Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - January 30, 2004:
* Winning Public Confidence - What Can Scientists Do?
....Responses from Hoban, McHughen, Conko, Apel, Anderson and Benson
* Harmonizing AgBiotech Debate for African Farmers
* Biotech and Food Systems in Developing Countries
* Public Sector in India Takes Lead in GM Research
* Bioengineered Forest: Challenges for Science and Society
* Biotech Helps Create a Healthier French Fry
* Block that Headline!
* Patent Proliferation May Slow AgBiotech Progress
* Is the World Social Forum relevant?
.. No! - WSF Activists are Selling Dreams as Reality
..Yes! - WSF is a Celebration of Citizen Power
* The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Winning Public Confidence - What Can Scientists Do?
- From Prakash
Yesterday, I posted following questions from Prof. Chris Leaver of Oxford
University as a prelude to an upcoming London meeting on "How Can We Trust
Science?" http://www.rigb.org and invited readers to send in suggestions:
1. Do you believe that some journalist or media are only interested in the
story at the expense of the validity of the underpinning science (or
2 How do we weigh/balance a scientists views and opinions against an
activists (paid?) views?
3. What is the way forward to increase trust in science (which is probably
one of the main options for continuation of life on this planet).
4. How can scientists and media communicators work together in any
meaningful way to improve and contribute to public understanding of
science as a basis for future informed political decision making?
Some excellent responses were received (below). Readers may also look at
a collection of articles and postings related to science communication
posted earlier at
From Tom Hoban
People in modern society generally take science and technology for
granted... until something goes wrong. Overall people throughout the
industrialized and developing countries report an appreciation for the
things technology provides. There are certainly groups and individuals
that are concerned about the risks and social impacts of technology (which
all applications of technology have, even if scientists don't study them).
Since critics tend to have a mission they are more likely to find ways for
their voices to be heard. It really turns into a struggle for the
attention and opinion among special interests on all sides (of which
organized science is clearly one of the most powerful.) Most people focus
on their immediate needs and watch TV (at least in the US), not concerning
themselves with science and tech. They hardly care about most public
issues - except when it hits home (like in food or water).
Scientists must do a better job explaining why they do what they do. Not
the details on the science, but the motivations and benefits. Also need to
acknowledge any risks and impacts that exist. People's concerns go beyond
technical risk of human safety. Many of the most complex and contentious
issues involve equity, control, choice, and the regulatory
system. Activists are critical of industry and government (who are seen as
locked into a military-industrial-consumer complex.). Science becomes a
symbol of globalization and corporate control (which does get the
attention of people who think and care about public issues.) There are
some legitimate concerns that the profit motive is over-riding the public
interest. This is becoming most apparent at the university
level. Scientists' credibility is inversely related to their perceived
ties to business interests.
Public confidence in science is directly related to their confidence in
government regulations. Many observers believe the Second Bush regime has
been favoring corporate interests over the public interests in all realms
(so why would we expect any better for science and tech.) The timing of
the WTO case was a major mistake that has further alienated the rest of
the world (seen as retaliation against the French over Iraq invasion and
promoting US corporate interest.)
So public confidence in most parts of the world will be shaped by the
extent to which science is linked to American interests. The fact that an
American company (Monsanto) is the chief symbol of global bioscience
causes the credibility of that science to be significantly lower
(especially given all the mistakes that company has made over the years).
Scientists are too quick to blame the media for their inability or
unwillingness to communicate in an understandable and credible fashion.
Most journalists have little background in specific scientific fields -
especially at local papers and broadcast stations. Many have no time or
interest to learn. They want bottom line, black-white answers to complex
questions. The media report things that are controversial and that will
engage their audience. They also do want to present all sides of a story.
If the activists are more eloquent and prepared, they will be
featured. Scientist are not very often able to communicate to the media in
a manner and format that is useful.
Hope this helps. I will certainly like to see a whole dialogue on this
captured on AgBioView.
From Alan McHughen
The concern is not that science isn’t trusted, it is that scientists
aren't trusted, especially those scientists taking money and/or
instructions (overtly or covertly) from private interests.
At a bizarre and somewhat heated public 'debate' in Vancouver a couple of
years ago, characterized by a boisterous crowd shouting down anything at
all positive about science, one young woman got to the microphone and,
slowly, calmly and sincerely expressed her concern that maybe "the whole
scientific paradigm is wrong". Another prominent activist said "there are
more truths than those proposed by science". So, yes, there are some who
don't believe in science.
Most people do - they believe and trust the scientifically sound
prediction that their airplane will fly, that antibiotics will cure their
infection, and that science can create weapons of mass destruction. But
those same people will distrust scientists proffering a political opinion
such as we’ve heard in the not-too-distant past: "We have BSE under
control; the meat is perfectly safe to eat". Now they're hearing "GM is a
precise science, GM food is perfectly safe to eat".
From Greg Conko
I think what Tom and Alan have written above is useful -- though I think
the exact nature of the relationship between trust in government oversight
and trust in regulated technologies is highly nuanced and poorly
understood. But that's an argument for another day. I'll only add that the
question of "trust" is hugely important.
A political scientist at the University of Chicago named Howard Margolis
has contributed the insight that trust -- or rather, what makes people
gain or lose trust in others -- is a two-way street. Not only must we
trust those providing information for us to believe, but if the
information provided to us seems implausible (whether it is true or not)
then we may lose trust in those who provided it. That is, if the public
believes rDNA to be inherently dangerous, then anyone telling them it
isn't will be deemed untrustworthy, and the public will then find some
justification for that judgment. So, as we have seen, academic scientists
with no financial ties to the industry can easily be labeled
"representatives of the industry," because that allows the public to
justify their lack of trust in an otherwise trustworthy source of
That obviously poses quite a problem for our ability to change peoples'
minds. But the likeliest way to do so is to first understand what the
specific audience believes and why they believe it, and try to relate with
them on that point. There's an old slogan in political campaigns that
people don't care what you know until they know that you care.
To gain a foot hold of trust, communicators must first
empathize/sympathize with the audience. The second step is to acknowledge
that what you're saying may seem counter-intuitive, which gives the
dubious listener an opportunity to continue trusting the communicator in
the face of information that challenges pre-conceived notions. (As an
aside, I suspect this is why apostates are such effective communicators:
They previously believed proposition A and now believe Not-A. So, people
are more willing to consider their new opinion.)
To put this in terms of trust in science, it means that scientists must
be willing to relate their findings and beliefs to ordinary attitudes held
by the public. Say not only that we found X, but why the finding is
relevant and how it fits into the structure of the audience's received
wisdom about a certain topic.
From Andrew Apel:
> Do you believe that some journalist or media are deliberately only
> interested in the story at the expense of the science(or 'current truth').
When it comes to the "popular media," the purpose of journalism is to
create a product that sells. The newspapers are supposed to fly off the
stands and millions are supposed to cluster around their televisions in
breathless anticipation. If a journalist can accomplish this, revenues
increase. Revenues gained from sensationalism will always be maximized to
a limit; a seller of information must preserve the appearance of
credibility. So long as that appearance survives, anything is permissible.
This problem will not go away.
> How do we weigh/balance a scientists views and opinions against an
> activists(paid?) views?
They cannot be weighed or balanced. The job of a scientist is to discover
facts about the physical world. The "views" of others not in the
scientific community are irrelevant. But, see the remarks about
sensationalism and the media above.
> What is the way forward to increase trust in science(which is probably
> one of the main options for continuation of life on this planet).
Trust in science is trust in facts, or at least, trust in the best facts
available. People who don't trust facts, who must necessarily be a
minority, should be locked up and appropriately medicated.
> How can scientists and communicators work together in any meaningful
> way to improve and contribute to public understanding of science as a
> basis for future informed political decision making?
If facts are not good enough, you have to hand things over to the
communicators and suffer the consequences.
I'm a cynic.
From Sheila M. Anderson
Presentations demand skills as detailed as scientific research.
Discoveries are in the details. So, I believe it's useful to study what
works, gets your positive attention, and apply lessons where possible.
There are devices that create attention. Questions can be compelling. Ask
"did you know?" or "have you tried" or "would you like" to introduce the
subject. Show photographs. Show crops eaten by insects, and crops not
eaten. Show historical context - what looks like nodules on a twig turned
out to be corn. Talk about the benefits - less pesticide use in the field
translates into safer food on the table. Does longer shelf life mean less
loss of nutrition? If so, say so!
Present the message to match the audience. If the audience is not
scientific, don't talk in scientific terms. People are curious, but not
looking for a lecture, in most audiences or in the media, so get to the
Also, keep in mind that most reporters are given assignments by editors.
The way the assignments are framed have much to do with the contents. Some
slant is inevitable, and may be unintentional, simply because the job of
editor is to determine what is newsworthy. Some do the job better than
Always, SHOW THE FOOD. Nothing is as effective as a close up, larger than
life, photograph of something that looks so good, you might want to bite
into it. There is a great void of photographs, of food, available and
being enjoyed by people who look just like your audience. People select
food by how it looks, initially, then by smell. So, showing pictures can
create an enormous advantage - and change the focus from fear to
From Andy Benson
Now for the "non-scientist summary overview" - which actually was jointly
developed by Harvard School of Public Health and the International Food
Information Council (IFIC) with input from scientists, the food sector,
consumer organizations and the media.
First one over-riding point. Over 95% of the world's population
(non-scientific observation but hopefully somewhere in the ball-park)
aren't scientists and THEY are ultimately the judge of what's trustworthy
and what isn't, what science is accepted and what isn't.
So I think its fair to say that to reach and influence public opinion
about science you have to extend way beyond the scientific community.
Outreach, partnering, networking, considered communications that address
not only what you want to say but that also show due consideration for the
interests and sensibilities of all major stakeholders, are essential
elements. And let's not forget that for almost all of us "the public"
(however you define that) is usually the major stakeholder that ultimately
determines success or failure.
And whether we are just talking in elite scientific circles, or addressing
a conference, talking to the press, or coordinating a public information
program, we are all "communicators" and we need to do that clearly,
effectively, and with due attention to how what we are saying will likely
play out in the wider public domain.
To examine these issues and assist the communications process, the Harvard
School of Public Health and the International Food Information Council
Foundation convened an advisory group of leading experts. Following the
initial meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, a series of eight round tables
was held around the country involving more than 60 other nutrition
researchers, food scientists, journal editors, university press officers,
broadcast and print reporters, consumer groups, and food industry
Based on input from the participants at these meetings, a set of guiding
principles for the communication of emerging science was developed. The
first draft of the guidelines was subsequently reviewed by a second
meeting of advisory group members and revised, and the final draft
circulated to roundtable participants prior to publication. At the heart
of these principles is the belief that food-related science can be
effectively communicated in ways that serve both public understanding and
the objectives of the communicators.
The "Guidelines" were developed to address the question of communicating
emerging science on nutrition, food safety and health but I think they
would also apply to many if not most areas of science-based communication.
The Guidelines were first published by Oxford University Press in the
Journal of National Cancer Institute (February 4, 1998, Volume 90, Number
3) and subsequently summarized in the Journal of the American Medical
Association. General guidelines were developed for all parties in the
communications process and I've cut and pasted these below for your use.
Specific Guidelines were also developed for scientists, editors,
journalists, industry, consumer and other interest groups and can be
In short, I'm suggesting that considered (and considerate) communications
are a vital underpinning that, when applied consistently, transparently
and fairly, will build and maintain trust.
As another resource, there is a very good article "Managing Threats to
Scientific Credibility" by Robert Gravani and Gilbert Leveille in the
January 2004 edition of Food Technology. See:
Personal empathy is always a great asset - it shows a link with and a
connection to your audience - but this can also be shown in a TV interview
or to some extent in a written communication if you don't have the
opportunity to serenade your audience with a guitar.
Harmonizing the Agricultural Biotechnology Debate for the Benefit of
- Segenet Kelemu, et al, African Journal of Biotechnology, 2(11):
394-416, Nov. 2003
The intense debate over agricultural biotechnology is at once fascinating,
confusing and disappointing. It is complicated by issues of ethical,
moral, socio-economic, political, philosophical and scientific import. Its
vocal champions exaggerate their claims of biotechnology as saviour of the
poor hungry, while, equally loudly, its opponents declare it as the
doomsday devil of agriculture.
Sandwiched between these two camps is the rest of the public, either
absorbed or indifferent. Biotechnology issues specific to the African
public must include crop and animal productivity, food security,
alleviation of poverty and gender equity, and must exclude political
considerations. Food its availability are basic human rights issues -- for
people without food, everything else is insignificant.
Although we should discuss and challenge new technologies and their
products, bringing agricultural biotechnology debate into food aid for
Africa where millions are faced with life-or-death situations is
irresponsible. Agricultural biotechnology promises the impoverished
African a means improve food security and reduce pressures on the
environment, provided the perceived risks associated with the technology
This paper attempts to harmonize the debate, and examine the potential
benefits and risks that agricultural biotechnology brings to African
Download full paper at
Scroll to bottom and click
Biotechnology and Food Systems in Developing Countries
- C.P Timmer, Journal of Nutrition. 133(11): 3319- 3322. 2003.
Even in a world with adequate food supplies in global markets, which is
the situation today, biotechnology offers important opportunities to
developing countries in four domains.
First, many agronomically hostile or degraded environments require major
scientific breakthroughs to become productive agricultural systems. Few of
these breakthroughs are likely to be achieved through traditional breeding
approaches. Second, biofortification offers the promise of greater
quantities and human availabilities of micronutrients from traditional
staple foods, with obvious nutritional gains for poor consumers,
especially their children. Third, many high yielding agricultural systems
are approaching their agronomic potential.
Radically new technologies will be required to sustain productivity growth
in these systems, and only modern genetic technology offers this hope.
Finally, many cropping systems use large quantities of chemical inputs,
such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that can be unhealthy for
people and soils alike.
Biotechnology offers the potential to reduce the need for these inputs in
economically and environmentally sustainable ways. Applying these new
technologies to society's basic foods raises obvious concerns for both
human and ecological health. For some, these concerns have become outright
fear, and this has mobilized a backlash against genetically modified foods
in any form. These concerns (and fears) must be addressed carefully and
rationally so that the public understands the risks (which are not zero)
and benefits (which might be enormous).
Only the scientific community has the expertise and credibility to build
this public understanding.
Public Sector in India Takes Lead in GM Research
- Crop Biotech Update, Jan. 30, 2004 http://www.isaaa.org/kc
Over 20 public academic and research institutions in India are doing
transgenic research and application on 16 crops. In contrast, seven
private companies are doing research on 10 crops. This was reported by M.
Sharma, K.S. Charak, and T.V. Ramanaiah of the Department of Biotechnology
in the journal Current Science and cited in the monograph on “Biosafety
Issues Related to Transgenic Crops” prepared by the Biotech Consortium
India Limited in Delhi, India.
Academic institutions include the Assam Agricultural University, Delhi
University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Madurai Kamraj University, and
the University of Agricultural Sciences Bangalore. Among the research
institutions are the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Central Rice
Research Insitute, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Indian
Institute of Horticultural Research, and the International Crop Research
Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics. These institutes are doing genetically
modified (GM) research on chickpea, rice, cotton, potato, tobacco,
mustard, tomato, brinjal, wheat, cauliflower, cabbage, banana, and
brassica. Twelve of these institutions are doing GM research on rice with
such traits as: stress tolerance, herbicide tolerance, and insect and pest
The Bioengineered Forest: Challenges for Science and Society
- Steven H. Strauss and H.D. Bradshaw, eds; Resources for the Future,
January 2004, 256 pages, hardcover, ISBN 1-891853-71-6; $45.00
Bioengineering offers many opportunities for forestry. Bioengineered trees
can produce more valuable wood, help reclaim contaminated land, improve
the health of urban trees, and facilitate pest management. But the
ecological risks are complex, and public views about the ethical
acceptability of genetic engineering vary widely.
Unprecedented in its breath and diversity, The Bioengineered Forest begins
with a survey of the range of forestry practices for which the use of
biotechnologies might be appropriate. Scholars representing diverse
academic perspectives and viewpoints examine in depth the economic and
environmental rationale for forest biotechnologies, and the current state
of technology with respect to gene performance and safety. They consider
the contemporary political and economic environment in which
bioengineering is being introduced, and where the "genomic revolution"
might take forestry and genetic engineering in the future.
The Bioengineered Forest presents compelling arguments in favor of genetic
engineering. Just as powerfully, it examines the significant technical and
legal hurdles involved in genetic engineering, undesirable environmental
and social consequences that might result from its misapplication, and the
risks for businesses that are looking for near-term benefits.
Biotechnology Helps Create a Healthier French Fry
- Whybiotech.com, January 2004
'Genetically enhanced potatoes absorb less oil when cooking.'
Fueled by increased health concerns, consumers are passing on the
once-ubiquitous side order of french fries in record numbers. Meanwhile,
fast-food restaurants -- the biggest purveyors of french fry fare -- are
looking for more healthy alternatives for their customers.
A genetically enhanced potato that absorbs less oil when fried could help
create healthier french fries and healthier consumers. Researchers have
developed a genetically enhanced potato with up to nearly two-thirds more
starch than ordinary potatoes. The increased starch content increases the
potatoes' density so they fry crisp without absorbing as much oil as their
less-dense counterparts. The same technology could be used to create
lower-fat potato chips as well.
By inserting a gene into potatoes that improves the conversion of sucrose,
or sugar, into starch, the starch content of potatoes has been increased
by between 30 percent 2 and 60 percent. Increasing the starch content
reduces the moisture in potatoes, which means less oil is taken up by
potatoes when they are cooked. That makes for a healthier food product.
And it also reduces cooking costs.
French fry manufacturers reported that 2003 marked the biggest sales
decline in 15 years -- down 5 percent for wholesale and 10 percent for
retail in 2002 -- although they still reign as the United States' most
popular side dish by a wide margin. That drop-off follows a continuing
decrease since 2000 in french fry sales at restaurants. Sales were down
3.3 percent in 2002 and 2.9 percent in 2001, according to a 2003 U.S.
Potato Board report, "Get the Hard Facts About Our Changing French-Fry
Market." When consumers were asked why they were eating fewer french
fries, 72 percent said they were concerned about their diet or health.
"Consumers widely perceive fries to be 'bad for you,'" according to the
report. "Although they like fries, consumers are eating fewer of them
because of nutrition and health concerns."
Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California
system-wide biotechnology research and education program, said researchers
still have to perfect the even distribution of starch granules in the
enhanced potatoes, but that the higher-starch potatoes had huge potential
for improving the nutritional value of fast-food french fries. "A meeting
of potato and oil is a major part of what they are doing," she said. "The
ability to have a healthful product could have a significant impact on the
In addition to the healthful benefits of a potato that absorbs less
cooking oil, biotechnology is also being used to produce oil that is
better for you. A University of Nebraska researcher has developed a
soybean -- whose oil makes up more than 80 percent of all the edible oil
consumed in the United States 7 -- that is higher in healthy
mono-unsaturated fats that remain stable when used in cooking at high
Stable mono-unsaturated fats are important for cooking because they don't
need to be hydrogenated to make them more stable, as is required with oils
that are high in polyunsaturated fats such as olive and some canola oils.
Hydrogenation describes a process where hydrogen atoms are added to oil to
prevent it from turning rancid and to keep it stable at room temperature.
This is done with some types of peanut butter, for example, to keep it a
consistent texture at room temperature; other, non-hydrogenated peanut
butter must be kept in the refrigerator and must be stirred to mix the oil
with the peanuts.
The problem with hydrogenated vegetable oils is that they can produce
harmful trans fats, which can raise bad cholesterol levels and actually
lower good cholesterol in the body. As obesity becomes a greater public
health problem around the world -- and in the United States in particular
-- pressure is growing to provide more healthful foods.
About 300,000 people die each year in the United States as a result of
obesity or being overweight -- only smoking kills more Americans.
Britain's Health Development Agency reports 15 percent of 15-year-olds and
8.5 percent of 6-year-olds are classified obese.9 In addition, a 1998
study revealed nearly half of all Canadians were overweight.
Newell-McGloughlin said increased consumer awareness of the healthy
benefits of an improved biotech potato, coupled with increased consumer
desire for healthy foods, could create demand for genetically enhanced
"With a quality output characteristic, then I think you have a real
potential selling point for the consumer" she said. "And when the consumer
wants it, the producer makes it available."
References at http://www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=4262
Block that Headline!
- Thomas R. DeGregori
The following BBC story illustrates the dangers of over interpreting a
news headline. The headline is technically correct when it refers to "less
meat" since it does not say ""no meat." The article opens by stressing
less meat and then, using the passive voice repeats some standard
vegetarian claims that the reader might take as fact. Given prevailing
vegetarian mythology, this is likely to be the interpretation of many who
skim the article and don't finish it and end up thinking that another
scientific study supports their life choice.
"It has been suggested that eating a balanced vegetarian diet could reduce
the risk of developing certain cancers and heart disease, cut cholesterol
levels and the chances of suffering from kidney and gall stones,
diet-related diabetes and high blood pressure."
However, it is not until almost the end that one gets the real news,
namely that vegan and vegetarian diets are less healthy than those that
include moderate amounts of meat.
"But completely avoiding meat was not the healthiest diet, the researchers
For every 100 deaths among vegans, there were 66 among vegetarians and 60
among occasional meat eaters."
see article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2838083.stm
Less meat 'means a longer life'
Patent Proliferation May Slow AgBiotech Progress
- AgBiotechNet, Jan 28, 2004 http://www.agbiotechnet.com
A tendency for organizations to chop their developed technology into
smaller bits for patenting may have a negative effect on the progress of
agricultural biotechnology, according to a study of US filings and
citations covering 1985-2000. The overall amount of patentable technology
in agbiotech is increasing, however.
Steven Buccola at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics,
Oregon State University and Yin Xia at the Department of Agricultural
Economics; University of Missouri-Columbia describe the situation in a
paper in the Review of Agricultural Economics.
"According to the citation analysis in our paper, the overall amount of
agbiotech innovation has been rising, even though the mean quality per
patent has declined, either for what we call a technological or a
strategic reason," say Buccola and Yin. " Regardless of reason, we can
safely conclude that patented technologies have on average become smaller
in agricultural biotechnology."
Both the public and the private sector have on average been filing smaller
(narrower) patent claims, note Buccola and Xia. "However, their reasons
for doing so may differ", point out the pair. "Being more profit-oriented
than a university, a private firm likely is filing smaller claims more for
strategic reasons, i.e., to build a protective thicket against court
challenges to an innovation it considers especially important.
However, universities appear to take a different line. "There is little
evidence that universities pursue such protective thicket strategies,
although a few university scientists have indicated to us that they think
in that direction," say Buccola and Xia. "Bear in mind that university
patents refer, on average, to more basic innovations than do their
private-sector counterparts, and more-basic patents tend to have wider
implications than do more-applied patents. The trend toward smaller
patents in universities may reflect a university trend toward more applied
research, stimulated by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act permitting public-sector
institutions to hold patents."
The filing of smaller, lower quality patents may have implications for R&D
and licensing in the agbiotech sector. "The main implication is that it is
becoming increasingly difficult for a scientist or technician to obtain
permission to use anyone else’s technology in his/her laboratory," say
Buccola and Xia. "A common situation is that, once a bioresearch project
is completed, the scientist finds she has used 40 or 50 patented
technologies (e.g. in the form of plasmid vectors adopted for use in
inserting genetic material into a target organism). Before she patents her
own result, she therefore must negotiate, sometimes with up to 10 or 15
patent-holders, for the use of those 40 to 50 patented technologies."
This creates a major holdup for researchers. "The result is a form of
gridlock: scientists have difficulty using each others’ discoveries," say
Buccola and Xia. "Putting it another way, patent proliferation boosts the
transaction costs of patent licensing, hindering knowledge flow and hence
Based on the upward trend in the total value of agbiotech patents, "the
sector appears to be healthy overall," say Buccola and Xia. "The only
apparent downside is the patent proliferation issue."
The paper, The Rate of Progress in Agricultural Biotechnology, by Steven
Buccola and Yin Xia, appears in the Review of Agricultural Economics 26, 1
doi: 10.1111/j.1467 -9353.2003.00158.x (Steven T.
'Face-Off: Is the World Social Forum relevant?'
WSF Activists are Selling Dreams as Reality
- Barun Mitra, The Economic Times (India), Jan. 30, 2004
It was quite appropriate that the WSF was held in Bombay: Bollywood dream
merchants are mostly honest about the nature of their products -- to
create an illusion, as far removed from reality as possible. WSF activists
seek to sell their illusion as reality.
In this the WSF is either dishonest about the true nature of their
products or have become completely blind to the real world.
They are ardent critics of global corporate brands, yet the icons of
protest movements, from Che Guevara to Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy, have
all become logos. They have mastered modern communication technologies to
create their global networks, yet do not want modern technologies to reach
the masses. They are masters at marketing themselves, yet spare no efforts
to restrict the market. They thrive on donated capital, particularly
foreign capital, yet oppose anyone else having access to capital. They are
against profit motive, yet have perfected the art of generating profits
out of nothing.
They freely trade and network with each other, yet want to deny people the
same freedoms, ignoring that poverty is caused by too little, and not too
much, trade. They talk of significance of government in social sectors
like education and health, yet ignore that it is government intervention
and subsidies that have severely restricted access of the poor to such
basic services -- education, health, water or electricity, while at the
same time making private investment in these areas almost impossible.
WSF activists are the new empire builders who have no qualms about
profiting out of poverty. The greater the poverty, bigger the scare in
society, the greater the opportunity to expand their own empire. Not
surprisingly, for all their avowed concerns for the poor, they hold the
poor in utter contempt. They do not recognise the right of the poor to
decide for themselves.
For all its inner contradictions, WSF protest lobbies help us cherish our
freedoms. While they do not respect freedom of others, without freedom
there can be no protest. So when these products of globalisation protest
against globalisation, the rest of us can only appreciate the strength and
resiliency of freedom -- political and economic. (The author is Director
of Liberty Institute, New Delhi)
The WSF is a Celebration of Citizen Power
- Vandana Shiva, The Economic Times (India), Jan. 30, 2004
There are two levels of the movement to build an alternative to the world
according to Davos Man. First is the everyday movement of democracy,
ecology, workers rights, farmers rights.
People mobilise institutions, parliaments and democratic structures in
their countries to ensure that ordinary people are not trampled upon by
corporate giants who take away agriculture and livelihood from farmers and
reduce farming to commodity-trade. They also take water and privatise it
or reduce biodiversity as in basmati, wheat and neem. These everyday
battles are strategic because they shape alternatives in real societies in
These movements brought WTO to a halt in Seattle and Cancun. However,
people have to be strategically organised on issues, whether these are
intellectual property rights, water, medicines, livelihood or crops. We
are saying that water cannot be owned as a commodity and private property;
that intellectual property cannot take medicine out of the reach of people
and seeds beyond the reach of farmers.
Then, there is a Kumbh Mela of these movements, the World Social Forum,
started in Brazil by local government and the Brazilian Social Movement.
In India, it was organised by a spectrum of NGOs, social movements, trade
movements and so on. The WSF is not a platform where the movement is
building, but a platform for expressions of diversity and solidarity. It’s
the place to develop strategies to defend peoples' rights and holding
within limits corporate rights. Those strategic platforms are the real
ones. What came out of the WSF? The answer should be in terms of what came
out in building solidarity through diversity. Even a tiny group from
Jharkhand should feel that they had a platform for themselves.
The WSF is relevant not not because component members make their strategic
plans there. The WSF is a celebration of citizen power and its message is
that life is not just about trade. That is why it is called the World
Social Forum and not the World Economic Forum. Life is beyond trade and
profit. That message came through. (The author is Director, Research
Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology)
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
by Steven Pinker, Amazon.com price $11.20, Paperback, 528 pages, Penguin,
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading experts on
language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and its moral,
emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and
insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a
doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our
common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective
analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our
understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting
calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and
mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of
human nature based on science and common sense.
"The Blank Slate deserves all the praise it has received. Steven Pinker
presents an extremely eloquent, well reasoned, comprehensive and
entertaining renunciation of the holy trinity of social science - the
blank slate, noble savage, and ghost in the machine; ideologies that have
created serious obstacles to the application of modern scientific research
in genetics, biology and psychology to a better understanding of who we
The more widely this book is read, the sooner we can increase the
effectiveness with which we understand and tackle real personal and social
problems from a fact-based and positive perspective of human nature. The
book is academically very strong and the arguments are well presented and
convincing, so much so that this book will doubtless receive future credit
for putting the study of human nature back onto the social science agenda.
Steven Pinker may surprise you, perhaps provoke you but he will definitely
educate you, entertain you and leave you thinking about human nature in a
very new way."
"This book is a must read for any young student. I say this because if you
are a young student, anywhere in the western world, you will no doubt be
soon indoctrinated into a world-view that is based primarily on the very
ideas that this book refutes with a mountain of scientific evidence. It
just might save you from a great deal of anguish, lost time and wasted