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‘Food science’s top challenge: confirmation bias’

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By Mike Stones+

Last updated on 30-Jun-2017 at 11:25 GMT2017-06-30T11:25:35Z

Two for truth: ‘Food Evolution’ film director Scott Hamilton Kennedy (right) and producer Trace Sheehan pictured at IFT17 in Las Vegas
Two for truth: ‘Food Evolution’ film director Scott Hamilton Kennedy (right) and producer Trace Sheehan pictured at IFT17 in Las Vegas

Food science’s top challenge is combating confirmation bias – people’s preference to accept information that confirms their pre-existing views – warns Oscar-nominated film director Scott Hamilton Kennedy.

Director of the film Food Evolution, which urges the case for science in the debate about food, Kennedy spoke exclusively to about how prejudice had “poisoned” the debate about food science and genetic modification (GM) and what food scientists could do to regain the public’s lost trust.

“What I learned in making the film, is that confirmation bias is a bitch. When we see evidence that only supports our world view, that’s poison.”

Kennedy believed much of the public’s loss of trust in food science stemmed from the involvement of big corporations in the food industry.

“They [the public] see big corporations as bad. Clearly, we know greed leads to terrible influence and terrible decision making. But that does not mean that every big is bad or every small is innocent and good. You have to get past the clichés to the truth.”

‘You have to get past clichés to truth’

Regaining public trust in food science for Kennedy relied on: “Communication, communication, communication. Stand up for the truth. If somebody is saying something that is full of crap, try to reset it. Ask for facts.”

‘The poison of confirmation bias’

“What I learned in making the film is that confirmation bias is a bitch. When we see evidence that only supports our world view, that’s poison.”

  • Scott Hamilton Kennedy

Another reason for public distrust of food science and the food industry was that some scientists didn’t work hard at communicate the facts. They believed their data should do that for him, he said. But data needed to be explained in ways that the public could understand.

“If confirmation bias is the poison, then the remedy is science and telling the truth. Be entertaining; be funny: I know that takes practise.”

Asked how confident he was that food scientists could restore the public’s lost trust in the agri-food industry, Kennedy said: “I’m a glass half full kind of person. It’s a win.

“You see it every day - even with all the cynicism. People trust science by getting in an airplane, getting in a car and in the food they eat.”

But he conceded he might be viewing the prospect of success with “rose-tinted glasses”.

Less hopeful was his partner in the film project – which was funded by the Institute of Food Technology (IFT), Food Evolution’s producer Trace Sheehan.

‘Am I optimistic? Not very’

“Am I optimistic? Not very,” said Sheehan. “Until we, as a society, become better educated about science and how it works, you’re going to be struggling [to regain lost public trust in science].”

The food industry has to connect with consumers’ values and not lead with the science, he said. “We’ve tried that for years and it hasn’t worked.”

But at least younger people were more receptive to the benefits of science than their parents, said Sheehan. “Our message [to base decision making on science] has resonated with a lot of young kids. Older people see corporations as the bad guys.”

The film producer and director spoke to at the IFT’s Annual Convention and Food Expo on Tuesday (June 27).

Meanwhile, watch out for more reports and video interviews from IFT17 next week.

‘Food Evolution’: a plea for science in the debate about food

The 90-minute feature film – Food Evolution – makes a passionate plea to base the debate about food science, with a particular focus on genetic modification (GM), on sound science rather than prejudice.

Directed by Oscar nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy and presented by US TV science star and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the film explores the myths and science surrounding GM technology and motives of opponents and supporters.

While funded by the Institute of Food Technology, the director was allowed full control of the film’s creative content. The film featured the views of anti-GM campaigners and scientists who believe the technology could combat world hunger and mitigate the impact of climate change. 

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