'Spiral of silence' shuts out science, truth

'Spiral of silence' shuts out science, truth

Most people are, to some degree, fearful of isolating themselves in social settings, and this makes them less likely to express unpopular opinions.

MOST people are, to some degree, fearful of isolating themselves in social settings, and this "fear of isolation" makes them less likely to express unpopular opinions in public.

In a keynote speech on the sidelines of the World Food Prize event, Alison Van Eenennaam, recipient of the Council for Agricultural Science & Technology's (CAST) 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award, explained how this "spiral of silence" has prevented scientific truth from prevailing in many important topics pertinent to agriculture, including pasteurization, biotechnology and animal genetic technologies.

Groups in mediated realities reinforce old biases and end up insulated from what the actual facts show. The internet often fortifies the spiral of silence that comes as a result of those exchanges, Van Eenennaam said.

Remember the rat study regularly cited by anti-biotech activists? Within hours of the study being released, it had been shared 1.5 million times, she said. Never mind that there was no control group for the 200 rats studied, that the type of rats used in the study were already prone to getting tumors and that two years is a long time for a rat to live.

Van Eenennaam applauded land-grant universities and scientists for trying to take a more proactive communication approach on some of these hot-button scientific issues through active education and outreach campaigns.

Issue papers, such as one Van Eenennaam released on the impacts of mandatory labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have been important to help educate policy-makers. She said it's vital to interject truth into that informational void and try to tackle the very little factual information that gets circulated in social media.

"Even if you have one person supporting a minority opinion, that tends to deplete much of the power of those in the majority," she said.

(Watch Van Eenennaam's latest parody on #WhatDotheFactsSay at http://youtu.be/lhh0t-y86Xk.)

During a panel session, Jay Byrne, president of v-Fluence Interactive, which tracks consumer opinion and issue management, said the ongoing discussion of biotechnology, although not always positive, is actually good news. "We actually have to go through this period if we want the public to not oppose the technology," Byrne said.

He explained that when consumers are presented with a risk, they have to evaluate whether that risk causes a true concern; there is an opportunity to intersect with that concern.

For instance, prior to bovine spongiform encephalopathy being confirmed in the U.S. cattle herd, public confidence in the safety of beef was at 68%. The U.S. cattle industry tackled misconceptions head on, and one year later, consumer confidence was at 86%.

Unfortunately, the millions of dollars poured into GMO labeling ballot initiatives show that nothing has been done to accurately increase public awareness and understanding; it's merely pushed as a political campaign, Byrne added.

He said issue fatigue is coming. Although those entrenched in their positions may not be swayed, the issues will be changing in the next three to five years, and people will realize it isn't as bad as feared.

"We still have to keep up the fight and need to enlist academics, farmers and third parties" to relate at a personal level with those trying to determine their opinion on different technologies and practices, Byrne said.

Volume:86 Issue:43

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