During a pre-recorded video speech for the American Peanut Research and Education Society annual meeting, Rick Brandenburg, a past president of APRES and an entomologist with North Carolina State University, frankly spoke about the challenges agricultural scientists face in a social media world.
He mentioned Bruce Ames, the University of California-Berkeley scientist several decades ago who developed as assay to test carcinogens in commercial products, such as agricultural pesticides. Of all the things that potentially lead to negative health for humans, pesticides rate very low on his scale. But does that matter? No. People who believe pesticides are bad said Ames was an industry shill.
“Most people have trouble with quantitative analysis. Or in other words what they're saying is you can give them all the numbers you want, but if it's something they really fear, it's going to be a challenge. You may have facts and figures, but if someone's afraid, those facts and figures aren't going to change their mind, and that creates a real challenge for us as scientists and for us as an industry, trying to help people understand is there really a concern over pesticides?” he said.
If the challenge wasn’t hard enough, then came the internet, he said.
“We look at the population of eight or nine billion people in this world and we see that more than 50 percent have access to the Internet and incredibly high percentage of them are using social media and a very high percentage of them have mobile phones,” he said.
“What this means is information — as well as misinformation — can travel very rapidly around the world and there's no checks and balances for all of that. It can go from first-world countries all the way to developing countries and there's no filter, and one of the things we know is that a lot of us still like the truth and we often migrate towards things that we want to believe are true because we have this phenomenon called confirmation bias,” he said.
We have our belief system, and we like the things that support our belief.
“And that's one reason why social media has become so successful. People can always find information that confirms their argument and look at where it's gotten us today,” he said.
“How do we as a society deal with this misinformation that can have a real negative impact on the progress that we have worked so long to make to ensure a farmer can be profitable in his production and there's a healthy source of protein and nutrients available to all people?” he said.
He said he didn’t have the answer, but not doing the science, not combating misinformation with science-based facts was not an option. Such action is more critical today than ever before.