In the Pursuit of Communicating Science

Terry D. Etherton

I have  spent about 30 years  traveling down the “road” of trying to communicate  science to the public.  It has been an interesting journey.  I launched  my blog,  Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology, in 2006 for many reasons, including the idea of  providing science-based facts for consumers about many public discussions around food biotechnology in which activists and activist groups try to scare consumers.

During this journey, I have come to appreciate the tremendous need for scientists to become more proactive in communicating science.  Specifically, the scientific community needs to be much better at conveying what they do and how  science and technology benefit consumers.  I have written about this, most recently in Please Explain:  Training Scientists to be Better Communicators imploring scientists to get involved.

In my travels down this “road”, I have become sensitized to the issue of how is the  information I present  being “heard” by the audience.  This can be a real adventure, especially when some in the “audience” share “they don’t believe the message(s)” or messenger (i.e., me). This raises the interesting question of what to do?

Yes, there are some non-believers of science and technology “out there”.

Here is a good example.  A colleague (Dr. Ann Macrina) and I wrote an article,  Hormones in Milk – Are they Causing Early Puberty in Girls?, that was posted on the  Best Food Facts blog in June.  Recently, a consumer,”Rachel”, submitted a comment for posting.  Her comment:  “I don’t believe all the information in this article. I think the facts are skewed. There is a great milk lobby out there. Not all they say is true. Hormones are indeed causing younger girls to mature ahead of time. This is true for girls that are not even heavy. I have seen this with my own eyes. More than once.”

Not a shred of what Rachel shared in her post is true based on science.  Our blog clearly presented the facts that hormones in food are NOT the cause of early onset puberty.  Rachel, however, obviously elected to not believe this!  I have no idea what the basis for her decision was.

And, with this comes the question:  Now, what to do?

The answer?  We keep communicating – it works.  Here are some examples.

It is clear that many Americans value science and technology.  In 2010, the National Science Foundation released a report, “Science and Engineering Indicators:  2010“, showing  that Americans overwhelmingly agree that science and technology will foster “more opportunities for the next generation”; about 89% of respondents agreed with this statement (see: Chapter 7, Science and Technology:  Public Attitudes and Understanding).

In the 2010 Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey, conducted by the International Food Information Council, only 2% of respondents listed biotech when asked: What, if anything, are you concerned about when it comes to food safety?

Another recent report, Making Safe, Affordable and Abundant Food a Global Reality, that was posted on the Plenty to Think About Blog presented compelling evidence that 95% of survey respondents are either neutral or fully supportive of using technology to produce their food.

With this, I shall get back on the “road” and keep communicating science and the benefits of science to the public.






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