Rhona S. Applebaum

One of the more vexing challenges faced by the food industry and scientists over the past 30+ years is our inability to adequately address “food scares”. The news archives are littered with pages of “scare” stories around pesticides in foods, technologies like food irradiation and genetic engineering, and food ingredients like artificial colors, preservatives, and sweeteners. Within those archives are very few stories where “balanced” science has won out over the fear mongering.

While science is fundamental to addressing these food scares, history has demonstrated that scientific facts are not sufficient by themselves to change public perception. Indeed, it can be argued that one reason for the problem is the inability of scientists to communicate effectively with the lay public, resulting in reduced trust.

Surveys generally show that the public has positive impressions of science and scientists, and by and large are confident in leaders of the scientific community. However, these positive impressions are qualified and the public’s confidence is at best transient.

A 1975 article in Time magazine began with this quote from a former head of the World Health Organization: The human race may begin to fear its scientists to such an extent that it will take uncontrolled action toward them.

While the quote was excessively dramatic, it nevertheless is cause for concern about the gap between how scientists view themselves as compared to non-scientists, and has no doubt contributed to the “chemophobia” and technophobia that seems now to be prevalent.

While the debate is sometimes framed as industry-funded science vs publicly funded science or sound science vs junk science, the scientific community needs to realize that these sound bites only serve to diminish the credibility of scientists and science. This is especially true when our communications are unclear, and full of jargon. What is more problematic is a belief that it isn’t necessary to help balance the intellectual (as well as pseudo intellectual) debate and put into perspective the conclusions being drawn. It is therefore not surprising to see the public turn off and instead turn on to those who take the time to communicate in a compelling manner—regardless of whether the information is scientifically valid or not.

To prevent today’s chemophobia and fear mongering from spreading, as scientists, we must at a minimum do three things:

1. Scientific organizations and scientific journals should adopt a set of guiding principles on reporting study results, with an emphasis on experimental proof.

Many scares are driven by scientific reports and press releases that are more imagination than fact. In this era of reduced government funding for research, especially in areas related to food science, researchers and academic organizations sometimes resort to hyperbole to promote the significance of their research. Just as research organizations now have guiding principles on conflicts of interest in conducting research, there should be guiding principles for reporting of research.

2. Food safety scientists should emulate their peers in fields like climate change. It is very likely that the lay public knows more about the science of climate change than the science of food safety. Why? In the field of climate change, many forums engage scientists with journalists and others who work at the interface with the general public and policy makers. These forums not only serve to educate journalists about the scientific process but they also serve to improve the communication skills of scientists with the lay public. IFT and other food-and health-related societies do this now, but we need to adopt a best-in-class model and do it faster, better, and more often.

3. Without devaluing science, scientists must learn how to communicate with non-scientists. It is self-delusional to blame the public’s failure to understand complex scientific information on scientific illiteracy.

It is often said that science and art are intertwined—that the two are more alike than different—in essence, the double helix of humankind. As described by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell (“Blink”) and Jonah Lehrer (“How We Decide”), we must seek to make an emotional connection with audiences. As scientists, we are comfortable talking about analytical uncertainty and risk, but what is the visual—the message—that is left from a picture titled “uncertainty” or even worse “uncertain risk?” We must accept the fact that we need better connectivity with the public, beginning with better communication skills and training. For tomorrow’s food scientists, this must be part of their curriculum today.

If we do not, the public’s confidence in science, scientists, and the scientific process will further erode. And there will be no one to blame but ourselves.

Henry B. Chin, Ph.D., ([email protected]), a Member of IFT, is Senior Director, Global Scientifi c and Regulatory Affairs and Rhona Applebaum, Ph.D., ([email protected]), a Professional Member of IFT, is Vice President, Chief Scientifi c & Regulatory Officer, The Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta, Ga. 30301.