Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist, blogger at Collide-a-Scape at Discover Magazine, and a professor of journalism at New York University. He has covered several aspects of the climate change, genetically modified food, and vaccination-autism debates.
The following conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity
Q: What are some of the similarities and differences between climate change and GMO science denial?
A: The similarities for me are the cherry picking of studies, selective citing. You can always find some studies to back up some point of view. Whatever your agenda is, if you want it you can find them. There are studies out there that attest to perhaps some concerns, safety concerns, with GMOs, but those are not recognized by the body of science, by the experts, as being well-done studies. There are studies out there that have methodological errors, problems with data, some are published in pay-to-play journals, low ranking journals.
There are always going to be outliers, with everything. There are always going to be people who say, no, we don’t agree that there is a consensus on climate change, we don’t agree that there is a consensus with the safety of genetically modified foods, we don’t agree with the consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism. There are always going to be people out there with impressive credentials to their name that dissent from that. You just have to look at them carefully and say, well, are they rejecting the body of science, where the science is, today?
Q: Why is scientific consensus important?
A: I do think that there are legitimate concerns with this whole ‘argument from authority,’ which is why some people say it can be a little bit misleading or problematic to suggest that, because there is a consensus now, that’s it, case closed. Well, it’s not. I think that people misread that. Some people think, well, okay, there’s a scientific consensus now on climate change, that means that we can all just sort of move on from there and not debate any aspects of the science anymore. That’s not true. There are still a lot of issues in the climate science community that are heavily contested.
The ball is always moving. New information comes to light. It shouldn’t be a means to close down debate. There’s always going to be new studies, there’s always going to be new research that comes to light that adds to our knowledge. If there’s a very well done study that is published tomorrow in Nature or Science that indicts some aspects of genetically modified foods, well then that needs to be taken seriously, and that might cause a reexamination.
But so far, when we talk about a scientific consensus, we’re talking about all the evidence, all the research that’s been building for x amount of years from multiple places. It’s not just a matter of a couple of studies here and there. And that starts to form a consensus on an issue.
Q: What are the causes of science denial in these cases?
A: I think it depends upon the issue. With respect to climate change, I think this issue has been out there for so many years now, and it’s talked about, and it’s well covered in the media, and it’s taught in many schools, I don’t believe that there is this lack of information that is preventing people from being educated about climate change. I think what Dan Kahan is saying is that it’s become an issue that’s now wound up in people’s political or ideological identities, so you see it through that filter, you see it through that lens.
That hasn’t really happened yet with GMOs. Dan has pointed to research saying that the debate on GMOs is not politically polarized in the same way that the debate on climate change is. People don’t look at it as a Democrat or Republican issue yet. It’s not wound up yet in people’s identities.
Q: Michael Specter has argued that some concerns regarding GMOs are misplaced – that people are anxious about the corporatization and industrialization of agriculture, but are channeling those anxieties through anti-GMO campaigns. What do you think?
A: I don’t really know what the focus should be on; I just follow the story. I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. I certainly played my role maybe calling out some bad journalism or some agenda-driven polemics and stuff, but honestly, I’m not one of these people that say, hey, everybody should just get on board with GMOs. My role has been more to look at what is the information that’s out there, how are people talking about it, are we talking about it in a way that is consistent with what the science says about it or are people being led by their own ideologies, or politics? And I do the same thing with climate change. To me it’s interesting how our worldviews inform what we think about climate change or GMOs or any other issue. We all come to the table with predisposed ideas, predisposed views.
Q: What’s a good way to talk to people about these issues?
A: I think I can navigate that tricky terrain a little better these days because I’m not taking these absolutist positions, dismissing people as wackos, or calling them ‘anti-science.’ And there’s a lot of that, there’s a lot of name-calling, there’s a lot of insults being thrown around. And I think I might have certainly participated in some of that some years ago, but I really try not to indulge that anymore. I try to just sort of engage people with whatever their concerns are.
I don’t know if I’ve found a way to advance this debate so we can have more common ground, I just think I’ve found a better way to be heard, maybe, so people don’t automatically close their ears. If I start out saying, you’re ‘anti-science’ because you believe in so-and-so; I think that’s the quickest way to shut down a dialogue. So I think I’m trying to be more sensitive to how I use language.