People Who Are Most Fearful Of Genetically Modified Foods Think They Know The Most About Them, But Actually Know The Least

Screenshot 2019-02-07 at 17.04.52.png
via Fernbach et al, 2019

By Jesse Singal

There are few subjects where a larger gap exists between public opinion and expert opinion than people’s views on foods, like corn or wheat, that have been genetically manipulated to, for example, increase crop yields or bolster pest-resistance. Experts generally view so-called GM foods as totally safe to consume, while the public is suspicious of them — and this divide is massive. One Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 per cent of the American public believed GM foods are safe to eat, compared with 88 per cent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (public attitudes are similarly negative in the UK, with a 2014 poll finding that 40 per cent of adults felt the government should not promote GM foods, compared with 22 per cent in favour, and the rest unsure).

Unlike some subjects where this divide between layperson and expert opinion is heavily mediated by politics, such as climate change caused by human activity — in the U.S. and elsewhere, conservatives are far less likely to believe in it than are liberals and climate scientists — the GM-food divide doesn’t really have a political dimension: Liberals, centrists, and conservatives are all about equally likely to have what are, from the point of view of experts, unfounded fears about the safety of GM foods.

To better understand the source of these fears, a team led by Philip M. Fernbach, a professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, surveyed nationally representative samples in America, Germany and France, and other online participants, about their views on both GM foods and climate change, tested their knowledge on these subjects by asking them to answer factual questions, and also asked them to gauge their perceived level of knowledge on those subjects.

The headline finding from the study, published as a letter in Nature Human Behaviour, is neatly summed up by its title: “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most.” That is, on average, the more vehemently a given respondent said they were opposed to GM foods, the fewer questions about the subject they answered accurately, and the higher they rated their own knowledge.

This can be seen as a subject-specific version of the Dunning-Kruger effect, or people’s tendency to be ignorant about their own ignorance. The finding held across the samples in different countries (though in France, the zoomed-out finding that supporters of GM foods knew more about the subject than opponents wasn’t statistically significant, as it was elsewhere):

Screenshot 2019-02-07 17.09.03.png
via Fernbach et al, 2019

These are dispiriting findings. The people who know the least think they know the most, and suffice it to say some of them are likely taking an active part in spreading overblown fears about GM foods, worsening the problem. (One possible explanation for the results is that people with the strongest opposition to GM foods are concerned about matters unrelated to scientific knowledge, such as being opposed for moral reasons. However, the researchers looked into this and found that “73% of respondents cited food safety/health concerns as their reason for opposition…Extreme opponents were actually more likely to cite food safety/health concerns than moderates and the main results replicate when we restrict analysis to the subset of participants citing food safety/health concerns.”)

Things get even more interesting upon examining Fernbach et al’s findings with regard to anthropogenic climate change, knowledge, and perceived knowledge. Because there, while the researchers found the same general pattern, it wasn’t statistically significant: “Contrary to GM foods and gene therapy we found no significant effects of knowledge—objective or self-assessed—on extremity of climate change attitudes.”

Why might that be? The researchers think it’s because climate change has become politicised whereas GM foods have not. “The null effect [for climate change] has been attributed to ‘cultural cognition,’” the authors write, referring to a concept most commonly associated with Dan Kahan of Yale. “When an issue becomes polarized, people’s attitudes reflect affiliation with their ideological group and not individual knowledge. That is, individuals subscribe to whatever their in-group believes, regardless of how much they know about the issue.”

Moreover, on this and other politicised topics, extreme ideology might sap people’s ability to truly integrate new information, and recognise the merit of counter-arguments, in a manner that nudges their beliefs. While the “traditional view in the public understanding of scientific literature is that public attitudes that run counter to the scientific consensus reflect a knowledge deficit,” in reality this view, itself, appears to be inaccurate, at least when it comes to politically charged issues: As people get more knowledgeable, their beliefs on such controversies don’t necessarily change in the predictable manner one would expect if there were a direct tie between knowledge and belief unmediated by ideology. That might be because strong ideological beliefs cause people to simply filter and interpret new information in a manner which reinforces those beliefs. “Okay, based on this research it does look like the planet is warming, but that’s part of a natural cycle that has nothing to do with humans.”

As Fernbach and his colleagues note at the end of their paper, even for less-politicised issues like GM foods, their findings suggest that improving public awareness of basic scientific consequences might be more complex than previously realised, since those holding onto the most severe forms of misinformation are also least likely to seek out more facts or be open to hearing the other side. “This suggests that a prerequisite to changing people’s views through education may be getting them to first appreciate the gaps in their knowledge.” Which is a whole other task — and a very important one.

Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most

Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at BPS Research Digest and New York Magazine, and he publishes his own newsletter featuring behavioral-science-talk. He is also working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

11 thoughts on “People Who Are Most Fearful Of Genetically Modified Foods Think They Know The Most About Them, But Actually Know The Least”

  1. I dont agree! The people who are the best at their area of expertise, are much more aware of how much day don’t know. So if people state that thay know everything, they probably don’t know as much as thay think. I know that GM have been tested. But the crucial thing we cannot know is what happens to the person’s health over time. How will your body be affected after 20,30,40 years of consuming GM food.

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    1. Milan: You misunderstand the results of the study. People who know the least think they know the most. But people who know the most are better at estimating their knowledge. Essentially, everyone thinks they know it all, but a lot of people are wrong and don’t realize it. Your comment leaves out the reality that the actual experts really do know their stuff.

      You can disagree, but you’re doing it despite a team doing some good research and putting their work out there. That is, you can disagree in the same way you can deny that Antarctica exists. Never having seen it, you rely on other people gathering knowledge. I bet there are experts you believe; take a good hard look at which ones and see if there are any commonalities. You might find that the experts you believe in have a track record of being total bullshit.

      As for your concern, we do have 20+ years of data on GM foods in the market. Not 30+, sure.

      All this is just me pointing out why your argument is incorrect.

      I actually agree with your conclusion, but for a more specific reason. The traditional process of cross-breeding and grafting etc. to produce domesticated plants and animals from wild varieties is excellent. We really did a great job on things like grain, fruit, vegetables, animals. Built into those DNA sets is a lot of error-correction that we don’t understand yet, and genes interrelate in still-mysterious ways. If you get two horses to breed and the result is a live birth without any obvious defects, you’re on the right track. But the artificial method of directly editing genes, while powerful, may be error-prone. We just don’t understand it. Do you think the government would let someone put planes in the sky or cars on the road if the manufacturer didn’t know how they worked?

      So, I think the process should have been much more careful, with GM research being done in sealed labs until we knew that we had it right.

      Secondarily, this would give time so that legislation could catch up to prevent abuses like big agricultural corps forcing a farmer to pay because their seeds migrated from a neighbor’s field into his. Because agri research has traditionally been done in universities, I don’t see a problem with all GM intellectual property reverting to public domain. Do we need to encourage Monsanto at al. to enter the business by giving them IP rights over the GM organism? Seems like the research would get done regardless, and just as well if not better, because the university would have no market incentive to release a product known to be harmful but which will generate good profits. The universities aren’t making profits from it, but could suffer if they release harmful products.

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      1. For those who come after, there’s a potential pitfall in my GM argument. If experts believe the food is safe, why shouldn’t I? My answer is, please load up the genetic code of whatever tomato variety you’re working on, and pick a totally random gene sequence. Do you know everything that sequence can affect if modified or removed? Do you know all other sequences that are dependent on it, and how they’ll behave if it’s modified or removed? Do you understand all of the outcomes of any arbitrary modification of that sequence?

        An electrical engineer, computer programmer, architect, or mechanic could answer “yes”. A chemist, maybe not so much in reality, but theoretically yes. A geneticist, never. The field is just very new.

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  3. It’s interesting that the experts who know so much about GM foods seem to consider every type of genetic modification to be equal, from Round Up Ready corn to farmed super salmon which may breed with wild populations. The premise that all genetic modification should be considered safe, because some seems to be, is ridiculous.

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