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Is science sexy or sensational enough to sell?

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Does science in food and farming freak people out?

Science always seemed fundamental while growing up on a dairy farm, caring for animals  and planting crops. It was a pillar in my education e.g. hands-on agriscience classes, disections in biology, and the terrors of organic chemistry. After spending five years having the integrity of science drummed into my head while working in the Reproductive Physiology laboratory in Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science, I had no question in the validity of scientific trials. While science wasn’t sexy, it was essential , a part of every day life – and likely taken for granted.

Little did I know that I’d need that background to speak about “selling science.” Before anyone questions “selling science” – let me be clear. This is NOT about selling out to those who invest in science, interfering with the integrity of science based upon grants or pushing personal agendas through science.  Selling science is about the opportunity to connect and make science meaningful on a personal level. Research and  data doesn’t connect without human interface. 

While preparing to speak for a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) audience at Michigan State and ag scientists in Saskatoon over the last two weeks, I turned to my community for input. “______ has damaged the credibility of science. In other words, what has shifted society away from looking for scientific evidence in food choices?” was one of the questions I posed on my Facebook profile. Response came in very quickly!

  • Politics, activism, journalism and emotions were most commonly referenced amongst the 50+ responses.
  • One radio broadcaster friend, Tom, responded “A poorly educated citizenry, ease of publishing and a shortage of scientific integrity.”
  • Money came up in shaping science, eroding journalism, persuading opinion.
  • “Lack of journalistic integrity. Sensationalism has priority over balance and facts.” was the response from dietitian farmer friend Jennifer.
  • “TV Personalities – Oprah, Dr. Oz etc – they are considered to be an expert by fans even if the science they are basing their information on is only half the story….. their word is taken as the truth.” was a comment by a fellow dairy enthusiast Jen.
  • Another friend Heather said “Too many times articles don’t publish the entire result of studies.  They pick and choose what they want from the studies to highlight the “scientific” results. They might also report one trial that showed a different result than several others. Sometimes the studies are ‘set up’ a certain way in order to get the results they want. The best reports to look at are published by, for instance, the Journal of Animal Science.

Funny thing about all the comments that came streaming in…not one person said “I’m responsible because I’ve not made the connection.” I don’t believe any singular individual or act is responsible for the increasing distrust in science but a combination of events. It’s the same road as the distrust in agriculture….people don’t trust what they don’t understand. A few bad apples make it stink for those left in the basket. And, many scientists, just like agriculturists, have not adequately communicated about what they do. I do believe we have a responsibility in changing the tide.

Being taken for granted usually leads to demise of a relationship. This seems to ring true with society’s declining belief in science. Perhaps it’s due to social media, sensationalism, or activists. Or I could point to the lack of emphasis in state/national educational standards in this demise, but would likely get sidetracked as a mom who is incredibly frustrated with the lack of science in early elementary education and how little encouragement girls in science receive. Or I could simply say that science is complicated – and many, including myself – are sometimes too lazy to look at the big picture and evaluate real science.

“Science is a way of thinking, much more than it is a body of knowledge.”  was a quote from Carl Sagan I used in No More Food Fights! Reality check: if people don’t understand science, do they really care about the facts, data, research. Likely not.

If science is a way of thinking, I’m deeply concerned about the way we’re thinking about food today.  Are you?  Bring the laboratory of your field, barn or food plate to life for people. See “How a Young Boy, a Cow, and a Milkmaid Helped to Conquer Smallpox” for one example. Fellow professional speaker Steve Spangler does an amazing making science fun at the  SpanglerScience TV YouTube Channel

What are going to do to help bring science to life for more people? Only when you connect science to people’s hearts will it become sexy or sensational enough to sell.

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2 Responses to “Is science sexy or sensational enough to sell?”

  1. Kevin Folta says:

    Sagan is right, but let’s take it one step further. Science is a tool. It is a method and set of rules to ask and answer a question. Students take science classes and don’t learn to recognize or use the scientific method. It leaves them open to charlatans like Oz and Co that give them McOpinion packaged as science. The problem is that it takes 15 years of training before most people realize the value of the Scientific Method in solving problems. It is not sexy until you really dig in!

  2. Michele Payn-Knoper says:

    Great point, Kevin. There is the perspective of learning to be a scientist, then that of understanding science. While I would love to encourage more people to be involved in the discipline of science, it’s even more critical we engage others in understanding science. You do that brilliantly – and I hope many will learn from your example.

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