What a Survey on DNA in Food Tells Us About Science Communications

Headlines on the latest consumer survey popped up all over my feeds this week. They varied from exasperated (80% Of Americans Support Mandatory Labels On Foods Containing DNA. DNA!) to insulting (Are Americans really dumb enough to worry about food containing DNA?).

Oklahoma State University’s Agricultural Economics Department asked consumers, “Do you support or oppose the following government policies?” 86.5% of respondents support mandatory country of origin labels for meat. A large majority (82%) “support mandatory labels on GMOs.” But curiously, about the same amount (80%) also “support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” Yes, DNA: the building block of all living things and practically every food. So what are we supposed to take away from this? Should science communicators be crying into our cereal? Should we be sitting smugly, proclaiming, “See, it’s the audience’s fault”?

Here’s what these headlines say to me:

survey-takersIs this survey taker answering what she thinks she's answering?

1. Dig deeper into surveys.

There is a lot of data circulating about what food issues Americans do or don’t support. Remember how influenced this information can be by survey design. One example is around biotechnology labeling, which is a key parallel these headlines draw with the OSU survey. In our IFIC Food Technology survey, we ask what information consumers would like to have that isn’t on the label. Only about 4% of those surveyed say that they want information about biotechnology. That's a dramatically different percentage than when you just give a survey taker a yes-or-no option.

2. Improve scientific communications.

When a lot of different scientific concepts come together, it’s easy to muddy the waters. DNA, selection, modification, genetics, engineering. It’s not surprising that many folks can’t explain all these notions and how they fit together. For those of us who focus on science communications, don’t let the details hamper your key message. Provide all the background, context, and research you can, but keep the big takeaway at the top of your list in big, bold letters. Don’t assume that takeaway is already understood by your readers.

You may be a science heavyweight, but we all have weak days.

3. Double-check your own assumptions about scientific issues.

We all have blind spots, especially in subjects we haven’t focused on since the ninth grade.  No matter our education or expertise, we’re all still learning in this rapidly evolving field. Even the best among us will occasionally run out of time to dig into scientific literature or fact-check a recent study. (Don’t fear: That’s what FACTS is here for!). Without that deep dive, it can be easy to get misleading information stuck in your head. Stay open to new information and remember that we all need a fact check now and again.

4. It’s not all bad news!

As Jayson Lusk writes, “Clearly, many people’s views about mandatory GMO labeling are not fixed constructs, but are (at least at this point) somewhat malleable and are open to education and persuasion. As such, polls of this sort [...] provide initial insights for where the conversation will begin.” The opportunity for conversation and engagement on biotechnology and other science topics is valuable. Plus, it’s why science communicators like you and I are in demand! So take polls like these as a starting place, and don’t be afraid to engage with the questions and concerns of your audience.

The header image is, of course, from the seminal science geek classic, Jurassic Park.

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