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

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.”

4 Steps to Good Storytelling

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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.

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). 

Monitoring the ‘information diet’: learning from the Registered Dietitians

bullet-LeafIf you listen to only one podcast episode this year, let it be this one. My friend, Robyn Flipse – Registered Dietitian and Cultural Anthropologist – chats with Registered Dietitian and podcaster Melissa Joy Dobbins (on her program, Soundbites) about how we are influenced by food cultism.

A summary of Robyn’s ‘nuggets’ of ‘food’ wisdom…

  1. We are the only animals that use symbolism in our lives. We apply that symbolism in many ways (for example, think currency). We also apply symbolism to food. We give food certain status and meaning in our societies and cultures.
  2. Our human nature leaves us vulnerable to influence by “food gurus”; people that step in and play on our fears and anxieties that we naturally have as humans. We are susceptible to the dogmatic traps and ideologies that these gurus use and perpetuate. They use language with claims about food that can “detoxify” or “purify” us.
  3. This, combined with our need to “belong” to tribes and social groups along with the influence of social media has left us vulnerable to food cultism and influencers. We are often willfully blind to the fact that there are usually a profit-based motives driving these food-related ideologies.

The one statement that Robyn made that really stuck out for me was this one:

robynF

What and how to eat: we humans need to be taught and shown.

I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. And it makes sense. It also reminded me of a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago: Fast Information Nation: the social costs of our highly connected world. As is the case with food, we need to be taught and shown how to consume information:

Excerpt: “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…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.”

In short, not only do we need to monitor our information diet (“calories” in, “calories” out), we need help in understanding how best to consume information in a balanced way. Especially in this fast-paced, socially-media driven world that we live in. This requires some work – discernment and critical thinking. Some good guiding principles can be found through these sources:

 

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Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

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What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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Ideological Bias & Social Survival: don’t get voted off the island!

My colleague, Bill, popped his head into my office one day with two words: “Ideological bias”. Then a few more: “What do you know?”

I shared some info with him. And I thought that I would share it with you, my reader.

ideological bias

Ideological bias is less of a ‘thing’ than it is a family of things. It is defined as a collection of ideas, or beliefs, held by an individual, or a group of people. Ideology and bias – together – are built upon commitments to and consistency of ideas usually in the form of promise, effort, money, beliefs, relationships.

Ideological bias is a part of a broader family of interconnected behaviors and biases.

  • There’s confirmation bias where humans like to seek out information that affirms their world views. If faced with (accurate) information that shakes the ground beneath ‘sacred cows’ (beliefs), one is more likely to retreat and follow information that supports a personal world view. And if that accurate information is delivered in a such a way that is received as a ‘personal affront’ (so, poorly communicated), we are left with a backfire effect that can push people even deeper into ideological spaces.
  • There is also identity protective motivated reasoning which reinforces personal standing in social groups. What dominates people’s fears today is social alienation. This kind of motivated reasoning protects people from this.
  • We also become solution averse (which is linked closely to both identity protective motivated reasoning and confirmation bias) where we just avoid workable solutions (like GE crops) because they do not resonate with our ideological bias or world view.
  • Biased assimilation might sometimes be involved (or appear to be involved) when identity protective motivated reasoning is at work. But because sticking to what one believes doesn’t always promote one’s status in one’s group, people will often be motivated to construe information in ways that have no relation to what they already believe. (Kahan looks at this / see his quote below).
  • Further complicating (polluting?) the environment is media bias wherein decisions by editorial staff and journalists shape news stories to suit political opinions. We see this in play out currently in ‘fake news’ or through ‘alternative facts’ (not to mention, our interconnected, social media-driven world just adds to all of this).

There are others: intellectual and emotional bias, political bias, sensory bias, social bias, and content bias. The list is endless. But a key underlying element to all of this is how personal networks become a very important ‘enforcement’ factors for and key outputs of ideological bias. Yale’s Dan Kahan says it best:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

struggle is real

Social networks are important to the human animal; for status, personal identity, and for survival. In our outreach efforts, we must seek ways to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their close personal networks – and compromise their identities.

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Food, fads, farming, and grey matters

brain-storyIn his article “The Logical Failures of Food Fads” (published in Slate in April 2015), Alan Levinovitz raises an important point that often gets lost in our science communication pursuits:

“Spotting the fatal flaws requires no scientific knowledge whatsoever, just a rudimentary grasp of rhetoric and logic…”

Many of us in the science communication space have realized that traditional, patriarchal, deficit model-driven strategies often fail because of the ‘backfire effect’. Maria Popova (Brainpickings) quotes David McRaney about this phenomenon:

“Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them.”

Our lesson here? While communicating the value of science is very important (and, truly, we shouldn’t lose sight of that), how we actually carry it out matters even more.  Perhaps the end goal here is less about changing hearts and minds and more about encouraging critical thought.

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Sketching out some cognitive maps through some of those more messy food myths may sometimes be the best way to help people discern between facts and fiction. The human brain is a magical, messy place. If our outreach efforts don’t include ways to help people navigate their grey matter, we will lose folks to those that tell the best, most provocative stories.

And a bit of self-reflection on our part – constantly challenging our own biases as science communicators – doesn’t hurt either.

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Related: Here is a link to one of my go-to pieces, Cook and Lewandowsky’s “Debunking Handbook” (6 pages, a quick read). One of the most important points that the authors make here is that you can’t debunk a myth without providing some kind of narrative to replace that myth.