Language can fuel, or abate, public fears about bioengineered foods

February 17, 2001

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 choice, style and order of presentation can have an effect on the public's reception, understanding and acceptance of communication concerning biotechnology," he said.

Sacrificing accuracy for general comprehension - though necessary - can also complicate matters if the communication about the benefits and risks of science, such as biotechnology, is not built on the concerns, knowledge and values of the audience, Katz said. If scientists have an understanding of their audience, "the information is transformed in that it becomes a different message, one adapted to the specific needs of the audience," he said.

Certain communication models, such as the practice Katz calls "one-way communication" - in which the educator or expert does all the talking and the public does all the listening - can be detrimental to the communication process. No consensus can be achieved when this occurs, because the public is given little or no voice in the discussion. "This form of communication will often devalue the listener or audience because the listener or audience is given no opportunity to provide input, ask questions or make decisions," Katz said.

"The values and knowledge of the public need to be respected, recognized and utilized in communication," he said. "There are serious implications for biotechnology research and industry if they are not."
Editor's note: The abstract of Katz's AAAS presentation follows. To reach Katz during the AAAS conference, contact Mick Kulikowski, NC State News Services, at 919-515-3470,

"Language and Persuasion: The Communication of Biotechnology with the Public" By Steven B. Katz, NC State University Feb. 18, 2001, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting

Abstract: The role that language plays in the communication of science to the general public is an important if generally unrecognized one within fields of science. 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 who seek to apply in the public realm new discoveries and knowledge to improve existing products or methods, and/or implement advanced or novel techniques to create new products and procedures. Cases abound, both in the U.S. and abroad, of technologies 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, which in turn are often based not only on flawed rhetorical choices of style and organization but also on faulty assumptions about the role of language, emotion, and values in the communication process even in science, but especially in scientific communication with the media and the public. This is no less true in biotechnology communication, which still has been largely unexplored even by those studying the use of language and persuasion in science. This presentation will review relevant literature on the rhetoric of audience accommodation, risk communication, and public controversy caused by problems of communication; present models of communication and discuss the various issues and values implicit in each; and then apply rhetorical criteria developed in the literature to an examination of examples of biotechnology communication with the public. Concepts and assumptions embedded in and communicated to the public through diction, syntax, and organization will be illustrated. Finally, possible suggestions for facilitating biotechnology communication with the public will be offered.

North Carolina State University

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