By Joseph Kubai
From COVID-19 vaccination refusal to climate change denial, antiscience views are threatening humanity. Today, the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has been a subject of debate among politicians, religious leaders, environmentalists and even food activists in Kenya and beyond. It has emerged that people who most intensely oppose the science behind genetically modified food think they know a lot about food technology, but in reality, they know the least. Scientific information can be difficult to swallow, and many individuals would sooner reject the evidence than accept information that suggests they might have been wrong.
The trending issue of GMO has met with enormous public opposition, myths and fallacies have been peddled and exacerbated by the toxic ecosystem of the politics of our time making people believe that GMOs are bad for their health even poisonous and that they damage the environment. This is in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that proves that GMOs are safe for consumption, and that they bring environmental benefits by making agriculture more sustainable. Why is there such a discrepancy between what science tells us and what people think?
Lay people do not discover facts about reality in isolation, devoid of external inputs. Instead, they rely on sources of scientific information—scientists, or, more frequently for most people, journalists, politicians, or key opinion leaders for instance religious leaders with antiscience attitudes to construct their understanding. In general, the more credible a source is perceived to be, the more likely people are to accept its information and be persuaded by it. Unfortunately, many people perceive scientists, who are supposed to be the original source of scientific information, as lacking credibility.
Occasionally, scientific journalism not only conflict with a people’s beliefs and attitudes but also with their particular moral concerns. To manage this, science journalists need to identify the specific morals the recipient endorses and tailor the scientific messages to accord with them. Conservatives, who endorse the moral foundation of in-group loyalty, are more persuaded by messages about climate change framed as a matter of loyalty to one’s country. Liberals, who endorse the moral foundation of intentional care, are more persuaded by messages about climate change framed as a matter of care for innocent creatures. Moral reframing could also be effective for minimizing morally based opposition to GMOs. Similarly, for recipients who think about public health in more or less moral terms, messages that use moral arguments such as engaging in physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic to benefit others are more persuasive.
To increase acceptance of scientific evidence among those who have strong moral intuitions about naturalness/purity, science journalists can specifically reframe scientific innovations as confluent with nature. For instance, increasing the perceived naturalness of geoengineering has been found to increase people’s acceptance of it as a strategy to combat climate change. Science communicators can create multiple moral frames when communicating their scientific information to distinct audiences who are likely to have different moral intuitions or views.
Science journalism must be better at communicating and explaining science where good science is too often drowned out by sensationalism and commonly-held fears. If we want people that are non-experts to be inspired by science, we need to give it a “human face” and tell the story of science in simple and accessible ways that people can relate to, and be inspired by. We must focus on the success stories of enterprising individuals who use their intelligence and drive to make the world a better place.
Just as science was the cornerstone of great advances of the past, so it will be fundamental to meeting the societal and environmental challenges of tomorrow. But if we are to embrace the massive opportunities that science offers then science journalism need to find ways in which it can help in rebuilding its reputation and status.
The writer is a PR and Communications consultant