I just picked up Paul Bloom’s latest book “Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion”… I’m about halfway through (and enjoying it) and it reminded me of this blog post that I wrote last year: “In Her Shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations”…
I clearly recall the first time I saw an article that I co-wrote in print in an academic journal. It was exhilarating. While I knew that the ‘real world’ (friends and family) would likely never read it, for me it was a visible, tangible record of my accomplishment and a signal to my peers that this young scholar had “arrived” in the academic world.
I’ve Been Published! For an academic, research is the daily work and publications coming out of that research are a public record of that research. Only when an article is published can others truly examine the research, critique the results and attempt to replicate it. Replication of research is the one of the main principles of the scientific method.
In a way, peer-reviewed publications are a form of currency and trade in academic circles. How often and what kind of journals you publish in becomes a gauge of your proficiency or ‘brand’ as an academic. It can play a huge role in one’s career advancement.
The quality of a publication is measured through citations and impact. How often an article is cited can be indicative of the substance of the work that one does or serve as evidence of follow-on or related research arguments or observations. The impact factor of a journal, itself, is a proxy for the relative importance of a journal in each field of work. The higher the impact factor, the more scholarly cachet an article published in that journal has (for more info, check out “Peer Review in 3 Minutes“).
The overarching objective for a scholar (say, a social scientist like me) is to impact policy in some meaningful way. In many cases, the work that scientists produce leads to important innovations that serve public good more broadly (think seatbelts, GPS, flu shots, or solar cells). Publishing such works is not only meant to be a record of public dollar investment in important research, it is also an important part of the value chain that brings new innovations to people that need them.
The Problem with Publishing 1.0 While academic journals are a very important part of the knowledge and innovation value chain, many have not (necessarily) been readily accessible for most people. They are often hidden behind user pay-walls. So, even if my dad or my sister wanted to read one of my journal articles, they probably couldn’t access it – even if I gave them a bread crumb trail (a URL, for example).
The promise of “open access” (OA) was hoped to remedy all of that with the assurance of accessibility for everyone. It certainly raised expectations for those of us that valued the whole notion of openness.
The Problem with Publishing 2.0 Yet this promising new world of easy online access and share-ability also cultivated a new and unsavory market for less trustworthy model known as “predatory publishing”. These publishers have questionable business models that spam scientists with emails enticing them to publish in journals that guarantee quick turn around in terms of the peer review process in exchange for a “fee” (see this). Make no mistake, these publishers are in it for the money. (And with that money, predatory publishers are starting to buy up legitimate journals).
Two things come out of this:
- Predatory publishers attract authors with politically-driven agendas who understand the space and take advantage of peer-review shortcomings, and;
- They also trick good scholars into submitting good scientific works into spaces that ultimately de-value that work.
Why do I care? Two words: scientific integrity.
Back to my story and the first time that I saw one of my articles in print. Through appropriate peer review, my work had earned a place in reputable scholarly space that could be recognized, replicated, and further peer-reviewed. I was proud of that accomplishment. It was a mark of my research abilities and a signal to my peers as to the quality of my work.
Unfortunately, OA and its promise for accessibility has been blemished with the introduction and rapid growth of predatory publishing industry. Scientific integrity is at risk. As scholars, we need to distinguish the good journals from those ‘other ones’. As consumers, we need to think critically about how science is represented in the media.
Science is all around us. It is in architecture (in our homes and the buildings we work in), in the mechanics of our cars, and in the technology of cell phones. It is in our medicine and food and in how we produce both. If agenda-driven or poorly peer-reviewed science is making its way into downstream spaces of media and social media there are implications for society. This creates unnecessary barriers for socially and economically valuable innovations through misrepresentation of science and technologies.
When scientific integrity is at risk, so is society. We should all care.
Beall, Jeffrey. (2016). Scholarly Open Access: Available online at: https://scholarlyoa.com/
Giddings, Val. (2013) Peer Review – where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning! Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Available online at: https://itif.org/publications/2013/07/12/peer-review-%E2%80%93-where-you-thought-it-ended-that%E2%80%99s-just-beginning
Rennie, D. (2010). “Integrity in Scientific Publishing.” Health Services Research. June. 45(3). Available online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875766/
Rennie D., Yank V., Emanuel L. (1997). “When authorship fails. A proposal to make contributors accountable.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. Aug 20;278(7):579-85
Ryan, Camille and John Vicini. (2016). Why You Should Avoid Predatory Journals, Welcome Rigorous Review. Forbes. Available online at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/06/30/predatory-journals/#410a888a5558
Retraction Watch. Available online at: http://retractionwatch.com/
White, E. (2011). “The Peer Review Process: Benefit or Detriment to Quality Scholarly Journal Publication.” Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology. Volume 13, Issue 1. Available online at: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1185&context=totem
In 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.
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.
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.
This is what happened when Alexander J. Stein, an economist from the EU with research interests in ag and food security, was asked this:
“Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…”
To which he responded:
“Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…”
Alexander Stein provides your one-stop shop for everything GMOs and safety and public perceptions … And if all that isn’t enough, check out these resources that I have compiled (some overlap with AS’s)
As you can tell, GMOs is not a topic that you can throw down in a one-hour google search or by surfing through your social media feed. Thanks AS for Bringing Light into the Discussion about GMOs! Great blog post!
Several weeks ago, I was notified by my alma mater (the University of Saskatchewan) that the US Right to Know (USRTK) had submitted an Access To Information Act (ATIP) request seeking the production of documents pertaining to “…Camille (Cami) D. Ryan, formerly a professional associate in the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics at the College of Agriculture”.
I was not surprised. Why? For the past year or more, I watched this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issue unfold. High profile academics working in agricultural research and outreach all over North America, and their home institutions, were subjected to public records requests from USRTK. I have had close working relationships with only a few of these academics. One is my former PhD supervisor, some have been co-authors on articles or chapters, others I have had the opportunity to meet/work with at conferences or other science-related events. Many I haven’t even met while others I have only connected with in passing. I know them all by reputation. These academics are credible, public sector scientists with decades of experience working in agriculture-related research. They are plant and animal geneticists, political economists, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc., who – through their work – are making significant steps forward in crop research, varietal development, and in how our food is produced and distributed in the world. While I recognize that I am just a ‘small fish’ in a ‘large pond’ of brilliant academics, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I received a request due to these connections that I have and (more likely) to my recent move to Monsanto.
What the FOIA?!
FOIA and its Canadian equivalent, ATIP, are laws enacted to allow for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by government organizations (including public sector universities). These laws and the ‘request mechanisms’ are intended to protect public interest by ensuring that public sector organizations and those that are employed by them are operating on the up-and-up. Quite simply, they are accountability mechanisms.
Early last year, 14 US scientists were targeted with FOIA records requests. As of now, that number has risen to well over 40 and more recent efforts have expanded into multiple rounds of searches of emails requested by not only USRTK, but other NGOs, activists, and journalists as well. All are intent on looking for “nefarious” connections linking public sector researchers with corporations and other industry organizations.
Let’s be clear. Relationships between academics and industry do exist. I have blogged about the Genome Canada model here. Few, if any, academics would apologize for these kinds of interactions. In the agriculture sector, academic-industry connections have led to important changes in the food security system, to the development of better crop varieties, and other innovations that have social and economic value. The impetus behind this is laid out in the Morill Act (Steve Savage talks in more detail about that here) with the stated purpose for Land Grant universities to promote research, education, and outreach in the “agricultural and industrial arts”. Yes, outreach. The relationships between the public and private sectors are part of this mission to ensure that socially and economically valuable innovations reach the people who need them.
FOIA Me. FOIA You.
The tidy little package that the USRTK will receive from the U of S will consist of only 168 pages of emails sourced from my account via the university server. These emails were generated based upon a search (17 search terms identified by USRTK such as “Monsanto”, “Syngenta”, “BASF”, “Ketchum”, etc) of my email folders covering the two-year span of time from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013 (when my research contract ended with the U of S).
Yep. That’s 168. Pages. This is a mere drop in the FOIA bucket. In my case, the estimated invoice for production of these documents by the U of S for USRTK is ~$3500 CDN. But this amount doesn’t even begin to reflect the actual costs imposed on university faculty and personnel, including those that work in IT, administration, and the university’s legal department. Now, amplify these kinds of costs across 40+ FOIA respondents and their home institutions. Imagine the time, administration, and opportunity costs that have been amassed all across North America for this FOIA initiative.
The social and economic costs are considerable. This means less time spent on conducting research, training graduate students, teaching, and writing/administering grant applications.
While USRTK and others purport to uncover mass collusion in agricultural research, what they are really uncovering is the social, human animal at work. Nothing more. These are scientists – #scientistsarepeople – working in related areas, interacting with one another and exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and co-publishing; working to find solutions to social, economical and scientific challenges that cannot be addressed by any one person, organization or institution in isolation.
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.
“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
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.
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 Deficit. Report/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
I presented to my team today. So, there’s that…
Under the Influence (CBC) has been a favorite program of mine for some time. Terry O’Reilly, the host, explores the evolution of marketing from the 20th century into the 21st century…it’s really fascinating stuff. I always enjoy O’Reilly’s honey-smooth vocal intonations as he creatively grounds his observations in real-world scenarios. In this podcast from 2013 called Shame: the secret tool of modern marketing, Terry “…peels back the layers of shame in our modern world.”
To understand how marketing works today, O-Reilly says “we first need to go back in time”. Unlike today, in the early to mid 1800s we didn’t really care a great deal about how we smelled or what color our teeth were. Through an effective advertising strategy of “social shaming”, companies have been able to position their products and gain market share for the past 150 years. This approach is characterized through messages like: “Control that body odor, people are talking about you!” or “Halitosis is making you a social pariah” or “if you have whiter teeth you will attract the right partner”.
What do bad breath, yellow teeth, and body odor have to do with this blog post? Nothing really. But this whole notion of “social shaming” certainly does. By explicitly promoting the benefits (i.e. whiter teeth) of a given product, companies are implicitly communicating negative social impacts by not using the product.
Setting the “shaming” scene
Last fall, I attended a local community event in rural Alberta where there were a number of young moms in the room, balancing cherubic babies on their hips. I eavesdropped in on an exchange that went something like this:
Mom #1 says proudly: “Jacob just moved up from rice cereal to baby food.”
Mom #2: “Oh, what are you feeding him?”
Mom #1: “Oh, I picked up [Name Brand] baby food at [Store Name]. We are trying that for now. We bought a selection of different vegetables and fruits to see how he likes them.”
Mom #3: “Well, I certainly hope that it’s organic!”
Mom #1: “Um… I don’t know. Well, I don’t think so…I…”
Mom #2: “I only feed Kaelynn organic baby food. In fact, I special order it in from [Specialty Baby Food Company].”
Mom #3: “I’ve heard about that! I feed my baby natural baby food with no preservatives that I get from [Local High-Priced “Natural” Grocery Store].
Mom #1: “But isn’t that expensive?”
Mom #2: “Yes, it is more money than the supermarket-bought brands but my Kaelyn is worth it.”
Mom #3: “…After all, Mom #1, the safety and health of our babies is important.”
Mom #1 looks awkwardly at her feet and shifts healthy, cherubic Jacob to the other hip.
Mom #2 and Mom #3 mentally un-invite Mom #1 from the next play date.
We humans are social animals
As Matthew Lieberman says, we are “wired to connect” (2013). Our nature is to elevate and preserve status we have within the social ‘herd’. To do so, we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network. If necessary, humans 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. Our social environment has changed a great deal over the years where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have grown into central components of our daily human-to-human interactions:
“…social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant…A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure.”
– Jason Manning, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University –
Tapping into our base fears
Because we are pack animals, we rely on our personal networks for affirmation and survival. If socially ostracized, our visceral response is that our ‘survival’ is in jeopardy. Advertisers are well-aware of these fears. It is not only companies that employ these kinds of tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products. The ‘social shaming’ strategy is effectively used by different actors in various parts of our social world to influence behavior and public opinion. Via social media, we can easily lob shame-bombs at anyone we disagree with while ducking real accountability for those actions (often shielded behind anonymous profiles).
And sadly, as the above story illustrates, we often use these same shaming tactics on our own friends, family, and community members.
Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:
- Brown, Brene. (2012). “Listening to Shame.” TedTalk.
- Christakis, Nicholas and James H. Fowler (2009). Connected: the surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown & Company.
- Christakis, Nicholas. (2010). The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. TedTalk.
- O’Reilly, Terry. (2013). “Shame: The Secret Tool of Modern Marketing.” Under the Influence. CBC.
- Popova, Maria. (2013). “The Science of Why our Brains are Wired to Connect.” BrainPickings.
- Rutledge, Pamela. (2015). “Shame on Social Shamers.” Psychology Today.
- West Virginia University – Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. (2015). “Social shaming and the search for validation.” ScienceDaily. 16 April.
This table has received a ton of attention over the years. I appreciate your interest and your requests for pdfs of it. It is, however, tired and outdated and it always lacked the greater story and context around chronic toxicity.
Enter the great work of @MommyPhD and @Thoughtscapism. Together, these smart souls have re-imagined the information on acute and chronic toxicity into colourful, informative tables in high resolution format. Check out Measures of Toxicity on the Thoughtscapism blog!
Today is a good day to (re)launch my personal blog – now titled “Camistry” – showcasing its new, snappy design. Thanks to my very talented cousin, Shawn, for his creative input and for “re-imagining” my online look.
I also took the opportunity to update the “Dose Makes the Poison” table. Since I originally posted it exactly two years ago, it has gotten tens of thousands of hits.
Here is that table. The content is the same, but it now comes with a bit of an artistic facelift. 🙂
This table is also available in pdf format (better resolution). Send me a note if you would like me to send you the file via email.
In anticipation of International Women’s Day 2016 (IWD2016) (March 8th), I am re-blogging this post from 2013 on women, weeding, agriculture… from first world to third world.
“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” ― Nellie L. McClung