The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)
Social and Cultural Factors in Public Discourseon the Risks and Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology
Napoleon K. Juanillo Jr., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Predicting regularities in the world falls under the domain of science. Through the years, modern science has been sharpening its ability to formulate precise hypotheses and more rigorous forms and techniques of testing in order to yield more specific predictions. Through science mans knowledge of the physical world has grown exponentially, bringing about spectacular breakthroughs in medicine, food and agricultural production, engineering and technology. Ironically, uncertainty is both a part and consequence of the process of producing scientific knowledge and innovations. A hallmark of the scientific enterprise is its tacit acknowledgement of the possibility of gaps and incompleteness of what is known as well as the fallibility of its theories and experimentations. Thus, in the process of producing firm answers, if not claims to universal truth, newer uncertainties are also created.
By itself, the concept of "uncertainty" in generating scientific knowledge provides a clear and solid rationale for having more vigorous techniques for hypotheses testing.
Unfortunately, it is also how both scientists and the lay pubic have constructed the notion of uncertainty and used it as a rhetorical device to press on their respective advocated positions that has muddled the discourse about some of the significant contributions of science.
Agricultural biotechnology is a case in point. It is a compelling example of how a technology that, on the face of it, might be thought to be a beneficial scientific breakthrough, can galvanize widespread public cynicism, resentment, and heated protests in many parts of the world. It has become a lightning rod for visceral debate, with opposing factions making strong claims of promise and peril.
This paper proposes to analyze the public discourse of agricultural biotechnology. It identifies the leading protagonists in the discourse and broadly outlines the range of social and cultural variables that influence the direction and tenor of the discourse. Divided into three parts, it reviews the nature and patterns of how scientists present information about controversial issues in science and technology. Secondly, it examines the socio-political and cultural tensions that come into focus in public debates over the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It argues for more in-depth research on institutional trust and credibility as crucial variables in public response to and acceptance of agricultural biotechnology. Lastly, it distills insights from emerging discussions about participatory approaches to communicating risk information and identifies some practical implications for public dialogue on biotechnology. In summary, it suggests that public concerns about agricultural biotechnology can only be effectively addressed if the socio-political, economic and cultural variables that impact on public attitudes and perceptions about biotechnology are taken into account.