Saturday , April 1 2023

Regarding the safety of GMOs, the deepest opponents understand the least


Science is our most effective way to understand the natural world, but society does not always understand what it brings. Researchers have tried to find out why for decades there is a difference between science and society, and the efforts of the United States, which are becoming more and more important, seem more and more discomfort with the facts as a whole. In some cases, this is a clear culture: politics and religion have a strong influence on whether people accept science about climate change and development.

It would be easy to think that the dispute over GMO food is similar. After all, GMOs are often associated with liberal granola eaters. But several surveys show that this is not the case, as the right side has the same unpleasant sensations as GMOs, as is the case on the left. Now, a new study Natural Human Behavior suggests an alternative explanation: resistance to GMOs is greatest among those who know the smallest genetics, but is convinced that they are experts. As the authors claim, "Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most."

Knowledge of science

A team of US and Canadian researchers began with a demographically diverse 500 US population that answered a number of questions. Participants were asked to evaluate their GMO concerns and oppose it. As noted in previous surveys, there was a lot of confusion in biotechnology; over 90 percent of respondents reported concerns, and a similar figure was against it. However, this opposition did not coincide with the political lines: "there was no significant difference between the opposition extremists among the liberals themselves, the moderate and the conservatives themselves."

So what's going on? The researchers also included questions that looked at how well participants understood science in general and genetics in particular. And there was a very clear pattern here: "As the opposition's extremism increases, scientific knowledge is diminishing." In other words, the people who are most against GMOs were least aware of science and, in particular, genetics.

In addition to evaluating scientific knowledge, the participants evaluated their own. And something funny happened here. At lower levels of resistance to GMOs, people were quite well understood how well they understood science. But as the opposition came to the extreme territories, things changed: people began to exaggerate their level of knowledge. Again, the authors wrote it very briefly: "For the extremists, knowing less, it is about thinking that knows more."

International progress

In order to repeat this conclusion and extend its scope, researchers conducted a similar survey in the US, Germany and France. The results of the US were the same, and the researchers also saw that genetic skills are decreasing because of the delay in GMO opposition. But there was a subtle difference. In two European countries, the difference between actual knowledge and self-esteem is no longer related to the opposition force. In other words, the strongest GMO opponents in Germany and France may not be well aware of genetics, but at least a little more realistic about their lack of knowledge.

To get to know Europe, researchers turned to the Eurobarometer survey of the European Commission, which includes interviews with 1,000 people in each EU country. In 20 of the 25 countries for which data were available, knowledge of genetics and the strength of the GMO opposition was anti-correlated – as one grew and the other decreased. Unfortunately, Eurobarometer data do not include self-assessed knowledge of genetics, so we cannot see how often Europeans suffer from Dunning-Kruger issues.

The researchers gathered some loose ends, repeating the experiment, changing the order of the questions (which had no effect). They also admitted that some opponents do not like GMOs because there are issues such as the behavior of agricultural societies or the risk of crop monoculture, and none of them is directly related to the scientific consensus that GMO crops are safe. So they asked people about what their biggest issue with GMOs was. Overall, about 75 percent of the population chose health and safety concerns, and this percentage increased with opposition strength. This seems to be a problem with the understanding of science.

The researchers also repeated the study in the United States, while changing GMOs and replacing the issue with gene therapy. Here, opposition levels were much lower, but the same relationship existed between self-esteemed genetic knowledge, actual genetic knowledge and opposition power. Those who liked gene therapy also had the lowest genetic skills, but thought they knew a lot about this.


There is lot of is going on here, so let's take some time to unpack it. First of all, it would be easy to look at one of the eye-catching formulations on paper and write everything that is an example of Dunning-Kruger in action: the people who know the least are convinced that they understand the subject and lead their opposition. But this model was only clear in the US; In Europe, people seemed more aware of how little they knew, but were still satisfied with GMOs despite this knowledge.

In addition, the study does not include cause and effect problems at all. The lack of genetic knowledge may have allowed people to detain misinformation about GMOs. However, it might also be that the desire to demonize GMOs has allowed people to hold suspicious statements about the underlying technology that led to their misinformation. Finally, it is not possible to exclude a factor based on both issues not yet identified.

But if a causal relationship begins with a lack of knowledge against the opposition, it should have verifiable consequences – improving human genetic skills should reduce their belief that GMOs are unsafe. And the test could possibly be done simply by taking a few pre- and post-survey opinions of some college biology majors.

If it turns out, it could be an exception. There are several topics – climate change, evolution, arms security rules – where the objections to scientific discoveries are mostly cultural issues. In any case, the typical view of the scientific community on these issues is that if we simply educate the public to better understand their understanding, they would come to objective evidence. This is called the "deficit model" of public awareness, in which education is offered as its solution.

But when the opposition is culture, education is usually meaningless. In the case of climate change, education really worsens the situation, because people with better scientific understanding are more confident about the rejection of the information they do not want to believe. So if the GMO opposition came to the point where the deficit model is accurate and provides a useful solution, that would be news.

However, in the big picture, these discussions start at home, as is the big mistake we think about public understanding of science. Defenders of different approaches to raising public awareness tend to present this issue as monoliths and can therefore be solved with one solution (usually what they support). However, this study and previous studies point to how we have a whole collection of public misunderstandings that have different causes, dynamics and possible solutions.

There will be no silver bullets that kill the public with scientific information. And that will mean a long struggle to identify and address a set of issues that are different from the problem.

Natural Human Behavior, 2019. DOI: 10.1038 / s41562-018-0520-3 (About DOI).

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