Professor Bullsh*t unspun! - part one
So, as part of marking 10 years of GM Watch, we're putting out 'Professor Bullsh*t unspun' - a book review Jonathan did back in 2005 that tries to get inside the collective mindset of pro-GM scientists.
The original review was fairly longish but divides naturally into 3 parts, so that's how we're putting it out.
Genetically Modified Language - Professor Bullsh*t unspun! [part one]
SpinWatch, 29 June 2005
*Earlier this year The Ecologist asked 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 Bullsh*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...
[part two to follow]