Science Versus Sensationalism: Jacques Rousseau to Present Featured Session at IFT16

May 26, 2016

CHICAGO – Food professionals from all over the globe will gather together at McCormick Place South for IFT16: Where Science Feeds Innovation, July 16-19 in Chicago. Jacques Rousseau, lecturer and Chair of the Academic Freedom Committee at the University of Cape Town, will deliver a featured session, Science Versus Sensationalism and Soundbites: How Can Consumers Make More Informed Choices? This presentation will highlight his perspective on the reasons why consumers fear innovation, and how to better equip them with scientific resources in order to make informed decisions. In an interview with IFT, Jacques outlined what attendees can expect from his session. 

IFT: What can attendees look forward to learning from your session?
Jacques Rousseau: My talk will take the audience on a journey through the history of moral panics related to food and food technology, highlighting how easy it is for consumers – and sometimes, scientists – to exaggerate risks or to create irrational fears. Our various psychological biases make it very easy for us to fool ourselves, perhaps even more so when our health and that of our families is perceived to be at risk. When this is combined with poor science reporting, lobby group influence, and the decline of trust in experts thanks to the “wisdom” and groupthink you find on social media, it becomes vital to remind ourselves of the differences between science and pseudoscience, and to seek out and encourage responsible and accurate coverage of scientific controversies.

IFT: Why does the general consumer fear innovation when it comes to their food?
JR: Many consumers are prone to the “naturalistic fallacy,” which is the mistaken idea that natural equals good, and unnatural equals bad. And of course some things that are natural are good, for example vegetables. But cancer is also natural, and not regarded as good, while some unnatural things, like eyeglasses, are an enormous boon to society. Innovation in food has sometimes had unpleasant consequences, as those who remember the gastrointestinal nightmare called Olestra might recall, but consumers should remember that robust testing and regulatory oversight make this very unlikely. Fear of innovation is also encouraged by activist groups and websites, who often make unfounded claims regarding the dangers of innovation, particularly in the domain of genetically modified food. The evidence to suggest that GM food is dangerous is not at all convincing, but consumers can buy into fears regarding GM food because they are encouraged to believe that their health is at risk. Innovation in food has, however, allowed us to feed far more people than would otherwise be possible, and while there’s good reason to avoid complacency, there’s also no clear reason for panic.

What tools can people use to make decisions based in science?

JR: There are some clear differences between good and bad science (or pseudoscience). Consumers can empower themselves to make well-informed choices by learning about these differences, and asking themselves whether what they read or hear has the hallmarks of good scientific reasoning, and doesn’t include any warning flags indicating a likelihood of bad or pseudoscience. We’d ideally like to see randomized controlled trials, control groups, and adequate sample sizes, for example, and to not see cherry-picking of evidence, hyperbolic claims, and a dogmatic certainty that’s more appropriate to evangelism than to scientific reasoning. We can’t all be scientists, but we can all remind ourselves of what they should sound like, and learn to be more discriminating regarding the sources that we trust.

Anything else you would like to add.
JR: The importance of good, critical scientific reasoning cannot be overstated. It is in a sense a proxy for much of our thinking. Whether we talk about GMOs or how to invest our money, principles regarding what counts as good evidence and how you can identify it, as well as issues such as our psychological biases, are common features. So, learning to become better at scientific reasoning can enhance many aspects of our lives, because better reasoning means better decisions.

Jacques’ session will take place Sunday, July 17 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

About IFT
Founded in 1939, the Institute of Food Technologists is committed to advancing the science of food. Our non-profit scientific society—more than 17,000 members from more than 95 countries—brings together food scientists, technologists and related professionals from academia, government and industry. For more information, please visit ift.org