Generically Memeified Organisations
Analogical, Empathetical, and Analytical Reasoning in the Movement Against Genetically Modified Organisms
Science is no longer obscured behind an esoteric shroud.
The wizard of Oz has stepped out from behind the curtain. He was human all along. Bringing with them gifts of brains, heart, and courage, celebrity speakers such as Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have done well to popularise science, encouraging the broader public interest in scientific outcomes as well as the process of science itself. In opposition to increased public involvement, however, certain areas of scientific activity remain unreachable by the average citizen of Oz. When reasoning scientifically about controversial issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or monkeys sprouting wings, interested parties realise direct access to research is limited, and must rely instead on indirect sources. The voices of these indirect sources vie for attention in the crowded information landscape. With both sincere as well as disingenuous voices using persuasive devices such as analogy and empathy to communicate scientific ideas, recipients must be skeptical of even the skeptics. If consumers of scientific literature want to think critically, and they should, applying analytical reasoning to incoming messages will help distinguish legitimate empathetical and analogical reasoning, from false analogies and deceptive appeals to empathy.
The landscape of science communication resounds with a cacophony of credible and incredible voices. Such voices fill the demands of those who do not have direct access to the practice of science. Some of these voices come from the scientific community. However, as institutional scientific endeavours become increasingly specialised, expensive, and protective, the public becomes progressively dependent upon the honesty of researchers and peer review. The wizard has come out, yet there is still much happening behind the screen. The average person does not have the qualification or resources to partake in direct research; therefore, the public relies both on researchers to have integrity and on peer review to increase the quality of research. Anyone so inclined may easily verify the theory of gravity, yet few have access to the biotechnology laboratory needed to verify the safety and efficacy of vaccines, genetically modified food, or Soylent pink. Scientists, therefore, need to diligently protect the fragile trust if expecting the public to base decisions on researcher findings and expertise (Frewer, 2004; Bucchi, 2008).
Regrettably, the public has reason to distrust the scientific community (Cook, 2004; Bucchi, 2008). Distrust comes from lingering fears of ominous sounding chemicals such as thalidomide, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO). As with the wizard, scientists hide behind an image of authority. Scientific mishaps, however, tear down the screen revealing humans making human mistakes. Feeling betrayed, people suspiciously question the ramifications of scientific authority influencing social policy. With such fears lurking in public consciousness, each recent controversy stirs up a tornado of bad memories, and Toto glowing in the dark is only making fears worse.
Distrust also comes from outright fraud. For example, medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s now-discredited research claiming MMR vaccine links to autism, was not only likely responsible for measles outbreaks, but has increased people’s sensitivity to researcher corruption (Wakefield, 2010; Godlee, 2011; Ross, 2011).
In attempt to allay such fears and distrust, consumers can read peer-reviewed journals to determine if there is discussion within the scientific community about a particular topic. Consumers can also find studies from these publications online, but are usually limited to abstracts (Lawrence, 1999). These abstracts are often wordy, full of jargon, and provided alongside a link to the full, but costly, paper (Björk, 2010). In effect, for those consumers seeking to fact-check or learn about research, without the access afforded by university subscriptions, these snippets are as close as one gets to the actual research (Matsubayashi, 2009).
Open access helps counter the problem of paywalls restricting research from the public; however, there are also predatory low quality publications that imitate more reputable journals. These journals have deceived several researchers (Kolata, 2013). If experts can be duped into associating with these journals, then non-experts are likely to have even more trouble separating the junk from the credible research. Therefore, skeptics can use analytical reasoning to inspect the sources (“Judging the Quality of Science Sources”, 2013).
Since there are so many limits to scientific journals, information seekers can also use other media. Journalists, for instance, translate and interpret science (Bucchi, 2008; Cook, 2004), yet these communicators do not merely state the facts, but also frame scientific research in specific ways (Cook, 2004; Lewandowsky, 2011). While some journalists take more care with objectivity than others, none write without some form of persuasion (Bucchi, 2008). Attempts to persuade audiences are not always sinister, yet unexamined messages potentially change minds without proper justification.
Persuasion is an art that involves transmitting symbols embedded with rich, cultural meaning (Perloff, 2008). “Equality”, “freedom”, and “justice” are symbols in form of words. By using symbols, messages invoke the power of association. Some communicators attempt to persuade through a central route of facts and argument, but many messages take a peripheral route seeking to persuade through superficial channels employing charisma, jargon, aesthetics, or emotion (Mooney, 2011). Documentaries are notorious for these strategies. Through the peripheral route, an alluring yellow brick road, communicators frequently frame information with symbol-loaded analogy or empathy.
Arguments from analogy “typically claim that two kinds of things are alike in many respects and that the first has some further characteristic. It then moves to the claim that the second thing shares this characteristic” (Cederblom, 2012). Afflicted with stomachache, a sufferer connects the pain to a street vendor’s food, then reasons analogically to avoid all street vendors. Undoubtedly, analogical reasoning is essential to survival since analogical comparisons generalise from one negative stimulus to potentially similar stimuli. Surely, after her first experience with rain, the Wicked Witch of the West shied away from all sources of water.
Analogies are also immensely useful within science. For example, German chemist, F. A. Kekulé, once recounted a dream of the Ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail. When Kekulé awoke, he connected the symbol to the chemical compound benzene. Making the analogy between the Ouroboros and benzene, Kekulé hypothesised the benzene ring (Lee, 2000). Analogical reasoning makes quick heuristic inductions about our world, and arguers use these heuristic inductions. “Arguments are often based on analogies, and the validity of the argument then turns on how good the analogy is. An analogy is a comparison between dissimilar ideas, events, processes, and so forth; the comparison might be apt, but it might also be wildly inappropriate” (Derry, 1999). For Kekulé, his epiphanic analogy was decidedly apt upon further investigation. Analogies are useful tools regularly misused. Faulty analogies are informal logical fallacies due to defective induction involving “claims that just because things have similar characteristics they must be similar in other ways as well” (Lee, 2000). Exemplifying the faulty analogy are scenarios invoking Godwin’s law described: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” (Godwin, 1993). The law commonly arises in discussions with those overly concerned with grammar.
Empathetical reasoning, too, is useful in scientific and critical reasoning. To understand human matters, one must be able to imagine being in the position of someone else. In general, humans can use affective empathy to respond to other people’s emotional states, or can use cognitive empathy to identify emotional states (Rogers, 2007). Without empathetical reasoning, scientists would have little desire in choosing which research was worth investigating. Lacking empathy, few researchers would feel any particular need to research potential risks of genetically modified organisms. Similarly, citizens use empathetical reasoning to think about how policies might not only affect themselves, but also other people. Empathetic beings have the reasoning potential to consider how food choices affect those even on the other side of the world.
However, neither analogical or empathetical reasoning are sufficient by themselves. While both analogy and empathy are useful, both are potential vehicles for deception. Within mass communication, those who speak loudest get attention. Consumers want information, and quickly; therefore, news sources sensationalise and exaggerate articles (Weng, 2011). Technology, moreover, has changed information consumption. Several scientific claims, for instance, come through Twitter messages or in memes (Noor Al-Deen, 2011). Communicators can take advantage of audiences by encoding distorted or false information within a frame that is similar to a current view or ideology. People are more receptive to framing which does not challenge preconceived worldviews (Mooney, 2011; Lewandowsky, 2011). By sharing similar worldviews with a community, members are more likely to accept false information distributed in memes, defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (“Meme”, n.d.). Image memes with text overlays proliferate on the Internet. In analogy, such memes with their condensed snippets of fact or factoid act as Trojan horses circumventing mental defenses. A popular meme thus induces an echo chamber within a group. Author and social critic, Doris Lessing, describes such tendency for groupthink: “It is easy to see this bit of machinery at work in oneself: if someone one respects says such and such a thing is good, when you think it isn’t, it is hard to differ. If several people say it is good, then it is correspondently harder” (1986).
Monsanto executives may have been jarred from their own echo chamber on May 25th, 2013, when protesters marched against the corporation (“Protesters March”, 2013). Much of the worldwide protest was driven by the admirable intention of raising concerns about corporations. Photos and videos documenting protests depict demonstrators holding not only signs against Monsanto, but also signs against genetically modified organisms. Evidently, Monsanto and GMOs have become nearly synonymous within the movement. Further, the March Against Monsanto Facebook photo stream shows that Monsanto as well as GMOs have become analogies for many evils of the world. In these images, Monsanto is to mad science as Satan is to sin. Similarly, the movement depicts symbols “natural” and “organic” analogous to healthful and good, juxtaposing “Frankenfood”, the portmanteau of Frankenstein’s monster and genetically modified foods; foods that have become analogous to diseases such as cancer. One widely circulated image meme depicts genetically modified fed rats grotesquely disfigured with tumours. While this meme fits the ideology of the movement, curious minds may wonder if the meme has a source.
The March Against Monsanto website gives a few reasons for sending Dorothy and her companions to protest the wicked witch of Monsanto. From the list, two statements refer to science (“Why Do We March?”, 2013):
- Research studies have shown that Monsanto’s genetically-modified foods can lead to serious health conditions such as the development of cancer tumors, infertility and birth defects.
- Monsanto’s GM seeds are harmful to the environment; for example, scientists have indicated they have contributed to Colony Collapse Disorder among the world’s bee population.
Despite March Against Monsanto being a major hub of influence and information dissemination to a worldwide movement against Monsanto and GMOs, the single two statements regarding scientific matters are misinformation, if not disinformation.
While there is truth to the claim that there has been research showing GM foods may lead to serious health conditions, what is not stated is that these studies have met with intense criticism, and do not hold up scientifically. Simply, studies were done, but ultimately rejected. The link between genetically modified foods and cancerous tumours, for example, originates from a widely disseminated studies by a researcher named Séralini and has since been criticised on numerous accounts (European Food Safety Authority, 2012; Gorski, 2012). As stated in Health Canada’s report regarding one study:
The methodology used was inadequately described, the full data set was not presented, and the data that was reported was not presented in a transparent manner. Furthermore, the statistical methods used by the authors to analyse the data were judged to be inappropriate. These limitations make the validity of the study results difficult to determine. (2012)
One critical flaw of Séralini’s study was the use of Sprague-Dawley rats, notorious for spontaneously developing tumours. Moreover, of these rats, Séralini’s study included only 10 of each sex in the treatment groups. Critics claim Séralini goes on statistical fishing trips. Overall, such confounding variables leave the high probability that the tumours developed by chance and not because of glyphosate. One important not is that both GM fed rats and non-GM fed rats developed tumours. Mysteriously, the non-GM fed rats with tumours are left missing from the previously mentioned meme.
Séralini attempted a rebuttal of several of the criticisms, leading to the EFSA following up with a more in depth review of the study. In the even more thorough annex, based on scientific reports from researches in several different countries, Séralini’s study did not support the conclusions. Importantly, the review demonstrates that, contrary to Séralini’s claims, there were no statistically significant differences between rats. Séralini’s study should never have been accepted for publication because of the flaws in experimental design, misinterpretation of results, and mistaken reporting.
Séralini’s study faced criticism based on design and interpretation, but critics also condemned his publicity tactics (Butler, 2012). Not only did Séralini refuse to release the raw data, but also required journalists sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting discussion of the study with other researchers. Thus, Séralini disseminated the study to the public by circumventing scientific review and criticism. During the publicity stunt, Séralini revealed conflicts of interest by promoting his book and film based on the study.
Reinforcing the need for skepticism against March Against Monsanto, Bt maize links to Colony Collapse Disorder were never published in a scientific journal (Lemaux, 2009). Moreover, a meta-analysis of 25 independent studies suggests Bt proteins are not detrimental to the survival of honeybee adults or larvae (Duan, 2008).
Both of March Against Monsanto’s claims, and the propagandised appropriation of scientific research in the form of image memes, demonstrate how analogy and appeals to empathy manipulate audiences. Without references to actual studies, “research studies” as well as “scientists”, hold only superficial authority; yet, such weasel words can persuade by equivocating meaningful concepts. Such weasel words become analogies for the alluded to studies. Appeal to authority is a poor substitute for verifiable references. Similarly, thoughts of ourselves or others getting cancer, or the world collapsing along with the bees invokes empathy, yet unjustly so. Once these unsubstantiated claims become image memes, the graphic images provoke illegitimate empathy, fear, and anger.
While analogical and empathetical reasoning are useful tools, without analytical reasoning, the movement against Monsanto degrades into abusing, rather than changing with the science (Mooney, 2011). Being uncritical of misinformation, the anti-GMO movement parallels the anti-vaccination and climate-change denial movements. Dismissal of disconfirming evidence by claiming a conspiracy makes similarities more apparent (Gorski, 2012; Ryan, 2013). As with the anti-vaccination movement, instead of changing with the science, organisations behind the anti-GMO movement create a false dichotomy of good versus evil (Byrne, 2012). When manipulated through an analogy using a good versus evil dichotomy, people become vulnerable to an irrational “us versus them” mentality. Members of the movement who do not analyse this mentality are more likely to dismiss research that contradicts the propagandised worldview. Instead of investigating the research objectively, members argue Monsanto shills interfere with the process. This analogical reasoning breaks down when analytical reasoning is applied since the argument is a hasty generalisation. The faulty argument suggests that because some members of the scientific community are corrupt, that all members are corrupt. Concern about potential conflicts of interest is legitimate, but instant dismissal of contradictory findings based on the possibility is an argumentum ad hominem.
In fact, contrary to the argument that Monsanto confounds all GMO research, and that there is no independent research, an abundance of peer reviewed and independent research shows otherwise. For example, the non-profit and independent organisation, Biofortified, collects peer-reviewed research, creating the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA). This project has compiled around 600 studies, including a list of studies with independent funding (Haro von Mogel, n.d.).
Interestingly, what often gets neglected when GMOs are framed analogous to something dastardly is that safety testing of non-GM foods is lacking (Haro von Mogel, n.d.). Anti-GMO organisations, such as those prompting Proposition 37 (Byrne, 2012; “Text of California Proposition 37”, 2012), are pushing to get GM foods labelled due to safety concerns; however, GM foods have comparably more research demonstrating safety than other foods on the market. For instance, there are naturally occurring chemicals and pesticides in our food that have not been as rigorously tested (Ames, 1990). Anti-GMO organisations monger fear about GM foods based on fears of pesticides; however, that concern ought to also be had for conventional foods (Nougadere, 2012).
In contrast to the concern that genetically modified foods do not have stringent testing, popular news sources of the anti-GMO movement such as the disinformation website, Natural News (“Natural News”, n.d.), casts the terms of “organic” and “natural” as analogous as more healthful and better, analytical reasoning questions this assumption (“Richard Dawkins talks about GMO crops”, 2013). For instance, by analysing the ‘appeal to nature’, the argument that something is intrinsically better based on being “natural”, becomes fallacious. For example, modern edible bananas come from Musa acuminate, an inedible ancestor (de Langhe, 2004). Through hybridisation, modern bananas surpass their predecessor in utility. More importantly, few people could deny the benefits of life-saving medicines synthesised from natural herbs. Moreover, “’Organic’ does not automatically equal ‘safe’” (Magkos, 2006). Organic fruits and vegetable also have pesticides (Winter, 2012). While consumers may assume organic food is healthier, such claims are not supported by scientific evidence. (Goodchild, 2009).
By not applying analytical reasoning to artificial dichotomies, members of the movement diminish empathetical reasoning. Accepting one side of a false dichotomy, people sacrifice empathising with others for what they deem the greater good. “This business of seeing ourselves as in the right, others in the wrong; our cause as right, theirs as wrong; our ideas as correct, theirs as nonsense, if not downright evil…Well, in our sober moments, our human moments, the times when we think, reflect, and allow our rational minds to dominate us, we all of us suspect that this ‘I am right, you are wrong’ is, quite simply, nonsense” (Lessing, 1986). Undoubtedly, a movement gains momentum by focusing on demonised versions of the target, yet at the cost empathy.
Extremism creates the illusion of certainty from fervour. Political groups speak with certainty because such confidence can be effective in swaying the audience. “People like certainties,” says Lessing. “More, they crave certainty, they seek certainty, and great resounding truths. They like to be part of some movement equipped with these truths and certainties, and if there are rebels and heretics, that is even more satisfying, because this structure is so deep in all of us” (1986). Organisations behind the anti-GMO movement, driven by ideology, use anything remotely appearing scientific to promote the agenda (Mooney, 2011). Although broad scientific consensus suggests GM foods are as relatively safe as non-GM foods (WHO, n.d.; “A decade of EU-funded GMO research”, 2001-2010; American Medical Association, 2012), the anti-GMO movement uses fallacious analogy to frame GMOs as monstrous (Byrne, 2012). The more bad science the anti-GMO movement disseminates, the more these false analogies cement into the public mind. From the false alarm, legitimate concerns become buried.
While impassioned with zeal, people’s objectivity falters. Such mentality is reminiscent of Orwell’s two minutes hate. “It seems to me,” says Lessing, “more and more, that we are being governed by waves of mass emotion, and while they last it is not possible to ask cool, serious questions. One simply has to shut up and wait, everything passes…. But meanwhile, these cool, serious questions and their cool, serious, dispassionate answers could save us” (1986). In scientific matters, dispassionate thinking asks questions that might contradict preconceived worldviews.
Dispassionate thinkers can question organisations manipulating the public by mimicking credible science. With GMO topics embedded in a wide variety of issues, there is no doubt of legitimate concerns, especially in light of corporate interests (Byrne, 2012). Abusing the science, however, sacrifices the long term for the short term by attracting followers, but muddying the waters to an already murky situation. Worst of all, such techniques reduce critical thinking, hinder scientific literacy, and increase susceptibility to deception.
In the end, if the public is concerned about companies such as Monsanto, rejecting science and shunning scientific reasoning is counter-productive. Controversies within the scientific community are not justification to abandon science, but rather further reason to encourage scientific literacy and reasoning. Not only does the public need to be skeptical of scientific institutions, but also of those who manipulate the public by claiming scientific authority and credibility. Although claimed facts may fit a worldview or ideology, these claims need critical analysis. Condensed forms of media such as memes reduce scientific ideas to commodities, replacing ventures into scientific reasoning; therefore, the public cannot rely on echo chambers and social knowledge, but must have the inclination to question messages analytically. Analogical and empathetical reasoning have advantages, yet neither serves well enough when evaluating scientific claims. Analytical reasoning reveals the deception of fallacious analogies as well as appeals to empathy. Honing analytical tools may be demanding; however, the patience is rewarded with an injection of trustworthy information and a higher immunity to thought viruses.
As with the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodman, Scarecrow on their quest for courage, heart, and brains, concerned citizens are travelling through the Land of Oz, struggling to find courage while nurturing empathy for one another. On this journey, there will be little people, behind big screens, subverting good intentions and inciting witch-hunts. Therefore, with science and technology increasingly dominating the lay of the land, the Scarecrow needs brains now more than ever.
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