Genetically Modified Food Opponents Overestimate Their Knowledge, According to CU Researchers

January 15, 2019 GMT

People who most oppose genetically modified foods know the least about the science behind them, according to new research by University of Colorado scholars and researchers at other universities.

In a representative survey of U.S. residents, researchers measured three things: respondents’ attitudes about genetically modified foods, their scientific literacy, and their self-assessment of their knowledge on the topic. The researchers found that the more extreme a person’s opposition, the more likely they were to think they were knowledgeable about the subject but score lower on the scientific literacy component.

Philip Fernbach is a CU marketing professor and the lead author on the study, which was published in Nature Human Behaviour on Monday. The paper also included similar findings by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania.

Fernbach’s component stemmed from his research on people’s attitudes about divisive scientific topics.

“On the one hand, the results are pretty perverse because the extremists are the ones who know the least but think they know the most,” he said. “On the other hand, because I’ve been studying this topic for a while, I know there’s quite a bit of research that suggests that extreme beliefs sometimes stem from this overestimation of knowledge.”

There are many reasons people are opposed to genetically modified foods, he added, but he and the other authors argue that the opposition is so strong because the most extreme people often think they have a better understanding than they do. Scientific consensus is that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption, he said.

Past research he has conducted also finds that the largest reason people oppose genetically modified foods is because they fear bodily harm or sickness, even though most of their concerns are not validated by science.

The new findings have implications, in particular, for those who write about and discuss science and for policy makers, Fernbach said.

“They suggest that merely trying to educate people about genetic engineering technology is probably not going to be very successful in terms of getting them to change their opinions about the technology because the people who are most opposed are also the people who are probably the least willing to listen to information, because they already feel like they understand how the technology works,” Fernbach said. He added that those tasked with educating the public about new science likely explore not just how to educate people but also how to get people to appreciate that they don’t understand the technology as well as they think they do.

Nick Light, a CU PhD candidate and study co-author, wrote in an email that the findings weren’t surprising.

“It would be easy to (vilify) the extremists who think they know the most but actually know the least, but that would be somewhat hypocritical,” he said. “Research in psychology has shown that humans in general tend to overestimate how well they understand even simple things, and underestimate the complexity of issues. We all do it. The problem is that extremists appear to be worse than the rest of us.”

Researchers found a similar pattern to genetically modified foods in research about people’s attitudes and knowledge about genetic therapy, but did not find the same pattern in climate change. They believe they did not find the same pattern in beliefs about climate change because people’s attitudes are based more on their ideological group than on what they know about the topic.

Fernbach and Light are now going to turn to other tests of controversial issues on which people have counter-scientific consensus views, such as homeopathic medicine, nuclear energy and evolution.

This research was funded by the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut; the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at CU; the National Science Foundation; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, according to a CU news release.

The issue of genetically modified foods flared locally when county commissioners decided in late 2016 on a 2-1 vote to phase out the growing of genetically modified corn and sugar beets on county-owned farmland, despite a majority vote by the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee to continue the then-current cropland policy that permitted GMO corn and sugar beets. Commissioners who supported the policy cited concerns about pesticides used on GMO crops among their reasons.

Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, cniedringhaus@dailycamera.com