Out with the Old, In with the New

Another year is almost gone. The world – and everything in it – is another year older. But is it also, as the saying goes, another year wiser?

It’s something I often wonder about when I’m out speaking at conferences, talking to the media, or even sharing thoughts and articles on Twitter. Are my messages, and those of other science communicators, getting through? Is the tide finally starting to shift in the public “war on science” that has developed over the past decade?

I often say that the biggest challenge the scientific community is facing in the coming years isn’t whether we can feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 or reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment; it’s communication. Better communication about science will be key to public acceptance and support from policy makers – and without that acceptance, none of the other work we do will matter.

At times, I feel disheartened. When I search “GMO” and the top search result is the Non-GMO Project, which takes consumers to a page that appears to offer “GMO Facts,” but actually contains considerable inaccurate and misleading information – well, it’s not surprising why some people are still confused about what to believe.

On the other hand, every time I look at my Twitter feed I see an explosion of well-written articles and powerful videos filled with compelling (and factually accurate) stories about all aspects of science and modern agriculture – and some of them are shared hundreds, even thousands of times! When I see this, I feel energized and proud at how much better we’re all getting at science communications…and I do believe it’s making an impact.

Last week I encountered another reason to be optimistic about the future; I went to watch Bill Nye “The Science Guy” speak to college students at Webster University in St. Louis. It was an incredible sight – hundreds of young people packed into a theater – applauding, cheering loudly, and lining up for an hour to ask questions about SCIENCE!

I realize that Bill Nye is a TV star and that much of the enthusiasm stemmed from their affection for him (they even asked him to run for president). But these students also displayed a keen interest in science and technology, asking serious questions on topics that ranged from CRISPR and cognitive dissonance to solar sails and sustainability. And they made it clear that they were sick of “fake news,” anti-science rhetoric, and fearmongering – and asked Bill when he thought it would all end.

Bill’s answer was interesting. Older people, he said, are more prone to cling to long-held ideology and may never be convinced to change their minds. But those people, he noted, will eventually “age out.”

That drew a big laugh from the crowd (this “older person” included), but as I looked around the room I realized there was some truth in what Bill was saying. These kids understood the scientific process. They didn’t need anyone to explain the importance of data-based evidence in decision-making. They laughed at the idea that anyone could deny the reality of climate change, or that vaccines have been anything but life-saving and beneficial. And whether that is due to “Generations Y and Z” being raised in the era of Twitter, or the era of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, or an era of renewed focus on STEM education – or something else entirely – I can’t say. But it was music to my ears.

I’m certainly not wishing for anyone to “age out” before their time. And I’m not giving up hope that my generation or the Gen Xers will wake up and put an end to the public tolerance for scientific misinformation about vaccines, or deceptive marketing practices surrounding the organic, GMO-free and natural supplement industries. I believe we should all continue to advocate for “facts not fear” and share the environmental benefits of modern agriculture whenever we can.

In fact, if you have time for some extra reading over the holiday season, I’ve linked some good articles about some commonly misunderstood facts below. Let’s keep sharing! Even if each retweeted article only reaches one person, we will continue to make progress.

It may take longer than I’d like – I might even age out myself before the day comes – but eventually, I believe reason will prevail. Seasons change, years go by, and even the most pervasive trends grow stale with time; out with the old and in with the new. After all, the college students of today will be the decision makers of tomorrow…and I just saw a few hundred who are determined to stand with science.

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