With this brief monograph, I would like to propose an analysis of the nature of the 'debate' over biotechnology, and how the anti-biotech contingent deals with facts and reasoning. It seems obvious that using objective facts and standard reasoning has had little effect on the anti-biotechnology contingent, and explaining why this is so may illuminate further dialogue.
I would suggest that the the anti-biotechnology contingent has made the lack of scientific omniscience part of a strongly subjective standard of risk assessment, and coupled it with a confirmation bias.
A. OBJECTIVE RISK ASSESSMENT
To make an effective risk management decision, risk managers and other stakeholders need to know what potential harm a situation poses and how great is the likelihood that people or the environment will be harmed. Gathering and analyzing this information is referred to as risk assessment. From: http://www.riskworld.com/Nreports/1997/risk-rpt/html/epajan3.htm.
This seems patently reasonable, and it is especially tantalizing because it appeals to the notion of gathering and analyzing information. However, there are times when the information to be gathered' and analyzed' simply isn't there in the ideal form. Here one finds the seeds of dispute.
In a classical case, "[r]isk assessment is performed by considering intrinsic hazards, the extent of exposure to the hazards, and information about the relationship between exposures and responses." Ibid. Accordingly, one takes, for example, the number of passenger miles traveled in the US annually, compares that to the number of traffic fatalities, and computes the risk of travel by automobile.
In the case of biotechnology, we have not identified any intrinsic hazards, and while the extent of exposure can easily be estimated, there are no 'responses' to exposure. We have no such data to work with, as no one has fallen ill as a result of consuming foods made from genetically modified crops. There are no 'odds' available.
B. SUBJECTIVE RISK ASSESSMENT
Stakeholders' perception of a risk can vary substantially depending on such factors as the extent to which they are directly affected, whether they have voluntarily assumed the risk (as in choosing not to wear a seatbelt) or had the risk imposed on them (as in exposure to air pollutants), and whether they are connected with the cause of the risk. Ibid.
It bears pointing out that, where genetically modified foods are not labeled as such, consumers cannot be said to have voluntarily assumed a risk, and therefore might be said to have had the risk imposed on them, as many claim. Certainly they cannot be connected with the cause of the risk. In such a situation, the emergence and application of subjective assessments of risk should not be surprising.
C. RISK ASSESSMENT WHEN INFORMATION IS INCOMPLETE
In 'Science and Judgment in Risk Assessment' National Academy Press, (1994) http://books.nap.edu/books/030904894X/html/160.html, the authors opine that "The need to confront uncertainty in risk assessment has changed little since the 1983 NRC report Risk Assessment in the Federal Government. That report found that: "The dominant analytic difficulty [in decision-making based on risk assessments] is pervasive uncertainty.... there is often great uncertainty in estimates or the types, probability, and magnitude of health effects associated with a chemical agent of the economic effects of a proposed regulatory action, and of the extent of current and possible future human exposures. These problems have no immediate solutions, given the many gaps in our understanding of the causal mechanisms of carcinogenesis and other health effects and in our ability to ascertain the nature or extent of the effects associated with specific exposures."
Because of this, "Risk assessment can be controversial, reflecting the important role that both science and judgment play in drawing conclusions about the likelihood of effects on human health and the environment.
Often, the controversy arises from what we don't know and from what risk assessments can't tell us, because our knowledge of human vulnerability and of environmental impacts is incomplete . . ." From: http://www.riskworld.com/Nreports/1997/risk-rpt/html/epajan3.htm.
D. INCOMPLETENESS AND SUBJECTIVISM
Those who persist in evaluating risks subjectively, and are prone to point out that our knowledge of human vulnerability and of environmental impacts is incomplete, have quite obviously been attracted to the anti-biotechnology rhetoric. Their sentiments are rather neatly expressed by some of them with the phrase: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," while others prefer to use phrases such as 'unknown consequences' or 'possible risks.'
From what we know of incompleteness and subjective risk assessment, we can see why these people could feel that they have been made subject to possible risks. This they often express as 'being guinea pigs."
Since the application of biotechnology in food production completely baffles the odds-based approach to risk assessment, one would assume that it would be possible to do an alternative 'risk assessment' based on the science involved, and to demonstrate deductively (rather than inductively) that the risk of consuming foods made from genetically modified crops simply is 'nothing to worry about.'
Time and time again, this approach has failed to work, among consumers and scientists of all kinds. They have subjectively determined the presence and seriousness of an unknown risk. Why can they not be persuaded?
E. CONFIRMATION BIAS
Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs. For example, if one believes that during a full moon there is an increase in accidents, one will take notice when accidents occur during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when accidents occur during other times of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens one's belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents." From: http://wheel.dcn.davis.ca.us/~btcarrol/skeptic/confirmbias.html.
If this is true, then we are forced to conclude that prior efforts to "persuade" the anti-biotech contingent is because they are not used to thinking "scientifically."
If our beliefs are firmly established upon solid evidence and valid confirmatory experiments, the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that fits with our beliefs should not lead us astray as a rule.
Of course, if we become blinded to evidence truly refuting a favored hypothesis, we have crossed the line from reasonableness to closed-mindedness. Ibid.
This should not necessarily be taken as a condemnation of the anti-biotech contingent so much as an acknowledgement of a facet of human nature. "Numerous studies have demonstrated that people generally give an excessive amount of value to confirmatory information, i.e., data which is positive or which supports a position." Ibid.
Indeed, when people go searching on the Internet for information (as I have done here) they often display confirmation bias. As reported at http://hsb.baylor.edu/ramsower/ais.ac.96/papers/ward.htm, there is a "selective perception' bias that describes decision makers' inclinations to search out confirming information and to remember this information. A decision maker may form a hypothesis and then gather and interpret information so that the hypothesis is supported. In addition to selective information retrieval, people may be subject to the confirmation bias due to failure to use disconfirming information they do encounter."
The problem may be made worse by the actual structure of the Internet.
The ability of WWW users to follow links that look interesting or promising may exacerbate the effects of the confirmation bias. * * * WWW features that enable users to switch quickly to other documents [hyperlinks] may allow them to find the desired confirming information while avoiding disconfirming information with less effort. Ibid. (It bears pointing out that much of the anti-biotech sentiment not found in newspapers is circulated on the Internet.)
Evidence exists virtually everywhere that we are dealing with a form of confirmation bias, such as the insistence on the authoritativeness of Losey's Monarch larvae experiments or Pusztai's rat studies, or the tryptophan case, or deductions based upon the imputed motives of corporations or scientists, or the unsullied purity of agricultural practices in developing countries. These slender scraps are sufficiently fact-like' and abundant that a confirmation bias will almost necessarily result in confirming the existence of risks which have been subjectively identified and assessed.
If we are, then, truly dealing with confirmation bias in the anti-biotech movement, what is the likelihood that those who tend to ignore facts which contradict their position will be convinced by facts which contradict their position? (The question of whether attacks on farm-scale field trials in Britain can be viewed as a form of confirmation bias is by no means simple.)
F. DEALING WITH CONFIRMATION BIAS
There are few recommendations for effectively dealing with confirmation bias, and that may be because "Conceptual knowledge is neither automatic nor self-evident but exists in a complex, hierarchical interrelationship among its elements." From: http://home.earthlink.net/~rdmadden/webdocs/Expectations_Values_Gr.html
However, one commentator has suggested that "discussion and debate provide a useful -- and in some cases practically indispensable -- means of achieving the values of integration and objectivity." Ibid.
As though to echo what is going on in the biotechnology 'debate' the author notes that integrating knowledge through discussion and debate "can be a difficult process," since overcoming confirmation bias requires getting a person to focus only on what is real and relevant--thereby forcing them to re-integrate the complex, hierarchical interrelationships of their conceptual world. Ibid.
How this might be accomplished in the context of the biotechnology 'debate' is not immediately apparent, but I would point out that, in general, it is not always easy to get people to change their mind and say, in effect, "I was wrong." It is fair to surmise that those suffering most from confirmation bias will be the least likely to admit being wrong.
G. PARENTHETICAL NOTE ON OPTIONS IN THE FACE OF RISK
At http://www.riskworld.com/Nreports/1997/risk-rpt/html/epajan3.htm is found a flow chart which often appears in the literature regarding risk assessment in a public setting. According to the flow chart, one is supposed to consider 'options' when a risk is 'identified.' If this model is not merely ideal, but descriptive of human behavior, then it shows that many in the anti-biotech contingent are stuck in the 'options' portion of the risk assessment cycle. Believing they have identified a risk, they proliferate options to biotechnology, such as organic farming, or sustainable farming, or a moratorium pending further testing, or labeling, or outright bans on use of the technology. This tendency is exacerbated in developed nations, where abundant food and a strong economy easily makes such options attractive.
The anti-biotech side of the biotechnology 'debate,' on this analysis, has used the incompleteness of the scientific enterprise to subjectively identify unknown risks which, coupled with a confirmation bias in favor of proving the existence and seriousness of the risks, amounts to a roadblock preventing them from absorbing and processing relevant objective information. If this confirmation bias is to be overcome, it appears necessary to focus those against biotechnology on what is relevant to an objective risk assessment based on scientific reasoning, although it is not clear how this might be accomplished in practice.
(I would also add that it is entirely possible that this theory not only explains the precautionary principle, but how it is applied, as well.)
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Last Updated on 8/20/00
By Dan Ellis