Professor Bullsh*t unspun! - part three
Genetically Modified Language - Professor Bullsh*t unspun! [part three]
SpinWatch, 29 June 2005
...Of course, reading Guy Cook's book [Genetically Modified Language] 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 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 [and his research assistant, Shane Morris], 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 the industrial alignment of the biological sciences began in the UK 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 Bullsh*t & Associates.