View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

‘The spread of ignorance’

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A recent article about the ‘spread of ignorance’ has prompted me to go back once again to the theme of balance.

Science historian Robert Proctor points out that ignorance can be promoted in the name of a balanced debate. The tobacco industry and climate change deniers have used ‘experts disagree’ to paint a false picture. 

The combination of a wide audience who often know little about an issue (e.g. GM) and interest groups with a message to push is a good recipe for the wilful spread of ignorance.

In a recent post I spoke of the importance of engaging with people holding different points of view, yet presenting different points of view can lead to false balance. Proctor’s work is interesting in this context, as is a conversation I recently had with a group of scientists. They were keen to point out where scientists can easily fall into the trap of showering people with information, without stopping to listen we make sure that the information is relevant to their concerns.

One part of engaging with people with different points of view is to understand where they’re coming from, rather than making assumptions. The vast quantities of information you give someone on a topic will be useless if you haven’t actually understood what their concerns are.


Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I studied for my PhD with the University of York and spent my time chasing migrant butterflies. I have trained bees to detect explosives, written a novel, organised Biology Week for the Society of Biology and visited universities round the world with Nobel Laureates. I am collecting friends to help me save the world. My website is:

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