I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.
Q.2 How do anti-GM movements (e.g. Greenpeace vs Golden Rice) gain momentum? Is there any legitimacy to them?
The whole ‘momentum’ thing is multi-faceted. Did you know that almost 72% of North American adults have mobile technology and tap into online networks? This is significant when we consider the whole notion of “information” and the “information age.” We look to the Internet and our social media networks to ask our questions, get information. And there is a lot of misinformation out there. Especially about farming, technology and food production. The anti-GM movements are really adept at using our networks to circulate misinformation and to feed into our fears.
Factor into this our human cognitive habits:
1) Humans are conspiratorial thinkers: Public Policy Polling (2013) conducted a survey earlier this year where (among other things) it found that 29% believe aliens exist; 20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism; and another 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot. Conspiracy theories are a way humans react to uncertainty and powerlessness in our society. Our brains jump into analytical overdrive … so that we can create a story that we can understand around something that defies understanding.
2) People are conformists: As human beings, once we glom onto a belief or ideology, it can be difficult for us to move from that path. Our loyalties to these ideologies are communicated and reinforced by people that are closest to us; by those that influence us. The trouble with this is that if we are faced with scientific facts that quite literally shake the ground beneath our fictional ‘sacred cows’ we are more likely to ignore them and move onto the information that validates our beliefs (this is also known as ‘confirmation bias’).
3) People are pattern seekers: We humans like to ‘connect the dots’ …from A to B and everything in between. In fact, all animals do this. This is referred to as ‘associational learning’ or ‘patternicity’. It is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. This is why we can easily see the man in the moon. Anecdotal association is a form of patternicity. We hear anecdotes everywhere. For instance, “My cousin tried this herb and he was cured of his diabetes.” But anecdotes are not evidence. And while science and its methods and protocols are only a few hundred years old – superstition and magical beliefs are an age-old part of the human condition. So, anecdotal thinking comes more naturally for people.
4) Finally, people think in ‘pictures’ as a way to visually organize and process information using parts of the brain that pulls together the emotional and creative. Unlike words that will go in one ear and out the other, Images go directly into long-term memory where they are forever etched. This is why the term ‘Frankenfood’ is so incredibly powerful and visually provocative and why it is so widely used in memes and in anti-GMO narratives.
This is why the anti-GM movement has been so successful. Actors in the movement understand the human condition, they know how to use the Internet, they recruit celebrities and they leverage mass media to push their agendas. Think about it. Activists can recruit the ‘citizen journalist’ (anyone) and they can get them to circulate the propaganda AT NO COST AT ALL. It’s a good business model. Although, I don’t think that most people consider organizations like Greenpeace or PETA as corporations. But they are highly corporate (bottom line motivated for memberships, donations and they have to compete for those dollars with other NGOs). These organizations can get away with more (than what we think of as traditional corporations; eg, Monsanto, Cargill, Dow, Bayer, BASF, etc) because they play by a whole different set of market rules. Gross misrepresentation of facts and fear-mongering are key tactical strategies of any activist movement. Sadly, NGOs and interest groups can carry out these activities knowing full well that there will be no legal repercussions. No accountability means no ethical boundaries. On the road to a fictitious town called Altruism, ethics are quickly thrown under the wheels of the Activist bus. And passengers (the public) are often none the wiser. There have been some real costs to all this (see: https://www.google.ca/#q=counting+the+cost+of+the+anti-gm+movement).
Now, the upside of activism is that it allows the public to voice their concerns and to legitimately lobby for change. These actions make corporations and government accountable for their actions and activities. And that can be a good thing and is an important part of democracy and democratic engagement. But sometimes activities are destructive (GR in the Philippines, GM wheat at CSIRO in Australia, etc) and manipulative (scary memes, bad science trussed up as good science (Seralini study, Seneff study, etc)) and wholly misrepresents things. It’s difficult for most people to distinguish between good and bad science – – – between good, balanced reporting and rhetoric in the media.
We live in a messy social media world where, to me, the democratic model plays out like it’s on steroids. The truth is that good, reputable science – whether it’s medical, agriculture, or engineering – is not scary or sexy. It doesn’t resound off walls like a marching band. And it doesn’t come with press conferences or book and movie releases. This means that good science doesn’t always make for good headlines or good stories.
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