Saturday, January 24, 2015

Threat Context

The Volokh Conspiracy blog has the news that in an Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics survey, 80% of respondents would support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” Now, for a lot of people, this is the time to cue the laugh track, but “Conspiracy” author Ilya Somin is more charitable, noting that both political and scientific ignorance are not primarily the result of stupidity, but rather rational reactions to the sheer amount of information available.

But given this, I’m not sure that I agree with his statement that: “The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realize that it is contained in almost all food.” I suspect that what’s really going on is that people who answered the survey didn’t, for the most part, make the connection between deoxyribonucleic acid as they’d encountered the term in the past, and as they were encountering it right at that moment. The term “deoxyribonucleic acid” is not part of my daily lexicon - I suspect that this blog post honestly represents the first time that I’ve used it in a sentence since the mid-1980s. And I’m pretty sure that if you stopped me on the street in the middle of searching Downtown Seattle for something photogenic, I couldn’t repeat it back to you, if you asked me what the initialism “DNA” stood for in biology. I’m not a chemist or a geneticist, and it’s not a term that comes up all that much in youth care, social work or software. And so it doesn’t surprise me that a large number of people, when encountering the term outside of it’s usual context, assumed that it was “some dangerous chemical inserted by greedy corporations for their own nefarious purposes.”

Because that context, of corporations being willing to use opaque processes and procedures to boost profitability at the direct expense of public health and safety, is very usual. Professor Somin leaves out a third area of public rational ignorance, and that’s what goes on behind the doors of corporate boardrooms (or, more likely, legal departments). While that body of knowledge may be just as vast and complicated as government or science, for most of us, the real problem is that it’s hidden. Somin’s warning against “excessive and unnecessary warning labels on food products could confuse consumers, and divert their limited attention from real dangers,” is well-taken. But for many people, what agricultural and food businesses may by using as ingredients in foods (and the nefarious purposes of those same businesses) are the real, and hidden, dangers that they are attempting to turning their finite attention to.

It can be misleading to presume that everyone understand as term, even one that spends a lot of time in the public eye, in the same way that we do. When encountered outside of their usual context, the correct understanding of terms that most of us use only rarely likely falls outside of the realm of the instrumentally useful. Given vast body of knowledge that is the human experience, I think that we underestimate the ease with which we can catch people out with gotchas that they’re unprepared for in the moment. Public ignorance may be both pervasive and dangerous, but seeing it under every rock will not help us combat it.

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