A challenge: Breaking out of the GMO echo chamber

I forever believed that there existed two types of people: Those who were anti-science, and those who advocated for GMOs as a necessary food production tool. I was a happy member of the pro-GMO camp, and saw educating the public as a means of solving this “debate.” But, transitioning from an undergraduate agriculture program into a social science discipline for graduate school has shown me the echo chamber I live in when it comes to agricultural biotechnology.

The GMO debate is far more complex than this simple dichotomy, as was reiterated during the National Academies’ recent workshop in Washington DC, When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms.

Perhaps my first productive step toward more effective communication is recognizing that this polarization might simply be the result of my vantage point as an actor in this conversation. Many of us are sitting in our bias-ridden echo chamber (academic, professional, social media, etc.) where it appears that everyone around us actually cares about this topic. And, in these echo chambers, our biases are re-confirmed at every turn.

According to NAS panelist and Yale Law School psychologist Dan Kahan’s work, there exists a very vocal group on each end of the GMO spectrum that drives the appearance of polarization. Significant portions of people modeled in opinion polls know little to anything about GMOs, and lie quietly somewhere in the middle. These data, he says, are just noise.

What does this mean for science communicators?

I like to think of this debate as a huge opportunity for science communication to play an effective role. It is an opportunity to use evidence-based science communication to engage those not firmly cemented at one end of the spectrum or the other. It is an opportunity to step out of our comfort zones and engage with people with whom we do not expect to fully agree, but can potentially form valuable alliances with. At the Cornell Alliance for Science, this is something we’re setting out to do.

Across the aisle engagement also presents an opportunity to fine-tune our own positions. Maybe it is possible for one to remain critical of corporate culture, of regulatory issues, of consumer choice and ownership issues, etc., without risking being ignorantly labeled as “anti-science” or “Luddite”? One need not pick a “side,” or treat scientific controversies such as this as a black or white issue. As NAS panelist and Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel frames it best, science communication plays a critical role in helping to navigate this grey area, but only in so far as each and every one of us is willing to respectfully engage with people from differing worldviews and values.

This workshop was a major step forward. For example, attendees in the American Chestnut restoration case study breakout discussion I lead on the second day included industry representatives, individuals from public interest groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch (both historically vocal critics of biotechnology), journalists, and academics. The stimulating discussion that resulted from such a diverse group reiterated the importance of stepping beyond our echo chambers; that dialogue needs to be extended across groups that in some way share common values—such as for promotion of publicly funded research, or of environmental sustainability—even if shrouded by overwhelming difference.

In his overall positive review of the workshop, Discover’s Keith Kloor writes that he is “dubious about this notion of opponents joining hands aboard the peace train … People who are dug in stay dug in.” This may be true—but as much research shows, maybe not as many people are dug in as those of us subsumed by this topic think.

By letting the social and life sciences inform one another, I argue that it can’t hurt to try to find common ground with less-likely allies.


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