On 22 June 2012, The Guardian published a fascinating article about the race to develop fake meat, entitled “Fake meat: is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact?”
The article tells a story of two scientists on opposite sides of the world who are leading the race to create the so-called ‘fake meat’.
There is Professor Patrick Brown is a tenured Stanford University molecular biologist. He has been working for the past two years on the creation of meat and dairy products. The San Francisco based researcher is leading the way on an approach that uses plant-based material in order to create a meat reproduction.
The alternative approach is to actually grow animal muscle tissue in a factory without the animals. It is being developed in Europe. Building on a body of past research, Dr. Mark Post from the University of Maastricht is spearheading this initiative.
Without retelling the entire article, it will suffice to say that there is a potential for the science to succeed in achieving it’s aims thereby leading to what would be potentially described as a ‘revolution’ of one sorts or another.
As recently as February 2012, the two researchers gave a joint presentation at the AAAS conference in Vancouver. As is often the case with competing scientists at the forefront of their research in the same area of research, there is a tension between the pair. Nevertheless, Dr. Post concedes that Prof. Brown may win the race, but leaves a suggestion that he will have trouble selling the idea.
He is a genius, but he has a personality issue. He is very defensive. He is much smarter than I am, but he is not going to get this across to the public. He needs a PR adviser.
The foregoing quote caught my eye.
The relationship between science and society is in large part mediated by communication. It is often argued that scientists do not possess the greatest communication skills. Variable anecdotal and academic evidence suggests this to be true in a lot of cases. In the above quote Dr. Post paints Prof. Brown to be lacking the personality to be able to get his message to the public and would require PR assistance. Here one scientist (Dr. Post), whose communication skills we don’t know about, accuses another scientist (Prof. Brown) of lacking in them.
Communication of scientific research is especially important when research with societal implications of risk is in focus. It is therefore necessary to avoid the pitfalls (such as assuming that ‘the publics’ are ’empty vessels’ waiting to be filled with knowledge; conceptualising the communication process as a way to ‘sell’ science to the publics; attempting to persuade the publics to take one side or the other in scientific debate) in the communication process and openly communicate with the publics about the science, its potentially risks and uncertainties and societal implications without ‘dumbing it down’. Many people are willing to attempt to understand (and some do understand) complexity of the science and are open to multiple interpretations of societal implications. Consequently, if the approach with ‘fake meat’ will be one of straight up PR and marketing (if it gets to this stage), the public will potentially feel that they are simply being marketed to (For an alternative take on ‘science marketing’ see post here.), which will cement the existing polarization between science and society and reinforce the ‘perceptual gridlock’ (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009).
Therefore, the future of ‘fake meat’ will be in large part contingent on effective communication by the scientists, who have a plethora of examples in history of good and bad practices, to inform the development and implementation of their communication strategies.
Hanlon, M. (2012). ‘Fake meat: is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact,’ The Guardian (online edition), 22 June 2012.
Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A. (2009). ‘What’s next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions,’ American Journal of Botany 96(10): 1-12. doi:10.3732/ajb.0900041
On Monday 12 March 2012, researchers from the Harvard Medical School released a study in which linked the consumption of red meat to an increased chance of early death. The study, entitled ‘Red Meat Consumption and Mortality‘ was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It was also accompanied by an editorial entitled ‘Holy Cow! What’s Good for you is Good for Our Planet‘.
The researchers tracked 37698 men for 22 years and 83698 women for 28 years. All the participants were free of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer when tracking commenced. The diets of the participants were evaluated through questionnaires every four years. The subjects who consumed a card-deck-sized serving of unprocessed red meat each day on average saw a 13 percent higher risk of dying than those who did not consume red meat with the same frequency.
The study has garnered a considerable amount of attention. At the time of initial writing (around 21:00 on the evening of Tuesday 13 March 2012), there were 211 stories related articles that can be accessed on Google News. Another check around 23:00 on the evening of Tuesday 13 March 2012, showed that there were 231 related stories. Here are some examples of the headlines from some of the media outlets across:
The Independent – ‘Red meat increases risk of early death, says study‘
The Telegraph – ‘Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths‘
United States of America
The LA Times – ‘All red meat is bad for you, new study says‘
ABC News – ‘Red Meat Tied to Increased Mortality Risk‘
Harvard Magazine – ‘Don’t Pass the Bacon‘
Fox News – ‘Red meat linked to premature death, research finds‘
Globe and Mail – ‘Red meat increases risk of death from cancer‘
Toronto Star – ‘Red meat linked to higher risk of premature death: Harvard study‘
Montreal Gazette – ‘Red meat linked to higher risk of premature death‘
The Sydney Morning Herald – ‘Huge study shows red meat boosts risk of dying young‘
Victor Harbor Times – ‘Love affair with flesh hits a snag as study links red meat to risk of death‘
Reuters – ‘More support for passing on the red meat‘
CNN International – ‘Study: Too much red meat may shorten lifespan‘
Media outlets exist within a context that is structured by the competition for public’s attention. Being constantly bombarded by a variety of stimuli, public attention can be fleeting and therefore is extremely valuable. Consequently, in order to capture the attention, media outlets must refer to very striking differences (differences from the ‘norm’). A response will only be garnered by a strong stimuli (Neidhardt, 1993).
As Neidhardt (1993), points out, the aforegoing scenario leads to implementation of particular strategies:
1) “…existing Material can become loaded linguistically by ‘the use of intense language’.” (p.343)
2) “…the selection of the material is guided by a preference for strongly deviating cases.” (p.343)
Case in point, the aforementioned study.
Neidhardt, F. (1993). ‘The Public as a Communication System’ Public Understand. Sci. 2, 339-350. doi: 10.1088/0963-6625/2/4/004
Pan, A., Sun, Q., Bernstein, A.M., Schulze, M.B., Manson, J.E., Stampfer, M.J., Willett, W.C., Hu, F.B. (2012). ‘Red Meat Consumption and Mortality’ Arch Intern Med. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287