Walking the GMO tightrope: Communicating effectively on a divisive subject

When discussing divisive subjects like GMOs, the key is building a long-term relationship through honesty, authenticity and politeness that helps establish trust.

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When talking about genetically engineered, or GE, foods, it is good to realize two essential points: 1) The scientific consensus is that GE foods are not inherently any more dangerous than conventional plant breeding technologies; and 2) The science doesn’t always matter.

In 2016 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released the results of a study stating there was no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available GE crops and conventionally bred crops. Similarly, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 88 percent of American Association for the Advancement of Science members said it was safe to eat genetically modified, or GM, foods.

Despite these findings, there remains much skepticism among consumers.

And leaves the scientific community pondering how to to have productive conversations around food? The science behind the answer to that question is nearly as complex as the science of GE foods themselves. For most scientists, the answer is–give people the most accurate scientific information possible, as often as possible. But as many scientists have discovered, providing more information generally does little to change opinions. In fact, being bombarded with data can actually cause some people to hold even tighter existing beliefs - even if they lack scientific evidence to back them.

John Besley, an associate professor at MSU who studies public perceptions of science and technology, likens the GMO conversation to another complicated subject – dating.

“I can’t go on a date and give you a fact sheet about why I’m an awesome partner,” he said. “It doesn’t work with dating and it doesn’t work with science.”

And if you provide that fact sheet on the first date, you’re probably not going to get a second.

Despite the number of news stories that have been published on GMOs, most people report not having heard much about the topic. According to the Pew Research Center study mentioned earlier, 46 percent of people say they either care “not too much” or “not at all” about GMOs. The same study reports 71 percent of people have heard “a little” or “nothing at all” about food with genetically modified ingredients.

Providing more information about GMOs to consumers who lack knowledge about the issue – an approach known as the information deficit model – is no guarantee that they’ll gain a better understanding of the science. In fact, studies show people are prone to become even more skeptical and hostile to information if it doesn’t fit their current beliefs.

Besley said people are hardwired to engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, two reasons why the information deficit model is ineffective. Motivated reasoning is the concept that information that fits already-held beliefs is weighted more heavily than opposing information. Confirmation bias is the idea that people are more willing to seek out and remember things that support their beliefs.

“Scientists can do a lot of harm if we go into communities and treat people like students waiting to be educated,” he said.

Instead, Besley said the key is building a long-term relationship, through honesty, authenticity and politeness, that helps establish trust.

“If you’re not talking to somebody in a language they can understand, you’re not paying attention to them,” he said. “You’re not really thinking about them. If you’re not thinking about the person you’re talking to, I think that’s the classic definition of a jerk. Ultimately, the best piece of advice I can give to scientists is, ‘Don’t be a jerk.’ ”

Several MSU initiatives aim to bridge the gap between the public and the scientific community on the subject of GMOs. MSU Extension, the outreach and educational arm of MSU with offices in nearly every county in the state, is training educators throughout the organization about how to talk about difficult topics, including GMOs.

MSU Extension crop educator Ron Goldy, who has been with the organization for decades, said he has little difficulty in speaking with growers about GMOs. However, the public is a different story. He often fields questions from people who have a wide range of beliefs around GMOs and different reasons to support or oppose them. His goal, he said, is to listen first.

“When I get questions, I often ask people, ‘What do you know already?’ You have to feel where they are coming from so you can talk to them from the frame of mind they are most interested in,” he said.

Goldy recently organized a conference dedicated to talking about GMOs that attracted nearly 100 MSU Extension educators and instructors whose work covers a wide range of 

disciplines dealing with agriculture, health, youth education and food systems.

“I know emotions aren’t usually changed with facts, but as a scientist that is the world I live in,” he said. “We are unbiased representatives – I am giving them the information I have based on the research around GMOs.”

Another project is Food@MSU’s Our Table, roundtable discussions held throughout the state that bring together the public and a variety of experts to have freeform conversations on various food issues. Sheril Kirshenbaum, a scientist and author of books about scientific communication, moderates the Our Table discussions.

She said the problem is that too often people are talking past each other and not listening to each other. She places the onus on scientists to help bridge that divide.

“I think we have to give people a good reason to trust us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The scientific community needs to spend more time listening to people and less time talking at people.”

Our Table aims to create that space for listening and the exchange of ideas by bringing together scientists and experts in other fields – farmers, medical professionals, community leaders – to talk with the public about important food issues. A discussion on GMOs is scheduled for fall 2018.

“Our Table was built around the idea that we need to have conversations with people we don’t usually speak to,” Kirshenbaum said. “We don’t tell anyone what they should believe when they leave the room, but we hope everyone leaves Our Table a little more thoughtful about the topic from all perspectives.”

That two-way dialogue is important.

“You can foster beliefs not just about GMOs, but about yourself to the person you’re talking to,” Besley said. “If I am a scientist talking about GMOs, I can foster beliefs that I’m a person a lot like you. I can foster beliefs that I am competent, I can foster beliefs that I am working to make the world a better place.”

That is a world that Yvonne (“Bonnie”) Zoia knows well. She works for MSU Extension on communicating through conflict and professional facilitation. Many MSU Extension educators, to fulfill the organization’s outreach mission, come to her and others on her team to learn how to communicate effectively.

Relationship building is all about listening and understanding, according to Zoia. People need to understand they might have completely different positions on an issue, but they also might have similar interests. On a topic such as GMOs, two people on opposite sides of the issue might have the same interest in providing more healthy food, feeding the world and making the world a better place.

“Once you agree to some common facts or common interests, you have helped to develop a shared purpose,” she said. “That way you know you can work together. From there, you have created a safe environment to have a difficult conversation and you’ve made it much more likely you will preserve a quality relationship even if you walk away and still don’t agree. That is how you build a long-term relationship.”

Her recommendations for educators and scientists are the same as the recommendations for everyone else – the most important thing is to develop active listening skills so everyone involved feels heard. She teaches people concepts such as paraphrasing – restating a person’s position back to them to ensure understanding; reframing – presenting an issue from an alternative view point that might better generate consensus or understanding; and summarizing – concisely encapsulating a person’s point of view to reinforce that you are listening to them.

Making people feel like they have a voice and that they are heard goes a long way, Besley said.

“The literature focuses on, ‘Do people feel like they have a voice?’ ‘Do people feel like they’re treated with respect?’ ‘Do people feel like you’re open?’

“People need to feel like if they want to say something they could say something. That they have been listened to. That the decisions are being made in a reasonable way by competent people who care about communities.”

While scientists often feel like they are under attack and there is a general culture of mistrust in this “fake news” era, Besley said trust in scientists has remained high and remarkably steady compared to other professionals since the 1980s.

He said it’s about reinforcing that trust and building on it by being an active participant in a long-term conversation, and going into communities to nurture the dialog.

“Scientists are so excited about what we do we can’t wait to tell that story and detail our methods and our conclusions that we forget to stop and have a back and forth,” Kirshenbaum said. “It’s when those questions are asked, when you can have a real exchange, that learning happens.”

And the scientists can learn just as much from the public as the public can learn from the scientists.

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