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It’s Never Just About the Science

Writer, podcaster and skeptical thinking activist Kavin Senapathy writes in Undark about how she went from advocate to critic of a Monsanto-led campaign to recruit millennials to support GMOs. 

As Senapathy paints it, she made quite the journey — from believing that the science about GMOs should prevail in all conversations (which I would call scientism) to being chastened about the power of science and reason to overcome other factors that breed mistrust. 

We read those factors as “Monsanto,” of course. Senapathy was initially deeply naive about Monsanto and its repeated failure “to behave in trustworthy ways,” as she puts it. 

But this isn’t just a Monsanto story. It’s a bigger story: about whether we can talk about “trust in science” in a vacuum — actually, whether we can trust “trust in science.” What Senapathy gets right is that people who mistrust GMOs aren’t suddenly idiots about GMOs and rational about everything else. They mistrust our food systems, and appealing to the scientific basis for GMO safety or efficacy alone in the absence of establishing that broader trust isn’t going to be persuasive:

“Everything I’d written and said in support of GMOs was factually correct, but my approach had been all wrong. It’s impossible to have a constructive conversation about GMOs without acknowledging that underlying the unscientific claims made by many GMO opponents is a legitimate desire for trustworthy behavior from the companies that dominate the agricultural marketplace.

“For instance, I had dismissed the Non-GMO Project’s ever-present butterfly labels as an annoying tactic based on pseudoscience. But the label’s popularity showed that something in the Non-GMO Project’s narrative was resonating with the North American marketplace: The labels play to people’s desire for transparency, to their underlying lack of trust in the food system, and to their desire to have some say in the way our food is grown and made.”

That formula —​ we dismissed it as annoying psuedoscience, but it has a mystifying popularity regardless! —​ is the meta-story of science communications.

If you think this is just a Monsanto story, recall the recent Wellcome Trust survey on global levels of mistrust of vaccines — which showed the highest levels of skepticism about vaccines in Europe, Canada and the United States, especially among the better-educated. 

As Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar put it in the news release, science education won’t be the answer to building trust in vaccines, either: “Understanding people and society is at least as important as understanding viruses and immunology.” 

The survey finds that mistrust of vaccines is closely correlated with mistrust of government. So it’s never just about the science. It’s about context.

This is classic cultural cognition stuff. Most people don’t have a compartmentalized interest in personal or social or planetary optimization. “Science” for most people is thoroughly mixed up with the rest of their everyday lives. It has to work with all that other human stuff, not against it, in order to gain admittance. 

Pew Research Center keeps telling us that US public confidence in science hasn’t changed since the 1970s — their latest poll says 44 percent have “a great deal of confidence.” The conclusion is misleading, though, since the poll they use is about “in the people running each of these institutions.” When Pew asked US adults in 2018 whether they have confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public, it got squishier: only 27 percent said “a great deal,” while 52 percent said “a fair amount.” 

Globally, even though the Wellcome Trust survey found that 70 percent of all people worldwide trust in science, only 50 percent claim to understand much if anything about science, and 19 percent think science “does not benefit them or people in their country.” 

If you’re not working to build trust with your audiences through communications activities and authority content that goes beyond your published studies, you’re relying on that established authority of something called “science” as your foundation of trust. Don’t be surprised if that’s not enough.