If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is to bring into stark relief just whose work is essential.
Around the world, people are coming out to yards and balconies to applaud health care workers. People have new appreciation for oft-ignored sanitation workers and grocery store clerks.
While we cheer on those who keep the wheels of society turning, let’s also spare a thought and some words of thanks for another overlooked, essential group: scientists.
Some years ago, while working at the University of Saskatchewan, I wrote a brief profile on a new faculty member, a young researcher named Darryl Falzarano. His chosen subject was an obscure (to me) disease called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.
Why, I wondered, was he mucking about with something that, while serious, wasn’t terribly contagious and affected populations on the other side of the world? Plus, the animal reservoir for the MERS virus was the camel – a species not often seen on the Canadian Prairies.
He explained that MERS was a coronavirus, a close relative of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). SARS I knew: the epidemic had been in the news around the world. People had died; people were afraid.
MERS and SARS are zoonotic diseases, that is, they originated in animals. These diseases constitute the majority of emerging threats to human health. Know more about MERS, Falzarano said, and we know more about zoonotic coronaviruses.
I eventually left the university and lost track of Falzarano until early this March. There was an announcement that VIDO InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan was getting a sudden multi-million-dollar funding infusion from the Canadian government. A new coronavirus had gone pandemic: SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Once again, people are dying. People are afraid.
VIDO InterVac, one of the top vaccine development organizations in the country, is tasked with developing a vaccine against the threat. Falzarano leads the team.
As any emergency preparedness professional knows, when a crisis hits, there is no time to plan. The plan must be in place, the people trained, the facilities ready.
Most scientists labour in obscurity, making incremental discoveries and publishing them in journals that are largely read only by their peers. But when a crisis comes, when their expertise is needed, they are ready.
What drives scientists to do what they do? Joy of discovery? Insatiable curiousity? Desire to help society? I suspect the reasons are as varied as the people. Of one thing I am certain: scientists don’t get into it for the money. I remember being shocked to learn that a new assistant professor was being paid slightly less than me, a mere research communications officer. This, for someone who had spent at least eight to 10 years completing undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral education and training.
Their job was and is much harder than mine. Academic researchers must design and run their research programs, apply for and secure grants, hire and supervise graduate students, write up their research for professional journals, teach classes, and serve on university committees. To get it all done, their work schedule can be brutally long.
And every once in a while, scientists’ expertise becomes critical to the welfare of us all. Suddenly, money is no object. But no amount of funding can conjure a PhD in virology and a decade of hard-won knowledge and expertise out of thin air.
When the call comes, scientists must be ready, and they are. For this, we thank them.
Buying new kicks under this COVID stuff is, well, frustrating.
I’ve been wearing the same set of trail runners for some time now. I love them. They’re comfortable, they’ve got great traction, and they are tough. I’ve beat the hell out of them through Spartan races and a good bit of training for four years, and I am just now, somewhat reluctantly, wanting to buy some new ones.
As you can imagine I want the same make and model.
So, first steps: I go and do a little research online, and there is a new model out. Bonus: there’s an option that’s just a little wider in the toe box, which was my only beef with these shoes.
In the course in my online searching, I woke up the algorithms and am now getting enticing messages from the sporting goods chains with the shoes that are almost what I want (the wider option). Plus, I’d rather buy local, especially during the current trying times.
So I checked the website of my favourite local sporting goods store, since that’s where I bought my current bulletproof speed boots. Alas, their online store is not yet up and running. Worse, it is not apparent how I can contact them about a specific product.
So, from a customer perspective, a few ideas come to mind that might aid our local businesses, particularly in these trying times.
So, what can we take away from all this? Yes, we’re floundering around trying to figure out how to reach our customers under this new paradigm. At the same time, our customers are quite likely floundering around trying to figure out how to find us.
Let’s figure out how to tell them we’re still here, that we value their business, and we’re figuring out how to deliver them the service they’ve come to trust us for. Heck we might even find ways to make that service better.
Unless you’re a cat, bedbug or other unfortunate critter, moving genes is a pretty pleasant affair involving a couple of parents and resulting in offspring. This is called vertical gene transfer. (Ooh, talk science to me baby …)
But what if you want to transfer genes horizontally?
“Going ho” is pretty exciting when an athlete does it in a game of Ultimate. When we’re talking going ho with genes between species that would never otherwise get it on, people freak out.
Enter GMOs, or specifically, transgenic GMOs. These are the ones that involve putting genes from one organism into another, unrelated organism. Like putting strawberry genes into fish – or was it putting fish genes into tomatoes? Or tomato genes into fish? Genetic engineering and PhotoShop often get mixed up on the interwebs…
Some actual examples of GMO crops are corn, canola, and soybeans. These crops have had genes from bacteria added to them. For example, to give crops built-in pest resistance, developers inserted genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium that naturally controls insects. Organic farmers apply Bt preparations on their crops and many municipalities use Bt to control pests such as mosquito larvae in standing water. By putting the Bt genes directly into the crops, farmers don’t need to spray their crops as often (sometimes not at all). Also, beneficial and benign insects don’t get hit as collateral damage from spraying. If the bug doesn’t eat the crop, the crop doesn’t harm the bug.
Eww. Bacteria genes in my food? That just ain’t natural.
Well, it turns out, Momma Nature does this sort of thing all the time. One critter that does it a lot is a soil microbe called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. It has basically figured out how to have sex with plants. By “going ho,” it inserts its own genes into the plant’s cells. Why? Well, the genes cause the plants to grow galls. While these lumps aren’t especially great for the plants, they’re great habitat for Agrobacterium.
Researchers got to thinking: what if we swap in some other genes instead, for things that we want–like insect or herbicide resistance? It took a while for them to figure out how to do this, but they got it to work. The first GMO crops made this way came out in the 1990s. Farmers continue to adopt them at record rates because of their great in-field advantages such as lower production costs and ease of use.
Consumers, on the other hand, were not particularly enthusiastic, especially when their doubts were fanned by dire warnings of advocacy groups. Researchers playing god, unnatural selection – that sort of thing. It’s been an extremely successful tack: there’s a multimillion-dollar enterprise devoted to providing a “non-GMO” seal for food producer to assure their products are untainted by genetic engineering. Organic production standards and labels assure consumers likewise.
But there’s a problem with the “unnatural” standard. When researchers got better tools to study genes, they started poking around in a lot of genomes to see what they could find. When they looked at sweet potatoes, lo and behold, there were some Agrobacterium genes in all cultivated varieties they looked at, as well as some wild relatives. The speculation is that Agrobacterium infected an ancestral sweet potato and instead of creating a gall, it caused the plant to grow bigger tubers (there is a set of Agrobacterium genes that is only found in cultivated varieties). It was a “gall gone right” as far as early humans were concerned and they started cultivating these natural GMO sweet potatoes by preference.
It turns out going ho – that is, swapping genes through horizonal transfer – isn’t really that unusual. Once they started looking, researchers found that Agrobacterium really has been getting around. It’s genes have been found in more than 35 species of plants across nearly two dozen genera.
It seems Momma Nature hasn’t been respecting species boundaries. Then again, she didn’t create the boundaries; we did.
People always strive to identify patterns, create categories and assign things to their proper boxes. Nearly 300 years ago, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician came up with the system of “boxes” we use today – kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Like mates with like, producing similar offspring. Step too far out of the box and you got things like sterile hybrids, underlining the importance of the rules.
As researchers learned more about genomics and could track on a genetic level what living things were getting up to in private, they found a more complicated picture. Like mates with like, yes, but players such as Agrobacterium and various viruses also get in the game from the sidelines all the time.
Could it be that creating GMOs via horizontal gene transfer – whether it be natural or human-made – isn’t that unusual after all? Maybe “going ho” is just part of the natural order of things.
*Note: “Going ho” only applies to one kind of GMO: transgenics. There are other kinds, created by using different techniques to change an organism’s genome without adding anything. Depending on the definition – and this varies by jurisdiction – GMOs can include products of gene silencing such as the Arctic Apple or more recently CRISPR gene editing and older techniques such as mutagenesis.
There are currently about 10 transgenic GMO food crops available, including papaya, eggplant and one food animal, salmon). Bananas and cowpea are in development and being adopted in some countries.
In the spring of 2009, a five-year-old boy in Mexico got sick: one of the first of thousands to become ill from a new strain of influenza.
His family blamed his illness on the numerous pig farms that surround his village, although testing determined there was no connection. The new contagion, actually a variation on the familiar H1N1 virus, came to be known as the “Mexican swine flu,” or simply “swine flu.”
The disease caused by this new flu bug (formally (H1N1) pdm09) became a pandemic. It killed more than 17,000 people, and continues to kill people every year as part of the seasonal flu threat, but this is true of other flu viruses too.
But the nickname “swine flu” did billions of dollars in economic damage. People stopped buying and eating pork. Export markets dried up as countries free of the virus banned pork imports from countries known to have cases of the disease.
In 1918, just as World War 1 was winding to its bloody end, a new, deadly strain of influenza appeared. While its origins are still uncertain, doctors in Spain – a neutral country – were free to publish what they were seeing. Hence the new disease, which went on to kill an estimated 50 million people in the worst pandemic of the 20th century, became forever known as the Spanish flu. Spain protested that their country was being unfairly stigmatized.
There are echoes of this stigma today as in mid-March the U.S. president dubbed the current COVID-19 pandemic as the “Chinese virus.” Later, at a G7 conference near the end of March, the US secretary of state insisted on calling it the “Wuhan virus” after the Chinese city in which it first appeared. Officials from the other G7 nations refused, so no joint statement on the pandemic was issued.
To be fair (or equally unfair), the Chinese, aided by conspiracy theory groups, have evidently been using social media to spread the story that COVID-19 was brought to Wuhan by U.S. troops stationed there, i.e. “it’s the American virus.”
Names have great power particularly when adopted by those in authority. One possible consequence is that some gun stores in the U.S. have seen a marked uptick in sales of weapons and ammunition to Asian Americans who feel the need to protect themselves and their families.
Some names demonize groups with horns, others sanctify people and places with halos. It’s something the World Health Organization recognized in 2015 with new guidelines in naming new pathogens to avoid any names or geographical locations.
The COVID-19 virus, incidentally, is formally known as SARS-CoV-2. While the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, nor does it stigmatize any given group.
Horns and halos bypass people’s logical decision-making; they go straight to the gut for an emotional response. It’s a strategy well-known and well-used in marketing, communications, and yes, propaganda.
In the supermarket, labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and “gluten-free” impart a positive halo to products, while “synthetic,” “GMO,” and “factory farm” evoke horns in the consumer mind. In fact, marketers can buy themselves a halo simply by stating what they are not, for example, “non-GMO.”
Likewise, in energy generation, “renewables” such as wind and solar have been graced with halos, while “nuclear” and more recently “oil” have been burdened with horns.
Facts are often irrelevant when it comes to giving products or messages halos or horns. For example, despite overwhelming evidence of vaccine safety and effectiveness, anti-vaccine groups are able to create enough doubt among parents that childhood diseases such as measles and whooping cough are making a comeback.
Likewise, fear of GMOs and food biotechnology threatens adoption and retention of more productive and environmentally gentle farming techniques. It also keeps these tools from improving the lives of farm families in developing countries. Hot-button issues such as climate change and fluoride in public water supplies suffer from similar communications challenges.
While the world works through this latest pandemic, science communicators can look to other contentious science issues for lessons. How does one put a halo on an issue, and how can that halo become tarnished? Once horns have been put on an issue, can it be redeemed, and if so how?
At the same time, there was unease about the new technology, in no small part because of a single word used to describe it: radiation. My mother remembers newspaper advice columns at the time fielding questions from concerned homemakers about the new devices. They were reassured of their safety, but the unease persists to this day.
What would have happened, I wonder, if instead of “microwave radiation,” they had called it “microwave light?” Both are equally accurate.
Microwave light has wavelengths shorter than radio but longer than infrared. The heat you feel off one of those overhead heaters in a garage is infrared light. Another way to think of wavelengths is colour: the wavelengths of red light are longer than violet, for example.
Microwaves are pretty useful. Some wavelengths resonate with water molecules. That means if you shine microwave light on a water-containing substance, the water molecules start to move faster, or get hot. This is how a microwave oven works.
Microwaves are also used extensively in telecommunications - your cell phone uses them, for instance (typically between 900 Mhz and 1,800 Mhz). Microwaves are used because they can carry much higher information density than radio waves. So, when you’re using your cell phone, you’re using a microwave transceiver RIGHT BESIDE YOUR BRAIN (insert terrified scream here, and yes, I’m being sarcastic).
Popular phrases such as “nuke some dinner” don’t help. People are afraid of radiation, or at least what they think it radiation is. Light does radiate, even if you can’t see it (as I mentioned with the infrared heater). Incidentally, any incandescent bulb actually gives off much more infrared than visible light, which is why you can use them as a heat source.
Also, unless you’ve been very careful or very lucky, we pigment-challenged types have almost certainly had one or more radiation burns in our lives. This is because the shorter the wavelength of the light, the more energy it carries.
Light starts to get dangerous to us once you get into the ultraviolet range, something our sun is quite good at producing. So public health folks urge us to be careful, wear clothing, put on sunscreen to protect from radiation burns that can increase our risk of skin cancer. But we don’t often think of these as radiation burns; we just lament that we were careless and got a sunburn.
Words carry both meaning and emotion. “Light” and “radiation” can often be used interchangeably, but they carry much different emotional baggage. “Natural” and “synthetic” can be used to describe the same product, but how do these words make you feel? How about “organic” or “industrial?” “Corporate” vs “co-op?”
So, when crafting and consuming messages for ourselves and our clients, let us choose our words carefully – not only for meaning but for emotion.
After a fair bit of reading, rumination and research, I put together a couple of presentations examining the issues, and hopefully, putting forward a few ideas to help science communicators do our work. While the full presentation and discussion takes about an hour, in the spirit of Internet Age attentions spans and busy lives, I’ve condensed the ideas into this list.
the challenge was to fit the best of what they had shared into limited space. Other interview subjects took the classic cowboy approach: stoic answers of one or two words, no matter what leading questions I threw at them.
While you can’t control your interview subject entirely, you can at least come prepared with some research, questions and some tricks to get them talking. Here are a few to start with.
Be on time. One of my former profs used to tell a story of how she once went to interview a busy executive. She apologetically showed up 20 minutes late, but he graciously welcomed her into his office. Just as she was starting to hit her stride, the exec glanced at his wrist, thanked her for coming, and ushered her out of his office before heading to his next meeting.
Be prepared. Research the person, their work, and their subject area. You’re after new material with an interview, so don’t waste time asking questions about foundation stuff you could easily find elsewhere.
Create a cheat sheet. Take some quiet time to develop a set of questions. Often, you won’t use it much, but it will give you confidence that you won’t get tongue-tied with nothing to ask. I’ve found that I’ll start with my list but then generally ignore it as I run through the interview. At the end, I’ll check it to see if I’ve missed anything.
Ask clear questions. While you want to avoid “yes, no” questions, you should keep it simple. Don’t ramble on, touching several subjects before finally coming to rest on a three-part question. Stay focused so your interview subject can easily grasp what you’re asking.
Stay focused. Certainly, spend a little time on casual conversation to break the ice and get relaxed. But once you’re into the interview, don’t wander off into irrelevant alleys. Stay on topic, listen closely to your interview subject, and spot interesting avenues of conversation instead.
“So, let me see if I’ve got this right…” Interviewing experts means translating expert-ese into plain language. If you’re not sure you understand something, paraphrase it and read it back to your subject to make sure you’ve got it down.
Don’t pass up the chance to shut up. When conversation lags, you may feel the urge to fill the silence with your own chatter. Wait a moment. Master the pregnant pause. Let your interview subject tell you something interesting instead.
Pay attention on the way out. You’ve turned off your recorder and closed your notebook. Everyone relaxes. Small talk ensues; you ask a few casual questions on the way out the door. And your interview subject suddenly gives you the best quote of the interview! Relax. Shake their hand, close the door, then pull out your notepad and get that quote down on paper while it’s still fresh, along with any other final observations.
Evolution doesn’t necessarily create the best solution; just a solution that allows you to have more kids. In the case of Homo sapiens – us – evolution shaped our minds but left vulnerabilities and quirks that everyone from governments to marketers can exploit.
A case in point is some people’s tendency to fear new foods – particularly those borne of hard-to-understand processes. “Eat nothing your grandmother wouldn’t recognize,” is a mantra in some circles. It’s also a common logical fallacy called the “appeal to antiquity.”
From an evolutionary perspective, this is a perfectly reasonable, perhaps the best, standpoint. It’s safer to eat what you remember eating as a child and more risky to try something new.* Presumably, those bold individuals who tried a bevy of possible new edibles died more often. Their more wary cousins survived to become our ancestors and passed along their native caution to us.
When potatoes were first introduced to Europe from South America, people would have nothing to do with them, rejecting them as unhealthy and even un-Christian (in Russia, they were suspiciously called “the Devil’s apples.”) Perhaps not an unreasonable reaction – potatoes are part of the nightshade family and parts of the plant contain toxic alkaloids. Yet with a little knowledge on how to prepare them, potatoes proved their value and eventually became the fourth largest food crop in the world, after rice, wheat, and corn (another crop from the Americas).
As people became comfortable with new crops, they were not only accepted, but taken for granted. Eventually, they gained the tested-by-tradition stamp of Grandma’s kitchen.
As science progressed, naturalists observed plants and animals and put them into neat slots based on their characteristics. Those able to breed and have viable offspring were put in discrete categories called species. Certainly, there were hybrids such as mules, geeps and ligers, but these were exceptions to what became accepted as the natural order of things.
This setup served humanity well for hundreds of years. Agriculturalists could breed different kinds of sheep to produce varieties with finer wool or wheat with shorter stems and more seeds. Without realizing it, we were practicing a sort of forced evolution: those animals and plants with traits humans wanted got to survive and reproduce.
Then we learned about genetics and everything changed. Plant breeders learned how to “speed up” evolution, using radiation or chemicals to cause changes, or mutations, in DNA, the molecule that stores the chemical blueprints for all life on Earth. Most mutations are either benign or harmful, but some are useful. For example, one set of mutations produced grapefruit with flesh that was pink and sweet rather than yellow and bitter.
Later, humans learned how to take the next step – genetic engineering. Rather than cause a bunch of random mutations and hope for the best, we could identify the genes we were interested in and move only those genes into our target plant or animal. With this method, we created crops that can fight off insect pests all on their own and fish that grow faster, using less feed and energy to grow to market weight.
Of course, people freaked out. Moving genes from bacteria to corn and eggplant? From an ocean pout to an Atlantic salmon? That’s unnatural! (Although, truth be told, cross-species gene transfer happens in nature all the time).
Again, we might blame it on our own evolutionary baggage. Nature is perceived as good, wholesome, familiar. Even natural hazards such as poisonous snakes aren’t terribly scary – we just know to avoid them. But unknown hazards are a different story.
Consider a couple of early Homo erectus out on the African savanna. That rustle in the grass? It might be the wind; it might be a lion. Keep on walking and you might get eaten. Sprint for the nearest tree and climb to safety and the worst that happens is you feel silly for being spooked so easily. But fraidy-cats survive to have kids. We are the descendants of fraidy-cats.
Of course this leaves us vulnerable to savvy activists and marketers that know how to use our fear of the unknown to separate us from our money. “X causes cancer!” “GMOs are bad!” “Vaccines aren’t safe!”
Evolution has shaped our minds and left flaws, but these minds also have the ability to reason. It is this quality that allows us to examine our fears. We can discover if our fears are real or simply imaginary monsters under our beds.
*H/T to James Wong (@botanygeek) for this idea.
A wispy, ghost image rotates on the screen, evoking an itch in my mind. Organic, alive, awe-inspiring, the image teases at a memory. Then I have it: The Pillars of Creation.
The Pillars are part of the Eagle Nebula in the Serpens constellation (the “handle” of the Big Dipper points towards it). It’s a “stellar nursery,” that is, a place where gas and dust coalesce into greater and denser masses until pressure and heat sparks the nuclear fusion of new stars.
But the image on the screen over my pint of Guinness at Café Sci Saskatoon depicts the beginning of something else. It is a three-dimensional, extremely high-resolution scan, done at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron.
It isn’t an interstellar nebula spanning light years; it’s a chicken embryo a few millimetres across.
What sparked my mental flight of fancy is a collaboration between an artist and a scientist: Saskatoon sculptor Jean-Sébastien Gauthier and Brian Eames, who uses the CLS to study embryology within the context of evolutionary developmental biology.
As the pair define it, their “scientific art,” or “sciart” is more than simply taking attractive images and putting a frame around them. It is an act of intent, to purposely make a statement, or uncover a statement waiting to be made.
In this case, that statement is one of connectedness, the commonality of all living things. Embryos of chordates – things with backbones like us – share similar structures. Indeed, at some stages, embryos of chickens, zebrafish and humans are hard to tell apart. Gauthier pulled in another comparison: the uncanny resemblance among embryos and the Venus figurines, the earliest artistic depictions of the human form carved tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps reflecting the birth of religion.
Eames and Gauthier’s collaboration has so far resulted in several presentations and Dans la Mesure/Within Measure, an interactive multimedia installation presented at venues including Nuit Blanche and Gordon Snelgrove Gallery in Saskatoon. There were multicoloured projections where embryos grew and shrank, rotated and moved like holographic spirits. There were 3D printed models, including a two-metre zebrafish (life size is about two centimetres long), with light treatments that created the illusion of transparency with skeleton visible, adding layers and culminating in colourful scales.
What struck me about this collaboration is how it sparked forth unbounded discussion at the Café on everything from the purpose and limits of science, what defines art, and the philosophy that may underpin it all. It seemed to tap into people’s creative impulses in unexpected ways.
Five hundred years ago, the original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, wrote, “To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Too often today, artists, scientists and engineers put themselves in silos and peer over the ramparts with suspicion and even disdain at the denizens on the other side of the walls. “Their” values, “their” world views are too different than ours, and too difficult to understand.
Difficult, but not impossible.
I know a musician whose position on GMOs was what one might expect: suspicion and opposition. To her great credit, she sat down and had lunch with a scientist that had actually done the genetic engineering to develop new crops. To his credit, he listened to her concerns and accepted them as valid. They discussed, they listened, they learned. In the end, she changed her mind on GMOs. And I suspect he learned much about why intelligent, creative non-scientists might be suspicious of these technologies.
As humans, we are rationalists and dreamers. Rationalists speak to our heads: they try to figure things out, find the facts, explain the world in ways that can be quantified and predicted. Dreamers, less bound by fact and enticed by imagination and possibility, speak to our hearts – and so many of our actions are driven by the heart.
We live in a world where science is under attack. Vaccines, responsible for saving more lives than all other medical advancements combined, are under renewed suspicion. Modern agriculture technologies such as genetic engineering and pesticides are the targets of well-intentioned but misguided activism.
Climate change, how we generate energy, whether or not we should put fluoride in our drinking water, all are contentious issues that would not be, if mere facts were enough. They are not. Science needs those who are expert in speaking to the heart: we need the artists.
All of us, whether scientist or artist, rationalist or dreamer, are human. We share common ground in our urge to discover and create, our internal yearnings and compulsions, our responses to the world that surrounds us. We need both perspectives to progress.
Humanity faces great challenges, from climate change and energy production to how we produce food to feed our billions. Yet public outcry is focused on big, bad corporations, sluggish governments, and ideological opponents that just don’t get it.
Little attention is spent on individual action that would affect our personal lives.
For example, the Canadian government recently declared a climate emergency. If it’s an emergency, it’s not one we’re taking seriously.
The best selling vehicle in North America is not a gas-sipping subcompact. It’s the Ford F-Series pickup truck. Ford’s offerings are closely followed by Ram and Chevrolet full-sized pickups, in second and third place.
There are no activist protests against manufacturers of pickup trucks. There is enormous public outcry about pipelines and oil sands.
Likewise, in agriculture, neonicotinoids seed treatments are under fire, somewhat justifiably, for their impact on songbirds. Yet there is little attention spent on the greatest killer of songbirds: the domestic cat. Another major cause of avian demise is tall buildings, specifically how we light our cities at night - including our own homes.
Keeping kitty inside and rethinking illumination are actionable on a civic and personal level. Yet activist campaigns focus on neonicotinoids and other products to protect our food crops from pests. Meagre attention is given to the issue of light pollution.
More than 24 years ago, in his book All the Trouble in the World, American satirist P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”
Moving the needle on issues that matter may involve bugging your local councillor. You might need to run for civic office to get some bylaws passed and priorities changed. You might have to keep kitty inside, and put volunteer time into causes that will actually have an impact and perhaps a personal cost.
All of us may just have to fill up the sink, grab the wash cloth, and give Mom a hand.
It’s an approach advocated by the late Hans Rosling, in his 2017 book Factfulness, written with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Yes, things are bad - but they’re getting better. If we reject despair, if we have hope that we can overcome the great challenges that face us as a species, we can get to work to fix things.
Without hope, we react with denial or resignation. If there’s no hope, why bother? Why not, as the saying goes, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?”
“Think about the world,” Rosling wrote. “War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees.”
British writer Matt Ridley, recently wrote a piece in his Rational Optimist blog and elsewhere entitled “We’ve just had the best decade in human history. Seriously.” While readers might be forgiven for spitting out their coffee in disbelief, he goes on to back it up with statistics. For example, he points out that in his lifetime, (Ridley was born in 1958) the number of the world’s people living in extreme poverty had dropped from 60 per cent to 10 per cent today.
We so often focus on the negatives, and there are many. Climate change, plastic pollution, species extinctions, energy, food security, anti-science rhetoric, the rise of populism, and the weaponization of information to threaten democracy. How can we possibly have hope in the face of all this?
“The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better,” Ridley writes. “Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.”
While we struggle to rise and overcome the great challenges that face us, let’s pause to recognize and savour our successes. We have conquered diseases that once killed and crippled millions. We put a hole in our planet’s ozone layer, but we came together and fixed it. In the mid-20th century, war killed tens of millions, levelled cities and shattered economies. We have not yet conquered war, but seen in the light of these conflagrations, we have at least made progress.
“Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving,” Rosling wrote. “Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview."
As the new year begins, let us step forward with hope, based on facts, encouraged by knowledge of our past successes. Yes, the challenges are enormous. But we’ve faced enormous challenges before. We’ve got this.
Whether it's vaccines, nuclear power, fluoride in water or any number of issues, people's, fear comes from several sources and is then amplified by various facets of human nature and those who can gain by exploiting it. There are many factors that go into the fear of GMOs. Here are a few of the major ones, in my view:
This is certainly not a comprehensive list of reasons why people fear GMOs, but these are a few major ones. The science, however, does not support these fears. Genetic engineering is no more risky, and arguably much less risky, than any other breeding method.
I'm a science writer based in Saskatoon, Canada. While I write on a wide range of topics, I most often find myself exploring life and environmental sciences as well as the social science aspects of science communications. Examples include agricultural biotechnology, food and water security, and public response to innovations in genetic engineering and energy production.