Sunday, August 19, 2012

Be Aggressive.

Once credibility is established, and in the absence of a subject matter expert to correct the record, people will believe what they're told.

Think about that for a minute.

In the 80's and 90's, you saw this with the tobacco industry.  Tobacco lobbyist would come out against whatever scientific study came out and you really didn't hear anything from the scientists until papers started getting read in Congress that showed executive's efforts to cover up health risks.

Similarly, Activists and activist profiteers - those who latch on to activist causes for profit like Michael Pollan - have the audience's ear; an audience that serves as a blank slate and recruitment tool for the activists. Of course, the activist profiteers need those fresh faces to sell books and book speaking engagements.  So these people build the perception of credibility through the lack of other adults in the room questioning them and setting these activists and profiteers straight.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with being an activist or being a profiteer.  The problem is when the profit comes from misinformation, like in the case of the tobacco lobby or Michael Pollan.  The problem is when activists use misinformation to recruit more people.

"[Nutritional Science] is kind of where surgery was in the 1650s. Really promising, really interesting ... but, would you let them operate on you?" - Michael Pollan, Speech at Sydney's Opera House.
For science to progress, for reason to move forward alongside our debates about food, there must be an answer to that above statement.  How many times do you think that got repeated as people got into buses and cars and headed home or to dinner that evening?  How tragically ironic is it that one of the people advocating for and romanticizing subsistence level farming put down modern nutritional science as being too simple... not advanced enough?

We need to be more aggressive in promoting science.  We can't just set the facts out on the back porch like milk in a saucer in hopes that science starved kittens will lap it up.  Those kittens are on someone else's porch getting an earful about how bad your milk is, and when they do come around, it will be to make some snarky, matter-of-fact statement about how wrong you are before sauntering off with their tails wafting through the breeze.

"There's a wisdom beyond what people tell us, we have just stopped listening to our bodies."                      - Michael Pollan, Speech at Sydney's Opera House.

This is actually a variation of the God of the Gaps argument made in Creationism.  If they don't have all the answers we need right now, then we must not accept any of the answers they have and be skeptical of everything they say.

You don't see this in other areas of science. In astronomy, you had Carl Sagan, who had facts on his side and credibility.  After him, came people like Michio Koku and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I would consider to be our generation's Carl Sagan.

For those on #agchat and #foodchat on twitter who would advocate being more diplomatic, I would like to add that Mr. Pollan's speaking engagement in Sydney was most likely a paid gig.  The people he sent out into the world with that message - either directly or indirectly - paid to hear it.  So if people will pay to hear that message, how far do you really think being diplomatic gets you on the free internet?

And it's not just Pollan, either.  We have activist organizations, who through their activism, have become profiteers.  You have Michael Jacobson and his Center for Science in the Public Interest.  You have Jeffrey Smith and his Institute for Responsible Technology.  You also have the somewhat misleading named, Union of Concerned Scientists.  I could go on and on.

We need to share resources, use our best professional groups and get out there and fight the misinformation.  We have groups like the International Food Information Council and the Institute of Food Technologists that we can network in and find people to do media appearances through.  We can appear with one of these groups when they end up on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, Hardball, et cetera.  We can invest a little more time to social media by posting tweets about what we do as farmers, or plant geneticists, or food scientists, or food science professionals.  We can put out blogs, youtube videos, and podcasts to broadcast the truth about science.  Hell, one or two of us may actually get booked for paid speaking engagements.

But that would be offense, and the conventional wisdom among too many is to not be argumentative, to sink to their level.  What we get with that strategy is what we currently have now, a landscape dominated by activists and their profiteering hangers on, who say whatever they feel is right, regardless of whether it's true.  Their numbers grow, and science shrinks.  Hysteria soon becomes fact.  Get off the bench. Be aggressive.

Story about Pollan's speech in Sydney.

Recap of Jon Entine's speech at IFT 2012.


  1. YES! I was just thinking about this the other day on how science advocates need to go on the offensive instead of dealing with the daily defensive gish gallops for which they often get mired.

    While a better understanding of science and critical thinking by the general public is important I think a gap needs to be bridged where pseudoscience gets actively engaged.

  2. I think we need to compile a list (If someone has not already) of Anti GMO promoters that show their industry links as well as how much they make from their non-GMO stance personally and from the products they sell. Sort of a most wanted poster project. When their minions cry "shill" I want to be able to link to a cite that shows how much they gain by their rhetoric. Well that and a frozen dead carp to beat them about the head but I usually refrain from that as it is not considered polite.

  3. I understand your point but I always tell people to follow the science, not the money. It's just a vicious cycle of finger pointing to trot out their list of pay masters, because then it becomes a matter of who does the public believe more, and I don't think food/ag science wins out in the court of public perception.

    I think it is far better to explain why a methodology is flawed, or the very premise that led to a study is flawed, or why some study's correlation doesn't actually work as causation. We're all just treading water until we get stronger science education in this country.

    Until then, we can only really fight Food Hysterics to a tie.


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