Professor Bullsh*t unspun! - part two
Genetically Modified Language - Professor Bullsh*t unspun! [part two]
SpinWatch, 29 June 2005
...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 then 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.
Over all, 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... [part three to follow]