IFT17 exclusive

‘Food science’s top challenge: confirmation bias’

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 FoodManufacture.co.uk 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 FoodManufacture.co.uk 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. 

Related News

Delivering sustainable nutrition through new farming and manufacturing technologies is a key theme

Science role in food is ‘urgent’, claims tech body

Targeting GM technology first at pesticides, rather than food, has blighted its future, says Trace Sheehan

GM food: ‘where industry went wrong ...’

Young scientists are being put off starting careers in nutrition research

UK nutrition research faces ‘potential’ crisis

Campden BRI boss Professor Steven Walker sets out his vision on food science

Campden BRI boss thinks big on food science

Colin Dennis detected “increased passion to communicating the importance of science and innovation” at IFT17

IFT show highlights food science communication

Jon Poole: The IFST is co-operating ‘very well’ with its US equivalent

Food challenges are common globally: skills boss

Processed food debate panellists: (l to r) Tamar Haspel, historian Rachel Laudan, Yoni Freedhoff, Chris Mallett and Richard Black

Firms encouraged to ‘invest in healthier products’

The Food Expo Innovation Awards were dominated by food ingredients that exploited the clean labelling trend

Food innovation awards reflect clean-label trend

The IFT hopes the Food Evolution film will combat prejudices against GM technology

IFT film aims to ‘fight myths about food science’

Smart food factories are moving closer thanks to Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things

Smart food factories move even closer

Scientific views on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides is divided

Science must underpin regulation after Brexit

The IFST has set out three key priorities, Food science education, Sustainable food system and Brexit

IFST highlights its three food policy priorities

Related Products

See more related products

Submit a comment

Your comment has been saved

Post a comment

Please note that any information that you supply is protected by our Privacy and Cookie Policy. Access to all documents and request for further information are available to all users at no costs, In order to provide you with this free service, William Reed Business Media SAS does share your information with companies that have content on this site. When you access a document or request further information from this site, your information maybe shared with the owners of that document or information.