Powerful rhetoric can overlook important details

eva headshotBroad generalizations can provide for powerful rhetoric. Whether discussing a moonshot to cure cancer or the merits of genetically modified foods, the strongest statements lump distinct things together — the dozens of types of cancer, for instance, or the myriad crops that scientists have genetically altered. But broad statements about the value or risks from genetically modified organisms are pretty much useless, Rachel Ehrenberg reports. The details matter.

More than two-thirds of foods sold in the United States involve some GM product, estimates suggest. Years of study have revealed little reason for concern about human health. Other research shows that, ecologically, certain GMOs can have less than desirable impacts. But many effects can be predicted and worked around. GM salmon, for example, run the risk of interbreeding with native salmon. That’s why they are being raised in tanks far from salmon streams. Strict regulation of each proposed GM product — examining the details of its impacts — can be an effective way to deal with the potential risks. Another detail to consider in assessing risks is how they compare with benefits, such as the potential to increase large numbers of people’s food supplies and improve their health.

Food is a place where science meets society; another science-society interface is the world’s need for cheap, abundant energy. Alan Boyle takes readers on a tour of private sector efforts to develop nuclear fusion for generating electricity. These approaches offer alternatives to the much larger government-funded fusion projects, which have yet to succeed. But fusion’s promise is huge, so it’s worth risking a few failures. Only by actually trying to get the technology to work will researchers know if it’s viable or not.

Keeping it simple is a good strategy for communicating complex ideas — an important principle guiding our reporting at Science News. But we always walk the line between simplifying for understanding and losing so much detail that the essence of the story is muddled. That’s something to keep in mind when talking about GMOs, or nuclear fusion, or even a singular cure for cancer.

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