Podcast: One couple’s journey to vaccine skepticism; Partisan COVID science; Neophobia and GMOs

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Credit: Elaine Thompson/AP
How do well-meaning, educated parents become vaccine skeptics? One hypothetical couple’s journey may shed light on the process. Some scientists are becoming increasingly partisan in their discussions of COVID science, which may be fueling distrust of evidence-based conclusions about the pandemic. GMO denialism could be a knee-jerk reaction caused by our inherent fear of new things: neophobia.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

The temptation to put down anti-vaxx parents as conspiracy theorists and simpletons is strong; it’s also the worst possible approach to changing their minds about controversial science. Considering that these moms and dads are generally well educated and truly worried about their kids, a better approach may be to recognize the legitimacy of their concerns to establish a relationship, then address their misplaced vaccine fears.

The pandemic may be the best example of what happens when researchers and educators on opposing sides of a scientific issue take explicitly partisan stances. Some scientific institutions and publications, for example, endorsed political candidates and parties in the recent election, promoting them as the “pro-science” side in the dispute over how to best mitigate COVID-19. This raises a potential problem, notes Scientific American’s Matt Motta. “When scientists advocate for their interests in an expressly political way, they risk further polarizing public opinion about research.”

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So the question is this: are scientists appropriately advancing their cause by getting explicitly political, or are they undermining efforts to promote evidence-based thinking?

It appears that evolution has wired us to distrust new things. Novel ideas and behaviors, according to this theory, often posed mortal threats to our ancestors, so they developed a heightened skepticism of anything that challenged their understanding of the world. Once a reasonable survival instinct, this so-called “neophobia” now prompts us to quickly dismiss new information that could lead to important innovations that make life better. Does this phenomenon help explain why so many people deny the importance of biotech crops and others food technologies?

Related article:  Podcast: Geneticist Kevin Folta responds after anti-biotech social media attacks led to his exclusion from Florida gardening event

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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