Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Fear Factor

(Excerpt from Alan McHughen, Nature Biotechnology 26, 1226 (2008)

Biotechnologists perhaps more than other scientists, are often puzzled as to why the public is so often anxious, if not outright suspicious, of their craft. "If only they knew the facts" is a common lament. As a result, biotechnologists may attempt to engage the public to explain the science and thereby mollify public wariness.

But even after acquiring a reasonable understanding of the scientific facts, many people remain dubious and fearful. In The Science of Fear, non-scientist Daniel Gardner teases out the fear factors rampaging through the anxious public persona, illuminating popular science phobia.

Gardner does not focus on biotechnology, but he does address familiar questions, including the long standing conundrum, "The same person who doesn't think twice about lighting up a cigarette will march in the streets demanding a ban on products that have never been proven to have caused so much as a single case of indigestion."

Opportunistic activists make a livelihood from scaring people about biotechnology. And because the scientific community does not-and cannot-guarantee absolute safety of biotechnology or its products, the public infers a lack of confidence, a warning that fearsome disasters are inevitable.

True, scientists cannot prove that eating a genetically modified papaya will not harm the consumer. That disclaimer alone is sufficient to scare off many prospective consumers, who then happily eat a traditionally bred papaya similarly lacking any safety guarantee. In comparing the incorrectly perceived high risk of one food against the incorrectly perceived low risk of the alternative food, consumers mistake the actual risk differential between their choices. Now, in the real world, the consequence of this dichotomy doesn't usually matter, because both GM and non-GM versions of the papaya are safe, nutritious and unlikely to cause harm, so Joe Consumer is never forced to face and reconcile his confounding perceptions.

According to Gardner, radon gas kills some 41,000 people in Europe and the United States each year, in contrast to GM foods' zero body count, yet people are far more afraid of GM foods than radon. Why? Because radon is 'natural', whereas GM foods are manmade, and therefore unnatural and inherently dangerous. In regard to papayas, the GM version is considered unnatural, while the traditional version is perceived as natural.

Gardner colloquially describes two human cognitive decision-making centers, Gut and Head. Gut, of course, from whence we get 'gut reaction' and 'gut feeling', is impulsive, emotional and subjective, whereas Head is logical, rational and objective. Gut is driven by emotions such as fear, and, if fear is a factor, the body follows Gut reaction with little rational analysis.

Historically, all manner of fearmongering marketers (including anti-biotechnology activists) exploit Gut reaction, knowing they'll make more sales and converts if people don't look rationally and critically at what's on the table. As Gardner shows, Gut doesn't evaluate numbers and probabilities. A one-in-a-million chance of some personal catastrophe is a near certainty to Gut; the mere presence of a carcinogen-especially a synthetic chemical-at parts-per-billion concentration is a death sentence from cancer. Trying to hold a rational discussion with the fearful is futile, because the rational Head, overwhelmed by Gut fear, is rendered hors de combat.

Alan McHughen is in the Department of Botany & Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, California

Comments from malaysia4biotech:

Public concerns should be addressed and efforts should be undertaken to educate the public. The scientific community should take a lead role in this area. Perhaps, funds should be allocated from their grants to create public awareness on their research areas. This is being practiced by certain research institutes in UK.

Mahaletchumy Arujanan


Stephen said...

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