Calling Activists 'Anti-Science' Doesn't Work

By Rod Lamberts

Editor's Note: This article was provided by The Conversation. The original is here.

The ABC recently reported that 400 people in the Philippines trampled vitamin-enriched “golden rice” trial crops because of fears to human health and biodiversity. A Greenpeace representative in Manila was quoted as saying they will not be apologising.

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It’s very easy to see this as the mindless actions of ill-informed ideologues and anti-science luddites. And make no mistake, I am appalled by what they did, just as I was when it happened at a CSIRO lab in Canberra in 2011.

But as my rage subsided, my brain came back online.

This Is Not About GMOs

The pros and cons of GM food are not what’s at issue here. For those interested in pros and cons, see here, here, and here for a variety of perspectives.

What’s at issue here is people, and understanding what’s happening when people disagree. Reading the many outraged responses by people in the scientific community – for example here and here – it seems clear to me that “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”.

The proponents of GM rice and its benefits clearly have positive intentions, and they are understandably upset. Some of the pieces decrying the acts of the crop vandals explicitly refer to these activists as being “anti-science”.

But to dismiss this, and similar, disagreements as ipso facto reflecting an anti-science mentality is not only simplistic, it’s actively misguided.

For example, in this piece by David Tribe and Richard Roush earlier this week on The Conversation, the authors quote a Greenpeace activist who was part of the group who destroyed an experimental crop at a CSIRO facility in 2011. She apparently said she is "a huge fan of what the CSIRO does in many areas, and particularly on climate change and … yes … but I believe that not all science is equal."

While I abhor the action of she and her mob, and in fact loudly condemned it at the time, this quote suggests hers is patently not an anti-science position.

But it is certainly an anti-GM one.

Rejection of some science and the relevant supporting evidence is not, on its own, a rejection of all science.

Practising Persuasion

If the goal of people doing, and promoting, worthy science like this is to help people and encourage uptake, accusations of being anti-science will not help.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the activists’ actions. If you want to win over hearts and minds, characterising those hearts and minds as knuckle-dragging, anti-science morons, or quaintly deluded simpletons who just don’t know any better is not a productive tactic.

Protestations from the pro-GM side that opposition to their work is simply not supported by the scientific literature shows an understandable, and fervent, devotion to science. But it can also sound detached, indignant, even righteous.

Righteous indignation, even if unintended, does not persuade well. Expect it to meet a resistance, if not an active opposition, that is proportional to your own passion.

To imagine anything else reveals a lack of familiarity with the complexities and power of human values, fears, and traditions. That these might not seem rational in theory does not render them any less real in practice.

Science Meets People: An Old Chestnut

There is a classic position in the science communication literature which goes, roughly, if you meet resistance to science, throw facts at those who resist. If that doesn’t work, throw more facts at them, and throw them harder.

This approach, though roundly debunked, is unfortunately still a common default.

We know very well that scientific illiteracy rarely causes rejection of science. Frequently it’s the very human urge to maintain and stand up for the values of their group that leads to such rejection.

Rationality goes out the window when values are at play, as a recent study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues demonstrates brilliantly.

In this study, when different people were shown exactly the same numeric data in exactly the same format, their appreciation of the data varied depending on their attitudes to the subject matter under consideration. Basically:

Respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream.

Errors of numeracy were dependent on the issue the numbers represented, not the numbers themselves.

We All Want the Same Thing, Kind Of

The arguments for using golden rice are strong. Vitamin A deficiencies are acknowledged as being serious and important by pro and anti-GM groups alike. In seeking to address such deficiencies, they actually want the same thing.

Where they differ is how best to address such deficiencies. And protestations about saving children, while easy to depict as self-evidently worthy, can be used by both sides.

I am not against GM, and I do not come from a country where vitamin A deficiency is a concern. I will not be offering the activists advice.

I do, however, work with the sciences. And for scientists I have four suggestions.

1) Change your language, change your mindset. When people oppose something you see as science-based, it does not necessarily mean they oppose science. To approach the world this way is unlikely to be productive (and is probably also just plain incorrect).

2) Science practice is not immune from bias and self-interest, nor is scientific research free from cultural influence (consider halal vaccines, for example) .

3) Some people have very good reasons to be suspicious of scientists and science. In the last week, for example, a researcher from Tufts University was barred from doing research with humans after feeding GM golden rice to Chinese study participants without informing them it had been genetically modified. I’d be peeved.

4) Explore, understand and accept that science doesn’t know everything. Take your time if this is difficult, but try to accept this broadly, and come to terms with it deeply. There are complexities inherent in human interactions that invoking “science” doesn’t magically nullify. This is not some vague, post-modernist, anti-science position: it’s just true. If it weren’t, then problems such as this golden rice brawl would not occur.

If scientists genuinely want to take the highest possible moral position (and I believe we should), a broad view of humanity is essential. If we want people to change a position, view or practice, scorching them with righteous fire is not the best way.

That’s being as naïve about human nature as your opponents appear to be about science.

The Conversation

Rod Lamberts is Deputy Director at Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University. He has previously received funding from the ARC.

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