FOIA: The new four-letter word (re-post)

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.

PPPs2

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.

thehumansocialanimal2

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.leaf2

radically transparent5

 “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

― Dara Ó Briain


Related articles:

Brown, Kristen V. (2016). “How internet trolls silenced a scientist…and why we need to rethink our entire approach to harassment online.” Fusion. February 24th.

Brown, Tracy. (2016). “It’s silly to assume all research funded by corporations is bent.” The Guardian.

Genetic Expert News Service. (2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.”September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“. The GRIST. September 9.

Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.

Ropeik, David. (2015). “What’s More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?” Big Think.

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2016). “Who Should Fund University Research?” BioBeef Blog.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Select References:

BioChica. (2015). “The funding of science: public & private sector collaborations.” FrankenFoodFacts.

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). “Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development”. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Academics Review.

GeneticsExperts.org (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”.

Giddings, V., R. D. Atkinson, and J.J. Wu. (2016). “Suppressing Growth: How GMO Opposition Hurts Developing Nations.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. February.

International Development Research Centre. (2014). “New public-prviate partnerships address global food security.” http://www.idrc.ca/en/regions/global/pages/ResultDetails.Aspx?ResultID=133

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation DeficitReport/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three-part series beginning with “Who funds my weed science program?”, “I am biased and so are you”, and “On transparency, intimidation, and being called as shill”. Weed Control Freaks. August.

Novella, Steven. (2015). “FOIA Requests to Biotech Scientists.” NeurologicaBlog. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/foia-requests-to-biotech-scientists/

Orac. (2016). “Transparency” should not equal a license to harass scientists. Respectful Insolence. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/01/11/transparency-should-not-mean-a-license-to-harass-scientists/

Spielman, D.J. F. Hartwich, and K. von Grebmer. (?) “Public-private Partnerships and Developing-country Agriculture: Evidence from the International Agricultural Research System.” Future Agricultures. http://www.future-agricultures.org/farmerfirst/files/T2a_Spielman.pdf

The Library of Congress. (2016). “Morill Acts.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Morrill.html

Monitoring your information diet

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.

Here are some statistical ‘appetizers’ for you:

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.

Image by: Morgan Housel (Source: Unsplash)

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)).

Photo credit: Marcus Wallis (source: Unsplash)

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: the bad stuff is always easier to believe

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 Journal on 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)).

  • Summary:
    • 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.

Fig. 2

  • Figure: Total shares of GMO online articles over time (2009-2019) 

Fig. 3

  • 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.

2) This blog post from LinkedIn The bad stuff is always easier to believe: disinformation, modern ag, and societies provides useful background and links.

Profiting-from-Disinformation-The-Case-of-Genetically-Modified-Organisms-Bayer-Crop-Science

3) Don’t want to read the whole study? I get it and I don’t blame you! If you are a podcast lover and love the audio experience like I do, here is a SciPod summary of the paper which provides a 9 minute easy-listening overview of the paper. Profiting from Disinformation: The Case of Genetically Modified Organisms.

4) Additionally, check out this letter I wrote for Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business on disinformation and advocacy: Dis/misinformation: difficult to detect and hard to ignore.

5) Here are some @CamiDRyan Twitter threads on the topic:

6) Communicating Ag in an Attention Economy, Talking Biotech Podcast with Kevin Folta.

If you have any questions or comments, please reach out!

Other resources:

Carley, K. et al. (2020). Many Twitter Accounts Spreading COVID Falsehoods.

Caulfield, T. (2020). Twitter thread on Misinformation (includes infographics).

Evanega, S., Lynas, M., Adams, J., Smolenyak, K., & Insights, C. G. (2020). Coronavirus misinformation: quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’.

Institute for Strategy Dialogue (ISD) (2020). Anatomy of a Disinformation Empire: Investigating Natural News. Report.

Johnson, N. F., Velásquez, N., Restrepo, N. J., Leahy, R., Gabriel, N., El Oud, S., … & Lupu, Y. (2020). The online competition between pro-and anti-vaccination viewsNature, 1-4.

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.

Ryan, C. D., Schaul, A. J., Butner, R., & Swarthout, J. T. (2020). Monetizing disinformation in the attention economy: The case of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)European Management Journal38(1), 7-18.

Van Krieken, R. (forthcoming) Economy of Attention and Attention Capital. Forthcoming in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer & Chris Rojek

Farmers grow more with less and that’s good news for everyone!

I had the opportunity to spend a day at our Jerseyville R&D Farm with the #WiSE group. Here’s what I learned!

How did civil litigation become such ‘big business’​ and how is it that the US system seems so different than the Canadian one?

Here is a link to my latest post in LinkedIn.

Excerpt: “What I have grown to understand is it is short-sighted for any of us to debate the outcomes of any case in any part of the world without first having a deeper discussion about litigation norms, cultures, and practices. Norms, cultures, and practices vary by country and jurisdiction.”

Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it…

Highlights:

  • Transitioning from the public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector is challenging – both professionally and personally.
  • Learnings:
    • being different is an asset,
    • being vulnerable can lift you up,
    • asking for help is OK, and
    • maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards.

——

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Four years ago today, I started my job as Social Sciences Lead with Monsanto.

The decision to transition from public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector was part strategy and part leap of faith for me. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I considered my options (along with other offers that came my way) and I decided to join Monsanto. My role was the first of its kind in the company; the first of its kind in the industry. The career challenges associated with that alone attracted me. But I was also keenly aware that social science and humanities disciplines serve an important role in understanding and informing society during difficult times. The agricultural industry – and food production more broadly – was struggling with a public image problem. While my publicly funded research activities had been largely devoted to understanding this complex environment and in communicating through it, I also believed that my new role would present greater opportunity to be part of meaningful solutions. The move to Monsanto was a risk – but it was a calculated one. I viewed this opportunity as a social science case study of a lifetime.

But I underestimated just how tough that transition would be.

After more than a year working for the company remotely from my home in Alberta, I jumped at the chance to move down to headquarters in St. Louis to work face-to-face with my Monsanto colleagues. I made the move in December of 2015 and my husband, Blair, joined me a couple of months later. We settled on a lovely little farm outside of Eureka, Missouri; one with a charming old farmhouse (in need of an update), a barn, and space that could accommodate our collection of critters (horses, dogs). It was all very idyllic and I was optimistic about the future.

Then everything changed.

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By mid-March of 2016, I found myself firmly wedged in a soul-sucking depression. In hindsight, I can identify several triggers for this. I left grown kids, friends, and family behind in Canada. I really misjudged how difficult that would be for me; how lonely I would find life so far from the people I loved. And don’t get me started on the daily commute. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (current population ~300K) was largest city I’ve ever lived in my life prior to this move. So, a 40-minute commute on major artery (formerly known as Route 66) intimidated the hell out of me. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great way to start and end each day in a job that I was already struggling to wrap my head around. I was in a new country, experiencing a new (corporate) culture. To say that the colour had faded from my life was an understatement. My days were grey and interspersed with a series of drab, monochromatic moments. I also noticed the subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) way relationships changed with my old academic friends and colleagues. Where once doors were held open wide, things had now been reduced to awkward exchanges through peepholes. While I anticipated I would be met with these kinds of challenges when I made the leap to the private sector, I was not prepared for how I would feel about it when I faced them. It was like I’d been voted off the island.

monochromatic

To be clear, this bout of depression wasn’t my ‘first rodeo’. And while I was disappointed to find my feet firmly planted in another one, I was also grateful when I finally recognized it. What I’d learned from past experiences was that being open and honest about my depression didn’t make me broken, it made me human. I recognized a pattern, too. Depression seems to find me at times of mind-numbing upheaval in my life (loss of loved ones) or major life shifts (physical moves or career changes). With this latest bout, I discovered that I lacked the emotional bandwidth to manage a life change of this magnitude. I needed help. And I got it.

Let’s face it, you can’t find your way around depression, you must find your way through it. A turning point came for me later in 2016 when the farmhouse renovation was finally done. We settled into a home life that was free of disruptive construction noises; one with a fully functioning kitchen (for us, the heart of the home). I could finally ‘nest’ and establish our ‘sanctuary’. While my connection to friends and family in the home country had indeed changed, by this point we had come up with fun, new ways to connect in creative ways through daily texts and Snapchat groups. Something that also really helped me through the dark days was guidance I received from my new boss. She provided me with a compass (a map, if you will) so that I could navigate through this very puzzling space we call ‘corporate culture’.

Companies like Monsanto traditionally hire people with know-how in finance, law, communications, agronomy, plant genetics, and engineering. I was different. I was firmly entrenched in my identity and experience as a social science academic and – for a while -I didn’t feel like I was a “fit”. You know, the proverbial ‘square peg’ in a ’round hole’. I often think that the  transition would have been so much easier if there were more people like me at the company. I recognized long ago the value that people with expertise like mine can bring to a company like this; to an industry like agriculture. But it took a while for me to convey that value in a way that my Monsanto colleagues could connect with and understand.

There are huge opportunities for all manner of social science and humanities disciplines in the agricultural industry. While corporations need to better recognize these opportunities, academia also needs to get past its antipathy towards corporations. There is room for and real opportunity in corporations for people with all kinds of expertise in the social sciences and humanities: people like cultural anthropologists, behavioral scientists, social psychologists, etc.

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bullet-Leaf

Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it. The transition from public sector research to the private sector represented a move away from my academic ‘clan’. I was wholly unprepared for how this would affect me personally and professionally. The good news is that I found my way through it. I learned the language. Yes, there’s a ‘language’ here in the corporate space.  I learned how to communicate my ideas in ways that my colleagues could understand so that I could mobilize those ideas and get things done. I realized that I could navigate and find a place in this corporate space while still maintaining my values and my identity.

We often underestimate how even the subtlest of shifts in life can impact our capacity to manage them. What I’ve discovered through all of this is that being different is an asset, being vulnerable can lift you up, asking for help is OK, and – most importantly – maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards. You just need the courage to persevere.

cami chair
I do love colour! 🙂

Resources:

The Do More Ag Foundation “helping champion the mental well being of all Canadian producers”

Free the PhD! Find the Job. Get the job. Love your life outside the lab.

Schrage, Michael (2015). “Why the future of social science is with private companies.” Harvard Business Review. Available online at: https://hbr.org/2015/09/why-the-future-of-social-science-is-with-private-companies

Paech, Gemma. “Ten Lucrative Career Options for Social Science PhDs.” The Cheeky Scientist. Available online at: https://cheekyscientist.com/lucrative-social-science-career-options/

Ryan, Cami. (2016). Why is a social scientist working at Monsanto? Blog: Cami Ryan. Available online at: https://camiryan.com/2016/10/27/why-is-a-social-scientist-working-at-monsanto/

4 Steps to Good Storytelling

shutterstock_583889863 [Converted]

Last year, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.

In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful?

The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I ended up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story – when it’s told well – releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. These chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.

As an industry, we have come to recognize this power that storytelling has. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience. Yes, farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:

1) Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If stories don’t reflect our personal and network identities, we are less likely to connect with them and the storytellers because – let’s face it – our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.

2) Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Think outside your own bubble (community, tribe, sector, discipline, vocation…).

3) Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:

  • Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
  • Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
  • Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.

4) Avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is when we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then quickly move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.

Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. We must keep in mind, however, that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek avenues to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.

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This blog post a slightly re-imagined version of guest postI wrote for SAIFood.ca in May 2017. That original post is here.

The Closer You Get… the fear and disgust response

32 years ago today, Blair and I were in a serious car accident. It was soon after we were (first) married and I was pregnant with our first son. You don’t know our son Abraham because Abraham didn’t survive.

As I often do, I like to write my way through things. It helps me to understand myself and the world that I live in. I’ve always journaled. And some of my journal entries I’ve turned into public blog posts (edited, of course).

So, here’s one about that tragic time in our lives. Warning: a lot of it is “sciencey”. It is about the human cognitive and behavioral response to tragedy and how that can shape the way we view risk (fear); the way we perceive others and the world (with fear). It’s also about mind-numbing and soul-sucking depression – if you care to read between the lines.

Excerpt: “There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.”

More here….

Food fads and grey matters

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) is one of my favorite writers. And while I can easily spend hours pouring over her thoughtful and creative prose and poetry, I also love this quote of hers:

“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”

I ran across her quote today and it prompted me to pull this blog post out of the archives… a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. It’s tough work but now, more than ever, critical thinking is vital in navigating our information rich world.

More here

Self, society, and the science of (side parts &) skinny jeans

Updated: March 31, 2021

The Twitterz and the TikToks tell us that skinny jeans and side parts are to the Gen Z generation today what fortrel pants were to us (Gen X/Boomers) in the 80s. Have you heard of fortrel? It’s how we referred to polyester, back in the day. (Yes, I just said ‘back in the day’).

This post is a re-imagining of one I wrote back in 2017. Its title was “Self, society, and the science of skinny jeans.” I took some liberties.

bullet-LeafThis past weekend, for the umpteenth time, I cracked open Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: why our brains are wired to connect (2013). I skimmed through it like I normally do with non-fiction books. I picked out bits and pieces – like an uncle foraging through a Sunday smorgasbord – finding things that I find intellectually appetizing (AKA things that confirm my bias).

lieberman

Photo credit: author

Among the many gems outlined in this marvelous book, one passage in particular stood out to me. The author refers to Neitzsche, who argued that:

“…our sense of self is typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives, and that the self is actually a secret agent working for them more than for us.”

We humans are herd animals. We respond to signals from those around us; the world around us. We see this behavior play out, for example, in how we respond to cultural trends. Here’s an example.

Remember when skinny jeans first emerged on the fashion scene?

I said, “Yuck. No damn way.” A few months later, I was… “Well, maybe…” Now I have three pair. For some reason, skinny jeans became a palatable fashion choice for me. So, what’s that all about?

skinnyjeans

Image source: Pixabay

We are influenced by those in our close personal networks. Our nature is to elevate and preserve the status we have (or aspire to have) within our social ‘herd’. This means that we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, we will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are highly influenced by the people around us, our environment (work, etc). This influence frames our behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. And even what we choose to wear.

When it comes to fashion, I have always been “fashionably late”; slow to respond to changing trends. I eventually get there (well, somewhere in the vicinity anyway). But once there (and I’m finding this more and more the older I get), it’s harder for me to pick up on new trends. I am comfortable in my habits and sensible footwear. Inconsistence-Avoidance Tendency (bias) is strong with this one – at least from a fashion-based perspective. Look, I’m not going to die on that skinny-jeans-fashion hill. But knowing me, it will take a while to move onto the next trend. And the ‘nudge’ will inevitably come from the people closest to me.

skinny jeans

By the way, if someone is giving you grief about your skinny jeans or your side part, let it go. Every generation has its own (sometimes embarrassing) stereotype. The younger generation will always enjoy needling the older generation(s).  The older generation will say things like “…back in the day…”

It has evolved into a cultural right.

The young are too young. The old are too old.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

*This blog post is an updated excerpt from a post Ready, Set, Shame! (April 2016).