The importance of agreeing to disagree

Puck Norell

27th June 2018

Midsummer was as always rainy and cold, so it was a bit of surprise when the sun came out on Monday, treating us with Mediterranean heat. However, we were not going to spend much of the day outside. Ahead of us, a meeting with Misse Wester was on the schedule and we felt excited to get some more knowledge that we could use for our work.

“One coffee and two lattes please, one with oat milk,” I said and went back with the coffee to the table that Josephine and Misse had grabbed for us while Vilma and I had gone to buy some coffee. Misse is a professor at the division of Risk management and Societal safety at Lund University, and has expertise in risk perception, and she has studied GMOs (genetically engineered organisms) among many other subjects.

Being students within the scientific world, Vilma, Josephine and I tend to focus on using facts and our own empirical knowledge in the field in order to discuss and argue for our views, This is why we in advance had prepared questions that were focused on answering the questions “How do we educate people about GMOs?” and “What weighs more in a discussion - facts or thoughts?”. We soon found out that we ourselves had been primed into a specific way of thinking,and later we discussed that this could be directly harmful.

“I am a philosopher, and not a priest” is how Misse starts off the first question, quoting her colleague Per Sandin. We asked her whether there are more risks or opportunities with GMOs, which might be a too scientific question in a way. Going further on the subject what perception people often have about GMOs, she continues by saying that most people do not have an opinion, since they do not know about GMOs. Some people are angry. Angry at the development of a society that does not fall in line with their own beliefs, an unnatural society for many people. Many in Sweden live by the “back to basics and nature” philosophy, buying ecological food from small scale factories. But at the same time, medicine uses new techniques such as DNA modification to make scientific advances within treating disease, which might then be seen as contradictory. But there are differences between the two.

We have to look at risk and uncertainty when comparing the application of engineered organisms in the medical and ecological fields. Medicals are often used in small, controlled environments, whereas the usage of engineered organisms in nature will bring more uncertainty due to how great the ecosystem is. “We could wipe out a whole ecosystem” Misse says, and the consequences cannot be foreseen. The technique does not, in the eyes of society, have any boundaries.

From left to right, Josephine, Misse Wester, Puck and Vilma

What we had not considered before, is that there are other perspectives than the purely scientific. Most people tend to rely on the philosophical perspective, which makes it more difficult to respond with scientific facts. Misse brings up pesticides as another example compared to GMOs. She says “it can also be about pesticides, not only towards GMOs but all manipulation of what they see as reality”. But one fact that we are facing in the GMO debate today is that the wrong groups are debating each other, Misse explains. She says that the subsidization made by the EU can seem very unjust, due to how they divide the money regarding GMO and non-GMO crops, as well as who has the monopoly on pesticides. It becomes a economical question more than a question about engineering organisms, resulting in a flame war between EU farmers and researchers. But the real debate should not be between angry EU farmers and researchers, but politicians. The whole situation becomes infected, and it could be due to the clash between scientifically and philosophically based arguments.

However, if you compare the GMO debate with the immigration debate, it is not that big. This may become a problem for us within iGEM. If society with its individuals does not want to talk about it, how are we supposed to be able to make a safe and ethical project in synthetic biology?

“But do you think that the negativity around GMO can also have to do with ethics? Are they connected? Or does it have to do with the lack of knowledge?” Josephine asks the question that we’ve all been wondering about. Misse explains that GMO and ethics are intertwined, but it depends on who you ask. What is natural? We all have different views on the definition. And we do not have anywhere where we all can meet, professionals and other people. We all agree on what Misse says, but what makes the most impact on us is when she says that we all do not have to agree with each other.

It might seem as the most obvious thing, but the thing is that most of us have, at some point in life, tried to persuade another person that our beliefs are the right ones. Misse says that we do not have to agree with each other. “We can agree on that we all think differently”. She says that the people that want to have us think the same are the ones causing a risk. For you to understand what she means, take a company selling a self driving car as an example. They want all of us (or at least the majority) to think that the car is safe, otherwise they will not be able to introduce the car to the market.

Misse got us to understand that scientific arguments are not enough in the ongoing discussion in engineered and modified organisms. Most views are not based on knowledge, but on opinions. Communication must be based on this fact, but we also need to define society.

A big misconception is that society is referred to as a homogenous group. Society. However, we as individuals are far from the same. Misse says that we have to understand that it is in this way, in order to be able to address society. Not as a whole, but the different groups that are in the community. These groups can be gender, sex, age, religious beliefs, profession or ethnicity. It got us thinking questions of the kind “Do people in different groups want different things? Are people more affected by where they were born, or what decade they were born in?” rather than “What does society know about these matters, how do we make them understand?”

Most importantly, the work has to be transparent. According to Misse, we need to be prepared to take the consequences of our project. “Find out what those who react react on”. Misse explains that all people in society also have different situations that will influence their life situation, and that we also have to base our approach accordingly. Having worked a lot with environmentally friendly behavior, she has looked into how people behave in those situations. “A researcher has explained to me, a professor from England, that you can divide the population into a normal distribution with 12,5% on either side of the tails, and 75% in the middle. 75% want to make things right, and can do it right. 12,5% on the left side want to do right, but do not have the resources to do right. And then there are the 12,5% on the right hand side with individuals that have the opportunity to do right, but choose not to. But maybe we can ignore them and instead think about how we can use our resources to make it better for the 75% in the middle”.

Thus, the question that we are left with in the end is what we do for those who want to make a change, and can make a change. How do we make them join us in the open discussion about synthetic research?