“Probably the scariest thing for me to learn as a scientist is that facts don’t matter.”
Renown ag scientist and biotech advocate Dr. Kevin Folta said that effective communication is rooted much more in our emotional selves (pathos) than in our logical selves (logos). People don’t often want just the facts, but they want to have a more intimate connection to what they’re learning, and they want to trust where that information is coming from.
To be a great agvocate, Folta said, we shouldn’t lead with our hearts or our heads — we lead with our ethics and values (ethos).
Dozens of ag communicators were drawn in by the insights Folta had. His session, titled “Communicate with the Right Consumer Audience,” was put on as part of the annual Ag Media Summit, being held this week in Utah.
Folta (as could be expected of someone who is as transparent about his background as he is) said up front that he’s a scientist first, not a public relations guy. While the University of Florida professor was president of his college debate team, his expertise in communications is all from hands-on experience. Observations. Trial and error. Modified approaches. True, one could say, to the scientific method.
What he has always had much of is passion for the ag and biotech industry, and that made everything he said Monday morning about trust and honesty all the more impactful.
We live in a world of much skepticism, especially in regards to science. And unfortunately, scientists are rarely the best when it comes to tactful engagement with the public. They’re too much in their head, Folta said, and while facts may work scientist-to-scientist, it’s not going to convince the mom at the supermarket who is paying more for milk covered in misleading labels. There has to be something more to the discussion, something relatable and personal.
“It boils down to this word called ‘trust,'” Folta said. The public doesn’t have an inherent trust of scientists, particularly when genetic engineering is the science in question.
He said if a person doesn’t trust a source, that person will always err on the side of caution. So, for example, if one label on something like strawberries says its non-GMO while another doesn’t have the label, there’s a presupposition from the consumer that the non-GMO one must be better. Perhaps even worse is that the customer may avoid buying strawberries altogether, denying him- or herself the opportunity to eat fresh food. (Of course, despite the labels out there suggesting otherwise, there’s no such thing as non-GMO strawberries commercially available, which adds to the frustration many agricultural communicators feel.)
The effects of distrust can be far-reaching. The chasm of advancing technology has been growing wider, and we get fewer chances to realize the improvements technology can offer.
“If we have distrust, there’s a lack of innovation toward application,” Folta said.
It’s especially poignant for gene editing technology, which has shown the ability to shape the world for the better. Skepticism and mistrust are holding it back, to the detriment of farmers and impoverished people across the nation.
“This is such powerful technology, though all the evidence in the U.S. shows that it’s going to be regulated to death,” he said.
No longer should we feel confident that there’s a viable path to trust by using facts to educate people. It hurts to say that, but it’s the reality. The approach needs to be more all-encompassing, starting with the ethos, and then later in the relationship showing how pathos and logos fit into the picture of what we’re hoping to communicate. People such as the Food Babe and Dr. Oz have long employed far more aggressive tactics to turn people against modern farming practices. With our own arsenal of honesty and trust and ethics, that tide can one day again be turned.