Biotechnology: communication and politics

I had the pleasure of speaking today with Matthew Nisbet, author of a controversial report about communication of climate change. Matt’s full report Climate Shift is well worth a read, but is a bit daunting at almost 100 pages. Andrew Revkin has an excellent play by play discussing Matt’s report as well as the commentary that has surrounded it: Beyond the Climate Blame Game. There were a lot of interesting ideas discussed at today’s meet and greet but I’ve pulled out a two ideas that are relevant to the discussion of biotechnology.

1) When talking about climate change, if we ever want to accomplish real communication, we need to find the scientists that are in the pragmatic* middle. These scientists in the pragmatic middle are more likely to be able to make themselves understood and are more likely to have things in common with the public in the pragmatic middle.

Does this apply to biotechnology? In some ways, I have to say no. Karl** and I are in the pragmatic middle in that, while we generally find the process of biotechnology to be safe and potentially useful, we agree that not all applications of biotechnology are beneficial and that many changes in regulation need to be made in order for biotechnology to fit into a diverse agricultural system. Neither of us are dogmatic about biotech, which you would think, as Matt says, would allow us to better communicate with the pragmatic middle. The problem that both of us face is: where is the public in the pragmatic middle, or how can we reach the public in the pragmatic middle?

The people who are talking about biotechnology in social media are decidedly not in the middle. Biotech is such a minor issue compared to things like the economy, unemployment, and even climate change, that those who are actively talking about biotechnology are firmly entrenched on either side of the badly drawn lines. People like Karl and I in the middle are drown out by the less pragmatic loud voices. I’m not sure what to do about that.

There is the added problem of people not believing the science. In both climate change and biotechnology, it seems that some individuals are insistent in their belief that scientists are somehow compromised, or bribed. In the case of climate change, there are accusations that even public scientists are motivated by greed, although this doesn’t make much sense as there are many other careers that are far far more lucrative than science that a person concerned with money might go into. In the case of biotechnology, there are accusations that all scientists are working for big industry, including public scientists, even when there is no evidence of a connection. Scientists need to learn how to translate their science into forms that the public can understand, but what is the point if people don’t believe scientists are a reliable source?

2) Studies, such as a survey of AAAS scientists, have shown that when it comes to climate change, politics has at least some effect on one’s stance on the science. While a high percentage of AAAS scientists accept anthropogenic climate change, a high percentage of those scientists are politically liberal. When you look at the small subset of AAS scientists that are politically conservative, that subset is much less likely to accept climate change. This indicates that acceptance of climate change science is not as greatly influenced by knowledge of the subject matter or ability to understand complex scientific topics.

Biotechnology does not seem to follow this pattern. Looking at scientists who accept the science of biotechnology, one finds politically liberal and conservative individuals. With climate change, an educational approach that aims to change minds through exposure to the science has not proven successful, possibly because of the strong political associations. With biotechnology, I hope that an educational approach could be more successful. As people understand more about the science of plant breeding and biotechnology, I hope that acceptance of the science, if not of the applications, of biotechnology could occur.

Real changes in policies, regulation, agriculture in general, won’t be possible unless at least some of the public is willing to look at the science and at least some of the scientists and regulators are able to realistically understand the concerns of the public. How can we communicate when perceived bias and political leanings get in the way of one or both sides? How can the pragmatic middles find each other and work towards better policy?


*pragmatic |pragˈmatik| adjective  – dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations : a pragmatic approach to politics.

** I have taken the liberty of bringing Karl, my co-executive editor in this blogging project, into my discussion here because in our discussions I feel that we have similar opinions on the subject of biotechnology and many other things. If this assumption is in error, it is entirely my fault and not his.


  1. Matt gave a great talk about this subject this evening (questions are finishing up now) and he brought up so many interesting points from his report that I really want to read it now (as soon as that pesky thesis is over) but here is one more thought again about the middle:
    Even though the population that is dismissive of climate change science is small, they are very loud. Opinion intensity drives participation, which is seen in online forums. This is exactly parallel to what I see in discussion of biotechnology. How do we engage the 75% of individual in the middle who have not yet made up their minds? Framing the story correctly may help bring that middle into the conversation. What is the right frame or frames that could be used for discussion of biotechnology? Straight up science-based discussion does not work.

  2. Hi Anastasia,
    Roger Pielke Jr. has a good analysis on his blog about Nisbet’s paper. He says, basically, Nisbet’s idea is doomed to fail:
    ‘Of course, one could look at this data and conclude that environmental groups simply haven’t done enough education of the public or that the forces of darkness are still in the lead, as measured by spending, so more spending on “education” is needed. It is certainly a convenient argument to advance if you are in the business of trying to “educate” the public, especially if you are a recipient of foundation funding under the Design to Win strategy. It is also insane to expect to continue the same behavior and to see different results…What if the “education” strategy has morphed into destructive efforts to silence or discredit alternative voices in the climate debate other than those which espouse the narrow set of policy prescriptions endorsed by Design to Win? What if the entire theory behind the idea of rectifying a deficit of public understanding is based on flawed premises?’
    The non-scientists who tout Catastrophic Climate Change are nearly all the same ones who are anti-GE. Because the end game is about being more self-sufficient. Doing with less—of everything. Live a “Make do or do without” life. Why? Because, according to E. F. Schumacher, “highly self-sufficient local communities” will be “less likely to get involved in largescale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.” It’s about eco-topia.
    I am pro-GMO and anti-CCC. That our climate is (or was) getting warmer is not disputed. That our oceans are rising is not disputed (They’ve risen a couple hundred feet since the last ice age).
    What is disputed is the negativity of the scenarios and the worrying over a tipping point. I’m 60 years old and have heard the doomsayers’ warning all my life.
    The person who saved the most rainforest was not Lester Brown or Paul Ehrlich or any other doomsayer. It was Norman Borlaug (and the Haber-Bosch process).Had it not been for Dr Borlaug and fossil fuel (for fertilizer and fuel for equipment), vast swathes of forest would have been cut down to accommodate organic farming.
    The difference between AGW/CCC and GM is that AGW/CCC forecasts and models, and GM/GE can point to its history of Zero problems that billions of meals have been eaten and no one has ever been made ill by GM/GE food.
    Pielke sums up with, “Anyone concerned with political decision making in a society that contains a diversity of partisan and ideological perspectives should be concerned that, in one sector at least, the experts that we rely on have views that are far different than the broader society. One response to this would be to wage a political battle to try to convert the broader society to the values of the experts, perhaps through the idea that improving science communication or education a great value transformation will occur.
    My sense is that this strategy is not just doomed to fail, but will have some serious blowback effects on the scientific community itself.”

  3. I am glad to see that agro biotech and climate change are mutually poor analogies. If you want to see what’s happened in the climate change industry, visit ‘129 Climatae Scandals’, This is the sort of stuff you get whan Greenpeace and the WWF are on the peer review panel.

  4. It seems important to me that the science of climate change is aligned with what the left already believes and the science of biotech is aligned with what the right already believes. In center-left Europe, climate change seems like old news to the public while the people of the center-right (and technology-obsessed) States seem on the verge of embracing genetic engineering (e.g. the ‘Jeep are genetically engineered’ commercials).
    The trick will be convincing people against their intuition. I wonder if it’s not so much that we need moderate voices, but we need voices that are philosophically aligned with the upset minority (yet go with the science when it comes to the controversial issue).
    As far as biotech goes, I think we need more input from people who see sustainability as a major priority (not just as cynical marketing) – and see genetic engineering as an honest tactic to get there. I think this is one of the most effective traits of communities like Biofortified – it gives the opposed minority a chance to hear from people who have the many of the same values but come to a different conclusion.

  5. I disagree that biotech is so politically aligned with the right. Karl and I break the stereotype, as do Pam and Raoul of Tomorrow’s Table (I make an assumption here about their political leanings, but I’d be surprised if I was wrong). I think that aside from biotech we have more in common with opponents of biotech than we do with the typical proponents (hence my post a while back Why I’m not Pro GMO). There are also many libertarians and conservatives that are against biotechnology (and even selling seed in general) that break that stereotype, just look at those weird seed commercials that appeared on Fox a while back.
    I truly think that the problem with biotech is information / misinformation, not politics, unlike climate change where politics is correlated with acceptance of the science regardless of the amount of knowledge a person has. I need to do a lit review to see if anyone has studied this, and if not, perhaps I’ll write a grant for it sometime. It wouldn’t be that hard to study, I have experimental designs dancing in my head already.
    I do agree that the trick is to have more voices who are philosophically aligned with the upset minority, but this doesn’t seem to be working so far. Despite our efforts to show our philosophies and our own commonalities with that minority, such as my Sus Ag minor and CSA membership and Karl’s beekeeping, people are so set in their opinions that they disregard our similarities and even go so far as to invent ways that we may be different (such as accusations of being shills). What can we do to make this better? Sadly, being ourselves is apparently not enough.
    I’m very glad that you think Biofortified can be part of the solution. If you have any ideas on how we can better engage the pragmatic middle, I’m all ears (eyes?).

  6. And then we can also look at the “scandals” and find quite a bit of fabrication by those who are politically opposed to acceptance of the science. See Skeptical Science for individual discussion of those issues.
    While it is possible that some scientists are bribed, do you really think this is a systemic problem? As one of the speakers here at the Science Communication symposium said today, there are 100s of studies by government and non-profits vs a handful of studies by industry.

  7. In so far as politics is ever discussed at work I’d be surprised if a great number of my colleagues identified with the right politically – the liberal bias of reality tends, in my opinion, to make scientists more likely to be left leaning.

  8. I’d be interested in real data on the extent to which political leaning is associated with biotech opinion, but in my opinion the fracas over GM food is perfectly in line with the left’s preexisting mistrust of corporations and their focus on environmentalism and things being “natural.” similarly, the center-right’s assumption that businesses can be trusted until proved otherwise (and recent suspicion of “elites”) seems in line both with their non-plussed reaction to GM food and suspicion of climate change. (except when it comes to diets/medicalizing food, which all americans seem to freak out over). I’ve had more than one conversation with an upset anti-GMO person who, realizing they couldn’t explain their opposition to someone who actually UNDERSTANDS the issues, declared there wasn’t anything productive in continuing the conversation. If it was really just mis-information, I don’t think it’d be so hard to get through to people.
    I agree that scientists skew heavily left, and in that I think we’re an outlier in the biotech debate and have the unique opportunity to get through to our like-minded left-leaning citizens who disagree on this one big issue. The tricky thing though about doing this through the internet is that it your support of CSAs and bee keeping is not very visible and is easily dismissed as a ruse.
    Specifically, I kinda see two complementary approaches to getting through with biotech issues: 1) blogging as the constant voice of measured, scientific reason in response to new stories and popular culture and 2) blogging more generally on sustainable ag and slow food to establish credibility and only engaging biotech issues occasionally. The plant ag/gardening blogs that come from these more politically aligned perspectives seem more effective to me than many of the animal ag/ranching blogs that are NOT politically aligned with their target audience and mostly seem to harp on animal rights groups.

  9. Thanks for your comments. I haven’t read Nisbet’s full paper yet, but based on his talk and the Q&A session, I don’t think he’s saying what Pielke says at all. As far as I can tell, Nisbet is saying that we need to move away from politicizing of climate change issues and decrease doom and gloom portrayals that do not motivate action anyway.
    I agree that positive action by people like Borlaug has done far more than environmentalists could do, but we also need to consider motivation to regulation. Where would we be if activists had not pushed for better regulation of chemicals in industry and agriculture? While people like Carson had doom and gloom it was useful for pushing others to make positive change.

  10. “And then we can also look at the [Climategate]“scandals” and find quite a bit of fabrication …” The assumption that the pro-GM people are fabricating is an equally bad position.
    What makes the difference is the willingness to look for corroborating information. Allow me to add, I have been following scientific shenanigans surrounding climate for a dozen years, and I can promise you, the allegations made by Mr. Gosselin at his site are well-documented.
    If your doctoral dissertation was of the same quality as the latest report from the IPCC, you’d be in a great deal of trouble.

  11. The problem is that people misunderstand the science or how the science is done and then think it’s some sort of scandalous coverup or that all of the data is made up. Additionally, if you start out wanting to believe the data is false then you’ll come up with a way to convince yourself that it’s false whether it is or not. A primary tactic is taking things out of context, which is what happened with the “Climategate” nonsense. For some info on that specific case, see:
    The shenanigans is on the part of people who don’t have the necessary education to really understand a subject but like to tell people they are an expert. Frankly, I don’t see much difference between Jeffery Smith and all the climate “skeptics”. Most of the stuff on the site you posted doesn’t have anything to do with the science but is barely related time wasters, like complaining about celebrities flying around in private jets. Who cares what a celebrity is doing, let’s look at the peer-reviewed science.

  12. It does seem that anti-biotech sentiment is firmly rooted in anti-capitalistic sentiment for many if not most anti-biotech people. It’s confusing to me that they can’t then consider non-profit or government biotech made explicitly for helping people (like Golden rice or virus resistant papaya in southeast Asia). When asked about it, the people I’ve talked to give old or wrong talking points about biotech, like mentioning the old version of GR or antibiotic resistance marker genes. I’ve had a few people start to reconsider their stance after I’ve calmly provided them with current, accurate information. Of course, that’s anecdotal – and perhaps more importantly – the people weren’t dogmatic and the interaction was in person. Their minds were more open and we had a personal trust and respect – neither of which is seen in a lot of internet discussions.
    I agree that blogging on general agricultural sustainability issues in combination with the science is the best way to reach people. In fact, we should be doing a lot more of those general sus ag type posts. I’d like to see people coming here for factual info about great new (and old) sus ag methods then occasionally see an article about biotech or other things. I have often talked to the ISU sus ag students about writing posts here, but have been busy/lazy to pursue it. Perhaps I should try harder to get them to post. They have very interesting research that should be talked about and it would perhaps help people become more frequent visitors to Biofortified. Hmm.

  13. I think it’d be great if we could get more general sustainability/sustainable ag posts on Biofortified. Sometimes I wonder if we come off a little strident, always reacting to the most recent biotech misinformation instead of just talking ag science… I’ll try to do my part to send more general ag stories over here.

  14. Yes! You and Anastasia got it. Would love to see the site move this direction.

  15. The scientists whom I know who are involved in developing GMOs are almost overwhelmingly left-leaning. But then, nearly everyone I know with a Ph.D., in any field at all, is left-leaning. US colleges and universities are almost entirely left-leaning.
    Those in the anti-GMO movement lean the other way, almost. Most of them are fascist, i.e., they are so far on the Left that they are coming in from the Right. Individual farming decisions are no longer voluntary, but rather, imposed by a government that’s smarter than farmers.

  16. It seems to me that a comparison with anti-vaxxers is more right for the situation with biotech. And there’s a lot of overlap in the communities there.
    And part of the root of both of those is mistrust of the corporations involved. I’m not saying it’s legitimate mistrust or not, but that it does exist. It’s really not about the science.
    I think it will really take some stuff coming off patent, combined with some wins from academic/public projects–especially in developing countries–before some of the hysteria will subside. I don’t know if there’s any way to talk people down now. I have had people tell me that they don’t think GMOs are as bad as some people say, but that they hate teh-big-M, ya know?
    Another thing that might help is alliance with the DIY-biohacker community. They are modifying stuff in their basements and closets. That might be an entry point into the middle–hobbyists.

  17. MaryM,
    Your mention of the DIY biohacker community points out a strange dichotomy.
    First off, these people tend to work with microbes. In microbial research, E. coli is a laboratory work-horse. If there’s anything going on that would draw the attention of the antis, and claims regarding ‘unregulated GMOs running amok’, this would be it.
    What are we hearing from them? Not a peep. I would like to suggest, based on this experience, that the antis are more about ‘Big Bad M’ and Korporate AmeriKKKa than about the actual science involved.

  18. Yeah, i’ve been following the DIYbio google group and was surprised by a ranting anti-Monsanto thread a few weeks ago. it was focused on the anti-corporate complaints that you’d expect from a diy/hacker community but i found it pretty ironic nonetheless.

  19. First of all, great post, and I’m glad that you had a chance to talk to Matt Nisbet – he unfortunately had to cancel his visit to Madison a couple weeks ago.* Second, I agree on your assessment of my overall opinion about ag biotech.**
    It is completely true that there is a large, pragmatic middle to this issue. What opponents of genetic engineering don’t get is that their opinions are not shared by the broader public, and that the vast majority of people fall into the undecided category. They want to know more information, and want to see things that may benefit them. There are too many things in their lives that they have to decide what they believe in that this issue does not come up on their radar. Genetic engineering is also not very politically polarized, unlike climate change. While a few studies have found a small political correlation between being liberal and being against GE, the correlation was not strong and was not consistent across studies and locations. Gender is the same thing, with women slightly more cautious, if there is a difference at all.
    Campaigns are currently being waged at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s markets – exactly the places where people are already in agreement. While the anti-GE folks are decidedly more vocal than the pragmatic middle, they are also not thinking about the pragmatic middle, or understanding their perspective. The idea that the perceived risk of GE might be mediated by a price difference does not compute to an ideologue, for example.
    The key will be understanding what the people who are undecided value, and seeing how controversial topics can appeal to those values. There is a lot of room for education in this, especially since there is a measurable desire for more information. How best to provide it: Humor, pointed debate, or journalistic approaches to current stories as they unfold, such as golden rice? Hmmm.
    * Bloke owes me an interview in exchange for an already-given jar of honey!
    ** I am so like, more middle-of-the-road than you are. You’re the Vandana Shiva to my Jimmy Carter. Just kidding!

  20. Yeah, it’s funny: I’m near the People’s Republic of Cambridge (US) where biohacking is really heating up. I have had this type of conversation with hippie biohacking-supporter friends–“you really support unregulated and unmonitored genetic modifications in the name of *freedom*? You really support raw milk for children? But you think a GMO corn chip is the spawn of Satan? And that GMO alfalfa will poison your organic milk? Seriously?”
    Even funnier: I’m involved in a lot of “personal genomics” discussions lately with some of the same people. They insist that we must keep the FDA out of this so that companies can do what they want….Er, really?
    It’s bizarro world.

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