People Still Distrust GMOs, And Teaching Them The Science Won't Help

Public acceptance of GMOs is actually resistant to science education.

1 NOV 2017

More than 3,000 scientific studies have examined the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops, and the scientific consensus is clear: GM crops are no more harmful than crops that were developed through other genetic selection techniques. 


Nevertheless, 39 percent of Americans say GM foods are worse for one's health, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Scientists are desperately trying to change this. 

Now, a new study from Carnegie Mellon University has provided key information on what factors influence public acceptance of GMOs and other scientific issues.

The study found that public opinion on human evolution, the Big Bang theory, stem cell research and climate change are all affected by political and religious leanings. Yet, contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears that higher education levels tend to make opinions more polarized on these matters, and not less.

For instance, conservative voters were more likely to reject the scientific consensus on climate change if they had more education. Meanwhile, educated liberal voters were more likely to be concerned about climate change. Similar trends were observed for issues like stem cell research and human evolution.

GMOs are another matter.

Unlike all the other categories, public opinion on GMOs was not influenced by education level, political leanings or religious beliefs. The pattern suggests that teaching people the science won't make them accept the safety of GM crops any more than they already do.


So if acceptance of GMOs isn't based on science, what is it based on?

One of the authors on the paper, Caitlin Drummond, believes this trend may be occurring because of what's called the "Dunning-Kruger" effect. This is when an abundance of data and information creates an unfounded feeling of expertise. In other words, people tend to think they know a lot more about science than they do.

"What's curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious," explain the psychologists behind the theory, David Dunning and Justin Kruger.

"Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge."

Drummond and her co-authors theorize this is exactly what is happening with the acceptance of GMOs. 

"Perceived knowledge may not be related to actual knowledge," write the authors of the paper. Instead, they assert that the public is using their assumed scientific knowledge to defend positions that are motivated by nonscientific concerns.

So how do we combat the Dunning-Kruger effect?

"Get competent. Always be learning," says Dunning.


He also suggests slowing down the learning process and fact-checking as we go. According to Dunning, we tend to be overconfident about our level of knowledge when we acquire that knowledge too quickly.

"Our most recent research also suggests one should be wary of quick and impulsive decisions," he says. 

"People who jump to conclusions are the most prone to overconfident error."

Nevertheless, the Dunning-Kruger effect isn't the only explanation for the findings.

The authors also acknowledge that public opinions on GMOs may have changed since the survey took place. According to Drummond, the data was taken from a 2006 survey, well before the GMO misinformation campaign arrived on American soil. 

"It's certainly possible that attitudes toward GMOs have changed since 2006, and unfortunately we can't observe that change with our data because the GMO items were only included on the 2006 General Social Survey," she told the Genetic Literacy Project. 

"This brings up one of the important avenues for future research that is suggested by our paper: better understanding the processes that cause science to be caught up in larger social conflicts."

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences