Commentary: Debate About Farming Is Marred by Incivility

The Washington Post
Published: 1/9/2018 10:00:30 PM
Modified: 1/9/2018 10:00:36 PM

What has the world come to when people get death threats for expressing an opinion about agriculture?

The toxicity of the debate about farming in general and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in particular is so entrenched that Mark Lynas, a prominent British journalist and environmentalist who publicly changed his mind about genetic modification, wasn’t even surprised by the death threats. “I got very few,” he says. And the name-calling and Internet trolling were just what he expected when he put his head over the parapet to champion GMOs. Other vocal supporters of conventional agriculture told me of a litany of insults: “Nazi,” “baby killer,” “Monsanto shill” and lots of stuff that we can’t put in a family newspaper.

I get why they’re mad. It’s vile. But lately I’ve noticed a backlash (at least, I read it as a backlash) that deploys “science” as a cudgel to browbeat not just the anti-GMO name-callers but just plain people who express skepticism about conventional agriculture, or confidence in organic — organic farmers, even.

Rob Wallbridge, who until recently farmed vegetables organically in Canada, and Carolyn Olson, who farms in Minnesota, hear it all the time: Organic is anti-science, organic is just a scam. “I’ve been told I need to choose the 20 million people who will starve because organic cannot feed the world,” Olson told me. Those sentiments, as well as calls to boycott organic food, routinely show up in my social media feeds, from people who use “science” as a synonym for “truth” and seem to believe they have a direct line to it.

Even so, I don’t see parity. While I find the anti-organic rhetoric unpleasant and contemptuous, I have not seen the same level of personal, threatening vitriol that emanates from the anti-GMO sector. But I’m still particularly disheartened by it because I want science to win, and using it to bash people over the head doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. It’s not very nice, and it’s certainly not very persuasive.

We shouldn’t need a professional to tell us to be civil, but Dominique Brossard is here for us. She chairs the department of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and studies the effect of rudeness on discourse. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t good; rudeness can increase polarization and entrench disagreements even farther. Nasty begets nasty; it’s regression toward the mean.

“If you want to persuade someone, you need to find the rug we can both stand on,” Brossard says. “Rudeness and contempt, you’re not on the same rug. You’re not building any kind of trust, and persuasion is built on trust.”

This is why I’m going to single out the term “anti-science.” While it’s definitely not up there with “baby killer,” calling someone who disagrees with you “anti-science” is both condescending and contemptuous because everybody, since the dawn of time, has believed their positions to be consistent with the science as we know it.

We all pick the science we like. You might pick the position of the overwhelming majority when it comes to, say, the safety of GMO corn, but go with the teeny tiny minority on human-caused climate change. Or vice versa.

We can do that because there’s uncertainty in everything. Science isn’t truth, science is the process by which we hope — with diligence, time and a little luck — to arrive at the truth. But lots of things get in the way: conflicts of interest, questionable methodology, creative data analysis, publication bias, garden-variety mistakes. You know how quaint the science of 300 years ago looks now? That’s how quaint our science will look in 300 years. Sure gives me pause.

Uncertainty is our Get Out of Science Free card. It lets us say “yes, but …” to every scientific concept that conflicts with our worldview. Of course, some things are way more uncertain than others, and questioning the role of saturated fat in the diet (evidence is equivocal) is not the same as questioning the role of vaccines in public health (evidence is not equivocal). But there’s always some study, somewhere, that says what we want it to.

The single most important thing about cherry-picking science is that we all do it. Yet it’s amazingly clear when other people do it and mysteriously opaque when we, ourselves, do it, which seems to me a good reason not to throw around the “anti-science” label.

There are, of course, people and groups and opinions that are genuinely contemptible, but contempt has a bad case of mission creep. When a mild-mannered organic farmer from Minnesota is told she’s complicit in genocide, things have gotten out of hand.

Nothing good happens when you’re rude, but two good things could happen when you’re not. The first is that you might make someone rethink a position. I asked the same slate of people who got called names to tell me about a positive experience, and they pretty much all started with common ground. Moms reaching out to moms, friends reaching out to friends, parents reaching out to teachers.

Lynas, who has a book on GMOs, Seeds of Science, coming out next year, threw out most of a first draft. “What was lacking was a respectful understanding of why people had a different viewpoint.” After all, he used to share their belief system. “To say they’re stupid and wrong is to say that I was stupid and wrong,” he says.

“If you’re angry and rude, you destroy your own effectiveness,” Brossard says. Or, as my mother puts it, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

But the second good thing could be even more important. I have a theory that a genuine effort to see the other person’s point of view, to stand on the rug with her, makes it that much easier for you to change your mind. I have zero evidence for this, and I know of no one who’s studied it.

All I know is that engaging, nicely, with people who disagree with me has softened the edges on some of my positions. I take a dimmer view of herbicide-tolerant crops than I once did. I see more merit in organic farming. I’m less convinced that subsidies substantially shape our food supply. And I changed my mind entirely on the value of doubling SNAP, often referred to as food stamps, for produce purchases; I was skeptical of its impact on public health, but I’m now persuaded of the benefits it brings to some of our most vulnerable communities.

It’s not an impressive list, given that I’ve been actively looking for mind-changing opportunities for the four years I’ve been writing this column. I’ve learned just how hard it is to see past our own biases.

Being kind, though, is easy. Well, relatively easy; in moments of weakness I’ve certainly been snippy and snarky, and I will be making a concerted effort not to be. (Most of the time, at any rate. As I work on this column, an article about people paying $6 a gallon for “live” spring water crosses the transom and reminds me to reserve the right to some snark.)

Mostly, though, my goals for 2018 are to be nicer, to try to change my mind more, and to persuade everyone to drop “anti-science” from their vocabulary. “Baby killer” should probably also go.

Tamar Haspel writes about food and science and farms oysters on Cape Cod. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel.

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