What Shiva can Teach us about Science Communication

posted in: Commentary | 36

We can learn a lot about people from not just what they say, but how they choose to say it.  Communication scholars claim that something like 75% of meaning comes from non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues are not just gestures, they come from our rate, volume, proximity and our willingness to absorb feedback.  Many suggest that the non-verbals communicate true intention, and that these signals may not always match the words.

When we critically evaluate the non-verbal performance of Dr.Vandana Shiva on China’s CCTV, (beginning at 23:00 min) we learn a lot about the person. This video is a MUST WATCH.  Portrayed by her supporters as a kind-hearted and gentle defender of the downtrodden and the environment, we see her true colors. It is not just her words, but the way she chooses to say them. We can analyze her communication style and rhetoric and draw some important conclusions.

If you want to learn how NOT to discuss biotech, watch Shiva closely. Nobody learns anything from an angry steamroller.

The discussion was about biotechnology, particularly the interface between biotech and China’s policies. China is a massive importer of GM soy and corn.  However, activists have made amazing headway in tarnishing the reputation of a technology that Chinese scientists are poised to dominate. Anecdotally, there are literally thousands of potential products, from disease-resistant rice to improved corn, that Chinese laboratories are set to release.

Back to Shiva.  The host was aware of the limited time for the conversation and she asked specific questions.  Rather than answer the questions directly, Shiva took the opportunity to grandstand, speaking loudly and angrily over the host while other guests sat quietly. She blatantly ignored the host’s requests for order and was abrasive and disrespectful.

Aspects to Note

She dominates a conversation.  There is an angry arrogance that comes off from the first moments at 27:20.  From 27:50 to 28:50 she loudly ignores the host and and attempts to control the flow of what is designed to be a discussion.  The host even had to reign her in, stating, “We’re not having a shouting competition Ms. Shiva…”

The camera actually pulled off of her to a wide shot of the stage to at least take the focus away from her domineering.

She does not answer the question.   The host even asks her to specifically answer a question about if we need to carefully consider all forms of genetic improvement.  Shiva goes into a rant on long-laid-to-rest claims about antibiotic resistance and viral promoters, never answering the question.

Emphasis on fear building.   Note the hard emphasis on “toxin” when discussing Bt.  Of course, we know that this protein is not toxic to non-targets, including most insects, but for her agenda she must install fear by manufacturing risk using key buzzwords.  She also claims that there is no testing or regulation, which is patently false.

She plays to the myth and conspiracy.  Not only does she lay on the monarch butterfly canard, she claims that independent scientists are “being silenced”.  She raises Pusztai and Seralini as examples of scientists that were silenced, ignoring of course that nobody else has replicated their work, and the scientific community notes those authors as less than credible.


What can we learn about Shiva?   She’s a hard-line activist that is not afraid to distort facts, play to old myths and rely on conspiratorial thinking.  She will raise her voice when she can’t elevate her argument.   She avoids the questions, and comes off as an agenda-driven politician more than a knowledgeable scientist.  That’s not surprising, because she actually is a politician and not a knowledgeable scientist.

What can we learn as biotech communicators?    Soft is persuasive.  To win hearts and minds we can’t come off as hard and angry.   We must always respect the forum.  It is important to actually end a sentence, and speak directly to the question.

Most of all, it is not only the  words that have meaning.  It is also how the words are presented.  As scientists, our ideas flow better if we are a kind conduit.

Editor’s Note: originally published at Illumination.

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Kevin is a plant scientist. Kevin stepped down from the board of directors of Biology Fortified in 2018, and no longer contributes to the Biofortified Blog. This article remains published for archival purposes.