...timely item for this discussion:
Language can fuel, or abate, public fears about bioengineered foods
FOR RELEASE: 18 FEBRUARY 2001 AT 12:00 ET US
North Carolina State University
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,
the way they're used, color your perceptions. That seems obvious enough,
says Dr. Steven B. Katz, associate professor of English at North Carolina
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
"In many of these cases, public resistance, at least in part, has been
traced to communication problems - flawed rhetorical choices and faulty
by scientists about the role of language, emotion and values in
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
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
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
paper is 'clearly written,' word choice, style and order of presentation can
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
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
often devalue the listener or audience because the listener or audience is
given no opportunity to provide input, ask questions or make decisions,"
"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
at 919-515-3470, mick_kulikowski@n...
"Language and Persuasion: The Communication of Biotechnology with the
Public" By Steven B. Katz, NC State University Feb. 18, 2001, at the
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
of science. The important role that language plays in the public's
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,
implement advanced or novel techniques to create new products and
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
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
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.
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