Frankenfoods or miracle crops to help feed a hungry world?
Your feelings about genetically modified foods depend, in good measure, on how their benefits and potential risks are explained to you. The words used, and the way they're used, color your perceptions. That seems obvious enough, says Dr. Steven B. Katz, associate professor of English at North Carolina State University.
So how come so many scientists and policy-makers don't get it?
"The important role that language plays in the public's perception and reception of scientific data and risk assessment is often neglected by scientists and program administrators," said Katz, who has reviewed many case studies, both in the U.S. and abroad, of controversial subjects like biotechnology that have been slowed or completely halted by public opposition.
"In many of these cases, public resistance, at least in part, has been traced to communication problems flawed rhetorical choices and faulty assumptions by scientists about the role of language, emotion and values in communicating with the media and public," he said.
Katz will present "Language and Persuasion: The Communication of Biotechnology with the Public," at 9 a.m. PST (noon EST) Sunday, Feb. 18, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in San Francisco. He also will offer some positive recommendations for facilitating biotechnology communication with the public.
Katz's examination of the role language plays in the biotechnology debate touches on a number of crucial issues: the effect words may have on the public; the way experts accommodate information for non-expert audiences; communication models for risk-assessment communication; and the importance of public participation in the process.
Syntax, diction and the arrangement of ideas in communication all seem to play significant roles in determining its effect, Katz has found. "Even when a paper is clearly written,' word
Contact: Dr. Steven B. Katz
North Carolina State University