VIDEO: Never call critics irrational, even when they are

An author says it’s important to understand where concerns are coming from when consumers worry about GMOs or pesticides

BANFF, Alta. — Exasperation and insults don’t create trust in skeptical consumers, says an expert in risk misperception.

Describing consumers who worry about genetically modified organisms or pesticides as irrational shuts down conversation and reinforces hostility, said journalist, author and analyst Dan Gardner.

This is true even when those fears actually are irrational.

“Don’t ever tell anyone they’re being irrational,” said Gardner, who wrote the bestseller, Risk: the Science and Politics of Fear, in a presentation to the Canola Council of Canada convention March 4.

“You’ve lost. Give up. Go home.”

Gardner said using labels that demean the opinion-holder simply demeans the person. To have useful communication with someone who is worried about pesticides or GMOs, one must understand that person’s self-identity, their values and where their concerns are coming from.

That will likely reveal that their concerns are irrational, but irrational in the way that all human beings think and make decisions, he said.

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Gardner sketched out a number of mechanisms by which humans form their intuitions and “rational” opinions, based on cognitive psychology. These are grounded deeply in evolution, in which primitive humans needed to be able to react quickly and aggressively to perceptions of risk, including subconscious perceptions of risk.

That served humanity well for tens of thousands of years, but in today’s world it can create risk perceptions that are completely at odds with any realistic appraisal of those risks.

People see examples of things they are worried about and begin to worry, even if what they saw was something on TV from across the world.

They also seek others’ views on situations, and if they hear similar worries to their own, it helps confirm the fear in their minds. This applies to journalists, who hear about a concern, go out and look for it, find it and report it, thereby reinforcing the perception of fear.

Gardner said scientists, engineers and others in industry often respond to concerns by presenting data and information, but it’s not enough.

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“You will not convince anyone of anything by offering them facts and figures.”

Instead, the conversation with worriers needs to be done in a manner that addresses concerns more psychologically complex while encouraging positive feelings about the issue.

And beyond simply not insulting skeptics by throwing labels at them, proponents of criticized technologies and methods need to ensure that they are not actually being the arrogant, elitist, selfish people that some critics assume they are.

“Humility is a very powerful force,” said Gardner.

Contact ed.white@producer.com

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