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?
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.
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.