What Shiva can Teach us about Science Communication

Written by Kevin Folta

We can learn a lot about people from not just what they say, but how they choose to say it.  Communication scholars claim that something like 75% of meaning comes from non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues are not just gestures, they come from our rate, volume, proximity and our willingness to absorb feedback.  Many suggest that the non-verbals communicate true intention, and that these signals may not always match the words.
When we critically evaluate the non-verbal performance of Dr.Vandana Shiva on China’s CCTV, (beginning at 23:00 min) we learn a lot about the person. This video is a MUST WATCH.  Portrayed by her supporters as a kind-hearted and gentle defender of the downtrodden and the environment, we see her true colors. It is not just her words, but the way she chooses to say them. We can analyze her communication style and rhetoric and draw some important conclusions.

If you want to learn how NOT to discuss biotech, watch Shiva closely. Nobody learns anything from an angry steamroller.

The discussion was about biotechnology, particularly the interface between biotech and China’s policies. China is a massive importer of GM soy and corn.  However, activists have made amazing headway in tarnishing the reputation of a technology that Chinese scientists are poised to dominate. Anecdotally, there are literally thousands of potential products, from disease-resistant rice to improved corn, that Chinese laboratories are set to release.
Back to Shiva.  The host was aware of the limited time for the conversation and she asked specific questions.  Rather than answer the questions directly, Shiva took the opportunity to grandstand, speaking loudly and angrily over the host while other guests sat quietly. She blatantly ignored the host’s requests for order and was abrasive and disrespectful.

Aspects to Note

She dominates a conversation.  There is an angry arrogance that comes off from the first moments at 27:20.  From 27:50 to 28:50 she loudly ignores the host and and attempts to control the flow of what is designed to be a discussion.  The host even had to reign her in, stating, “We’re not having a shouting competition Ms. Shiva…”
The camera actually pulled off of her to a wide shot of the stage to at least take the focus away from her domineering.
She does not answer the question.   The host even asks her to specifically answer a question about if we need to carefully consider all forms of genetic improvement.  Shiva goes into a rant on long-laid-to-rest claims about antibiotic resistance and viral promoters, never answering the question.
Emphasis on fear building.   Note the hard emphasis on “toxin” when discussing Bt.  Of course, we know that this protein is not toxic to non-targets, including most insects, but for her agenda she must install fear by manufacturing risk using key buzzwords.  She also claims that there is no testing or regulation, which is patently false.
She plays to the myth and conspiracy.  Not only does she lay on the monarch butterfly canard, she claims that independent scientists are “being silenced”.  She raises Pusztai and Seralini as examples of scientists that were silenced, ignoring of course that nobody else has replicated their work, and the scientific community notes those authors as less than credible.


What can we learn about Shiva?   She’s a hard-line activist that is not afraid to distort facts, play to old myths and rely on conspiratorial thinking.  She will raise her voice when she can’t elevate her argument.   She avoids the questions, and comes off as an agenda-driven politician more than a knowledgeable scientist.  That’s not surprising, because she actually is a politician and not a knowledgeable scientist.
What can we learn as biotech communicators?    Soft is persuasive.  To win hearts and minds we can’t come off as hard and angry.   We must always respect the forum.  It is important to actually end a sentence, and speak directly to the question.
Most of all, it is not only the  words that have meaning.  It is also how the words are presented.  As scientists, our ideas flow better if we are a kind conduit.
Editor’s Note: originally published at Illumination.

Written by Guest Expert

Kevin Folta has studied biology and agricultural biotechnology for over thirty years. His research examines the role of light in controlling plant traits, especially those relevant to agriculture. His group is known for using innovative genomics approaches to identify genes associated with fruit quality, especially flavors and aromas.


  1. Rather than shooting the messenger, seems that we should be more concerned about questioning ourselves about the current status and trends of our work, and our understanding (or lack of understanding) and put our energies toward the necessary science that must be done to get us through the health and food production emergencies we are faced with. We can do better than this. We need a food system that is less risky than the current system is… we need to progress, we need to question ourselves and continually improve the quality of our questions…. in order to get better answers, And, we’d better do it pretty fast.

  2. Ray, Kevin “emergencies” Where??? In the areas with food shortages the problems are due to economics and gov’t interference in distribution. Our food system is safe. There are very few food related health problems compared to the volume consumed. Also Kevin did not shoot the messenger. He pointed out his opinion how to do better than she does. He did a tactful job of not saying she is a liar. How is that shooting the messenger. Now if you, the anti g.e. activists and various gov’s and terrorist groups just get out of the way Us farmers will get back to using the profit motive to feed folks more efficiently and safely.

  3. Happy New Year!
    Ms – pardon! Dr. – Shiva has obviously had a bad day. She looked angry even before speaking. And she had to cope with a discussion leader who did not condone her bad manners.
    “What Shiva can Teach us about Science Communication” ?
    Absolutely nothing. Because she did not talk science.
    But what she taught us is that she can only shine if she is alone on stage or with like-minded people, and with a presenter who lets her roll out her bs. Actually, this CNTV debate is a rare one in which she participated.
    So, one lesson could be to have her invited more frequently to debates. And to have her respond more often to articles such as the recent Michael Specter.
    Turning to her lies (and half lies), she said that she sat on the first panel of the United Nations to institute the framework on biosafety (presumably the Cartagena Protocol). I could not check but if she sat as she says, it was in an observer capacity, presumably for the Third World Network.
    She was a member of the group at the fourth meeting of the open-ended working group on biosafety, in 1998. Interestingly with Mae-Wan Ho and Terje Traavik.
    Speaking of lies, she also gave an interviw to the French magazine Elle:
    « ELLE. Pourquoi avez-vous abandonné votre poste d’enseignante chercheuse à l’université de Bangalore pour prendre fait et cause pour les agriculteurs indiens ?
    Vandana Shiva. Parce que je ne pouvais pas tout mener de front ! Après mon doctorat de physique quantique au Canada, je suis rentrée à la maison, dans la vallée du Dun. »
    « Q.: Why did you abandon your position as a teacher and researcher at Bangalore University to champion Indian farmers ?
    A.:  Because I could not do every thing at the same time ! After my PhD in quantum pysics in Canada, I went back home, in the Dun valley. »
    May be one other lesson is that we should depict her more frequently as the compulsive lier she is.

  4. Sorry, I am too impregnated by the United Nations.
    Sitting in a meeting for the Third World Network makes you an “observer” with no power to decide and, in view of the number of participating States and observer entities, almost no opportunity to speak.
    When she made her remark, she wanted to convey to the audience that she had made an active contribution to the work – and a constructive one since she tried to fight back her description as an activist. This is absolutely false.

  5. Another example to support this was the IntelligenceSquared Debate on GMOs. The pro-GMO side won handily in part because they were respectful, clear and concise.

  6. Eric, you don’t see any emergencies rapidly approaching? Pollinator decline is not a concern? Draught is not an AG emergency over vast AG land? Phosphorus shortages are not a significant looming emergency? Water pollution into fisheries, and falling aquifers at AG areas are not an emergency to be very worried about? Contamination of breast milk with many contaminants that are being discovered to have estrogenic effects, androgenic effects, epigenetic effects, obesogenic effects, behavioral effects etc. are not very concerning to you and our food safety? Ocean dead zones with nutrient excess from AG isn’t a major threat to food supplies? Hmmm.. seems naive. A major world fisheries decline is not an important food supply emergency? The speed of global warming is not an AG emergency??? Wow!

  7. All serious issues. So let’s not obstruct the people that are trying to solve the problem by advancing baseless idiologies, okay?
    You said that we should be concerned about “questioning ourselves”. That cuts both ways. I rarely see environmental activists doing this and almost never see this in the antiGMO camp. But I see scientists questioning themselves on a regular basis.

  8. Ray, Some of what you have brought are issues. Not emergencies. Pollinators, Bee populations are rebounding in many areas. Obesogenic. The fact that some won’t exercise and make bad food choices does not constitute an emergency. Fisherman overfishing is a problem, not an emergency. Drought is a problem in some areas and no till, made more efficient by use of g.e. seeds is likely to help prevent soil erosion in the dead zones. So, hmmm…your comment, as usual seems like fearmongering.

  9. So, the obesity epidemic is only about ‘some won’t exercise, and make bad food choices”? Nothing to do with any commonly added food additives and contaminants? The rate of fisheries decline is not an emergency, just a problem? How fast does the trend have to be happening before you would call it an emergency? How much increasing dought ‘problem’ needs to happen before you would consider it to be an emergency? Seems like a very fast train moving straight for us… good luck with your sense of time scale. And, global warming speed of trend… what’s your timescale for seeing an emergency develope anytime soon??? And, drought affecting AG, when would you consider moving to western Oregon to find water (along with everyone else)? That will certainly
    increase the the sense of local emergency as great AG land gets paved over at a very fast clip. Glad to hear that the pollinator issue is fixing itself… so I did not really have to get paranoid about that, maybe all the other
    ‘issues’ will just fix themselves as well…. hell, I guess I might be able to retire after all and just play golf on organic grass.

  10. A lot of these problems can be alleviated with GE and GMO crops so your opposition to the technology doesn’t make much sense from a problem solving perspective.

  11. So, the obesity epidemic is only about ‘some won’t exercise, and make bad food choices”?
    It is a little more complicated than that, but only a little.
    Nothing to do with any commonly added food additives and contaminants?
    Only sugars.

  12. Chris, and Ray I may have over simplified “a little” and I am aware that many do not have easy access to the choices I have. Convenience is tempting and when I come home without the processed stuff shockingly enough I lose weight. Why Ray wants to make a big panic and exaggerate I will never understand. “epidemic” Ebola is an epidemic. Obesity is largely a marketing and choice issue. If folks quit buying the processed stuff and cooked from scratch more. The processed stuff would gradually disappear. Companies have a peculiar habit of discontinuing products they are losing money on. “Rate of fisheries decline” Limits, seasons and no fishing zones are gradually being imposed> Perfection? No, But we will not have perfection…….Nirvana fallacy. “pollinator issue is fixing itself” No, Bee keepers and Ag researchers are working on it. Water issues?? The great lakes levels are rising. Some of these things are cyclical.. Also this is sometimes a guns v. butter issue.. If the morons [read dictators and warlords as well as presidents etc.] would spend less on obtaining power by killing folks perhaps a bit of those dollars could be spent on desalination. I have noticed that many drought stricken areas are near oceans. Finally I would never consider moving to western Oregon even if a “very fast train ” is moving at me.

  13. Thanks Eric, and Chris,
    Good points, we all read different papers and get differing understandings out of them, we all have to weigh our understanding according to our experiences in the real world , which extends out beyond the labs and field plot controls. My take on it all is apparently more pessimistic than your general take on it. I am sceptical in ways that differ from the ways in which you are sceptical, but we are all trying to improve the science toward a better food supply and public safety. I get sad walking through the food isles noticing the heavily processed food labels
    on so many packages that contain so many ingredients I have been reading papers on that indicate to me distinct lack of efficacy for nutritional health while adding risk inappropriately.

  14. I can understand a temptation for a company to add a risk when some other public health gain can be potentially desired, but have a great deal of trouble undrestanding many of those risks that appear done only in the name of ‘profit gain’. The politics of profit gain inspite of science that suggest more caution should probably be taken (e.g. more research done first) stirs my scepticism… hence the sadness seeing shopping carts full of many of these products pushed by young children looking distinctly less than healthy. Corporate action needs to be guided by the science predominently, but many times the tail wags the dog.IMHO

  15. Ray, You mentioned news papers. I read them less and less . They are often sensationalistic and alarmist. I get subscriptions to National Geographic, Archaeology, Smithsonian, American history, and Audubon. Have found getting a longer term perspective and viewing issues in the context of fatalities from transportation and alcohol helps me keep things in context. There is risk every where, including that of losing sanity by paying to much attention to those who always think the sky is falling in order to raise their ratings. I do not mean to trivialize the issues that we must deal with.

  16. I think that you are painting food additives with a very broad brush.
    Additives are generally the most expensive ingredient in processed food on a pound for pound basis, so the easiest way for a company to increase it’s profit margin is to eliminate them from their products.
    But the reality is more complicated (and interesting)
    Often additives increase shelf life and prevent spoilage which is something that REDUCES risk, not increases it.
    Also consider that many additives increase the nutritional value of food such as B vitamins in bread and cereal and A vitamins in milk so it improves public health and reduces preventable disease.
    And yes many food additives are natural ingredients and found in nature. They are all not synthetic chemicals.
    (which actually says very little about how “risky” they are)

  17. Keith, your comment reminds me of the days when preservatives were getting all the flack. Then it turned out that a common one, Potassium something, is good for us and is easily digestible.

  18. Keith,
    Re: food additives. Yes, additives must be more expensive but some of them greatly increase profit. MSG is one that concerns me. Though originally a natural component in a seaweed, and desired due to the flavor enhancing effect, added to a huge number of processed foods, it has been suggested as having undesired side effects (not just in people sensitive by way of chinese restaurant syndrome), including neurologic effects with subsequent indications that it may be neuroexcitotoxic and quite possibly contribute to many neurologic disease progressions. The reason it is added so heavily is that it increases the persistence of neuronal firing in the tastebuds that provides the flavor enhancement, the desire to continue eating the treated food, and prolong the pleasurable effect…. and gain product familiarity and loyalty that translates into increased sales. Sounds familiar..No? This creates a strong need by producers to increase the MSG content beyond what the competition has put into their products. This escalates into a war of adding more and more MSG to foods.

  19. Eric, Yes, too true. Though I am undoubtedly seen by many on this forum as being alarmist, I do very much agree with your post above,

  20. I’ll need a source for all these claims. MSG is simply a salt version of glutamic acid, an amino acid that your body takes in regularly. It is likely to be converted back to acid as soon as it hits your stomach acids, if not, then before. No research that I know of has found a link between MSG consumption and any adverse neurological effects beyond a craving and most people evaluating food additives don’t expect there to be a problem.
    The additives might improve profitability by creating a more marketable product that is more palatable and shelf -life stable. But in a stricter sense, it simply makes a product more expensive to produce. You won’t convince a food manufacturer that adding additives doesn’t increase costs. They would find it to be a ludicrous statement. If a manufacturer didn’t have to add them to a food product, they wouldn’t. For the larger food corporations, those savings would be millions of dollars

  21. Keith,
    My understanding (very limited) is that MSG potential toxicity is anything but ‘simple’. Yes, apparently, as you suggest, MSG gets altered during gut absoption forming ketoglutamate and glutamine. Albrecht J. ’06 in Pub Med of “glutamine: a trojan horse in ammonia neurotoxicity”. and associated references outlines a mechanism
    whereby they can see that glutamate can re-emerge through these pathways in mitochondria. Glutamine and ammonia can yield astrocyte dysfunction. It is astrocyte dysfunction that then allows excess glutamate neurotransmitter at the synaptic cleft to stay longer than normal causing excess firing to exhaustion and even can lead to neuronal damage. Anyway this is ongoing research by many groups of researchers and not yet definitive apparently, but they offer a mechanism that has not ben ruled out yet whereby MSG ingestion may, contrary to other recognized authorities, still result in neurotoxicity. You could follow the Pub Med lines of research to speculate a bit in more detail about how we may just not know enough yet to be so positive that MSG additives are entirely safe enough.

  22. Ray, why not see what the FDA says about it? They do the literature evaluations for you.
    Your source indicates that “elevated levels” might be a problem. Cholesterol will be a problem at elevated levels also. So will sugar. But all these chemicals are critical chemicals in a lot of different metabolic processes and this also includes Glutamine and ketoglutamate.
    The dose makes the poison. The FDA estimates that we take in about half a gram of MSG daily which is a small amount compared to the natural dietary intake. The risk of this particular additive causing any problems is low.

  23. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. The article you’re citing is about glutamine – not glutamic acid. And where in the article does it say anything about MSG in food? All proteins in your diet contain plenty of both glutamate and glutamine.

  24. And what is “ketoglutamate”? Did you perhaps confuse it with alpha-ketoglutarate, which is a central metabolite of both the Kreb’s cycle (cellular respiration) and pretty much all amino-transfer reactions in amino acid metabolism (synthesis and break-down). These are all completely natural biochemical reactions that are absolutely essential for cell function. If you’re so concerned about glutamate then spend some time and read up on basic biochemistry first: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21154/

  25. MSG is added to foods to cause people to desire to eat more, which adds to the obesity problem in our current society. It is behaviorally obesogenic. For this reason alone, it should be better regulated by quantifying on the food label the amounts that are added to individual ingredients and the total amount of MSG per serving. Beyond that, more research needs to be done to clarify, further than the FDA has done to date, if ingested MSG can add to this obesity pressure by also biochemically increasing glutamate neurotoxicity at the synapse or other pathways. The rat studies do suggest that we had better be very sure that MSG ingested does not otherwise alter glutamaturgic systems. But even before that possibility, why add increasing levels of a behavioral obesogen given the magnitude of the obesity problem in society? ‘Profit’ at the expense of public health is very questionable ethically. IMHO

  26. Well, to tie this into the original topic about what can we learn about science communication:
    1. It surprises me that you are harping about MSG. I thought MSG was a settled issue. Mostly people are afraid of sweeteners (judging by people I’m in touch with) and maybe food dyes, so this represents a difficulty for science communicators. We can explain what we know about food additives that can calm fears initially, only to have the issue return with the next batch of fear mongerers.
    2. We do a lot of things to our food supply to improve nutrition, shelf-life, palatibility, availability, etc. But it’s difficult to foresee what additive or process the public might have a problem with. As an example, scientists see transgenic modification of crops as a mere variation on a broader theme of artificial selection and manipulation of crop lines and the technology had produced things like insulin and rennet that didn’t seem to draw any criticism at the time. But in recent years, this technology seems to have raised people’s concerns. Sometimes we can anticipate an objection, but often we can’t. So this puts us in a position where were always reacting instead of being proactive.
    3. Often what we do explain or try and convey gets ignored by some people. I’m reminded of a tactic used by conspiracy theorists where they claim the official story about an event such as the moon landings or JFK’s assassination have “unanswered questions” and therefore suspicious or false. Usually, the unanswered questions have answers (often simple answers) but the antagonist ignores the answer and repeats the claim of unanswered questions. You’re rejection of my FDA link reveals this starkly.
    4. Good science communication seems to require an audience that has some scientific literacy. Often this isn’t the case. In the case of food additives, some basic knowledge of chemistry and toxicology would be needed to facilitate a dialog and some understanding. I don’t know how we can overcome that hurdle besides telling the audience they need to read more of the right literature and not drivel written by mommy bloggers. It would at least help to avoid confusing glutamic acid with glutamine.
    Just my two cents

  27. MSG is added to foods to cause people to desire to eat more, which adds to the obesity problem in our current society.
    No it isn’t. It is added as a flavour enhancer. It imparts a characteristic savoury taste to broths.
    It is behaviorally obesogenic.
    The evidence does not support the contention that MSG causes obesity in humans. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20370941, and certainly not that it does so through behavioral changes.

  28. Again, where in the Albrecht et al paper does it say that MSG additives in diet causes neurotoxicity??? Can you please try to understand that your own body is constantly synthesizing glutamate independently of what you’re eating. Glutamate is a central metabolite of cellular nitrogen metabolism.
    Also how can you be so obsessed with MSG but fail to mention the three food additives with clear negative effects on health: sugar, salt and fat. The reason why you think there are all these unanswered questions is because you haven’t even tried looking up the answers.

  29. 1. Is it ‘fear mongering’ to question if we really have done enough to research potential toxic effects of food additives? Perhaps further research isn’t needed, but I doubt it. My reading of the abstract Albrecht J. ’06 in Pub Med of “glutamine: a trojan horse in ammonia neurotoxicity”. and associated references once again still leaves me concerned that not enough is understood yet about the pathways.
    2.”scientists see transgenic modification of crops as a mere variation on a broader theme of artificial selection and manipulation of crop lines” Maybe ‘your scientists’ have this view, but other scientists might question toxicologic significance to society of the hundreds of herbicides and other pesticides used within that ‘transgenic modification of crops as a mere variation on a broader theme of artificial selection and manipulation of crop lines’.
    3.I certainly did not ignore your FDA link, though I doubt it is adequately definitive of the real world.
    4. A lot of ‘science’ has been shown, upon further science research, to be drivel as well… that’s what the process is all about. It ain’t only ‘mommy bloggers’ I’m worried about not having a very good understanding of the complexities before dispersing many millions of poorly understood toxicants out into breastmilk and brain tissue.

  30. Chris, let me get this right…. you say that “MSG is NOT added to foods to cause people to eat more? Hmmmm…??? I sure have a strong craving to eat more of the MSG foods whenever I have the chance… makes it very hard for me to stick to my diet regime. But, you say this does not affects other people similarly, and add to anybody else eating more than they should??? I don’t get the logic in that… but then I don’t get a lot of things, I’m told. So, food manufacturers wouldn’t dream of trying get me to eat more than is good for me??? Hmmmmm…

  31. All images I find in reference to that CAS number clearly shows a ketoglutaRate molecule and all hits are associated with creatine so I suspect that it’s a bodybuilder supplement incorrectly labelled and perpetuated by others. Also, ketoglutarate is the known deaminated form of glutamic acid. And it’s present in all cells in your body and in no way a health hazard just like glutamate and glutamine.

  32. Re: science communication, 60% of AG adjacent streams have (USGS) pesticides exceeding at least one chronic life benchmark. Urban 90%. EPA: 37 of 54 pesticides may be affecting salmon adversely. Of the 28 so far having biops completed, 19 pose risk of causing extinction of one or more salmon runs. 21 of the 28 adversely modify critical habitat of one or more runs. 2,4D and diazanon are in the high risk group. If pesticide ready crops soon include these pesticides in addition to the glyphosate-ready applications, significant loss of salmon could result… and our food supply will suffer. Not to mention other life forms affected similarly. FYI.

Comments are closed.