Jonathan Matthews looks at a critical book for anyone wanting to understand what's really going on in the GM debate.
Genetically Modified Language - Professor Bull***t unspun!
Earlier this year The Ecologist asked GM Watch's Jonathan Matthews to nominate his top 10 books on GM. At the time he hadn't read Guy Cook's 'Genetically Modified Language' or it would have been right up at the top. That's not just because of the scope and depth of the book's analysis of the arguments, metaphors, word choices and analogies deployed to promote GM, but also because of the extraordinary insights Cook's research provides into the collective mindset of pro-GM scientists.
About six years ago someone sent me a tape of a public debate on GM. As I listened to it, I realised that one of the speakers, an eminent scientist, was making seriously misleading claims about various research findings.
This spurred me to investigate other claims made by pro-GM scientists in public talks and the media, and I soon realised that what had been captured on my tape was far from a one-off. Sometimes it was a straightforward case of bogus claims; more often it was a question of deceptive language; sometimes it was both.
This "anything goes" approach to public communication typically came from scientists at the forefront of those clamouring for the GM debate to be based solely upon "sound science". Yet, the claims they themselves peddled to the public seemed at times to have no better foundation than industry spin or common room gossip.
Intent on retribution, I installed a character called Professor Bull***t in a virtual laboratory on the web where - ably assisted by his colleagues in linguistic crime: Dr Halftruth and Prof Wilspin - he doled out awards for public statements that best captured his peers' penchant for double standards.
One such award went to the presidents of three of America's leading scientific associations for circulating the following:
"Many biotechnology detractors gain public support for their cause through the use of misinformation and emotional appeals... In short, biotechnology, this incredibly powerful and valuable tool with seemingly limitless potential to resolve health problems, increase crop yields, and treat diseases, is at risk of serious setbacks."
How could a complaint about emotional appeals and a lack of communicative circumspection be placed cheek by jowl with an evangelical invocation of the incredible power and value of a largely untested technology and of its apparently "limitless potential" to solve life's most challenging (and emotive!) problems - healing the sick and feeding the hungry?
Another award winning example of this tendency to zealous self-contradiction came from the head of external affairs of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST):
"IFST is neither root-and-branch pro-GM or anti-GM, indeed as an independent objective scientific professional body it cannot be 'root-and-branch' about anything... The development of GM technology holds out such valuable, indeed indispensable, prospects for the future of humanity that any other approach would be indefensible."
My all time favourite, though, came near the end of an article about GM by Prof Jonathan Jones FRS:
"The future benefits (for consumers and the environment) will be enormous and the best is yet to come. In the meantime, let's have more information and less rhetoric."
Demanding a different standard of discourse from his opponents (no grandstanding, stick to the facts!) to the one he himself employed was clearly perfectly reasonable to Prof Jones.
And it wasn't only the lack of self-perception that was revealing. On another tape of a public meeting, Prof Jones was to be found stridently attacking critics of GM as "self-serving" fundamentalists and "the green mujihadeen". He also posted material on the Internet lambasting them as "bigoted, myopic, mystical" and "anti-scientific".
It seems hard to tally this kind of name-calling, loose association and emotive broad-brush condemnation, with the rational, provisional and evidence-based approach to knowledge Prof Jones is supposedly defending. Yet Jones is far from alone in his extravagant depiction of those who criticise GM.
Another Fellow of the Royal Society, Prof Anthony Trewavas, posted advice to US scientists on the net, in which he branded the critics of GM, "bloody minded, anarchist and frankly merely destructive." Greenpeace, he explained, was "controlled by extremists/nihilists and other subversives". And he advised his American colleagues to enlist the help of rightwing senators like Jesse Helms by alerting them, "that a subversive organisation directed from Europe is attempting to destroy US agriculture and US farming."
This advice was posted on the AgBioView e-mailing list, which claims a huge following among pro-GM scientists. AgBioView's more extreme material has accused critics of GM variously of fascism, communism, imperialism, nihilism, murder, corruption, terrorism, and even genocide; not to mention being worse than Hitler and on a par with the mass murderers who destroyed the World Trade Centre.
Despite the apparent absurdity of such claims, these linguistic onslaughts have almost never met with opposition from AgBioView's large body of pro-GM subscribers. Why not?
Enter: Guy Cook, Professor in Language and Education at the Open University (OU) and author of Genetically Modified Language, a book which critically analyses the war of words waged by those arguing for GM crops. Cook investigates the type of language deployed by major players in the GM debate - politicians, journalists, scientists and corporations. He also has a chapter on the views of "the spoken to" - the public; plus a section on the arguments and language commonly deployed in the debate, including such key words and phrases as "sound science", "Luddites", "Frankenstein foods", and "interfering with nature". But it's Cook's systematic analysis of the language used by pro-GM scientists that I found most compelling because of the extraordinary insights it provides into their underlying mindset.
Prior to his post at the OU, Cook held the Chair of Applied Linguistics at Reading - a university which has more than its share of GM researchers. And it was here that Cook first decided to research how such scientists presented GM crop research to non-specialists. In his book, Cook details the findings from that research in conjunction with a detailed analysis of a speech by one of Britain's leading pro-GM scientists - Lord May, the President of the Royal Society.
Cook shows how Lord May uses his carefully prepared 2002 presidential address to link opponents of GM within Britain with "outsiders and enemies of the British nation, such as Hitler, Mao and the Taliban". May does this by portraying them all as driven by "closed Fundamentalist belief systems".
Cook notes that May's "choice of the word 'fundamentalism' in the political climate of 2002, was a highly loaded one... It suggests, like the mention of the Taliban, anti-Western fanatics prepared to resort to violence and terror to achieve their ends". May is unlikely, Cook suggests, to have been unaware of the unstated associations his choice of words would carry.
In his speech May contrasts fundamentalism (as epitomised by GM opponents, the Taliban etc.) with the "rational, humane, questioning" values that May says gave birth to the Royal Society and much of what is best in world civilisation. What May is seeking to do by this, Cook explains, is to present his listeners "with a binary choice: either be for GM or join the forces of mindless ignorance and violent intolerance." But May achieves this dichotomy, Cook argues, only via linguistic "sleights of hand”¦ which contradict in practice what is being championed in principle."
May's speech by itself might be considered unrepresentative, and this is where the findings from Cook's research on GM scientists as a group comes into play. The texts of a whole series of recorded interviews with GM scientists were linguistically analysed. These data sets could also be computer-analysed to help reveal the GM scientists' most recurrent themes and word patterns. From studying these shared habits of language, Cook was able to build a detailed picture of how GM scientists viewed both the public and opponents of GM. His findings are so revealing that I'm going to quote from them at some length. (These quotes mostly come from a summary of his research available online.)
The "public", the data revealed, tend to be seen as homogeneous, as passive, as frequently emotional, rather than rational, and as uniformly ignorant. Cook notes that this "characterization of the public is often achieved through anecdotes of some farcical encounter with a particularly 'uninformed' member of the public: a commonly voiced one concerns people who are worried that they may be 'eating genes'." He also came across, "a frequent claim that the public has no understanding of risk, and naively believes in, and foolishly demands reassurances of, 'zero risk'," (in fact, studies contradict this characterization).
Because public opposition to GM is attributed wholly to ignorance, the answer is seen as education. This perspective is echoed, Cook notes, in research such as the widely quoted EuroBarometer reports, "where knowledge is reduced to knowledge of the technology itself, and correlated with negative attitudes to GMOs". But other research suggests that technical knowledge of GM does not necessarily lead to increased acceptance of GMOs.
Cook also found that while many GM scientists, when asked directly, expressed interest in a public "debate", what they meant by that was a one-way "debate" in which members of the public would be "educated". "This apparent readiness to open the GM debate to the public is thus deceptive," writes Cook, "as it conceals strongly held beliefs that members of the public are interfering when they ask to be heard and to be actors in (instead of spectators of) the decision-making processes."
The public's supposed lack of knowledge and inability to engage with the issues, except at an emotional level, contributes to a view of them as malleable and passive and hence vulnerable to manipulation by critics of GM. From this perspective, public opposition to GM has been "entirely created by the media and NGOs, rather than ”¦ever being a spontaneous, considered, or autonomous response. This characterization of public opinion thus frees scientists from having to engage with the public on equal terms."
The GM scientists in Cook's study seem to have an equally low opinion of those who criticise GM. Cook found they were judged to be "acting in their own interests and making decisions without authority on the public's behalf”¦ NGOs are characterised as launching campaigns in order to maintain membership and finance their organization and salaries. Journalists are seen as fickle, unconcerned with truth, and motivated only by the need for a 'good story'."
Cook also found, "There is a limited discussion of types of opposition, with over half of the references to the press, for example, focusing upon the phrase 'Frankenstein foods' used in the Daily Mail" (a British tabloid). Yet, Cook notes elsewhere in his book that this phrase is now most commonly used not by opponents of GM but by proponents, who use it both to chracterise the press in general and as an example of language used to sway people's opinions. Cook found, for instance, that the scientist and Member of Parliament, Dr Ian Gibson, used it no less than five times in just half an hour.
And the chapter on journalists in Cook's book shows just how misleading "Frankenstein foods" is as a catch-all for British media coverage of GM. Not only does it not typify the style or content of many papers' coverage, but there are a series of newspapers (Cook focuses on The Times and The Sun) with a generally pro-GM editorial outlook. Cook also notes how stories reporting speculative GM solutions to intractable problems (e.g. 'GM allergy-free peanuts', 'GM grass to help hay fever sufferers') are widely published in all types of newspapers. This means that stories designed to promote the GM cause, such as 'Bananas will slip into extinction without GM', turn up even in newspapers which tend to be critical of GM.
But just as the GM scientists use "Frankenstein foods" as a catch-all for media coverage, so Cook found that references to anti-GM NGOs, which in the UK encompass an extremely broad range of organisations, were limited almost entirely to one organistion - Greenpeace. This pattern, incidentally, seems to be repeated world-wide. In Argentina, for instance, the biotech industry and its supporters are reported to insist on "debating" with Greenpeace to the exclusion, for instance, of the peasant farmers who oppose GM.
Cook also found that anti-GM protesters and activists outside of the main NGOs were only infrequently mentioned by GM scientists but when they were it was in "condemnatory terms", with one scientist equating them to terrorists and fascists.
Overall, Cook found "some considerable contradiction between the claims that opinions should be based upon impartial and rational assessment of evidence, and the scientists' own descriptions and assessments of the opponents of GM and their arguments. Particularly ironic is the highly emotive language often used to criticize the irrational nature of the opposition, and the highly selective use of examples to characterise its causes and motives - both apparently in defence of science."
In the book, Cook also notes that there is a "marked tendency for the views of pro-GM scientists and pro-GM politicians to echo and replicate each other". A speech by Tony Blair, for instance, presents his listeners with exactly the same binary choice as Lord May's - either you're rational, progressive and well-informed (you're for GM) or you're part of the forces of ignorance and intolerance (you're concerned about GM). Even some of Blair and May's analogies, Cook notes, seem to come as more or less the same job lot.
But the public seem not to recognize the image of themselves and their concerns that is projected by GM proponents, as Cook points out in the final chapter of his book. And there is one thing in particular which such portrayals almost invariably leave out. The public, when asked, often seem not just to be against GM but to be against the people who advocate it. "They express dismay," Cook writes, "that decisions are being taken undemocratically by unelected commercial companies, by the governments of other nations or by experts. They regard the supposed dialogue as bogus, they do not trust the information they are given and they claim that irreversible decisions have already been taken without consultation."
But Cook's research shows the virtual absence of reference to these common concerns by GM scientists. Cook writes, "a striking aspect of the interviews with GM scientists, in contrast to those with nonspecialists, is the general dearth of reference to major arguments in the wider national and international debate”¦ Most striking of all is the virtual absence of reference to concerns about the political and economic implications of GM, how policy decisions are made about it, the nature and speed of its implementation, or accusations of improper influence being exerted by governments, corporations or scientific bodies - even though these arguments all feature prominently in the anti-GM literature."
Cook's research showed that, instead, there was "an almost exclusive focus on a cost benefit analysis based on assessable safety issues relating to health and the environment". There was no reference to unforeseen risks, to the limits of rational analysis, or to the need to make judgements in situations of imperfect knowledge. Similarly, there was only "some vague awareness of ethical objections to GM technology, but these are generally considered to be religious, and/or caricatured as beyond the reach of reasoned argument."
While GM proponents may appear to be thus failing to engage with a whole range of concerns, Cook suggests that they have, in fact, been highly successful in tightly defining the grounds for legitimate public debate. He notes, for instance, how Tony Blair's former Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, begins an article by quoting Blair’s call for the "whole debate to be conducted on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the basis of prejudice" (emphasis added). Meacher expresses his agreement with this, but Cook argues that in taking this as his starting point, Meacher, like other critics of GM, has fallen for a false dichotomy that often leaves critics arguing over scientific evidence for or against impacts on health and biodiversity, while ignoring a series of important concerns that also have validity.
Outside the narrow pro-GM terms of engagement lie political, socio-economic, ethical, and even aesthetic concerns, which opponents, retreating under a hail of ridicule, have allowed to be marginalised as belonging to the realm of prejudice. "The battle is being fought almost entirely on quantitive and utilitarian grounds", says Cook. "Yet in addition to the measurable threat to biodiversity and health, there are many other reasons to oppose GM. No substantial answer has been advanced to the views that it represents an unwelcome discontinuity with positive values of the past; that it shows no humility or wonder at the goodness which comes from Nature (albeit sometimes aided or redirected through humans via cultivation) and no trust in the overall power of Nature (notwithstanding its concurrent destructiveness) to sustain and regenerate both itself and ourselves; that it undervalues the personal and cultural importance of Nature as a force for good in art, religion, literature and recreation."
Cook also notes how GM proponents continuously fudge the crucial distinction between science and technology, enabling them to designate as "anti-science" opposition to one particular technology (genetic engineering). As Cook points out, one can quite reasonably be against a technology - nuclear weapons, for instance - without in any sense rejecting the scientific understanding that underlies it. Science, in other words, does not of itself determine our possible technological futures, which are diverse and should be open to choice.
These reflections show both the scope and depth of Cook's analysis of the arguments, metaphors, word choices and analogies deployed to promote GM. Of course, reading Cook’s book inevitably leaves one wondering what Cook would glean from scrutiny of one’s own language. Pro-GM scientists are in no doubt that the critics of GM are guilty of all kinds of rhetorical enormities but, even if that were so, there is a crucial distinction.
Unlike campaigners, scientists are normally able to assume a privileged communicative position thanks to their status as "experts" who, supposedly, base their comments on objective evidence and scientific expertise.This can give their statements an authority that elevates their claims and opinions above those of other people - something appreciated by corporate PR departments who clearly understand the value of third party endorsements by doctors and scientists.
And the authority of scientists can be made to carry well beyond their specialism, as Cook notes. There is "a common contemporary supposition that when a scientist speaks, in whatever forum, on whatever topic, and in whatever style, something of his or her authority carries over into other domains. In this way, science has come to be seen less as a way of proceeding or a mode of thought, and more as the property of particular people."
This, it's worth noting, has been exploited by a number of pro-GM scientists who have ventured well beyond their specialisms to hold forth on issues as diverse as organic farming, poverty reduction, free market economics, and the role of the media. The inappropriate attribution of expertise in such cases is not only something the popular media is guilty of. The science journal Nature, for instance, has published not one but three separate - and highly controversial - opinion pieces attacking organic farming by Prof Anthony Trewavas - a molecular biologist.
But while the authority of a scientist like Prof Trewavas can be made to extend well beyond his specialist sphere, the authority of scientists who publish research which raises concerns about GM is stripped away from them - even in the area of their own specialism! This is not a point that Cook deals with in his book but his research helps us identify the pattern of what is taking place.
Take, for instance, the so-called Mexican "maize scandal", triggered by the publication in Nature of research by the Berkeley scientists, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, showing GM contamination of native Mexican maize. The journal Science noted the part played in heightening the controversy by "widely circulating anonymous e-mails" which accused the researchers of "conflicts of interest and other misdeeds". In one of the first of these e-mails Dr Chapela was described as "first and foremost an activist" rather than a scientist. The subject line of the e-mail reinforced its message: "Ignatio (sic) Chapela - activist FIRST, scientist second".
It is not only an Associate Professor like Dr Chapela who can fall victim to such verbal assaults. Eminence is no protection. When an expert committee of the Royal Society of Canada produced a report on GM that was not to the taste of proponents, it was savagely attacked by an Associate Professor, Dr Douglas Powell, in an article in Canada's National Post, contributed as part of the paper's "Junk Science Week". In the article Powell dismissed the Royal Society's report as "a document that more resembled a Greenpeace hatchet job than a reasoned analysis of the science surrounding GM issues".
The language of attack in both these cases is clearly intended to exclude the offending scientists from the category of those capable of impartial and rational assessment of scientific evidence, and to relocate them in the category of pseudo-science and irrational opposition. This serves both to scapegoat the scientists concerned and to remove the need to deal with them and their findings on equal terms.
But something else is going on here beyond the choice of language. The "anonymous" e-mails that initiated and fuelled the attacks on Dr Chapela and his research were eventually tracked back to Monsanto and its Internet PR company. And these e-mail fronts, it emerged, had also been used as part of a much longer-running Internet-based PR campaign aimed at destroying the reputation of anyone seen as adversely affecting the interests of the biotechnology industry. The majority of these attacks were posted prominently on AgBioView - the apparent list of choice for pro-GM scientists.
Cook's research helps to explain what it is about the mindset of pro-GM scientists that makes them an easy target for this kind of orchestration. What lies largely beyond the scope of Cook's study is exactly how these scientists acquired their particular herd mentality. I'd like to suggest 3 books that may help to elucidate this.
The first is George Monbiot's 'Captive State' which, in considering the corporate take over of Britain, tracks the drastic and deliberate alteration in the culture of public science and the academy in recent years, particularly as regards the bio-sciences. Having an unelected biotechnology investor and food industrialist as the UK's science minister, based within the Department of Trade and Industry, is more than emblematic of the corporate-science culture which has become entrenched not just in the UK but which has become increasingly dominant in much of the world.
Monbiot shows how in the UK the industrial alignment of the biological sciences began with a political quest to make the primary focus of science its contribution to economic competitiveness. The goal of building businesses from genetics was consequently made central to the corporate plan of the UK's public funding body for the bio-sciences - renamed (with appropriate emphasis) the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The BBSRC developed a strategy for integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industry - a strategy overseen by a plethora of industry figures appointed to its boards. The BBSRC's former Chairman was, for example, also a director of the GM giant Syngenta. Guy Cook, incidentally, is not unaware of the psychological impact of this heavy emphasis on the commercialisation of science, suggesting it may account to a large extent for the diminution in scientists' minds of the distinction between science and technology.
The second book, 'The Arrogance of Humanism', considers a still more deeply-seated malaise - what its author, the biologist David Ehrenfeld, identifies as the irrational faith in human power and control to rearrange the world of Nature and engineer our own future in whatever way we see fit. This faith in our own unlimited powers to remake the natural world is, Ehrenfeld suggests, the dominant religion of our age. Its arrogant and misplaced assumptions are presupposed in much of our public discourse, whether it’s about business, economic theory, politics, science or technology.
Although Ehrenfeld's book was first published in the late 1970s and so doesn't have a lot to say about genetic engineering, this technology clearly represents the apotheosis of the human command and control model. To the faithful, this gives it an almost totemic value, and it's surely here that we find the source of both the fervour and defensive zeal that surrounds this technology, as well as of its ability to generate utopian visions based on its apparently "limitless potential" to engineer a Nature truly remade.
The final book I want to mention also has only a limited amount to say about genetic engineering. What Andy Rowell's 'The Green Backlash' does, however, is show how industry dollars spawned a movement (midwifed by various PR outfits, think tanks and corporate front groups) aimed at aggressively demonising those who raise environmental issues that challenge big business. The coining of abusive terminology was a key weapon in this emerging campaign to marginalise the environmental movement. The king of anti-environmentalist spin, Ron Arnold, told the New York Times,"We created a sector of public opinion that didn't used to exist. No one was aware that environmentalism was a problem until we came along."
Prof Cook in his book draws attention to the remarkable similarities in the discourse of pro-GM scientists and pro-GM politicians, particularly in terms of how they portray opposition to GM. What Rowell's book enables us to do is to identify the suite of pre-existing arguments, stereotypes and linguistic formulations that are being drawn upon. It also shows how these were created and put into circulation with the deliberate intention of infecting the rhetorical mainstream.
It's also important to recognise that this is a continuing process with lobbyists playing a critical role in arming, maintaining and exploiting the ideological perspective of pro-GM scientists. In the UK, for instance, with the financial backing of GM and pharmaceutical companies and the blessing of pro-GM politicians, lobbyists have taken over strategically important posts at the interface between scientists and the public. From here they can both "represent" and groom scientists, and court and direct journalists to those scientists who can be relied upon to endorse a pro-GM agenda. (See Rotten to the Core)
Not so long ago The Ecologist asked me to nominate my top ten books on GM. Unfortunately, at the time I hadn't read Guy Cook's book or it would have been right at the top. Not least because, taken together with the other books I've mentioned, it provides an extraordinary insight into the collective consciousness of Prof Bull***t & Associates.
Genetically Modified Language: The Discourse of Arguments for GM Crops and Food, Guy Cook, Routledge, UK. Hb: 0-415-31467-4; Pb: 0-415-31468-2 - click here for details at amazon.com (USA)