Adrian Percy

Demystifying Science – Talking Plainly

Discussing scientific information with the public may be difficult, but it’s also important.

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

This quote from the famous astrophysicist may seem pretty obvious, but it’s really not so simple. By its very nature, Science is always true and yet it’s in our interpretation of science where things get sticky. That’s why scientists disagree all the time. And while it’s normal for scientists to engage in robust debate, just imagine how confusing this can be for consumers who are only looking for answers.

It’s easy, then, to see why the general public finds that the scientific process so hard to swallow. And it doesn’t help that consumers are increasingly suspicious of organizations they once respected. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that consumer confidence in many institutions is dangerously low. When trust is lost and issues are complex or too personal, what scientists believe and what the public perceives to be true are often vastly different.

This may explain why some well-educated parents believe vaccinations could lead to autism, even though these claims have been roundly debunked and despite the fact that childhood inoculations can provide up to 99 percent protection against life-threatening diseases. Or why a Pew Research study found that 88 percent of scientists think genetically engineered foods are safe to eat, while only 37 percent of the public agrees. Many consumers buy organic foods citing reasons related to health, but a comprehensive review of 237 studies conducted by Stanford University found no health benefits over conventionally-grown foods. Stir in the various competing interest groups who offer conflicting claims and it’s not surprising that many consumers are left feeling confused and distrustful.

Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy is the Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer.

So, how can scientists help narrow this gap?

Start talking plainly. That doesn’t mean dumbing down the conversation, but instead making sure what we say is truly understood by those with whom we’re speaking. Most scientists are comfortable employing the typical jargon of science, but some of the terms we use are complicated or even frightening to the public. We love to use words like “spatial and temporal” when “space and time” work just as well. We talk of “mitigating risk” instead of making things safer, and “genetically modified organisms,” which is an ambiguous term that has been gleefully adopted by advocacy groups to disparage one of the most important technologies of our time.

Get to the point. One of my favorite jokes about technical people is that if you ask them the time they will tell you how to build a watch. Scientists are trained to approach a problem methodically by slowly building a solid set of data to support a hypothesis. While this makes for great research, it often fails as an effective means of communication, especially in a fast-paced society that speaks in 140 characters or less. Scientists should take a tip from communication professionals and begin with our conclusion before sprinkling in a few supporting details to show that we know what we’re talking about.

Reassure rather than equivocate. Because the nature of science demands that we constantly question our preconceptions, scientists tend to avoid definitive statements. Instead, we speak of 95 percent confidence levels (oops, there I go again), even though the consumer may be hearing, “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance things will be bad.” Governmental regulations rightfully prohibit us from speaking with absolute certainties or guarantees of safety (unlike most activist groups, which are under no such obligations), but scientists still need to reassure the public that they have nothing to fear about today’s agricultural technologies.

Show some pride. There is nothing more impressive than people who show pride in their work. Considering the tremendous advancements in agriculture that have occurred within our lifetime, we should be shouting from the rooftops. And yet many scientists are uncomfortable about defending the work they do. We have an opportunity to turn our deep knowledge of science into an advantage. I’m happy to say that many Bayer scientists are doing just that, acting as AgVocates to share their passion and help others understand the significant benefits our industry brings to people all over the world.

Listen before speaking. With trust in many institutions at an all-time low, scientists cannot afford to rely on the certainty of their work without acknowledging the concerns of others. If we truly listen to these concerns, we will find common ground to honestly discuss even the most controversial topics. I expect we’ll find that scientists and consumers share the same fundamental values when it comes to the safety of our food and our environment. It’s simple: people want to know that we care before they care to hear what we know.

We live in a beautifully complex world that doesn’t always behave the way we think it should. Scientists constantly strive to find answers to better understand the way things work, and most of the time, we’re pretty good at what we do. The fact that we don’t have all the answers is actually a strength that propels us forward in a never-ending search for improvement. Finding ways to farm more sustainably to provide safe, abundant and nutritious foods to a rapidly growing world is a challenge that only science can solve. I think it’s time that we shared our knowledge, conviction and passion with anyone who will listen. And even with those who won’t.

Let’s start by talking plainly.

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