January 16, 2017

Fighting ignorance with science: Lessons for the turf grass profession

For years, turf grass pathologist and green solutions specialist Dr. Paul Giordano watched his mentor, University of Michigan professor Dr. Joseph Vargas, deliver impassioned talks using science to dispel common misconceptions about biotechnology. Controversies surrounding products such as DDT or Agent Orange had poisoned public perception, making it difficult for scientists and researchers to bring effective and safe products to market, he explained.

Even after substantial advances, a stigma persists amongst the general population; social media are flooded with misinformation, conspiracy theories and scaremongering. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Giordano is continuing his mentor’s legacy by explaining some of the most common fallacies and misunderstandings about pesticides, biotechnology and the turf grass industry to audiences. He counters the misinformation using peer-reviewed science and empirical data to illustrate the true ramifications and realities of pest control activities. 

For green professionals, Giordano’s insight and no-nonsense approach offers a blueprint to use when a client asks questions based on conspiracy theory, rather than science and research.

LT: Why is this an important topic?

PG: This talk has always been well received, particularly by superintendents and professionals in the industry because it helps justify what we do and why we do it. Whether it’s golfers, homeowners or everyday citizens, they question the safety of lawn products put down near their homes and schools. It’s obviously an important topic, but it’s a hot-button issue as well, particularly when you consider the kinds of public policy being enacted. Ontario, for instance, bans cosmetic pesticides, including products containing glyphosate. 

These hot-button issues come up anytime I give a talk about disease or weed control. I’ve kind of taken what Dr. Vargas was doing 25 years ago and modernized it. It’s not just about pesticides anymore, because there is no shortage of misinformation out there, whether it’s on biotechnology, genetic modification, vaccinations, climate change — you name it. All of these are well-founded scientific concepts, but quick Google searches yield a whole number of different conspiracy theories related to health and safety that are quite dangerous. 

LT: What impact has social media had on these issues?

PG: It’s easy to use scare tactics and to gain attention with a message that says something is causing cancer or harming children. What’s difficult is science, and when you really dig into the science around a lot of these topics, you start to realize that it’s not as dire or scary as many would lead you to believe. It is pretty clear to me that social media, including Facebook and Twitter, have done damage to the real science related to biotech and a whole range of fields. 

Most people obtain information very quickly, because they don’t have the time or inclination to dig deeper, particularly because it can be a little confusing and difficult to understand. The general public certainly isn’t reading peer-reviewed journals and the real science that is being conducted. And it seems as though on platforms like Twitter, the loudest voice ends up being heard, even though it is nothing more than propaganda for some sort of company or organization that has a vested interest in getting people to believe something.

LT: What can professionals and researchers in the industry do to curb the tide of misinformation?

PG: A good scientist is never sure of anything. Because of that, scientists have always been reserved; they can’t be absolute. Whereas the other side typically takes the stance that whatever they are arguing is an absolute. ‘Such and such is dangerous, and it’s killing children!’ Or whatever the case may be. As a result, the scientific message often gets lost because it’s not as sensational or attention-grabbing. One way to overcome that is to find scientists, particularly those working in the biotech industries, that are better at communicating. Some of the most brilliant people in the world are not always the best communicators. Most real scientists kind of live within their own world, doing research day after day after day, that’s what they do; they aren’t necessarily PR machines who can go out and get a message across to laypeople who don’t understand the intricacies of the research. And so that is where the problem lies, in taking highly complex and technical information, and translating it into a message the public will understand. 

Across the board, there is absolutely room for improvement. We have some great people in the industry that do it well, and when it is done well it is very effective. Those are the type of people we need to bring to the forefront.