On biases, GMOs and embracing the boring

Last week, I was quoted in the Scientific American article When GMOs Are the Movie Star by Brooke Borel. In the article, Borel tackles two important and sticky topics that have been of particular interest to me for a long time: (1) when is something a reliable source of information… or just entertainment? and (2) how do the ways in which information around GMOs are presented/shared/delivered shape our views on them? (which usually leads me to the broader question of how we form opinions around complex issues)

Or, as Borel puts it:

As a journalist who covers biotechnology… Just what is the purpose of documentary films that center around controversial science? Are they for entertainment or education? And if entertainment is prioritized over education, can a 90-minute film dutifully explore a topic as dense and politically fraught as genetically engineered food?

When we discussed this during our interview, I admit I was a bit stumped. The answer I ended up giving was both “yes” and “no.” Yes, a 90-minute film can dutifully explore a topic as dense and politically fraught as genetically engineered food, but it will probably be boring. And we don’t like boring very much these days. Nonetheless, as Borel writes, “There’s a lot to lose if the entertainment industry mangles this research or omits key perspectives in the name of a good story.”

I couldn’t agree more.

This raises an important question. Who carries the responsibility of making sure the information we receive is balanced and tells the whole story? There are two ways of tackling this question. The “perfect world” route and the “this is what we’ve got and let’s work with it” route. In the perfect world, all our producers of media give us perfectly objective stories. But that’s not what we’ve got. We can’t expect entertainment outlets (and this is what documentaries are, by the way) who have the incentive to build massive audiences to give us the full story because – as alluded to earlier – the whole story is usually boring. And they’re not going to build a massive audience with a boring story.

The onus, therefore, falls to us. As modern consumers of information, we have to be our own gatekeepers. We need to become savvy consumers of stories. And becoming savvy consumers means understanding our own weaknesses, which leads to my quote:

“I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t have a bias towards food and [agriculture]—including myself. Most people aren’t aware that they have a bias, so they don’t do the mental work to try and stretch around that bias.” This attitude can make it harder for subtleties to enter mainstream writing and film, she adds.

I was glad that of everything I (likely in a manner one might describe as “over enthusiastically”) gabbed about and which she graciously listened to, this was what she went with. It has been weighing heavily on my mind as I reflect on why we struggle to make meaningful progress on many food and agricultural issues. Most of us are already predisposed to believe one “group” over another, or to see one side of the issue as already inherently wrong and the other inherently right. Issues tend to be emotionally fraught even before we’ve started wading into what they really are and what they imply. Not to mention, things change over time – and we may need to occasionally, *gasp*, change our minds.

If you’re at all like me, you’ve reached your saturation point of “this is a problem” when it’s not promptly followed by a “and here is my proposed solution.” The world is full of people screaming about problems. Yup, we’ve got problems. So here are my thoughts on the solution. First, let’s stop assuming we know the full story. Second, let’s be critical about our sources of information. Third, let’s be open to changing our minds about something. And fourth, can we all try to embrace boring for a moment?

Food security is neither the most exciting nor alluring of issues, but it is one of the most important. And technology will play a crucial role in how we feed the world. The decisions we make about technology today will carry major ramifications down the line. So let’s stop assuming we know everything about it, be critical about what we do read/watch, ponder changing our minds and embrace the fact that learning about it, if we’re doing it right, will likely be just a little bit boring – but well worth our time.


3 thoughts on “On biases, GMOs and embracing the boring

  1. Nicely said. I’m glad to see you staying engaged in the Agricultural conversation. Congrats on the quote in SA. One of my only professional disappointments has been not stumbling on a nut they would publish – they publish very little economic.


  2. First of, congrats on the SA quote. I get the magazine at home, but i must admit, i missed it.

    I would, however, disagree with the dichotomous assumption upon which this initial question is based. While there are definitely innate aspects that may seem contradictory, they are by no means mutually exclusive. That’s just the challenge of storytelling (versus simply relaying information). Facts are not inherently boring. Simply listed, well yes, then they are. When interwoven with emotional truths (the reasons why I care about the facts and what helps make a story entertaining), a story can both connect and educate. The feature films ‘Too Big To Fail’ and ‘The Big Short’ along with the documentary ‘Inside Job’ explained the very complicated reasons behind the financial collapse while still entertaining their audience.

    There is absolutely a danger when adding the more qualitative elements of storytelling. It’s much easier to fail to reflect an emotional truth. Facts are clearer. 76 is not 74 or 78. It’s clearly 76. Using emotions to connect can easily be exaggerated or underplayed. Is it a minor nuisance, a tragedy or an absolute abominations. Not reflecting the truth can undermine whatever facts are being presented.

    I absolutely agree with the need for each us to step our cynicism levels around the information we consume. And that does start with struggling to realize our own existing biases. The digital world, with its onslaught of quick and bountiful information, was supposed to make us smarter and wiser. Instead, it seems easier to find more than enough information that only confirms our existing bias. We are not challenging ourselves with different perspectives.

    I have always been impressed with the wisdom Ben Franklin brought to the process of evaluating differing perspectives when trying to find agreement in creating the Constitution. He suggested each person should on “occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility.” “For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others.”


    1. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thanks for sharing! Note I said it will “probably” be boring – not DEFINITELY will be boring! I certainly think gifted storytellers can manage to craft something engaging out of the most complex of issues while staying true to the facts – but I do think it’s hard, and rare. For every good documentary (such as the ones you listed), there are far more that aren’t. Also, documentarians aren’t necessarily journalists – and therefore they don’t have the same code. Hear hear for a healthy degree of cynicism around the information we consume! PS Love that quote by Benjamin Franklin


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