Posted: December 3, 2015

Focusing on the science behind an issue isn’t always enough. The poster on my wall reflects a core motivation for what we do.

We believe that all people should have access to science-based education.I recently attended a seminar on communication challenges surrounding controversial issues—GMOs, organics, climate change, vaccines, antibiotics, biotech—a long list of complex issues that directly affect our health and the food we put on our tables.

Faculty and staff members in more than half of our departments have been preparing for a possible outbreak of avian influenza in Pennsylvania. Labs have increased their capacity to run detection tests. Scientists are determining the most effective disposal methods for dead birds. Others are developing specific information for farmers, truckers, veterinarians, and others on the firing line, should the worst happen.

But focusing on the science behind an issue isn't always enough. 

A poster over my desk reads: “We believe that all people should have access to science-based education." I put it there because it reflects a core motivation for what we do. It's also a reminder to myself, especially on days that seem to devolve into chaos, to not lose focus on what's important in my own position when circumstance sometimes makes science difficult to discern, to remember that my team must always convey science accurately to our readers, especially when the topic is of high concern, such as avian flu.

In a world of 30-second sound bites, science can be easily distorted or become part of a polarized conversation—where things are simplified into “pro" or “con" arguments.

Who has time to sort out the details of what's true and what isn't?

Consider how correlation can be used to mislead or direct perception of an issue. A correlation could represent a statistical relationship between two or more elements on a timeline that show a tendency to vary together even though no direct connection is made between them otherwise. For instance, a study showed a 98 percent correlation between the rise in glyphosate use (the active ingredient in Roundup) and the incidence of autism—a correlation used to indict GMOs. A quick look at a graphic would suggest a relationship. Another comparison, between the rise in organic food consumption and incidence of autism, shows a 99 percent correlation. Does that mean organic food causes autism?

Both examples highlight the challenge we face as informed consumers and how vital it is that we can identify misinformation and misdirection.

The poster over my desk reminds me of the college's responsibility to share research and information, so each of us can make our own informed decisions—regardless of what they are. As editor, I strive to make decisions consistent with the message on the poster for Penn State Ag Science, and I see our faculty and staff members striving to do the same.

We may not always agree on the conclusions or path ahead, but I believe the college family—alumni, friends, faculty members, staff members, partners, and students—shares a satisfaction in pursuing the truth hidden among the issues. We know what's at stake.

Effectively communicating science is one of the most important things we can do to contribute to future generations.

—Steve Williams, Editor