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Michael Specter

Get out of the lab and speak out for science

If food scientists really want to stop the ‘lunatic fringe’ from hi-jacking the debate on topics from nanotechnology and irradiation to GM, they should stop wringing their hands and blaming the media and seize back the initiative…

Delivering the keynote speech to delegates at the IFT annual meeting and food expo in New Orleans recently (June 12), New Yorker journalist Michael Specter said the lack of scientific literacy characterising much of the debate about food and farming issues would have “Galileo turning in his grave”.

“Academics can be condescending and arrogant,” said Specter, who has writtten a book called ‘Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet and threatens our lives’.

“It’s all very well saying, we know this; the scientific method works. Take it or leave it. Well guess what? They’re leaving it. So you’ll have to do better!”

Specter, who has frequently focused on issues of science and public health, set the stage for the discussion in a presentation that underscored U.S. consumers’ mounting mistrust of science. Anti-science attitudes are dangerous, Specter said, noting that they have led to a wide-ranging — although unsubstantiated — mistrust of genetically modified foods.

“Environmental issues exist with genetically modified food,” Specter acknowledged. “There are political and philosophical issues. Here’s an issue there isn’t: There isn’t a health issue. There’s never been a single issue of a person becoming sick from eating a genetically engineered food….You can be right all day long, but [if consumers do not agree with you] you’ll go out of business. So label GM. Maybe they’ll realise they’ve eaten 263 million doses of it and they are still alive. But if people think you’re withholding information, you’re going to lose.”

The public needs to begin to understand and accept that all scientific progress comes with attendant risks, and it’s up to organizations and individuals to evaluate that risk and make a decision about whether to accept specific scientific and technological innovations.

Unfortunately, he said, society has become increasingly risk averse. More and more, we have come to embrace “precautionary principles,” which suggest that “we should not engage in any sort of activity unless we have mapped out all possible risks.” Such an approach makes it impossible for society to advance and progress; with this attitude, there would have been “no x-rays, no antibiotics, no green revolution,” Specter said.

“There is a risk to everything we do,” Specter continued. “We need to look at the benefits and look at the downsides of everything we do.

“Technology can be misused,” Specter observed. “It will be misused. That doesn’t mean technology is bad.”

Specter cited the example of raw milk as a product that consumers may perceive to be naturally healthful and beneficial while in reality, “it’s deadly. “Raw milk has been linked to all sorts of problems. It’s worth remembering that in 1938 — before pasteurization — milk caused 25% of all outbreaks of foodborne illness.”

One of the things that makes it difficult for scientists to correct misperceptions about the dangers of science and technology, said Specter, is the fact that scientists tend to rely on a logical presentation of data without recognizing the importance of addressing the beliefs and emotions that consumers associate with a technology.

To change that scenario, the food industry needs to do a better job of “storytelling,” contended panel discussion participant Martin Cole, Chief of CSIRO Food and Nutritional Sciences. “We need to need make it personal,” Cole continued. “As scientists we’re not very good about talking about how we do things. We need to make personal.”

“You can’t just say, ‘look at the data,’” Specter said. “Instead,” he said, “the food industry needs to do a better job of communication — using tools that include the Internet and social media.

“One of the things we don’t teach about risk is the risk of not doing things,” said Specter. “If we don’t pasteurize milk, there is a risk that 23 000 kids will die.

“Go out and educate,” he urged the food science community. “Fight on the internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They’re not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here.”

Specter offered the last word to the Keynote Session audience — urging food scientists to get aggressive telling their side of the story. “You need to be out there on the field, battling with truth. If you don’t, people will think there is something you are hiding.”

Source: IFT

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