Blog Revival and a Few Book Reviews: Introverts, Decisions, and Critical Thinking

I plan to revive this blog soon, and write more about thoughts that are related – but perhaps tangental – to my research. I will soon be conducting my fieldwork for my PhD thesis, and although I won’t be able to share specific details about that, I know the experience will prompt many thoughts that will be worth sharing. I am looking forward to getting off the computer and back into the world. I’ve spent months developing a conceptual framework, so I’ve been knee (mind?) deep in theory. Time to return to practice. 

For today, however, I’m just going to share a few reviews from Goodreads that I have written in recent months. If you’re a book nerd like me, you should really try out that site. You can see all my reviews at


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

As an introvert who loves books, spending time reading a book about introverts was blissful. I really enjoyed this book, just as I suspected when I first stumbled upon Cain’s Ted talk. It was thoughtful, well-written, and entertaining. More importantly, it has helped alleviate some of my guilt about who I am. Like other introverts Cain discusses in the book, I am prone to guilt, particularly guilt about my introversion and a deep-rooted sense that my personality is somehow “wrong”. Cain offers a wealth of advice not only for introverts, but also for extroverts who undoubtedly deal with extroverts in their lives or even want to cultivate the more introspective elements of their personality. Without knowing it, I have developed many of the coping techniques for introverts that Cain discusses in the book, so it was good to see that I was on the right track; but there was also plenty that was new for me. For instance, when performing a task, introverts divert more of their attention to monitoring how that task is going than extroverts do. I just thought that was a peculiar quirk I had – a need to always know where I am going and what I have done so far. I was also a bit put off by the title “Quiet” because I am an introvert, but no shrinking violet like I thought the name implied. Then I realised, like so many others in the book, I have developed an extroverted character that I play in social situations, but at my core I crave quiet to think and perform my best.

Cain manages to strike a good balance in this book. As I said, there is a wealth of information to help introverts as well as extroverts, and it would be great if more teachers, bosses, friends, and partners of introverts would read this book. There’s research, but this is more a pop psychology book, so that research is interwoven with many personal stories of people she knows and people she interviewed. It’s a fairly quick read, yet she covers the topic in sufficient depth and breadth. She doesn’t denigrate extroverts in the process of discussing the qualities of introverts. Her central thesis is a reasonable one: that we’re living in a society too heavily skewed towards extroverts, and we need to also provide environments in which introverts can thrive. Any introvert who has worked in an open office plan or attended a networking event knows just how painful this extrovert bias can be, and while we can certainly hone our acting skills and pretend to be extroverts, to do so without “restorative niches” is exhausting. But this book is about so much more than this simple thesis, and I would highly recommend it to anyone; but particularly to other introverts that may not entirely embrace, understand, or nurture this aspect of their personality.


How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I bought this book on a whim when I was browsing in the psychology section, mainly because this was the only book (besides Kahneman’s most recent) in that section that was not a ridiculous self-help book. I’m not sure what’s happening to the psychology section of book stores, but I do know that this was an excellent impulse buy. I really liked the way this book was organised. Each chapter built on the previous one, taking the reader through a really compelling narrative about how we decide – exactly as advertised. He does an excellent job of weaving personal narratives with the research, which really made the information about the way the brain works easier to understand and absolutely fascinating. One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was that he has restored some of my faith in my brain! This may sound a bit odd, but after reading books like Mistakes Were Made and Invisible Gorilla, you start to get a bit flustered with just how wrong you can be. This book was a good counterbalance to the effect of reading those. Although he does discuss the weaknesses of the way our brain regions interact when making a decision, he also discusses many of the strengths and provides really clear, tangible ways that we can protect ourselves from errors and play on those strengths. It’s not an academic work, so the referencing is not very good (just a Bibliography and no in-text citations or footnotes). It didn’t bother me that much, but because I read books like this for the curiosity factor, it does make it difficult to follow up on particular passages that piqued my interest. I imagine that if you were in this field of research, the lack of referencing would annoy you, but I’d say this book isn’t directed at you, rather it’s for the curious layman who wants to know more about what’s happening inside his/her head when making decisions.


How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions by Christopher diCarlo

I admit that the title of this book got me. As an American living abroad, I already feel like a pain in the ass a lot (“Americans are so loud!” “Why do you always ask so many questions?”), so I figured it would be fun to learn new, more constructive ways to irritate people with my probing questions. Unfortunately, this book didn’t really deliver.

This would be a really great book for teaching critical thinking to high schoolers. The writing is clear and easy to understand, and it covered the most basic and important aspects of critical thinking. It’s systematically written, and it’s very clear where diCarlo is taking you. However, the style of writing wasn’t for me, as it seemed more like an essay for university than one with a compelling, interesting narrative. It was almost robotic at times, then he would throw in a pretty decent joke, so I don’t think he’s completely humourless! I just think his personality doesn’t come through in the writing, and even though it’s a book about a serious topic, I think a more compelling narrative would have made the book much better. His paragraphs are also unbearably long in parts, mainly because they cover more than one point. This not only makes it more difficult to read, but it doesn’t make sense given how clear he is in most of the book. He also has a habit of repeating the same points over and over again. In several places he actually has almost an identical sentence written with slightly different wording, right in a row! The only reason I can think of for this is that he teaches undergraduates, and he must be used to having to flag his point really obviously and repeatedly to make sure it gets through. I’m a very slow, careful reader, however, so this drove me insane.

The illustrations in this book are weird. They are often of everyday objects, and it’s difficult to find the method in the madness behind how these were selected. When there are relevant illustrations that are useful, they sometimes just threw me off. In his discussion of the “Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge” for instance, he is actually talking about pre-existing theories that many authors before him have discussed. Using systems theory to explain the relationship between natural and cultural systems is not new, and I found it a bit odd that he didn’t reference any of these authors. There are entire disciplines devoted to this sort of perspective! (e.g. human ecology)

At the beginning of the book he asks you to answer ‘the five big questions’ and then you’re supposed to answer them at the end. They were interesting, but it would have been better if he had either phrased the questions more accurately or set them up better. I personally misinterpreted a few. For instance, “why am I here?” was actually “why is the universe here?” and “what am I?” is actually “where did humans come from?” or something to that effect. If he had explained that this was to get a sense that this was about whether you believe in natural or supernatural origins of life, that would have changed my thinking, but I thought the questions were more about ontology and epistemology.

All that said, I am giving the book a fair rating because I think it’s a really good guide to critical thinking, and I think it will be a useful book to keep around as a reference. I recently heard an interview with diCarlo, and I must say I am looking forward to his next book which is on free will. But I think with that book I will have a look through before buying to see that it’s written in a style that is…well…more my style.


Climate Science Rapid Response Team

A common source of irritation for me is terrible science reporting, particularly in relation to climate change. If you were to follow mainstream news sources, you would think scientists are in an utter state of confusion over climate change, and that they just can’t seem to agree on even the most basic concepts. If you were to read right-wing publications, then you would think that climate change is nothing more threatening than a part of your ‘regularly scheduled’ climate cycle…a left-wing conspiracy to bring the economy to a screeching halt. And if you were to read left-wing publications, you would notice a tendency to consistently raise the intensity and volume of the threat. In other words, it’s hard to find accurate, unbiased reporting on the latest studies that includes all of the pertinent details you need to understand what the researchers are actually saying. As a consequence it is difficult to make heads or tails of what’s going on.

Photo source:

One of the reasons that the reporting is so bad, in my opinion, is that science stories don’t always make good news. They certainly don’t all naturally make excellent headlines that will excite people, and this is exactly what news outlets need to make their headlines stand out amongst the potentially thousands that people come across each day. This means reporters have to find something gripping in any story they report on, and in climate change studies I find this is often not even the main take-home point of the original study.  In fact, it is not uncommon to seize upon a single interesting line in the discussion section (which can be speculation….it is of course, for the purposes of discussion) and run with it. For this reason, climate science can seem as confusing as rocket science, and with as many contradictions as nutrition and health  (wait…is tofu good for me this week, or not?). This is particularly the case f you don’t follow up on stories or only read the big key messages. For instance, I noticed many people were confused by reporting on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago. One week you would read all about the bleaching is dying a slow painful death because of climate change, and you would hear what a dire situation we will have on our hands in a few years. Within a month there would be another story where people would read about reefs recovering 10 times faster than we thought they would, yet this is still bad news in the context of climate change as it is due to a unique combination of factors.

And let’s be honest, how many people have the time or inclination to sift through it all and understand exactly what the latest research is saying? I can see why people would be confused, whether they are trying to follow along or not.

It is on topics like this – topics that are big, relatively new, and the subject of much current research – where many of us begin to notice inconsistencies or contradictions on what seems like a daily basis. If you are like me, you will often have a hunch that the reporting is getting it wrong, or at the very least leaving out a big pieces of the story that are essential to the narrative. Yet most of us don’t have access to journal articles, or the time to read the reports that are often released on this topic. So what to do?

Ask a climate scientist who is familiar with the research, of course.

What, you don’t have a friendly local climate scientist you can turn to?

This is one of the reasons I got so excited when I was listening to a (not so) recent Point of Inquiry podcast interview with John Abraham and Scott Mandia about the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. I am decades late on finding out about this (in internet terms…a year is like a decade on the internet, right?), but I am excited nonetheless. Here is a team that will not only field your questions, but they have enlisted 135 climate scientists that will provide a prompt answer:

The role of this endeavor is to provide highly accurate science information to media and government representatives. We believe that scientists have an important role in communicating the science directly with the general public. We encourage questions from recognized media sources and from governments. We will work hard to ensure that all questions are answered as promptly as possible. [Source.]

As Chris Mooney points out in the interview, scientists aren’t exactly known for their media savvy or their quick responses, so this fills an important gap. For the most part, I think it’s fair to say that the narrative on climate change has been created primarily by news outlets, politicians and well…people other than climate scientists. As a highly politicised issue, scientists are not exactly well-placed to address the mis-reporting and are – rightfully so – loathe to engage in the ideologically-driven dialogue. Scientists are often criticised for their inability to communicate their work to the public, so it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve ended up with a mis-match between what science says, the media reports and what the public believes.

If you have the time, I would highly recommend listening to the Point of Inquiry Interview, which you can download on iTunes or listen to here. One of the things that stood out for me the most was the distinction between being an advocate for science education and an advocate for taking specific actions. I think the scientists here have struck a good balance: they are seeking to clarify misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and sometimes muddled reporting whilst not advocating for a specific policy response. This is a tough balance to strike, but I am happy to see that they recognise that it is possible to be an advocate for science without compromising their integrity as scientists.

Now, if only people would post more questions….

You can read the enquiries and public responses here.

Book Review: The Invisible Gorilla

I read a lot of books on scientific and skeptical themes, many of which I heard on some of my favourite podcasts, such as Point of Inquiry. I highly recommend that podcast and website as a way of sifting through the millions of books out there. I have read many books after listening to interviews with the authors, and they rarely disappoint. Point of Inquiry was, in fact, one of the first mediums that taught me that there even was such a thing as a skepticism as a ‘movement’ or school of thought. Up until then, I just thought I was a weirdo, but once I discovered skepticism, it was like I had won the lottery. Only in this lottery, I mainly won a whole slew of resources and an avenue to meet others with a similar love for science and reason, and I was faced with an overwhelming number of decisions about where to invest my time. So much choice! Anyway, it was through this discovery that I found that not only could I read these books, but that perhaps there would be others like me who would want to talk about them! So I did what any good book nerd would do: I started a book club. A skeptical one, at that.

So far we’ve read some excellent books, such as Bad Science (one of my favourite books, and one I will review at a later date. You can actually read one of the book’s chapters here.) and the Invisible Gorilla. This time, it wasn’t Point of Inquiry that pointed me to the book, rather it was a fellow member of the Perth Skeptics. One of the founders of that group, Kylie Sturgess, also has a podcast and she even interviewed the authors.

I’ve delayed writing this post because I loved this book so much, and have so much to say, yet I don’t want to say too much about it because I really want people to read it. Basically the premise of the book is this: Our minds don’t work the way we think they do, and the way we see ourselves does not align well with reality in many surprising ways. The subtitle of the book is “And other ways Our Intuition Deceives Us” and that’s a very appropriate subtitle indeed. The authors take the reader through a string of stories and scientific evidence that challenge our instincts. The book is well-written, highly readable, entertaining, and endlessly fascinating. It helps you understand not only how many ways our brains deceive us, but also how many things they are prone to missing altogether.

This is one of those books that I wish I could make mandatory reading. Of course, I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone who reads it would believe the information it contains, but that’s okay. For people who are genuinely interested in learning more about how the brain works, why it works that way and its limitations, this book will give you the basics and direct you to many resources to learn more. It’s a beautiful book for skeptics, in that in the process of reading, you may go through a bit of a crisis because you suddenly feel that your mind is not at all what you believe. As stated in the summary of the book on its website, “Reading this book will make you less sure of yourself-and that’s a good thing.”

Gee, I’m really selling this, aren’t I? “Read this book, it will make you doubt everything you know about yourself!” Well, firstly I wouldn’t go that far, unless you are prone to existential crises. And second, I think that a bit of doubt can be a very constructive thing, especially if it creates more awareness about how to overcome, limit, or (at the very least) acknowledge that we don’t always know or see the things we think we do. I realise that this is all a bit opaque, so let me end this by listing a few of the ‘illusions’ the authors cover in the book. They are ‘illusions’ because our intuition tells us they are true, but research tells us how they are not:

  • The illusion of attention refers to our mistaken beliefs about the way attention works. We experience far less our visual world than we think we do. We miss things happening right in front of usall the time, and we are much worse at multi-tasking than we would like to believe. Our brain has a limit on the number of things we can pay attention to, be it in real life, a movie, etc. This is why we are so notoriously bad at talking on a mobile phone while driving, why we may think that something ‘jumped’ out in front of us while driving or why a radiologist can miss something that they weren’t told to look for. We aren’t good at noticing the unexpected, but we think that we are because, well, it just seems so obvious, especially in hindsight. This illusion is where the authors discuss the source of the book’s name, this video.
  • In discussing the illusion of memory, the authors debunk the myth that even our most vivid memories are accurate. Remember where you were on September 11th? Or when JFK was shot? In the book the authors discuss how even the most salient memories are subject to distortion. They even discuss something that has happened to me on a number of occasions that I had always pondered. Ever hear someone recall a story that happened to you and get really confused? I have. Well it turns out that this is all part of the illusion of memory – we can even take on other people’s memories as our own once they have told us the details of a story.
  • The illusion of confidence was among my favourites in the book. This is a reference to our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, especially in relation to other people. (The chapter is titled”What Smart Chess Payers and Stupid Criminals Have in Common”.) In this chapter, the authors also discuss how this illusion causes us to interpret others’ confidence as a valid signal of their own abilities. Consequently, we trust confident people more, and this can have very serious consequences. For instance, a confident witness is often viewed by juries to be a truthful witness, but as the illusion of memory shows us, confidence in our memory of an event does not mean it is more accurate.
  • The illusion of knowledge causes us to think we know morethan we actually do. Often, we have just surface knowledge when we think we actually have a deep understanding. I think we can all relate to this in our experiences with, say, recent University grads at work or with a friend who went to a seminar and suddenly considers him/herself an expert. However, we all have this illusion. It’s what causes us to think we know how common every day objects (e.g. a bicycle, toilet) work, and it’s also what leads us to believe projects will take much less time or resources than they actually will.

I will stop there because the fun in reading this book is in the narrative, and knowing too much about it ahead of time could spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that the authors do provide reasons for these illusions, and offer advice on how we can work with them. Though you may find yourself doubting your entire life during the first chapter, I promise it gets better. And I also promise that this doubting is precisely why this book is so excellent and enjoyable to read.

As a side note, I personally enjoyed that the book critiques Malcolm Gladwell’s work a number of times. If you’ve ever read Gladwell’s work and have been agitated by the grand conclusions he draws from minimal evidence, I think you will appreciate these comments! If you’ve never read Gladwell’s work, you probably wouldn’t even notice the critiques.

Writing Public Submissions: A Short Guide

I’ve spent the majority of the past few months responding to public submissions. We do a lot of this sort of thing: reviewing public submissions, analysing them and summarising key themes, responding and making changes as required. I admit that it becomes tiring after a while. At first every submission seems unique and interesting. I find it endlessly fascinating to view a project through the eyes of other people, and public submissions are one of the instances where people practically where their heart on their sleeve. When you see the way people interpret facts, you get to see a glimpse of how they interpret the world. Consistent with the many variations of environmental worldviews* , you find people believe in the power of nature to ‘work itself out’ whilst others believe the right sorts of human interventions can help the environment achieve its full ‘potential’. Some people believe nature has inherent value, whilst others believe it only has value when it is put to use by humans. It’s a spectrum, but it’s a spectrum with extreme ends. When put this way, it isn’t surprising that people can so passionately disagree with data collected in an environmental assessment (in this case, I am referring the surveys and investigations that are done as part of the environmental approvals process). Data is not just data when it is interpreted by a human being. It either fits within their worldview, or it does not, and when it does not, the conflict has to be resolved. This is not unlike the risk perception issues I highlighted in this post.

Still, however fascinating I might find this process, there only so many times that you can read different submissions that use the same phrases, the same words and the same arguments before I grow frustrated. I get frustrated because proponents (or their consultants) create documents that the public has trouble interpreting (if they can even find the time – or the internet access – to swim through the piles of reports). But I also grow frustrated because the process of public comment is not well-understood, and when I see a member of the public craft a lengthy submission that communicated intense passion, it breaks my heart. While I’ve always wanted to believe that a good idea, particularly when stated with confidence and passion, will be heard, the reality is that public comment periods usually don’t work that way. The reality is that policies and decisions are not made by the public. Of course the public plays a role, and their views are considered as part of the broader decision-making process. But it’s also true that more influential people and groups get more say in big decisions. It’s also true that whether or not a project is politically tenable, and whether it can meet standards and regulations, plays a very big role.

I vacillate on this: some days I think that people over-estimate the impact public submissions can have and some days I think they completely under-estimate it. Until recently, I thought the role of public comment was better understood, until I read this book** and realised I may be subject to the ‘curse of knowledge’ in this instance. The curse of knowledge, as defined by Chabris and Simons, is when we have trouble switching our point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their knowledge onto others. Just because my job has helped me to become intimately familiar with community consultation, this does not mean that everyone is as familiar. This is always apparent when I attend meetings of small community organisations. Full of well-intended, intelligent individuals who have organised around a common issue, their passion often exceeds their knowledge and they are all too aware of this. It’s frustrating for them, and it’s frustrating for me, as I am all too familiar with feeling in over your head.

So today, the Public Environmental Review for the Roe 8 Highway Extension is out for public comment. This road will put a highway through one of the last remaining wetland chains in Perth metropolitan area, and it is a road that will essentially lead to nowhere. You can read more about it on the Save Beeliar Wetlands Site.

At the 'No to Roe 8' Rally in October 2009.









As you can probably tell from my tone (and pictures), I recognise the potential conflicts when my own environmental worldviews and data collide. I am not in favour of this road, and this will very likely influence my interpretation of the data, even though I will try my best to read it with an open mind. Even for a skeptic, it’s hard to allow data when you can’t even agree on the validity of the premise.

So…to ‘celebrate’ this release (and to help me prepare for my meeting tomorrow), I will offer a few words of simple advice for any member of the public who wants to write a public submission, but wants to write the most effective submission they can, given the existing system. I am focusing on Australia here, but the fact is that the process isn’t all that different in the US.

  • Consider joining a group. Named organisations receive priority in the public submissions process. Proponents, and the Environmental Protection Authority, will often directly address concerns in submissions from key stakeholder groups.
  • Encourage that group to ask experts to write submissions, but send those submissions in themselves, rather than as a tag-along to the group submission. Academics and experts in the field also receive priority when the public submissions are analysed. In short, groups and experts take first priority and will cause proponents and regulators to pause and carefully respond.
  • If you’d also like to write a submission yourself, do just that. Write it yourself. Those form letters on most major NGO sites and through groups like Get Up! and Move On are great for showing that a lot of people care about an issue; however, when it comes to a public submission, 1,000 form letters do not count as 1,000 submissions. They count as one, and they are responded to as one.
  • This is not a numbers game. Although the numbers will be analysed and reported, just because a lot of submissions are in opposition the project, this does not mean the project won’t go ahead. Although some people may find this frustrating, think of it like this: what if the level of popularity guided all of our public policy decisions?*** If we want consistency in decision-making (whether we are achieving that is another question altogether), then we need to act according to agreed upon principles. Though it’s often a crude tool, the principles prescribed by regulations and guidelines are the ones that are generally used by decision-makers.
  • Given the above, become familiar, to the extent you can, with the process in which the proposal is being assessed. You don’t have to read the regulations. Most agencies have short guidance documents and fact sheets. For the Roe 8 Proposal, it’s the Public Environmental Review process, which is explained on the EPA Website. EDO usually has great documents as well. Read the scoping documents, which are usually provided as an appendix. You don’t need to become a policy expert. Just arm yourself with a little knowledge about the standards the project (and documentation) must meet.
  • Limit and prioritise. I know it is tempting to list every single thing that is wrong with a document, particularly if you spend hours of your free time pouring over the documentation. However, the fact is that this is also not a numbers games. Just because there are a lot of little problems, along with some really big ones, doesn’t mean that together they automatically add up to a ‘fatal flaw’ (and please, also avoid using that phrase unless you are really sure it fits that definition.) My recommendation is to determine the most important points you want to make. Discuss those first, succinctly but factually.
  • If you really want to discuss every flaw in the paper, organisation is crucial. Have a sectionat the front of your submission highlighting the most important issues. Other sections might consider “secondary issues” or “other issues for consideration” and finally a section with “editorial comments”. This is where you can channel your inner grammarian and pick on their typos, desktop publishing, etc. If there are a number of categories that concern you, I would recommend putting those under headings as well. For example, put all the comments about specific species (e.g. the graceful sun moth), hydrology, air emissions, etc. in their own sections, clustered together, if you really have that many comments. I still recommend highlighting only the most important ones. The reason? People will be more open when reading your submission if you don’t appear petty, and nitpicking can easily appear petty in a written submission.
  • Ask questions – both of yourself and of the proponent. Of course I am partial to the process of inquiry, but I find that it really helps if I consistently ask myself “what is my real concern?” When I answer public submissions, I have to spend a lot of time deciphering what people are really saying in their submissions. When people make inflammatory statements or say things that don’t make sense, it’s often because there is a core concern that they aren’t sure how to express other than through anger or frustration. If you ask yourself why you feel a certain way, this can help overcome this problem, and even help you determine if it’s the facts or your values that are the source of your criticism. As far as the questions of the proponent (or government), that’s pretty self-explanatory. If you feel questions are unanswered, or information is unclear, ask. They have to answer every question.
  • Cite reputable sources where appropriate, but avoid reliance on too many secondary sources like newspaper articles. If an article piques your interest in something, consider investigating the truth of the matter, if you can find additional information. In many cases, articles reference reports that can be easily find online. Check the original sources when possible to see if the media indeed reported it correctly before hanging your hat on the argument.
  • Emotion: good for rallies, but not so much for a formal submission.

    Avoid emotion. If you are taking the time to write a submission, it’s likely you are extremely passionate about the issue. Whilst passion is an admirable trait in my mind, it doesn’t do much for the quality of a public submission. Proposals are assessed against criteria, and while the stress of a proposal is a social impacts, communicating that stress in a submission is unlikely to change the outcome of the regulatory approvals process. Also, avoiding emotions doesn’t mean you have to refrain from stating what is important to you. In the case of environmental issues, most emotions can be re-stated as management principles.****

  • If an issue is really important to you, try to read that section of the report, rather than just relying on the executive summary. I realise time is limited, but unfortunately people too often submit questions and comments that were addressed in other sections of the report. Unfortunately, this makes the question really easy to blow off when it is clear the submitter didn’t read the relevant sections of the report.
  • If all else fails, sign the form letter. If you don’t have the time or inclination, just sign the form letter online, via email, etc. It isn’t counter-productive. It just isn’t particularly productive. However, it still demonstrates that people care about the issue, and if combined with a lot of weighty evidence, it can provide some support. If you do choose the form letter, I suggest you make sure it goes to the Minister, rather than the EPA, as the ultimate decision will rest with them. Technically, the EPA provides expert advice to the minister on an environmental approval.
  • Form realistic expectations. As I said in the intro, I actually find it really disheartening that people believe that their criticisms can lead to a ‘no’ on a proposal. Proposals are assessed by ‘independent’ government agencies, but decisions are made at the political level. In the end, sometimes even the strongest factual case can mean nothing in politics. I don’t like it, but ‘them’s the breaks

As all good bloggers are supposed to do, I will end with a series of questions. What role do you think public opinion should have in public policy and development decisions? Have you ever made a public submission? Do you think I am being too harsh? Too cynical?

*Note: It was surprisingly difficult find a good, succinct article that covered the diverse range of worldviews for free on this topic, but there are many books out there if you are interested in reading more. A great one is Environmental Values and American Culture.

** I will write a review of this book in the next week or so. It’s a must read for everyone, in my opinion!

*** I was looking for a quote I thought FDR made on this, but either my memory or Google has failed me. There is obviously a wide range of views about the value of public opinion. Some are highlighted in these quotes, though all are obviously simplified.

**** I realise that sounds like bureaucratic doublespeak, but it really is quite simple. For example, if you are horrified at the thought of a project’s impact on future generations, rather than stating “You are going to destroy the environment, and our children will have to live with the consequences! You are raping the land for profit now, only to leave us with nothing later!” Try this: “Sustainability is about providing for our needs now without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This project cannot be considered sustainable due to X, Y and Z.” That first sentence is available on nearly every website that contains a definition of sustainability, so this doesn’t require expert knowledge.

What about the children?

Genetically modified foods, the contents of processed foods, organics, and sustainable food systems are among the hot topics in the media and health conscious. These topics were indeed contributed to my eventual decision to major in Environmental Science, and were major topics in many of my classes. My favourite class was even called “People, Pesticides and Politics”. It was brilliant. The fact that I was part of a relatively small group of environmentalists in amongst the same agriculture school (Michigan State University) as the agribusiness majors made the conversation all the more interesting, particularly considering the school received quite a bit of funding from the big companies like Monsanto and Dow. I honestly feel like the conversations I had about GMOs and sustainable agriculture during this time were some of the richest, most enlightening conversations of my life because everyone at the table was knowledgeable and genuinely interested in solutions, even though we were often at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

If you ever visit the outback, you will find heaps of these in the toilet. Flushing them was very disturbing for me, a lover of frogs.

Unfortunately, the conversations about GMOs and sustainable food systems I hear these days are one-sided and often involve ill-informed individuals. On both sides of the spectrum, people are incredibly passionate, and that makes me very happy. However, in spite of all of the mental energy I have put into this topic over the years, I can’t help but feel left out. I can’t find sources that aren’t biased (please, please recommend them if you know of any). I can’t find sources that don’t stretch or misuse data. I am no expert, so when I can identify flaws in the research I must admit that it turns me off from believing the rest. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but I can’t help but tire of the Chicken Little approach to the discussion around food. Either the sky is falling because we are doing it wrong, or the sky is falling because changing the way we will do it will never feed the world. The truth may lie somewhere in between, but I don’t think I can ever know where it is with the information that is available in the mainstream press right now. Of course I can read it in the journals, but I know my limitations. I am no toxicologist. I am no agricultural scientist. Nor a soil chemist.

Take, for instance, this recent report that was released about the link between RoundUp in birth defects. If it is accurate, then it is scary stuff considering the prevalence of RoundUp around the world. So I tried to look into it further, but I quickly became overwhelmed. The story itself has only been covered by anti-GM media sources. I can’t find much about Open Source Earth. As far as the academics who wrote the report, well, their credentials look fine, but considering the article isn’t in a peer reviewed journal I would have to dig deeper to feel more comfortable with the source. While I would like to believe that academics are above writing reports that are biased, I know this isn’t the case. In addition to a fair bit of experience with this recently, time and time again meta-analyses and experiments have shown that results are subject to researcher bias (whether consciously or unconsciously). In addition, the report starts by citing toxicology research. Again, I would have to go back and read that research to feel comfortable that it is being used in the right way, particularly as the research was done on frog and chicken embryos. Though alarming news for frogs and chicken, I would need to know more about how this translates to humans.

Do you see where I am going with this? There are so many layers that it’s hard to even know where to begin. Yet I am left feeling like there is something wrong with me because I have studied these subjects in University, but I am unable to form a steadfast opinion on these matters. On the other hand, it seems that everywhere I turn people have strong opinions on these topics, and they are confident in their accuracy. Meanwhile, I am stuck in an existential fit just trying to make sense of it all. The life of a skeptic, perhaps?

However, the event that really prompted me to write this post was not a moment of frustration with the black and white debate around agriculture. That’s an ongoing struggle. In this case, it was a realisation, courtesy of my boss, that arose from a discussion of this research.

Recently, I have repeatedly heard variations of the following assertion from people who do not believe the proverbial sky is falling (not to be confused with the anti-GM arguments above…see, I don’t discriminate.):

Don’t people realise that [X] (e.g. CEOs, farmers, Monsanto employees, geneticists, etc.) eat the food too? And they feed it to their children?

The statement is generally used to illustrate the point that there can’t be much truth to the claims that [substance x] is bad for us. After all, they rely on the food system too, so they would want to change it if it were causing harm. This argument has never sit right with me, and though I could rant about it quite a bit (as I am prone to do), I could never quite pinpoint why it was so illogical. Jo Ann to save the day.

The food on their children’s plates tells us little of the safety of that food. The risk perception literature gives a clue as to why that is. People will always do their best to avoid accepting something if it would be a serious blow to their worldview. We do this to protect ourselves. Think about it: if you worked for a company, and you learned that your chief product could be harming your children, and you really believe in this product, would you really give it up so easily? We’d like to think that there would be some sort of unequivocal proof that they couldn’t ignore, and if they did…well, then it’s a conspiracy. But science doesn’t usually work that way, and people don’t work that way either. Of course you know so-and-so who read Food Inc and it changed their entire worldview. Or that other person who watched “Meet your Meat” and never touched a hamburger again. But this only works when people are open to it. It doesn’t work for the majority of people (I assure you millions of people have read that book and saw that film and never changed a thing). This is precisely the reason that so many people find climate change research so confronting. If they accept it, then they have to accept a massive shift in the way they live. It’s terrifying. It’s so terrifying, in fact, that it’s easier for many people to deny it altogether. You can shove evidence their way, but in many cases it won’t even make a dent.

So what about the parent working at Monsanto? Even when faced with research that suggests health problems could be caused by RoundUp, we cannot assume that people at Monsanto would react for the sake of their own health and their children’s. Agree with it or not, the people at Monsanto believe in the products they sell. Whilst it would be easier to imagine them as fat cats in suits, puffing a cigar and laughing maniacally all the way to the bank, the fact is that they are human beings with human traits. Even if they are faced with evidence that their products are causing problems, it may take them a very long time to shift from their position. On the other side of the spectrum, we could have research suggesting that GM foods are good for us and the planet, but you aren’t going to convince someone who is vehemently opposed to GM foods. Unfortunately for those of us somewhere in between, there is not easy answer to who is right. I value the work of those that are challenging widely accepted practices like those who are writing about GM foods, but I recognise that they are human beings just like those at Monsanto. Unfortunately, we cannot look at the food on their plates to know who is right. If only it were that simple.

There are countless books and research articles on this topic. From smoking to landfills to sunbathing, this has huge implications for the way we communicate with one another. Once you start to recognise the patterns in risk perception generally, it is fascinating to look at yourself and others. And though it doesn’t make human beings less frustrating when you feel like your message just isn’t getting through, it will certainly help you make sense of it.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a classic risk communication book. Slovic has many good books on risk perception.