the time I was 19, I’d dropped out of university, strutted the runway in New York City, had won awards in a North American acting competitions, and auditioned in front of the casting agents for a well-known soap opera. My identity was wholly wrapped up in how I looked and, most certainly, not in my intellect. What I could do to contribute to society in a meaningful way was the least of my worries.
In late 1985, I auditioned for and was given the opportunity to take a lead role in a musical show for Expo 86 (Vancouver, BC). That was exciting. It seemed that all my dreams were coming true.But we all know that life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Because that same week that I got that role, I also found out I was pregnant.
I wasn’t devastated. I was willing to give up my ambitions for family stability and that elusive white picket fence. We were optimistic, that farm boy and me. We planned our shot-gun wedding and happily embraced what lay ahead.
We were incredibly broke but rich with optimism!
But our optimism was short-lived. Only a few months after the wedding, we were involved in a serious car accident…
I was invited to the American Farm Bureau (AFBF) Convention in January to give a keynote at the Communicate, Connect, and Influence program hosted by the AFBF Promotion & Education Committee. I also led a couple of breakout sessions on this very topic: having those tough conversations.Here’s what we learned…
Our conversations about agriculture and food production frequently escalate into arguments at key moments — moments where we feel we have been aggrieved, mistreated or wronged.
We all agree that inaccurate information informs many people’s perspectives about agriculture and other things like science and public health. Misinformation can shape perceptions in damaging ways. It mispresents our industries, our livelihoods, and – yes – our way of life.
That. Gets. Personal. 🧡
When things get “personal” — when we feel violated or wronged — things can quickly go off the path and in unexpected ways. We let go of any desire we may have to solve a problem or reach consensus, we lose whatever hold we have on good will or in building trust and we direct our attention on an entirely different goal: On being right! I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. And here’s the paradox: those we are arguing with believe they are right, too….
What we continue to learn through the process of dialog is that changing hearts and minds can’t be our primary goal. Our conversations about agriculture should put relationships first.
It’s not about keeping score. No end zone, no goal posts. When we begin to look at these conversations as leisurely walks down country roads instead of games, that’s when the conversations become easier and more enduring, especially when we focus on who’s beside us on that road instead of what’s in front or behind us.
Check out the original article here on Purdue University’s Centerfor Food and Agribusiness website.
Sustainable thinking for sustainable agricultural systems.
This week, I was part of an organized symposium at the 10th International IPM Conference in Denver, Colorado. The session was organized by my friend and colleague, Amy LeMay, from Brock University in Canada. Our session brought together scientists and social scientists from public and private settings to explore and challenge traditional thought and processes by validating the role of human, social, and cultural dimensions of IPM and other sustainability-driven programs.
Sounds a bit ‘social sciency’, right? As you may have already guessed, I kind of love 🧡 it.
My contribution to our lively discussion was on the topic of “systems thinking”. Systems thinking is a way of viewing the world and to problem-solve around complex issues. It is a manner of thinking that is self-reflective with goals to improve upon what would be currently considered the “status quo”.
People who are systems thinkers…
have an ability to view a problem from different perspectives; to understand all the moving parts;
the capacity to problem solve while thinking long term;
an ability to be adaptive to change; to be responsive, flexible and willing to both recognize and push back on personal biases, and;
a willingness to try new things in new ways and with people who may think a whole lot differently than you do.
What does systems thinking mean for sustainable agriculture?
The research tells us that early adopters of on-farm sustainable practices are frequently considered systems thinkers. Example: farmers who adopt cover crops are more likely to be systems thinkers. The research also indicates that mid west farmers in the US are lesslikely to be systems thinkers. [Yep. Crossed out. Stay tuned for the story behind this]
How do we encourage systems thinking?
(and, as one might hypothesize, increase adoption of sustainable practices)?
Networks & partnerships! We all know that farming can be a socially isolating vocation. Farmers trust other farmers and farmers talk to other farmers. Community and close personal networks are really important spaces farmers convene for conversation and for sharing on-farm problems and solutions. Partnerships are key. Partnerships or networks that bring together diverse actors and organizations (public, private, NGO, others); those that are willing to honor and recognize the complex factors that define our agricultural system(s). The goal here is not only collectively identify and solve problems, but to learn and evolve as well.
Differentiated communication and engagement strategies! We also know that farmers and farming practices aren’t homogeneous. Many factors shape decisions and on farm adoption behaviors. Any kind of new technology or way of managing operations represents both risks and opportunities. It’s about change and change can be hard. Technologies and practices can’t be applied writ large. Practices will vary, region to region, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, soil type to soil type, and farmer to farmer. This means that differentiated communication strategies and messaging are important! This is less about trying to influence on-farm adoption and more about the message itself … AND the channel(s) and the messenger, too!
Build and sustain trust! Systems thinking becomes a way to understand the complexities of a given system and to proactively manage and be responsive to change. Cultivating trust and trusted relationships are an inherent part of the process. This isn’t just about “changing on farm behavior”. In fact, that is probably a wrong-headed way to approach this. Actually, if we really want to seek ways to optimize, encourage and support on-farm adoption of sustainable production practices like IPM, we would do well to see the ‘bigger picture’ too; Find ways to encourage systems thinking across the value chain – corporate actors, government agencies, NGOs, and universities. There is need for learning and action for all of us. Modeling systems thinking might be a great first step!
Church, S. P., et al. (2020). “The role of systems thinking in cover crop adoption: Implications for conservation communication.” Land Use Policy 94: 104508.
Palmberg, I., et al. (2017). “Systems thinking for understanding sustainability? Nordic student teachers’ views on the relationship between species identification, biodiversity and sustainable development.” Education Sciences 7(3): 72.
Stave, K. and M. Hopper (2007). “What constitutes systems thinking? A proposed taxonomy.” 25th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Citeseer.
Six years ago marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girl (Tim Firth) for Dewdney Players in Alberta. It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of the role of “Ruth Reynoldson”.
Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently. Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my own. I learned to empathizewith that character.
What is empathy and why does it matter?
It may surprise you to know that the concept of empathy is a relatively new one. In her article in The Atlantic, Susan Lazoni provides a nice overview of the term’s 100 year old history.
“Empathy” is a translation of the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling-in”. At the time the term was coined, it was defined as not only a “means to feel another person’s emotion…” but to “enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.”
And who doesn’t appreciate the idea of empathy? It only makes sense that the better we relate to the plights of others, the more that we respond kindly, ethically, morally, respectfully to them. Nicholas Kristoff suggests, though, that we have slumped into an “empathy gap”; a place where we have lost our capacity to understand another’s troubles. Our cognitive ‘muscles’ have become a bit sluggish, so says Kristoff.
“Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you…” – Denise Cummins, 2013.
“Feeling in”: What agriculture can learn about empathy from the acting profession
Our first (very human) reaction is to dismiss people, things, and messages that run counter to our world views. We are naturally protective of our personal beliefs. We automatically seek out information that informs, supports and validates those beliefs.
Kevin deLaplante hosts a terrific podcast with an episode entitled “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts”. In order to carry out their craft, actors need to understand the background, the mindset, the limitations and the possibilities of the character they are to portray. They need to slip into that role with authenticity. They need to “be” the character and “live” the story through eyes that are often very different from their own.
We spend time having conversations with others about health, food and food production, science, politics, religion and a range of other (often controversial) topics. We constantly struggle to understand positions that are diametrically opposed to our own because that is part of the age-old human condition. In order to overcome this, we need to cultivate communication skills that force us to challenge our personal biases. Take a cue from performers:
“[They] cultivate the ability to empty themselves; to forget who they are and totally and completely become someone else.”– Kevin deLaplante.
Having tough conversations about agriculture is hard work, but worth it!
Having conversations about controversial topics is hard work. Here are a few things to think about (adapted from deLaplante) as we move forward in those conversations:
Understand the positions of both advocates and skeptics:
Be willing to put yourself in another’s head (and heart) space and be prepared to dwell in those spaces for a while
Understand how we (all of us) process information (our cognitive biases and intellectual habits)
Identify beliefs, values, and assumptions that drive opinions and behaviors (including your own)
Commit to reconstructing the reasoning that has led to deeply held beliefs (including your own)
Remember, it’s a conversation, not a conversion
Value truth, understanding, the relationship, and the person above everything else
As Iida Ruishalme so artfully asks and answers in her article here:
“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgmental, appealing to science, or someone he or she perceives as a friend, who is tolerant of his or her viewpoint, who wishes to understand? I don’t know if I could be that understanding friend. But I know I would like to be.”– Iida Ruishalme
I aspire to be that kind of friend and conversationalist, too.
Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes
There is nothing like donning sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan, and appropriating the thoughts and emotions of a story’s character. In the world of theatre, exercising empathy is an important process in understanding and adopting a character’s identity and motivation. It’s about building, animating, and authenticating a story.
“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I grew to love as I took on the role for the play. For the duration of the production, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and…
... I even learned a little bit more about myself!
“Walk a mile…” they say ’cause everyone has a story. Understanding the whole story – the ‘bigger picture’ – takes time, commitment, empathy, critical thought and a lot of self-awareness. Mind you, the whole (story) is even greater than the sum of its parts. So, investing in that kind of conversation is worth the effort.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is popping up on the media radar again. Because of this, I thought it timely to re-post some of old news to provide a bit more context to the new news. FOIA. For me, it’s personal.
May, 2016. Several weeks ago, I was notified by my alma mater (the University of Saskatchewan) that the US Right to Know (USRTK) had submitted an Access To Information Act (ATIP) request seeking the production of documents pertaining to:
“.…Camille (Cami) D. Ryan, formerly a professional associate in the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics at the College of Agriculture”.
I was not surprised. Why? For the past year or more, I watched this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issue unfold. High profile academics working in agricultural research and outreach all over North America, and their home institutions, were subjected to public records requests from USRTK. I have had close working relationships with only a few of these academics. One is my former PhD supervisor, some have been co-authors on articles or chapters, others I have had the opportunity to meet/work with at conferences or other science-related events. Many I haven’t even met while others I have only connected with in passing. I know them all by reputation. These academics are credible, public sector scientists with decades of experience working in agriculture-related research. They are plant and animal geneticists, political economists, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc., who – through their work – are making significant steps forward in crop research, varietal development, and in how our food is produced and distributed in the world. While I recognize that I am just a ‘small fish’ in a ‘large pond’ of brilliant academics, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I received a request due to these connections that I have and (more likely) to my recent move to Monsanto.
What the FOIA?!
FOIA and its Canadian equivalent, ATIP, are laws enacted to allow for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by government organizations (including public sector universities). These laws and the ‘request mechanisms’ are intended to protect public interest by ensuring that public sector organizations and those that are employed by them are operating on the up-and-up. Quite simply, they are accountability mechanisms.
Early last year, 14 US scientists were targeted with FOIA records requests. As of now, that number has risen to well over 40 and more recent efforts have expanded into multiple rounds of searches of emails requested by not only USRTK, but other NGOs, activists, and journalists as well. All are intent on looking for “nefarious” connections linking public sector researchers with corporations and other industry organizations.
Let’s be clear. Relationships between academics and industry do exist. I have blogged about the Genome Canada model here. Few, if any, academics would apologize for these kinds of interactions. In the agriculture sector, academic-industry connections have led to important changes in the food security system, to the development of better crop varieties, and other innovations that have social and economic value. The impetus behind this is laid out in the Morill Act (Steve Savage talks in more detail about that here) with the stated purpose for Land Grant universities to promote research, education, and outreach in the “agricultural and industrial arts”. Yes, outreach. The relationships between the public and private sectors are part of this mission to ensure that socially and economically valuable innovations reach the people who need them.
FOIA Me. FOIA You.
The tidy little package that the USRTK will receive from the U of S will consist of only 168 pages of emails sourced from my account via the university server. These emails were generated based upon a search (17 search terms identified by USRTK such as “Monsanto”, “Syngenta”, “BASF”, “Ketchum”, etc) of my email folders covering the two-year span of time from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013 (when my research contract ended with the U of S).
Yep. That’s 168. Pages. This is a mere drop in the FOIA bucket. In my case, the estimated invoice for production of these documents by the U of S for USRTK is ~$3500 CDN. But this amount doesn’t even begin to reflect the actual costs imposed on university faculty and personnel, including those that work in IT, administration, and the university’s legal department. Now, amplify these kinds of costs across 40+ FOIA respondents and their home institutions. Imagine the time, administration, and opportunity costs that have been amassed all across North America for this FOIA initiative.
The social and economic costs are considerable. This means less time spent on conducting research, training graduate students, teaching, and writing/administering grant applications.
While USRTK and others purport to uncover mass collusion in agricultural research, what they are really uncovering is the social, human animal at work. Nothing more. These are scientists – #scientistsarepeople – working in related areas, interacting with one another and exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and co-publishing; working to find solutions to social, economical and scientific challenges that cannot be addressed by any one person, organization or institution in isolation.
Access to information doesn’t (necessarily) mean the public will be enlightened to new and deliberatively hidden truths. It means that the public has access to someone’s version of the truth. There is always a mediator with an agenda. Ask first who’s asking for the information and then ask why. Then maybe you can figure out what colour brush they are using to paint that picture with. Sometimes laws intended to enlighten throw shadows on the wrong people, places, and things.
So, who the FOIA cares?
We should all care. The costs alone are problematic (see above). These email requests amount to taking a subset of raw footage and twisting it into stories that feed into an inflexible, pre-conceived narrative. While freedom of information laws are designed to serve a public good (ensure accountability), they can also be used as tools to intimidate and diminish public good – to subvert democracy.
The silver lining to this cloudy issue may be in the ‘call to action’ for those of us working in the areas of agriculture, science, and innovation. Scientists are the experts. As experts and advocates in private and public sectors, we need to continue to work (collectively) towards solving problems that make sense for societies. But we also need to communicate better about how these relationships are structured and why they matter. Now – more than ever – we need to be transparent about the work that we do and how we do it if we are to earn and maintain public trust.
We have an information banquet at our finger tips. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives. Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.
Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative. It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information. The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth and disinformation has evolved into a product with a sizable market.
I’ll admit it. I get tripped up all the time when it comes to mis- and disinformation. My cognitive traps are things like satire (I’m very literal), I’ve misread intent and even failed to check background, context, or dates. I don’t think I’m alone in all this. We can all get tripped up by misplaced ideology and even carelessness.
So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass mis- and disinformation and decide what to include on our cerebral ‘plate’? I’ve compiled some basic principles that have really helped me out.
“C” Credibility: What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign). Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words? Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.
“L” Language: Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading. Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information? If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
“E” Endorsement: Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
“A” Accuracy: Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates? Is the article or information current?
“R” Reliability: Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate? Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven” or “clinically proven”. Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook platforms aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).
But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day. Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well. When it comes to information, I have found it best to sit back, take a breath, and think slow. Chew on that information slowly then decide if it has any nutritional value for your brain and if you want to make a meal of it.
It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.
“The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb
Disinformation. It’s easy to believe and hard to ignore. More and more we are beginning to understand how much mis/disinformation leads to socioeconomic costs and how it impacts scientific integrity. Here are a few sources/links that (I hope) helps us continue the dialogue:
1) A link to the study we published in February 2020. It is entitled The Monetization of Disinformation: the case of GMOs and was published in a special issue of the European Management Journalon The Dark Side of Social Media. The journal article but provides evidence and understanding of how misinformation impacts science and societies. We use GMOs as a case study, but this could (generally) apply to any number of issues (from farm to fork and beyond (public health issues)).
We analyzed a dataset of 94,993 unique online articles (2009-2019) for the evaluation of various tactics that contribute to the evolving GMO narrative. Preliminary results suggest that a small group of alternative health and pro-conspiracy sites received more totals engagements on social media than sites commonly regarded as media outlets on the topic of GMOs. Other externalities observed include continued social and political controversy that surround the GMO topic, events (demonstrations, legislative initiatives, ballots, etc) as well as the growth of additional product and marketing approaches such as “non-GMO” verification.
Figure: Total shares of GMO online articles over time (2009-2019)
Figure: Key Events and Online Engagement (2009-2019)
Social media has revolutionized how we connect as human beings and is a vehicle for sharing false or deceptive information (disinformation).
Disinformation is firmly planted in the ‘attention economy’, a competitive economy where human attention is a scarce resource.
Disinformation is used by vendors to attract readership with strategies to monetize it.
Disinformation influences public opinion and risk perceptions and this, in turn, results in policies developed based on disinformation rather than scientific evidence.
Disinformation has been used to problematize science, impeding innovation and affecting social license to operate across a number of sectors (science, farming and food production, etc).
Importance of the study
Distortion of science inappropriately raises the risk profile of good technologies which results in delays in getting socially vital products to the market (e.g., virus resistant cassava), or shelved or unrealized innovations (e.g., New Leaf potato, Calgene tomato), and even the loss of important research through vandalization of field trials.
Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J., Ecker, U. K. H., Albarracín, D., Amazeen, M. A., Kendeou, P., Lombardi, D., Newman, E. J., Pennycook, G., Porter, E. Rand, D. G., Rapp, D. N., Reifler, J., Roozenbeek, J., Schmid, P., Seifert, C. M., Sinatra, G. M., Swire-Thompson, B., van der Linden, S., Vraga, E. K., Wood, T. J., Zaragoza, M. S. (2020). The Debunking Handbook 2020.
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