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social scientists, but even more importantly the numbers generated by farmers in their fields. Those numbers are made not to count by introducing contradictory num- bers; the rhetorical premise is “where there is smoke there must be fire.” Pseudo-precision is a concession in form to the growing hegemony of science-based policy in the global “GMO debate.” As in attacks on the accu- mulating evidence on climate change and the role of human activity therein, a rear-guard action is meant to justify delay and caution. In practice, pseudo-precision is meant to keep controversy alive by preventing clo- sure.
Interests in Contentious Narratives
This article has suggested several propositions from close empirical observation of India. Much disinforma- tion has been diffused, with political effects (Herring, 2008b). Colleagues sometimes reject my conclusion on the Bt cotton controversy with disbelief: how could such smart people get it so wrong? Why are there so many like Najma Sadeque willing to believe the worst about anything transgenic?
One could simply conclude that misinformation, spin cycles, misdirection, and dubious numbers are fun- damental to political praxis. Publication of the number of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq leant credibil- ity to the narrative of threat before the number turned out to be zero. But it seems that there are conditions in transnational advocacy networks around the GMO that select for diffusion of some kinds of knowledge over others, reciprocally. Misinformation has to be generated in the first place, requiring some labor on someone’s part; and it has to be accepted into a global chain of knowledge claims. The Bt cotton case in India suggests that one element critical to this dynamic is the existence of hinges between local NGOs and INGOs. Opposition to GMOs in particular depends on Janus-faced broker- age influenced by (1) local advocacy network character- istics and (2) international coalition dynamics.
Advocacy Network Characteristics and Knowledge Flow
Social relations in advocacy networks in India are highly asymmetric and hierarchical, both in terms of tra- ditional social relations (class and standing, or “caste”) and modern stratifications (education, language). Social relations within networks are meaningfully character- ized as neta-chamcha—or leader-sycophant (with much harsher connotations). Chamchas (literally “spoons”) do not disagree with netas, but rather say what they think
netas want to hear. What netas want to hear is confirma- tion of the larger mobilization narrative (e.g., catastro- phes from GMOs). This social asymmetry and incentive structure jointly produce communicative incapacity within networks. Together these factors prevent con- frontation with empirical findings even within the national network and simultaneously reinforce diffusion of a consistent narrative to the international advocacy network. GM Watch learns that there are GMO catastro- phes in India from the Deccan Development Society. These networks of course have deep interests in promul- gating their findings to journalists so as to broaden com- munication. Through these flows, a reciprocal authenticity dynamic develops: ex-colonial powers and their press authenticate global narratives for local net- works; local reports legitimated by indigeneity provide confirmation for global narratives. The concreteness of local stories finds credibility where abstract numbers fail.
Communicative incapacity is reinforced by two additional characteristics of NGOs on the ground: the distance of middle-class activists from agriculture and agriculturalists on the one hand, and the competition for recognition and resources on the other. Urban cultural bias resists crediting farmer skill and agency. For exam- ple, the rural cottage-industry production and diffusion of dozens of illegal transgenic cotton varieties under the radar of Delhi and Monsanto implies a very different view of the farmer than that of the gullible and hapless peasant. The international oppositional narrative selects for supine peasants and monopolistic multinational cor- porations with patents. Class matters; the radical free- dom of movement leaders from the dull compulsion of economic facts means there is no penalty for getting it wrong. Farmers operate in precisely the obverse of these conditions: getting seed choice wrong could be disas- trous. In the NGO business, competition selects for extreme claims. Extreme claims facilitate being heard in the global cacophony. Volker Heins’ book Nongovern- mental Organizations in International Society (2008) is meaningfully sub-titled Struggles for Recognition. A nuanced claim about variable results across different Bt hybrids will not be recognized in global advocacy fora; “complete failure” and dead sheep are certain to gain recognition and circulation. Finally, extreme claims are made more credible by the celebration of local knowl- edge that dovetails with global skepticism about Enlightenment values—and science in particular—that undergirds the epistemology of protest.
In the contention business, there are authenticity rents to be garnered—some large, some meager—for
Herring — Persistent Narratives: Why is the "Failure of Bt Cotton in India" Story Still with Us?