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Does Science Matter? It depends.

Stop with the science already! Using science to convince consumers of something is like trying to open a door before you’ve unlocked it.

Don’t get me wrong. The science that drives innovation in food and agriculture is more important than ever. Consider the stat recently cited by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue: to meet global demand, we’ll need to produce more food in the next 30 years than has been produced in the last 8,000. All the while, the daunting challenges of sustainability, food safety and nutrition persist.

Gaining acceptance for science is a very real challenge, too, particularly at a time when consumers are bombarded with conflicting studies and a history of contradictions. Remember when butter, eggs and coffee were bad for us? It’s hard to trust science when conclusions seem to change like the weather.

So, when does science matter? How do we communicate science in a way that’s trustworthy? Ironically, having good science is only one piece of this complex puzzle. In fact, making it the sole focus of your consumer conversations may actually backfire.

We’re not recommending disregarding science, but The Center for Food Integrity trust model shows us there are three drivers of trust and until each is accounted for, consumers will be much less accepting of science alone.

  1. Influential Others: Friends and family members as well as subject matter experts
  2. Competence: The technical skills, science and facts people use to solve challenges or capture opportunities
  3. Confidence: A values system that is shared between two people or groups of people

When influential others engage, the information shared is not created equal.

The research shows that when you showcase only competence, you will be three-to-five times less effective in earning trust than if you also demonstrate your values – along with your competence.

Stated differently, in earning trust, it’s at least three times more effective to talk about who you are, what you are committed to, and the greater good of the science than to only demonstrate your competence and talk about the facts.

In fact, when we’ve provided study participants with only scientific information on a controversial food topic like GMOs, without values, it further galvanized their opposition.

Science may tell us that we can create, grow or build something, but society is asking if we should. These are entirely different questions: can is about proof, and should is about permission. Just because we can doesn’t mean we’ve earned the right to do so. Showing that you share their values answers the should question.

So, does science matter? Undeniably yes. But it depends on the role it takes in your conversations. Think of science as a supporting character versus the starring role. You need it for the story to be meaningful and complete, but if you only see the supporting characters, you’ve not created a dialogue that will interest the public.

Start with values first. Then integrate the science. That’s when science matters to consumers.

When they realize your values are aligned with theirs on topics like food safety, animal care and environmental stewardship, then you have the ability to ask them if they’re interested in learning more about the technical information on an issue as personal as the food they feed their families. Permission first, proof later.

Roxi Beck
Director, The Center for Food Integrity