Q&A with Geneticist and Author Pamela Ronald

Pamela Ronald is a geneticist at the University of California-Davis. She is also the co-author of the 2008 book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.

The following conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you trust to cover scientific topics?

A: I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, but I don’t necessarily trust everything. If I want information on science I’ll go to the National Academy of Sciences, or the U.S.D.A. [U.S. Department of Agriculture], or the professional societies. I do read a lot of newspapers and magazines, but you have to take everything with a grain of salt. We read the New York Times and The New Yorker, we read a lot of different stuff. We also read Science and Nature.

If there’s a scientific area that I’m not familiar with, I might read something in the New York Times that’s interesting to me and then if I want to know how accurate it is I can go to the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences is really good, the N.I.H. [National Institute of Health] is really good, N.S.F. [National Science Foundation], they have a lot of information for the lay public, and scientists as well. Just because I’m a geneticist doesn’t mean I know much about other fields of science, so I also use a lot of the information that government agencies put out for the lay public.

Q: What makes these publications more reliable than other sources?

A: If you go to a government website, or you can go to another government website, for example, the Royal Society, a professional society, you get the information from a consensus of scientists rather than a journalist’s interpretation or even rather than one scientist’s results.

Q: Is there always going to be a consensus emerging from those outlets?

A: That’s a good point, there’s not always a consensus on everything but there’s often a consensus on many things. Those sources will indicate where there is a consensus and where there is not a consensus. I think these government websites, professional websites, even magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, they really strive hard to provide the scientific consensus and indicate where science is still uncertain or where more research is needed.

Q: Is there a way to go about finding how strong the scientific consensus is on a certain topic?

A: If you look at some of the U.K. reports or national academy reports, and you look on the safety of genetically engineered crops, it’s very clear that the consensus is that the process of genetic engineering is no more risky than conventional processes. The other consensus is the crops currently on the market are safe to eat. So they’re very specific points. It doesn’t say that all genetic engineering in every crop forever and ever will always be perfectly safe. I think that’s something that gets lost in the translation as well, you’re looking at specific points, you’re not trying to generalize about everything in the future.

Q: Are scientific reviews good places to find the scientific consensus on certain topics?

A: Scientific reviews that are published in academic journals are really excellent places to get information, but often the review is written by a single scientist, and they’re very technical, that’s why I usually encourage journalists, and my students too, it’s best I think to go to government agencies or national societies, because they have reports that have been looked over by many many scientists that are consensus of thousands of scientists.

Q: How do you talk to individuals who resort to conspiracy theories, especially those involving government entities?

A: I think the general rule is that you don’t trust one source. If the National Academy of Sciences or the National Institute of Health, these are government sources, make a statement, and then those are confirmed by every other country that’s also looked at the matter, then the conspiracy gets a little bit shaky.

Q: How can the public combat ‘single study syndrome’?

A: Take everything with a grain of salt. Go to legitimate government sources and other sources, professional societies.

Scientists do it too. We know that studies have to be reproduced independently by different labs but sometimes we get sucked in to our own research. I had a paper I had to retract because later on we found out that we had made mistakes. One study is not sufficient.

Q: How do you walk the line between ‘we need more evidence, further study recommended’ and ‘we have enough evidence to draw a definitive conclusion’?

A: Well, you replicate. Before we publish a paper we replicate, we replicate, we replicate. We look at different angles, and we have our peers review it, to see if they see something that we haven’t thought about. So that’s the standard way.

Q: I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that scientists should not engage in activism and politics and ‘stick to the science.’ When is it permissible for scientists to become engaged in public debates?

A: I think we can stick to the science too, but I think we should talk to the public because it’s really important for the public to understand what scientists are doing and what we’re thinking. And the policy people really ask for, quite often, they want to know what the science is. And that’s very very important because how can you make a decision on global climate change or vaccination or genetically engineered crops unless you get the science right? So it’s really important for scientists to engage with the public.

Q: Do you have any advice for talking to people with strong opinions on topics such as GMOs?

A: Yeah, I think what works best is to be very specific. I think there’s a lot of confusion about what a GMO is, and the term itself has been associated with a lot of negativity. So I think it’s really important to talk about a specific issue that someone is concerned about, for example corporate control or environmental effects, and talk about specific examples. I don’t think the term GMOs is useful because it’s scientifically meaningless, and agriculturally meaningless. So it’s really important to talk Bt cotton in India, for example, or Bt cotton in Arizona or Bt corn in the Midwest or vitamin A enriched rice in the Philippines or papaya. So then you can have a really sophisticated, useful discussion because otherwise some of the stuff that you hear in media is completely meaningless when people are lumping all GMOs together, because you can’t lump different crops together.

Q: What role does scientific literacy play in science denial versus other factors, such as ideological and cultural factors?

A: There’s this whole confirmation bias, I think he [Dan Kahan] and others talk about it, it’s very true, we think of it as a tribal mentality. If my tribe doesn’t vaccinate and they say it’s going to cause autism then I’m not going to vaccinate either. We see this political party kind of thing, more Republicans reject the science of climate change, more Democrats reject the science of plant genetics. It has not so much to do with education or wealth. For example we live near a very wealth county, Marin County [California], very educated, wealthy, and they have I think the highest rate of whooping cough in the nation because they don’t vaccinate.

Q: How do we make our society more understanding of scientific topics?

A: Well, I think we need journalists like you, and we need scientists to engage. Most people are very curious, and relish the chance to talk to people who are informed. I think there’s always going to be 20 percent of the people that are always going to reject something that’s outside of their circle, their tribe, but most people are very interested in learning about the science.

Q: Why science? What makes the scientific process more credible than other forms of argument?

A: Well, science is not an argument, science is a process. It relies on reproducibility and independent confirmation and it’s testable. It’s not the same as someone trying to argue a position. I think people think scientists have an argument, business people have an argument, lawyers have an argument, then they decide which argument they’re going to pick. Well it doesn’t really work. Science can be used to make policy decisions, it’s not a policy decision in itself.

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