GMO in a Nutshell, and Strategies for Scicomm

There is a lot of discussion around the best ways to reach various groups with information on important science and technology issues, nicknamed “scicomm” among the chatterati. I know there are studies that show various strategies work or don’t work, that the “backfire effect” of correcting misinformation may be a thing or may not be a thing, and people don’t like my tone. Yeah, whatever. There have been no studies on my tone, so until there are, you can bite me. [see what I did there?]

What a lot of scicomm studies offer is some civil and tidy traditional mainstream newsy reading material, and questions about someone’s views, and an assessment of whether they changed their minds. I understand why studies are done that way. But I find that they aren’t really capturing the way discussions fly in the current social media environment. We may hope that anti-vaxxers are reading quality mainstream information and changing their minds — but that doesn’t seem to be squaring with the reality. Some of the more staid science society sorts of groups are making attempts to be more current. But they are inherently cautious, in my opinion, and lack the edge that you need to break through the noise in the current environment. Penetrating into new areas is really the problem, I think. Some of the most effective stuff I’ve seen has been the SciBabe’s “The “Food Babe” Blogger Is Full of Shit” that was read by millions. And I love that she’s regularly writing at Cosmopolitan, with articles like “10 Bullsh*t Arguments Against GMOs”. Some people don’t like her strategy. I do.

When I was approached to contribute to a Kurzgesagt video about GMOs, I wasn’t sure what to expect — I haven’t worked on animations like this before. I had seen their previous work on issues like “Designer Babies” and vaccination, and I found them to be impressive. They convey some challenging topics in an entertaining way. Millions of people see their videos — but as far as I know, there have been no studies on their effectiveness. I know YouTube can be a real swamp. But I don’t think we have the time to wait and see if the scicomm pros will approve this. Take a chance — watch it anyway.

There’s no way to measure this according to the traditional strategies that scientists care about. I can’t give you an impact factor. I’ll never be able to trace all the places it appears — or how many times it is “cited”. It’s not going on my H index.

But in 2 days, 2 million people saw this. The first day, it generated a great discussion on Reddit in the AskScience section, which the Kurzgesagt folks had arranged to coordinate with the video launch. But strangers merely posting it to various other forums generated a lot of wide exposure to a range of subreddits, with an international reach. These include everything from r/de and r/france, to r/environment, r/SandersforPresident and r/interestingasfuck. These are places that I’m delighted have been exposed to this video. Even if the discussion is not always civil and tidy, and with inappropriate tone for science discourse.

Will it change any minds? I would love for the scicomm pros to find out. But I know new people heard this — and as far as I’m concerned, awareness is the first step. Nothing changes entrenched minds right away. I know this generated some good chatter, and some heated chatter. It will stick around and keep popping up in new places — like this “Should you avoid GMOs?” piece or this PopSugar item. This has had broader reach than any blog post I ever did with nerdy and researched content, and solidly linked with reputable research that nobody ever clicks anyway.

There are currently 14,000 comments on YouTube (many of them are not nice, but I don’t care — people are talking about this). We need to go to new places, some of which are going to be uncontrolled and uncivil. And until the scicomm pros show me this isn’t working, I’m gonna keep going there.