“Sometimes science plays a very small role in the decisions that we make involving scientific topics.”—Roger Pielke Jr.
“Let’s think in terms of the sociopolitical cultural context in which this debate is taking place before coming up with general conclusions and assumptions about what to do or not do or why and how we should engage the public.”—Dominique Brossard
Cultural and sociopolitical contexts are an overarching dimension of what shapes the science-communication environment. During the workshop, presenters and participants discussed the effects of different intersections between science (research) and society (cultural and political contexts) on perceptions of science, and they talked about the array of communication roles that scientists can play. A moderated panel also discussed views on the interfaces between science, culture, and politics, using the specific case of labeling of GMOs in foods.
GMOs are a complex, “multidimensional issue that goes beyond food and environmental safety,” said Dominque Brossard of UW-Madison. Because societal debates about GMOs have not only technical aspects but ethical, legal, and social dimensions, the subject is considered “controversial”. Brossard briefly listed some of the cultural and sociopolitical questions surrounding GMOs (Box 4-1).
Culture plays an important role in determining how an issue is defined, including its risks and benefits, Brossard said. She emphasized that the sociopolitical and cultural contexts differ in different areas of the world, so the concerns about the adoption of genetic modification technology differ. For example, in countries throughout Africa and Asia, more concerns were raised about regulatory mechanisms to ensure that cities were adequately protected, she said. In Europe, concerns about who owns the technology and the effects on local farmers are important. International trade, consumer choice, labeling, and food safety are concerns that vary with location and cultural significance, Brossard explained. In some countries, the societal effects of
- Regulatory Issues. Do we have regulatory and biosafety mechanisms to make sure that citizens are protected?
- Risks and Benefits. Are people concerned about the distribution of risks and benefits among consumers, farmers, corporations, and others?
- International Trade. Should we invest in a technology that cannot be exported to some countries?
- Consumer Choice. Is the labelling debate about consumers’ having the right to choose what they are eating?
- Effects on Rural and Developing Communities. What will genetic modification technology mean for small-scale farmers?
- Nature Tampering. Do we have the right to alter things that God has created in nature?
Source: Based on Brossard, workshop presentation, slide 4.
genetic engineering on rural communities are raised. Other cultural groups raise concerns about tampering with nature. In other words, the meaning of a new technology can be multidimensional, and the issues extend beyond questions about the science into social, ethical, and legal questions.
Debate among people who have varied interests related to those complex issues is healthy in democratic societies, Brossard stated. However, debate is situated in particular social, cultural, and political climates at a given time. Strategies for engaging the public in discussion about scientific issues should take the differences into consideration, she suggested. Because societal discussions about GMOs are so multifaceted and complex, “there is potential for polarization,” she concluded.
Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado clarified three related concepts: policy, politics, and politicization of science (Box 4-2). “If there is no choice to be made and there is no decision to be made, you are not engaged in policy,” he stated. He also noted that policies are not just a government function but that universities, businesses, and other institutions have policies. Although politics has come to have a pejorative tone, Pielke explained, by definition it is simply the way in which the business of living together in society is accomplished. Thus, when science, policy, and politics are combined, you get the politicization of science. If the role of science is viewed in that light, science should be tightly integrated with politics because it can serve a useful function in helping people to make better decisions, but the pathological politicization of science (intentional politicization for the purpose of personal gain) is to be avoided, Pielke argued.
Roger Pielke provided lay definitions to frame discussions about the intersections of science, policy, and politics.
- Science: The systematic pursuit of knowledge.
- Policy: A decision.
- Politics: Bargaining, negotiation, or compromise in the pursuit of a desired end.
- Politicization of Science: The use of the systematic pursuit of knowledge as a means of bargaining, negotiating, and compromise in pursuit of a desired end.
Source: Pielke, workshop presentation, slide 8.
How does science become polarized? Dan Kahan of Yale University addressed that question by discussing what he termed “the science communication problem, the failure of compelling widely available evidence on risk and related facts to quiet dispute about what those facts are even when the evidence directly speaks to it.” Kahan refuted the idea that the science-communication problem can be attributed to public science illiteracy, public distrust of science, or orchestrated misinformation campaigns (See Chapter 2). Rather, the cause of the science-communication problem is a “polluted science-communication environment” in which there is widespread disagreement along political lines about facts, and the disagreement is exacerbated by motivated reasoning and confirmation biases, Kahan said. People seek affiliation with others who are like them, and groups on both ends of the political spectrum have people who are science-literate and have effective mechanisms for conveying what they know to others. Pielke noted that “polluted science-communication environment” is another way of saying “politics”. Kahan listed climate change, private gun ownership, and fracking as examples of highly politicized, and hence polarized, societal issues (a polluted communication environment). He stressed that this degree of polarization around a scientific issues is not normal.
Issues that divide people into political camps are called wedge issues, Pielke said. According to him, science is increasingly seen as a potential wedge issue in modern politics, with more academic scientists and experts participating in the process than ever before. He argued that that has happened in part “because science gets greater standing when it is politicized. Academics get greater visibility, and there are political gains even if it does affect the science-communication environment pathologically.”
Fortunately, Kahan emphasized, there are far fewer science issues in a polluted communication environment than in an unpolluted communication environment. Widespread polarization “happens when issues of fact or risk that admitted scientific investigation become entangled in social meanings
that transform positions on them into badges of membership, at which point people will have more at stake in fitting in with their group than only forming a position that is convergent with science.” In a polluted science-communication environment, people are told not only the facts but who believes what, he explained. That turns matters of science into “us vs them” situations, Kahan concluded.
It is possible to create polarization where it does not yet exist. Kahan used childhood vaccination to illustrate the point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccine rates are high and have remained so: less than 1% of children receive no vaccines, Kahan said. He explained that vaccination is generally viewed as a public good with people contributing in a reciprocal fashion. If people believe that others are contributing, they are happy to do so also; however, it is risky to make people underestimate the degree to which other people are contributing. On a host of issues, Kahan continued, Americans are divided; however, there is little political division about vaccines. As he explained, it would not be difficult to create a polluted science-communication environment; “all you have to do is create the conditions in which people are going to start to think, ‘I did not recognize that that was one of the positions on which it is us vs them.’ ” Effective science communication is using the information that we have about how people come to know what they know to make sure that we get the benefit of all we know as the result of science, Kahan said.
Genetically modified foods do not fall into the category of a polluted science-communication environment, Kahan said. He explained that the science of GMOs is not being debated by members of the public; they have no opinion, they know little about them, and most people still consume them. That is why polls on this topic do not reflect how people will vote on the labeling of GMOs, he said. If GMOs are debated and become the subject of polls and referenda, it is due mostly to the efforts of particular interest groups, not because of public opinion about the science, he suggested. Science-communication research has a role to play in identifying the source of the problem, which may not be the way in which people are processing information, he added. He argued for using what has been learned through social science to keep GMOs from becoming a polarized topic.
Pielke discussed the role that scientists can and should play in the political environment. He described how the role of science in policy-making was recently at the forefront in the discussion about GMOs at the European Union. In 2013, Ann Glover, the chief science adviser (CSA) for the European Commission, publicly suggested that science does not support assertions that GMOs are dangerous. José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, responding to a query from a member of the European Union parliament as to whether he agreed with Glover’s comments on GMOs, stated that “the CSA has a purely advisory function and no role in defining Commission policies. Therefore, her views do not necessarily represent the views of the Commission.” Ultimately, Glover was removed from her role, and the science-advisory structure in the form of a CSA was eliminated. A key problem that Glover faced, said Pielke, was that her role as a science adviser had not been formalized, prescribed, or well understood.
Pielke emphasized that all communication and engagement is political if it concerns what ought to be done about an issue. To help scientists to navigate this terrain, he developed a set of guidelines for experts who have to engage with the public and policy-makers; it was published in his book, The Honest Broker.20 The work details different modes of engagement and draws four main conclusions about roles and responsibilities when scientists engage with decision-makers and the public:
- Discussing roles and responsibilities is important when scientists engage with decision-makers and the public.
- Scientists can play multiple roles, all of which are important.
- All communication by scientists in the public realm is political, despite the desire of scientists to simply inform, elevate the discussion, or stay removed from the political process.
- Institutions play a critical role in public engagement between science, members of the public, and policy-makers.
20Pielke, Jr., R. A. 2007. The Honest Broker. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
In his book, Pielke describes four idealized modes of engagement for scientists and experts: the pure scientist, the issue advocate, the science arbiter, and the honest broker. The four types are based on how people believe a democracy should function and on their views on the role of science in society. Pielke described each of the four types and the implications of each, using the example of providing guidance on which restaurant to choose for dinner in Washington, DC.
The spectrum of possible roles spans from advocating for a specific restaurant (go to McDonald’s) to laying out all the options (the yellow pages or a restaurant travel guide), Pielke explained. The pure scientist might say, “I don’t want anything to do with your values-based decisions about food. Fortunately, the US Department of Agriculture [USDA] has these dietary guidelines about what to eat for dinner. This will empower you to make decisions about what to eat for dinner,” Pielke said. However, he added that even those dietary guidelines are not as “pure” as they might seem. The USDA dietary guidelines include meat, but “you do not have to have meat for a healthy diet.” The information that the pure scientist provides will always involve the choices and motivations of actors who have stakes in the choices. Pielke argued that once a scientist engages with the public or with policy-makers, he or she has stepped out of the role of a pure scientist.
The science arbiter is like the concierge in a hotel. The concierge is able to answer empirical questions, such as, could you tell me the three closest Italian restaurants? The science arbiter is the expert who answers questions, but the person making the decision drives the conversation. Members of Congress ask scientific questions of panels of experts, who report to them. That mode of engagement has been criticized with questions about who serves on such expert panels and how they are selected.21 The key in the case of those panels is that there is an informal engagement between the decision-maker and the expert around an issue, in contrast with the case of Ann Glover, who was not asked to assess GMOs, Pielke explained. The lack of an institutionalized mechanism for soliciting advice was problematic in her case, he argued.
The defining characteristic of issue advocates is the role that they play in narrowing the scope of choices of the decision-maker, Pielke said: “You may tell me to go to dinner at McDonald’s.” He stressed that advocacy has a long history dating back to the Federalist papers and is fundamental to American democracy. “People who tell you that we should label genetically modified foods are advocates. People who tell you that we should not are advocates.” Science often gets enlisted in advocacy campaigns because scientists enjoy high standing among many members of the public.
The honest broker is like a travel guide, Pielke said, offering a variety of choices without making a specific suggestion. In the restaurant example, the honest broker provides “the yellow pages of all the restaurants in the Washington, DC, area”. Honest brokers do not tell you what neighborhood has the best restaurants or which restaurant to choose; “they tell you what your options are.”
Some have argued that a science communicator that does not want to be involved in politics exemplifies a fifth role in which scientists can engage with policy-makers. However, Pielke explained that that role does not exist. Instead, he said, “what happens is that we pretend that we are pure scientists or merely science arbiters. We are just talking about the facts. But, in reality, what is going on is an effort to use science to try to motivate a particular set of decisions or often a particular decision.” When such stealth advocacy happens, especially in a polluted science-communication environment, people become wary of the motivations of the communicator. The problem is especially prevalent in conversations about climate change, Pielke stated.
Figure 4-1 is a flow chart that describes when each science role might be appropriate; each role has value that depends on context. Each expert must decide what role to play on the basis of the degree of values, consensus on the issue, and the presence of uncertainty. Pielke added that it is virtually impossible for a person to play the role of an honest broker. The honest broker would best be a “diverse committee of experts in authoritative, legitimized institutions, such as the National Academy of Sciences”, he said. He cautioned that such organizations as the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change threaten their legitimacy in the
21Jasanoff, S. 1990. The Fifth Branch: Science Advisors as Policymakers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Figure 4-1 Criteria for assessing science communication roles in policy and politicalpolitic contexts matter. SOURCE: Pielke workshop presentation, slide 12.
honest-broker role if they are seen as engaging in advocacy. Such highly respected institutions are rare, so loss of legitimacy can be especially important.
Pielke described several types of science issues. For some issues, information does not matter; it is used only as a symbol or to support existing positions. For these issues, such as in debates about abortion, there is a lack of agreement about the ends or unmanageable uncertainties. Pielke calls that situation abortion politics. In contrast, tornado politics involves issues on which a decision has to be made (a tornado is approaching), people agree on the ends or means (such as staying safe in a shelter), and there are manageable uncertainties. Tornado politics is considered to involve tame problems in that they are relatively easy to solve with data, facts, or evidence. Wicked problems are ones that entail tremendous uncertainty about the variety and effectiveness of solutions and highly conflicting societal values. How the world should address climate change is an example of a wicked problem.
When people treat wicked problems as though they are tame problems, two effects can occur. First, scientists often rely on the deficit-model approach to make a policy decision, Pielke said. For example, “if only people understood the science of climate change, we would all agree.” Second, reframing of wicked problems as tame problems often leads to stealth advocacy. With wicked problems, it is easier to use science as a wedge issue and pollute the science-communication and decision-making environment.
Pielke acknowledged that those roles and types of issues can be frustrating to scientists who want to engage in science-based discussions but avoid politics. However, trying to use science to tame a wicked problem often has the effect of worsening the science-communication environment because the
science does not address the conflicts in societal values. Pielke argued that the existence of wicked issues underscore the importance of having institutions with diverse panels of experts to present legitimized views of the state of science.
David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council offered his reflections on how science intersects with public policy. He identified four types of policy and science intersections: a policy question masquerading as a science question, a science question from policy-makers when broad consensus exists in the scientific community, a science question from policy-makers when there is little scientific consensus, and a question about a science issue on which policy positions and the science are undecided. Those intersections occur because “the goal of everybody in a policy debate on all sides is to say that it is a question of science, because if you can say that science is on your side and convince people of that, you win,” Goldston stated. That is effective because scientists are highly regarded. When debates are highly polarized, both sides claim that the facts support their position and that those who oppose their position are wrong.
Policy issues masquerade as science issues when the science is essentially decided and a decision must be reached. For example, for some air pollutants, the science has been clear that particular degrees of air pollution are associated with particular numbers of hospitalizations, Goldston said. Therefore, the debate centers around the target for the pollution magnitude or around how many hospitalizations are acceptable. Politicians are loath to discuss the policy and its implications and instead focus on the scientific data on the pollutants and engage scientific advisers. Ultimately, in this case, the debate became very heated and led to sides that were polarized on the basis of their views on health policy that still exist, Goldston explained.
The second type of policy–science intersection occurs when a science question from policy-makers is asked and there is broad consensus about the issue in the science community. Issues around climate change fall into this category, according to Goldston. It differs from the first category because policymakers are debating a true science question rather than debating a policy choice that they have to make. Climate change is a high-profile example, but this situation is relatively rare.
Far more often, policy-makers ask science questions about which science has not reached consensus—the third type of intersection of policy and science. For example, when policy-makers ask science questions about the effects of GMOs on ecology, they may receive a variety of answers from the scientific community. The ability of science to answer policy questions often lags behind the timeline for making decisions. Ultimately, deciding what to do in the face of uncertainty is a policy question, Goldston explained, and the decisions become value questions. Policy-makers often use scientific uncertainty as a distraction when policy decisions are difficult, he added.
Finally, some science questions or technologies are so new that both the policy positions and the science are unsettled. In such cases, what all sides and stakeholders want is more science. “You can tell when an issue in Washington is not fully mature yet, because the debate is less immature,” Goldston joked. The environmental consequences of nanotechnology constitute an example of such a topic. However, as the science advances and people adopt policy positions, the research can be called into question. Policy-makers may mistrust the data or call into question the motivations behind the funding agency or researchers involved with producing the data.
In light of those four broad types of science–policy intersections, Goldston moderated a panel discussion on the role of scientists in public policy decisions on whether to label genetically modified foods.
Goldston asked a five-member panel to consider what type of intersection the labeling of GMOs represents and what the roles of scientists are in this debate. The members of the panel were Robert Goldberg, professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at the University of California at Los Angeles; William Hallman, professor and Chair of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University; Tamar Haspel, food and science journalist with the Washington Post; Eric Sachs, environmental, social and economic platform lead at the Monsanto Company; and,
Allison Snow, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University. The following subsections present the topics considered by the panel.
Goldston asked the panel to consider whether the debate is about the public’s right to know whether GMOs are in the foods that they eat and what role, if any, scientists and other experts have, beyond their participation as citizens, in the debate over whether to label GMOs.
Hallman pointed out that the roles of social scientists and natural scientists in policy debates may differ. From a natural-science perspective, great challenges exist in determining useful thresholds for a labeling regime. Noting the 0.09% threshold for allowable GMOs in foods in the European Union, exceptions for particular ingredients, and varied laws, he questioned whether such regulations had any scientific basis or could be answered by scientists. Social scientists have a role to play in helping decision-makers to understand what labels would trigger in the minds of consumers on the basis of their research. Available data show that labels give consumers impressions that may not be scientifically true, Hallman said. For example, using a threshold approach frames GMOs as posing a problem when its concentration is above some threshold and not a problem when it is not. Thus, policy-makers would need to weigh whether requiring labels that trigger false impressions qualifies as mislabeling.
Haspel responded to Goldston’s query with the view that GMO labeling is not a question of science but a question of utility. Food labels in general are not guided by any “grand unifying theory” that helps people to discern what should be on labels. She argued that it is unclear why some components are labeled and others are not. “We label vitamin A, but not vitamin D. Why do we pick the things that we pick and not pick the other things?” Thus, labeling is about more than science, and neither science nor policy can provide clear answers on what belongs on a food label and what does not. Haspel asked participants to consider that a vocal minority has strong anti-GMO feelings at the same time that people have strong affinities for particular foods that contain GMOs. “If we were to label, we would force people to choose: they could no longer have both their grievance and their Doritos.” She mused about whether forcing people to choose between their ideals and the food they use to feed their family would make societal debates about GMOs go away. Goldston took that notion a step further, asking the panel to consider whether people’s concern over ecologic effects of GMOs could cause them to oppose other people’s eating of foods that contain GMOs and ultimately change the role of scientists in this debate.
Sachs noted that people who oppose GMOs do so for a variety of reasons, so “the question that I always ask in these conversations is, What will be the outcome if we have labeling?” Sachs also indicated that, on the basis of what happened in Europe, a likely consequence of labeling would be a reduction in food choices. In Europe, food manufacturers and grocery-store marketers do not provide their products with and without GMOs. Instead, they followed consumer demand—a realm that does not directly involve scientists. He stated that he would like to engage in conversation, understand concerns, and provide evidence and education to people to help them to reframe their positions.
Goldberg described the role that he played in crafting the arguments against GMO labeling in California’s Proposition 37.22 He argued against mandatory labeling because in his view it reflected poor policy. Presenting the science about exactly what genetic modification is was part of explaining the arguments against labeling. Goldberg sees engaging in discussion about GMOs as a challenging but necessary part of ensuring that policy about GMOs is rational and based on science. However, he contended that his role as a scientist is to provide people with the facts about genetic engineering and not to make a policy decision.
Snow indicated that ultimately labeling GMOs in foods is not a scientific question. “I think that scientists can provide a lot of good information that people might have questions about when they are making decisions.” In other words, science could inform people’s opinions, and she would not answer
22See http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2012/general/pdf/37-titlesumm-analysis.pdf for more detailed information about California’s Proposition 37.
questions beyond the science.
Sachs explained further that he thinks that the role of scientists “is to help people to identify the various kinds of consequences of their decision-making process.” He added that he tries to make rational decisions by using the information available. In his opinion, the benefits of GMOs are not widely known and are not being considered by most when they are reaching personal or policy decisions about GMOs. Hallman countered that scientists do not need to be in a situation where they are seen as “an authoritative parent saying ‘You should eat your peas because they are perfectly safe and they are good for you.’ We have to have more of a conversation than that.” Yet, noted Goldston, the safety of genetically modified food is not merely a matter of opinion, as is taste or texture.
Goldston framed the conversation about the consequences of labeling as a thought experiment. He asked the panel to consider the idea that proponents of GMO labeling want the labels to be interpreted as a warning to consumers. He then asked the panel to respond about whether it is legitimate to have a warning for genetically modified foods or foods that contain genetically modified ingredients and about the role of the scientist in such a debate.
Haspel noted that determining whether labeling foods that contain GMOs is beneficial or harmful depends on a persons’ assessment of the likely consequences. However, with little certainty about what farmers and consumers will do, predicting the effect of a policy choice is impossible. Thus, predictions of the societal impact of GMO labels are dependent on the worldview of the predictor, she stated.
Hallman reminded the participants of ecolacy, the ability to predict the intended and unintended consequences of particular actions. There are relatively few GMO products, but if labeling is mandated it will establish the regulation of all later GMO products. Hallman argued that there is too little information about the technology itself and about its benefits and drawbacks. For example, opposing crops that are “Roundup Ready” because one dislikes pesticides may yield one decision, whereas learning that “Roundup Ready” crops may reduce the overall amount of pesticides used may yield the opposite decision. In either case, a label that says “contains or may contain GMOs” does not provide enough information for the decision and may have the effect of barring crops that would have particular health benefits.
Goldberg stressed that the issue is not labeling vs no labeling, inasmuch as food labeling already exists and can be instituted by companies at their discretion. He said that the societal discussion is about whether labeling should be mandatory. Mandatory labeling leads to the perception that something is harmful or negative, he said. Second, he emphasized that public policy does not occur through election or opinion. In his view, mandatory labeling would lead to fewer choices. Therefore, perhaps voluntary labeling is the middle ground that provides the public with information but does not involve an arbitrary threshold. When asked whether voluntary labeling would result in greater confusion and opportunities for misleading, Goldberg pointed to the lack of regulation of the natural-food industry, which offers dietary supplements with no Food and Drug Administration oversight.
Sachs pointed out that reducing choices and having fewer items on grocery shelves have other upstream consequences. For example, farmers will plant fewer genetically modified crops, so whatever benefits farmers and the environment might have received from using them will be eliminated. That could result in a return to previous farming methods that used more chemicals and less conservation tillage. Thus, a question about labeling has implications beyond what products and choices are available.
Scheufele asked the panel to comment on what has been learned about consequences, motivations, and benefits from the voluntary labeling of GMOs in the United States. Hallman answered that most US citizens are uninformed about labeling. Research suggests that people assume that labeling is already mandated and that the organic-food standards include being GMO-free. Hallman added that the GMO-free label has more effects on particular products. For example, people seeking more wholesome foods might weigh a GMO-free label more heavily than someone seeking a processed food from a convenience store. He suggested that there may also be differences between particular brands of a single company.
Regulations determine both whether labels are mandatory and what type of information they will include. Goldston asked the panel to consider what they believe to be the appropriate amount of regulation and how science informs that Snow answered in brief that it is not sufficient to have no regulation. Sachs stated that some regulation is appropriate, but expressed concern that excessive regulation might limit the progress and application of modern processes. He asked “is it true that more regulation actually leads to greater comfort and acceptance that something is ok and safe?” Goldston countered that social scientists, historians, and economists have demonstrated that regulation “has made a huge difference in terms of making the public feel safe.” Hallman and Haspel both indicated that they did not know how natural or social scientists can contribute to discussions about how much regulation of GMOs is appropriate. Goldston remarked that sometimes saying that you don’t have an answer “is the most important answer.”
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