Tuesday 19 November 2013

Skeptical science and parsimonious stories: Strategies for wrestling dialogue toward accountability

Two recent experiences of failing in attempts at public narrative have pulled me back into thinking about strategies for what to do when dialogue suddenly veers out of control into a realm of intractable slipperyness and discomfort. The first was an almost textbook case of theinternet commentitis I have become so fascinated by recently: I will not belabor it too far here, but the basic gist was that I was called out for a claim that a critic immediately identified as anti-science with calls for evidence and admonitions to read experts. When I provided the requested information along with an explanation of how the experts in question tend to produce normative explanations that do not account for, in this case, the likelihood that genetically modified seeds are improving the livelihoods of poor farmers, my explanations were met with increasingly hostile and charicatured characterizations of my argument (which was about the challenge of addressing indemnity requirements in the transfer of intellectual property regimes into humanitarian food aid domains) as misinformation – flawed, in large part, it appeared, because of the critic’s association of my argument with that made by people this critic found to be intolerably opposed to technology. No evidence I provided changed the response “this is not true,” even when it came from the “same side” of the argument as my critic – and my curiosity about how to productively engage with this persistent characterization of my argument eventually turned to frustration and disgust, as it became clear that directives like “You might also want to update your knowledge of the situation,” with pointers to very general and outdated information (explicitly discussed in the pieces I had provided) were largely just launchpads for associative critiques. It felt like an elaborate autocorrect problem, where I kept thinking I must have been misunderstood, or that my intended message had not been expressed – because surely THAT can’t be the response … for one thing, because how could someone become so hostile and defensive over something this obscure and nerdy, and especially when s/he has found someone else actually willing to discuss something so obscure and nerdy?!

My interest in this challenge of internet etiquette – and my persistent feeling that there must be SOMEthing that could be done to help frame a more accountable dialogue, where we were each actually responding to the other, for example – was further piqued in an in-person dialogue failure a week later. In a workshop on teaching food systems, some colleagues from animal science would, from time to time, point out how animal science was a significant gap in the study of sustainable agriculture. Everyone would nod in agreement and try to figure out what they could do to rectify that, and I became fascinated by this animal gap as a prime example of a corrective story that is easy to insert into a larger story – a parsimonious story that people understand.

Once people turned to this idea of how under-understood the role of animals is sustainable agriculture is, the degree to which the understanding that we DO have is schematic and cartoonish became very clear: although people may be able to characterize the basics of some of the questions that might be asked (how can shifting agroecological practices emphasize the value of pasture? can animal waste be a significant nutrient source to replace energy intensive inputs – and even traction?), thinking about these immediately highlights the schematic nature of most people’s understanding, even with a fair amount of prior thought: what would stocking rates need to be to replace synthetic fertilizers? What kind of labor to land ratios would switching to animal traction engender, and what kinds of additional labor do animals require? How can we adjudicate claims made in comparing impacts of confinement vs. pasture raised animals? None of the answers follow readily just by logic alone, and would require considerable study. Most people understand this. (The known unknownness of animals provides remarkable parsimony.)

In contrast, as I reflected how much there was an analogous situation with social science – the role of people is not very well theorized in the study of sustainable agriculture – it turns out that this is not a parsimonious story. It was as hard to hear as the direct answer (with law review substantiation) I had provided my intenet comments critic: partly because people ARE studying what people do, they may feel defensive when they hear the critique that they are not really dealing with issues of labor exploitation, the functions of capital (particularly the role of threatened and enacted capital flight in shaping regulations at the national scale), and power relations in general. In the same way that people have a very schematic and cartoonish idea of the role of animals in sustainable agriculture, though, I could quickly point to a number of examples of how schematic (or merely absent) these themes were from a wide range of situations: classrooms (where in hundreds of suggestions for improving the food system that students have presented to me in class visits in the past several weeks, almost none have been about policy, power, labor, or regulating capital), teaching workshops (where people seem to be aware of these issues, but not to have the vocabulary or categories to engage in such discussion, or to feel the need to make such issues a part of their research frameworks), and even in work with senior colleagues and their industry collaborators, who appear to have remarkably little to say about relationships between producers and industry and capital. All of this highlighting the considerable mismatch between the importance of people and the institutions they create and the emerging repercussions of those – and any sort of analysis of how these are working: why does it matter that there’s such capital flight into agriculture right now? (Or, rather, into the idea of the potential of agriculture and agricultural land?) What is the role of farmland ownership rules in places like Minnesota, and the rising influence of real estate investment trusts? What are the roles of other invisible institutions in constructing the parameters of what we’re able to do and the choices we’re able to make – far beyond the influence of corn syrup, something that does, mysteriously, seem to pique people’s interest.

Maybe corn syrup provides a parsimonious story. It’s a problem, though, if these more complex structural parts of food system stories remain intractable, things like the effects of financial rules on corn futures, or financialization of pieces of the food system.  For one thing, the daunting complexity (along with the bad news one is likely to encounter in learning to navigate this complexity) turns people off to analysis – which then sets them up to be seen (and to become, perhaps) anti-science and technology. And this seems important, because if science is supposed to be helping, and people say they don’t want to hear the science, rather than that it’s not capturing the values people have, or to make a difference in measures that matter to them (or how to account for things more thoroughly – like the inputs that go into feed and infrastructure) – then we are not building better science, we are just confirming the problem with skepticism about people who demonstrate skepticism about science itself.  

The problem with skepticism and the problem with this parsimonious story

What do we learn from how easy it is to say “animals aren’t included in sustainable agriculture” and apply it to the problem with making the idea more legible that people might not being adequately included? Part of my recent experience with aggressive skepticism (and this seems to be increasingly echoed in a particular social domain of skeptical science, as recent efforts to debunk the health claims of organics or to conspicuously enthuseabout Bangladesh’s adoption of commercial patents for genetic modification tobrinjal in tweets aimed at journalists promoting open source seed) suggests that part of the problem is slippage between what different parties think is interesting (and hence the focus of attention) in a particular problem space.

This makes it very hard to hold each other to the terms of what’s interesting. So for example, part of what I’ve been saying by asking the question of what would poor people’s genetic modifications of crops look like is that in food improvement discourses, genetic modification has been justified in terms of improving crops via tolerance to things like drought and salinity and resistance to blight. This is generally an adaptation kind of narrative – and there’s a whole critique of adaptation for resilience because it puts the onus of response on those already most vulnerable – however, in general, I don’t disagree with the argument that you want all possibilities on board, although I am concerned about the way this tends to dismiss systemic critiques and shift attention instead to a reactive set of practices which does reduces the power of the critique that the system itself needs to be significantly changed to build in more resilience. Monocultures could be a good illustration if you could actually have a dialogue about this, where you were having substantive agreement or disagreement. But it’s difficult to get to that kind of analysis of whether you’re having a substantive conversation because in many skeptical dialogues you’re not actually having something like a dialogue, you’re having something more like a volley. And arguably, a volley is better than a DUEL, where you’re at least exchanging shots and you could imagine it shifting from military metaphors to game metaphors. The current way it comes across seems so hostile.

There seems to be something important in this defensiveness, though. It is often expressed by people who set themselves up as identifying with the scientific perspective, who I might characterize as tending to look at one set of focal points more than at the larger discourse that gives them context: claims made about the healthfulness of organic produce make a good example here (particularly in contrast to attention to the ways these claims circulate in society – they are overrepresented, perhaps). But when skeptics lash out in a mythbusting “We’re going to set things right” kind of mode, which is very normal science, there seems to be a problematic kind of set up involved:

Mythbusting gets such an emotional reaction and the emotional reaction is part of what it seems likes skeptics are prompting – so they can demonstrate how much the kinds of decisions people are making are irrational and are not based on the kinds of criteria skeptics think are valid. So they’re prompting an irrational kind of argument, then they have been validated in their arguments that this is the wrong thing to be happening in an argument, not the basis they respect. And it also seems to make skeptics strangely impervious, as in my experience – because if they’re expecting an emotional kind of reaction, and then they get something that’s more like a science reaction (but that says, here are the limitations of that approach), this is not a narrative trajectory that they may be ready to engage in. (I remind you again that Popular Science just had to close down its comments section for more or less exactly this reason.)

You can’t necessarily argue, for example, for the benefits of, say, virus resistance, against the costs of seed company concentration if we haven’t had a chance to evaluate that very well because it’s not a question people have been willing to put into their models, or into their large-scale assessments, or, frankly, into practice, because most of the traits that are out there are NOT for blight resistance, even if I would like to hear more about those. It ends up being parallel to the frustration of the social sciences when people are not engaging with power.

Since it seems clear from a political ecology perspective that you need to engage both with power and with ecology, I want to think about the power of political ecology (and particularly political agro-ecology) as a way to frame narratives to help create the space for dialogue and for figuring out what is the problem space – and are we asking questions that are mutually comprehensible before we start attacking each other for the ways that the evidence we provide doesn’t answer the question the other person is posing?

I think one of the keys to this may be more explicitly framing the relationship between things that already seem like common sense – like the idea that organic agriculture might be better not for the reasons people claim. But then they get attacked for attacking organics, even while they recognize that the claims that are being made are not really the point – they recognize, in this case, the commercialization of organics and discount that. But maybe they aren’t evaluating how strongly those ideas are shaping the larger political discourse and what it does. So this relationship that I’m arguing needs to be better fleshed out has to do with the way that people frame their motives for things. For example, I don’t think power is dealt with well enough. People could more explicitly state their tacit implicit knowledge, “everybody knows that power is a problem here”and that might help us get to be able to much more explicitly and specifically describe the premise of what it is we’re looking at: we don’t necessarily mean just everybody’s everyday knowledge about the way power tends to work (although that may be a really good place to start), but also to acknowledge the patterns where we have good reason to believe that this kind of knowledge has tendencies to go wrong, to have systematic biases – and if we can acknowledge this, we may be able to also see where a more systematic approach might help us to identify heuristics that can help us with these biases, such as leaving out labor, control, and problematic power relations from our food improvement stories.      

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