“…if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” Thomas 1928 #technology #perceptions #food #mythmaking

Sara McPhee-Knowles, a brilliant young scholar with the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy discusses expert and citizen/consumer perceptions of risk in a paper published on the Valgen website: http://www.valgen.ca/10372/af.ca/public/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Comparison…. She outlines the results of in-depth interviews and focus groups exploring public perceptions of risk with respect to biotechnology in food comparing and contrasting expert and lay perspectives. McPhee-Knowles results generated two dichotomies… “…some see biotechnology as a novel technology while others see it in its historical, scientific context (e.g. similar to using yeast yet more advanced)” (page 3). According to McPhee-Knowles, “…risk perception theory and practice has a potential impact on citizen behaviours and by extension on government decisions. Regulators inside government are working in a constrained world where public risk perceptions can exacerbate the likelihood of making Type I or Type II errors (i.e. approving an unsafe product or rejecting a safe product)…”

Through this paper, McPhee-Knowles introduced me to a new theory. The Thomas Thoerem states that “…if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas, 1928 as cited in Merton, 1995: 380). Merton (1957, 1995)). This particular theory, in the context of McPhee-Knowles’ paper, reminded me of and prompted me to re-visit a book review I wrote a year or two back for the journal /Science and Public Policy.

In /The Myths of Technology: Innovation and Inequality/, Burnett, Senker and Walker edit and present a piece of literature on complex myths that develop around technology in the fields of ICT, nature, society and, relevant in this context, biotechnology. They explore the mythic ideas and ideals that shape society’s perceptions and expectations of technology. The editors assert that the “…boundaries between myth and knowledge are at times slippery…” (1). This edited edition offers Contributions from wide disciplinary perspectives and examine the boundaries between subjects and objects of technologies. “…[M]yths appear in all systems of thought serving civilizations and ordinary people in everyday life…” (4); they “offer characterizations and explanations of human life…” (6). This collection groups myths around two polarized perspectives of technology and attempts to offer a balanced perspective between these two:

1. technology is the answer to all of our social, economic and political problems
2. technology will be the downfall of millions and “…is the harbinger of the destruction of civilization…” (11)

The final section (Part III), in particular, examines myths in nature, society and biotechnologies. For example, Davis and Flowers explore myth and biotechnology in the context of the HIV epidemic. The expectations of a biotechnical fix are viewed as a kind of techno-myth where the promise of cure may be worse than the disease itself. Although biomedical solutions for treatment are essential for self-care practices, the authors suggest that it brings further technical uncertainties and perils. Treatments can be undermined by a myriad of social and structural constraints such as the economics of drug development, unequal global access to such treatments and issues of citizenship and access. In particular, techno-optimistic promise of treatment and cure may lead to complacency in terms of safe sex practice on the part of those at risk. This could lead to wider spread of infection (Type I/II error?). Senker and Chataway address the controversies associated with agricultural biotechnology where proponents (multinationals) and critics (NGOs) “…accuse each other of promoting myths and denying facts…” (171). Myths examined here span the continuum from anti-GM ‘frankenfoods’ to broad motherhood statements made by industry advocates with promises to ‘feed the world’. To alleviate the dichotomous tension, Senker and Chataway offer up a key institutional solution in the form of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). The primary role of such intermediary institutions is to provide a ‘middle ground’ for discourse and practice and to balance the diverging interests of technology advocates and technological cynics to genuinely improve food availability (PPPs to manage Type I/II errors?). With that, I return to the Thomas Thoerem:

“…if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas, 1928 as cited in Merton, 1995: 380). Merton (1957, 1995)).

Is mythmaking the precursor to defining situations as ‘real’ or is in fact an intermediary between definition and perceived consequences? 

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