Spiral of silence preventing truth in technology discussions

Opportunity still exists to help inform consumers with factual information and relate on a personal level the advancements of science in agriculture.

Today the public is getting their information from mediated realities which aren’t amplifying what scientific facts are actually saying, according to Alison Van Eenennaam, recipient of this year’s Council for Agricultural Science and Technology’s Borlaug CAST Communication Award.

In a keynote speech on the sidelines of the World Food Prize event, she explained how a “spiral of silence” has shut out 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. And the internet only reinforces the spiral of silence that comes as a result of those exchanges, Van Eenennaam said.

Remember that rat study that anti-GMO activists regular cite? Within hours of the study being released, it had been shared 1.5 million times, she said. Never mind that the study had no control group for the 200 rats that they studied, the type of rats used in the study were already prone to have tumors and a two years is a long time for a rat to live, which is an important consideration in touting a long-term two-year study.

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 an active education and outreach campaigns.

Issue papers such as one Van Eenennaam released on the impacts of mandatory genetic engineering labeling have been important in helping educate policymakers. She said it’s been 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.

During a panel session, Jay Byrne, president of v-Fluence Interactive which tracts consumer opinion and issue managements, said that the ongoing discussion regarding 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 shared that when consumers are presented with a risk, they then have to evaluate whether that risk causes a true concern and there is an opportunity to intersect with that concern. For instance, prior to mad cow disease being confirmed in the U.S. cattle herd, public confidence in the safety of beef was at 68%. However, the U.S. cattle industry tackled misconceptions head on and one-year after the case consumer perception had increased to 86%.

The unfortunate situation surrounding the millions of dollars poured into GMO-labeling ballot initiatives has shown that it hasn’t done anything with accurately increasing public awareness and understanding, but rather pushed as a political campaign, Byrne added.

And as for trying to say biotechnology is needed to feed the increasing world population, Byrne says although it is an important piece of the story, it should not be the lead. “It’s become too much of an industry talking point and people don’t trust corporations making money off of those technologies,” he said.

Julie Kenney, an Iowa farmer who volunteers with CommonGround, shared that it remains important to engage in conversations with those who want to have a conversation. “Otherwise it’s just wasting our time,” she said. Spouting science also doesn’t register with all the current noise, she added. “Science is critical, but we need to take a play out of their playbook who have played to the emotion of it.”

Byne 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 where people’s opinions will realize it isn’t as bad as the fears. “We still have to keep up the fight and need to enlist academics, farmers and third parties,” he said to relate at a personal level with those trying to determine their opinion on different technologies and practices.

Bonus – Check out Van Eenennaam latest parody on #WhatDotheFactsSay at http://youtu.be/lhh0t-y86Xk. It includes clips from various television shows illustrating the disconnect that often occurs between what is portrayed in the media and the facts as they are widely accepted in the scientific community.

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