You’re a GMO scientist? I should push you off this dock right now!
Wow. Those were some harsh words coming from my new acquaintance at a social event. Her assertion made the hair stand up on the back of my neck even as I smiled pleasantly back at her. Luckily I’ve come to know that when I experience this kind of flight-or-fight response to a conversation about my work that it might turn out to be an opportunity to reduce the too often overheated rhetoric on the genetic engineering topic by engaging in a more personal conversation.
My education as a scientist did not include any training in being able to discuss and describe my work with the non-scientific public. However, in the past 15 years, due to an increase in confirmation bias in part brought on by social media, the rhetoric around science, and my field of plant science in particular, has heated up. I dreaded social encounters where the unnerving question, “What do you do?” was asked, until I grew tired of being evasive about the science I cared about. Companies are now offering training for their employees in conversing about science with the public, and gratifyingly, many scientists are also sharing experiences and tips. Rather that enumerate those tips here, I thought it might be instructive to walk through the conversation I had with my dockside friend.
It sounds like you have a strong opinion about genetically engineered food. What do you know?
My first response was to ask an open-ended question. Emotionally, I really wanted to be reactive to her comment and to defend my experience with data. However, I’ve learned that people hold their beliefs sacred. If I simply contradicted my acquaintance, she would feel threatened, close her mind, and the conversation would end. I needed to spend some time appreciating her point of view. While digging deeper into an opinion that you don’t share may sound scary, asking such an open-ended question is a good way to calm yourself while focusing on the person you are speaking with.
All those insecticide toxins in GMO seeds make food dangerous!
This assertion helped me understand at least one aspect of her worries about genetically engineered crops. Strong assertions provide an opportunity to exercise a concept I learned from a leading science communicator, Kevin Folta, called “intellectual charity”: Extend the argument of the person you are talking to. This technique engenders trust in your listener. If I want her to understand me, I have to understand her first.
I see why you would be worried about that. If insecticides are unsafe, why would we want them in our food?
As I asked that question, I could tell by her face she was now open to listening to me. I asked her if she knew that the insecticide in genetically engineered plants is only dangerous to insects. Then I used one of my favorite analogies that I learned from the Genetic Literacy Project: think about the safety of this chemical as you would about chocolate—chocolate is toxic to dogs but not toxic to humans; in the same way, Bt is toxic to insects, but not to humans. I could have talked a lot more about the molecular mechanism of the insecticidal Bt proteins she was worried about or the numerous regulatory studies done on genetically engineered crops before they are released, but my aim was to cultivate trust, not to overwhelm with facts.
At the end of the our conversation, I knew I hadn’t changed her mind about genetically engineered foods. Yet we didn’t walk away from each other angry; we weren’t polarized, because we had developed a shared connection. Today we are friends and have talked about food choices since then many times. Gratifyingly, she has also sought me out to understand science-based policy.
In a social conversation about science, you only have a limited time to create a positive impact. Use that time in the most effective way possible.