I recently attended a large synthetic biology conference. Pam Ronald, a renowned plant pathologist who is also known for being outspoken about genetic engineering gave one of the keynote addresses. As one of the few people from a plant biology background in the room, what happened afterwards surprised me.
Dr. Ronald’s talk focused on the research in her lab and included a bit about the controversy surrounding plant genetic engineering (GE). The questions that followed went well beyond the scope of her talk and revealed common misconceptions about gluten, bee-decline, and cross-pollination between GE plants and wild species.
Why was Dr. Ronald asked so many questions that were only tangentially related to her seminar? How did the scientists in the audience come to be misguided on these topics? And –a bit of self reflection—why have I investigated these topics so thoroughly myself?
As the only scientist in my family, I’m often called on for my “expert opinion” on topics like artificial sweetener, juice cleanses, ancestral DNA tests, and marijuana cultivation. I’m not an expert in these areas, but I’m at least better equipped to navigate the literature and determine the scientific consensus.
We tend to assume that science communication is for the “general public.” But to the general public a scientist is a scientist is a scientist, and they elevate our opinion on any matter relating to science. That means we have a responsibility to make sure other scientists know what the consensus is in our field. It also means that we have a responsibility to make sure we know what the consensus is in other fields.
I’ve often lamented that most of the people I reach through social media are other scientists. But now I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Scientists are human, and like all other humans, we make assumptions and we’re swayed by the things we hear in pop culture and on the news. It’s our responsibility to make sure that there are enough scientifically accurate voices out there to at least present an alternative to the misinformation.
If even scientists are uncertain about the scientific consensus in other fields, then we’re clearly not doing enough.
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