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Review of  Genetically Modified Language

Reviewer: Zara Josephs
Book Title: Genetically Modified Language
Book Author: Guy Cook
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 16.2550

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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.'

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.

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

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.

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

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.


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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0415314674
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 176
Prices: U.S. $ 78.95

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0415314682
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 176
Prices: U.S. $ 22.95