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Date: Wed, 31 Aug 2005 15:38:09 -0700 (PDT) From: Zara Josephs Subject: Genetically Modified Language
AUTHOR: Cook, Guy TITLE: Genetically Modified Language SUBTITLE: The discourse of arguments for GM crops and food PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2004
Zara Josephs, Research biologist
The author begins with a very interesting metaphor, in which he assigns similar roles to language and a windowpane: In the same way as one might look through a pane of glass without focusing on the pane itself, he writes, language can serve as a transparent medium for conveying information about the world outside. Cook points out that, conversely, just as glass may become smudged, the windowpane of language can become so besmirched or warped as to deform images beyond what is said, and that language is sometimes used purposely to distort what it purports to describe. The topic of genetically modified ("GM") crops and foods is inherently international, so that its development is necessarily world news. The author makes the point that since GM crop technology constitutes a subject of such profound importance for all life, attention to its linguistic and logical detail is important.
The aim of the book is to critically analyse the GM debate, with a unique focus on the language used in that debate. From this linguistic angle, the author aspires to clarify the nature of the debate, providing an increased understanding that would act as a useful complement to the reader's scientific knowledge. Cook describes a number of linguistic devices for misrepresenting facts such as are regularly employed by powerful individuals and organizations to sway public opinion and shows that, against a background where GM jargon is pervasive and has become familiar, fact disruptions often pass unchallenged and even unnoticed.
The book is divided into three parts, each with a specific focus. In Part I ('The speakers'), one chapter is dedicated to each of four categories of GM debate participants: politicians, scientists, journalists and companies. In Part II ('The spoken about'), attention shifts to the subject of the debate, and to the way in which linguistic choices form people's perspective of GM technology. In Part III ('The spoken to') the author discusses the last, and notionally the most powerful, category of participant - the 'general public' - and their reaction to the role assigned to them by 'the speakers.'
PART I: THE SPEAKERS Chapter 1. Politicians: Here, the author quotes from speeches given by three public figures - the US President Bush; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; and Prince Charles. He reveals how the mechanism of engagement follows a similar pattern in all three interlocutors. For example, they all discuss the medical benefits to be derived from GM technology; the increased food production and reduced environmental damage to be expected from its application; and a historical precedent for intervention in Nature, with GM technology presented as nothing new but, rather, a more evolved phase of mankind's age-old intervention in Nature. All these themes appear in all three speeches, in essence. However, different styles of argument are employed: While President Bush speaks with a strong single voice, the British Prime Minister and Prince Charles (albeit on opposite sides of the debate) use the same rhetorical technique of invoking the words and opinions of others. Cook discusses how these different strategies reflect the strength of the opposition in the two countries. He also convincingly analyses unusual aspects of Prince Charles's speech.
Chapter 2: Scientists: Lord May, the President of the Royal Society, is a leading member of the scientific community. Cook shows how, as quoted here, Lord May draws on similar analogies (initial resistance to vaccination, or to Galileo's ideas) as Blair - argument by loose association. As with Mr Blair, Lord May focuses less on GM and more on people's reaction thereto. The audience is given an arbitrary choice: either be for GM or join the forces of 'mindless ignorance' and 'violent intolerance.' Cook outlines three distinct people categories, and stereotypes them in striking ways: The public are portrayed as semantically passive, emotional not rational, and vulnerable to manipulation. Scientists tend to be arrogant, inclined to teach rather than to take advice from members of the public. Opponents (such as non- governmental organisations and the press), argue unscientifically, with emotive language, loose associations and the selective use of examples.
Chapter 3 - Journalists: In this chapter, Cook discusses how, although the word 'Press' seems to denote a homogenous group, newspapers are actually very different from each other, containing many different types of discourse with a variety of forms and functions. He also discusses how the GM debate has undermined traditional divisions by collecting conservative and radical opinion under the same banner, and the possibility that this phenomenon indicates a more general global trend, with GM as a key catalyst. As with the politicians, the themes of vaccination and Galileo's work are shown to recur in the language of the journalists.
Chapter 4 - Companies: The similarities and differences in the online manifestos of supermarkets, biotech companies are analysed in this chapter. The rationale for their differential use of language is explained in depth.
PART II: THE SPOKEN ABOUT Chapter 5 - Science and language: The author discusses here how science is invoked in the GM debate, and describes some differences between scientific and ordinary uses of language. For example, he shows how constant and exclusive appeals to science by the 'major players' can be used to distract audiences from the deeper issues of values concerning the natural world, social goals and political decision making. He discusses the difficulty of defining 'science,' and the many pitfalls surrounding the notion of 'scientific language.'
Chapter 6 - Key phrases: This chapter examines some frequently used but seldom scrutinized phrases employed in arguments over GM, and the values they reflect. Terms such as 'sound science,' 'Frankenstein foods' and 'interfering with nature' are exhaustively analysed. Cook uses these phrases in context to back his refutation of the recurrent argument that genetic engineering is the same kind of intervention as traditional breeding.
Chapter 7 - Metaphors and comparisons: The focus in this chapter is on some of the metaphors and similes through which arguments for GM are expressed, such as 'battle against disease' and 'GM warriors.' The author argues that through the use of such rhetorical devices, the GM field has become rife with the themes of warfare, terrorism, intercultural conflict and religious difference.
PART III: THE SPOKEN TO Chapter 8 - Public politics: In the final chapter, Cook tries to narrow down the term 'the general public.' He further argues that the public to whom all these arguments are addressed often do not recognize the image which has been assigned them by the various categories of speakers. Contrary to the position in which the pro-GM lobby would place them, they are often against GM and the people who advocate it, and the ways in which they do so. Their objection is often political, with dislike of the undemocratic way in which decisions are made. Cook presents the results of his focus group research which reveal that, despite the rhetorical whirlwind to which they have been exposed, 'the public' have not bought the argument for GM.
'Genetically modified plants will change the nature of life on Earth.' Both proponents and opponents of GM technology would agree fully with this statement. Their interpretations, however, will be very different. For proponents, GM will provide incalculable benefits to humanity. Opponents argue that worldwide disruption would ensue from its application. By critically examining the language being used, Cook has taken the debate onto a new level. His primary aim is to demonstrate how some GM arguments use language to mislead hearers. He also aims to help the reader understand, through the example of the GM debate, general mechanism whereby opinion can become polarised among individuals, cultures and nations - a process that has global consequences.
The conceptual framework in which Cook outlines his ideas is that of a communicative triangle comprising speaker, listener and topic of discussion - GM in this case. The words, phrases and themes which drive the GM debate are analysed in detail. The author also describes his research involving automated interrogation of annotated databanks, to reveal the recurrent themes in general discourse which are analysed in the book. The contribution of his extensive focus group research is also presented. A particularly interesting concept new to this reviewer was the method and applications of automated corpus analysis, in which databanks containing millions of texts can be rapidly searched for information about word usage, collocations and connotations - analogous to the gene and protein bank searches of the Human Genome Mapping Project Resource Centre (HGMP-RC).
Cook alludes to the fact that language, like crops, is being distorted in many ways. He points out that, while a pun might be apparent in the book's title, at a deeper level 'Genetically modified language' offers an additional layer of meaning whereby the title can be seen to encapsulate the essential principles around which the book is based. To wit: an insistence on the language of science as the only appropriate vehicle for GM discussions restricts the range of linguistic options in a manner analogous to the homogenous 'monocultures' that GM farming would create. "Language," he writes, "like nature, is being used in an unnatural way," "and it is the truth of this comparison which justifies the title of the book."
The author's stated aim was to educate the reader as to how language can be used to manipulate opinion. Not only was this aim was achieved, but also the author's elegant prose, clear formatting and clear definitions of linguistic or scientific jargon make the book accessible to a wide spectrum of readers. At the same time, the extensive notes and bibliography make it a useful resource for the discourse analyst.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
The reviewer is a research biologist with interests in DNA linguistics, cognitive psychology, generative syntax and government phonology. She also tutors science and language at the high school level.