July 09, 2015

Bridging the scientist-consumer gap: An interview with Jude Capper


By Jacquelyn Prestegaard, ASAS Science Communications Intern 

Dr. Jude Capper is an adjunct professor at Washington State University. She is also the author of a popular blog, BoviDiva, where she debunks agricultural misconceptions and discusses other related topics on a regular basis. We recently interviewed Capper for a feature about her upcoming article in Animal Frontiers, which she coauthored with Janeal Yancey. The full article, “Communicating animal science to the general public,” will be featured in July’s issue of Animal Frontiers.

— — —

The Animal Frontiers article suggests to “not be afraid to offer information & opinions outside of our master’s or Ph.D. area…when blogging or on social media you do not necessarily represent your company or university.” Do you believe scientists’ universities would welcome seeing their employees’ opinions online?

I think we do have to be careful in how we voice our opinions, depending whether we are speaking from personal experience, as a matter of scientific fact or on behalf of the University. Commenting as a parent is obviously very different, and is usually aimed at a different audience than posting as an expert in fatty acid metabolism or the Provost of a University. Obviously it’s important to follow your employment guidelines (e.g. some organizations may insist that press interviews are conducted through the public relations department or that social media posts may only be undertaken outside work hours) but I believe that as long as we are truthful, respectful, sensible, and post with integrity, the positives will outweigh the negatives.


Ag bloggers and opinionists are often very good at what they do and offer valid facts and solid arguments. However, do you believe that the average consumer actually sees their work? Are “agvocates” just talking to other “agvocates,” seeing as how the article mentions, “people…have little interest in seeking out dialogue with those who do not share the same opinion”?

Unfortunately that is often the case – let’s face it, not many lay-people read the agricultural media or tweet about mastitis in dairy cows. However, we have the potential to reach huge audiences through media sites such as Facebook where our “friends” aren’t just those who work in agriculture but also encompass relatives, friends from school, casual acquaintances etc. By sharing more about what we do, and stepping out of our agricultural comfort zone to join social media groups based on shared interests (e.g. fitness, parenting, food etc.) we can initiate conversations with people from very different walks of life and help to influence their opinions.


How can these bloggers be noticed on a larger platform besides solely in the world of agriculture?

We have to appeal to the bigger audience by emphasizing our shared interests with others, and advertising our blogs between networks. Writing a technical blog post on hormones in beef may reach our agricultural friends, but we need to write for the consumer, to understand their questions and first form an emotional connection with them. Consider the lay-person’s immediate response when reading: “As a parent of two young children…” or “As an active runner/hiker/somebody who’s always concerned about my diet…” compared to: “Science shows that beef does not contain appreciable amounts of hormones…” The first two act to form a bond with the reader (assuming a shared interest) whereas the latter is only likely to be interesting to somebody who’s looking for something about hormones. Blogging is great, but without an audience it’s just shouting in the dark. Keep blogs short, understandable, focused and with a title that will draw people in and make them want to read more. Then advertise it on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks – you never know who will link to it!


In a world of self-proclaimed food investigators such as Vani Hari (i.e. “Food Babe”), how can consumers know what is true science and what is not? Should they trust anyone who doesn’t have credentials in agriculture?

Consumers don’t – simple as that. But then again, do any of us know instantly whether a commentator online is a true expert in tropical forest biodiversity or gender politics in dentistry? No. As with any topic, it’s important to ask the right questions, look at the answers given, research the sources and don’t just accept the answers given as automatically truthful (or not). People with agricultural credentials can be just as biased, confused or inaccurate as anybody else – although some would argue that only people who work in agriculture are entitled to have an opinion or to speak about agriculture, it is a very narrow view. However, I do wish there was some kind of internet police to prevent people (regardless of profession) from willfully promoting inaccurate information, especially for personal or professional gain.


Have you ever communicated with an audience not fluent in animal agriculture? If so, what steps did you take to prepare speaking to your target audience and how were you received?

Yes, I’ve spoken to high-school students, rotary clubs, dieticians, friends and relatives without any background in agriculture, media and various other groups. Most of the conversations went surprisingly well, although had a tendency to get focused into a particular issue of consumer concern – not always the one that I wished to focus on. I never “dumb-down” to speak to audiences, but always try to think from their perspective – what questions will they have and what’s the most effective way to explain, for example, growth-promoting technologies or GMO crops to an audience who won’t be familiar with beef cattle nutrition and growth or crop yields and herbicide use.


Beside yourself, do you know of any animal scientists who actively blog, speak, etc.?

Yes indeed – too many to list here but as a primer, it’s worth looking up Dairy Carrie, Mom at the Meat Counter (meat science), Cami Ryan, Farming America, Agriculture Proud and Hurd Health (sadly no longer updated, but still a great information resource).


Do you have any additional comments on this article or on communication in animal science in general?

It’s very tempting to think that our roles are fulfilled by publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and obtaining tenure (or the next promotion), but consider your wider role. If you are only writing for the academic audience, are you really making a difference and promoting agriculture? If not – what are you going to do today to achieve change?


Capper and Yancey’s article in this month’s issue of Animal Frontiers will be available online soon.