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Ten tips for exploring controversies

A list of ten tips that will help to evaluate reported controversies and enable you come to a balanced conclusion.

This week you’ve focused on one controversy, alternative proteins, but there are others you’ll be interested in researching. Here are ten things to bear in mind when exploring a food controversy yourself.

  1. Focus on evaluating all the facts that you can find out about a controversy. Consult authoritative, scientific sources (such as respected journals that publish peer-reviewed papers, like Nature, Science, The Lancet or PNAS – the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and many thousands of others), where vested interests are openly declared. Of course, the facts are frequently precisely what is in dispute, so seek out the balance of arguments in each case. For complex controversies – which many are – this can take a significant amount of your time and will need revising over the months and years, as all scientific knowledge is subject to challenge from new evidence.

  2. Throughout your attempts to understand the issues at stake, try to discriminate between facts and opinions or other anecdotal ‘evidence’. Is one party being economical with the truth? Conversely, establish the areas where you cannot be sure about what the facts are, or which facts should take precedence over others in explaining the controversy.

  3. Discover who the stakeholders are – who has a direct vested interest in how things are or in how things might turn out. Whose interests are being served by the argument presented? Also, try to understand who is more indirectly implicated? Take the time to understand their positions as clearly and sympathetically as you can. Avoid conspiracy theories and sensational characterisations.

  4. Try to establish what values might be at play in the controversy – is free speech implicated? Freedom of expression and association? The right to make one’s own choices in life? Virtually everything that is important to people reflects their value system, which should be taken seriously.

  5. Be aware that there are few yes-no answers or black-and-white issues. Be prepared to live with grey, inconclusive and contentious areas.

  6. A key idea to understand in relation to complex and emergent systems (like the global food system) is that any changes involve compromises and trade-offs. So think broadly, consider alternative explanations and possible solutions.

  7. Given that what we eat is often an integral part of our self-identity, health and psychological well-being, keep the discussion impersonal – don’t attack the messenger for his/her position or viewpoint. Instead try to understand where they’re coming from. But do respectfully challenge positions that seem to mask prejudice and bias – don’t worry, we all have these blind-spots and no-one likes it when they are pointed out.

  8. Try not let your personal preferences, emotions and sense of self-worth get tangled up in disagreements over the controversy, as this both raises the stakes and closes down on the chance for reasoned debate.

  9. Read carefully and listen respectfully, resisting the urge to jump in as soon as you can to get your point across.

  10. Be prepared to critically re-evaluate your own position when new evidence comes to light.

© EIT Food
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Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

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