Tech & Science

GM Food: 'Extreme Opponents Know the Least, But Think They Know the Most'

In 2016, a survey by the Pew Research Center showed just 37 percent people believed GM foods are safe to eat. Of the people who were “highly concerned” about the issue, 58 percent said GM foods will cause environmental problems, while 53 percent said they will lead to health problems.

The pervasive opposition to GM is, however, in direct opposition to the views of most scientists. Pew found that 88 percent of scientists believe GM foods are safe to eat—a figure that rose to 92 percent among working biomedical scientists.

Read more: Engineered plants without photorespiration "glitch" could help feed millions in coming decades

This disconnect is problematic. To meet the demands of a growing global population, food production needs to increase dramatically—yet arable land is declining, and climate change is leading to more droughts and floods. GM foods could provide huge benefits to society—they can be engineered to have increased nutritional value, better shelf life, disease resistance and a higher yield.

In a study published in Nature Human Behavior, Philip Fernbach from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues, looked at people’s opinions about GM foods and compared it to their scientific understanding of the topic. Findings showed the people who were most strongly opposed thought they knew the most about GM foods—but in reality their understanding was the lowest. "It's a really important technology but has very high levels of opposition, despite a scientific consensus around safety," Fernbach told Newsweek

"People think they will get sick or be poisoned by GM foods. Scientists agree that these concerns are unfounded, but they persist. There is a lot of misinformation out there and GM is a relatively new technology. It's quite common for people to be scared of new technologies. Beyond bodily harm a significant number of people are opposed on moral grounds or find GMOs to be unnatural."

The team carried out a survey of 2,000 U.S. and American adults. They first asked for their opinion on GM foods and how well they believed they understood the topic. They then tested their actual knowledge with 15 true-false questions, such as "electrons are smaller than atoms" or "all plants and animals have DNA."

“Self-assessed knowledge is a strong predictor of attitudes, and people tend to be poor judges of how much they know,” the team wrote. “They often suffer from an illusion of knowledge, thinking that they understand everything from common household objects to complex social policies better than they do. This is why people’s sense of understanding decreases when they try to generate explanations, and why novices are poorer at evaluating their talents than experts.”

Findings showed that over 90 percent of people had some level of opposition to GM, but those with the strongest views against these foods had the least knowledge: “Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most,” the team wrote.

In the same study, researchers carried out the same tests on people but looked at their views of climate change. This was to see if the same pattern emerged—but it did not. They suggest this is because climate change has become a highly polarized issue, with people’s attitudes more based on the group they are affiliated with than their own personal understanding of the issue. The scientists found no political affiliation when it came to views on GM foods.

Fernbach said the findings were not hugely surprising: "On the one hand it's crazy that the people with the strongest views know the least," he said. "But the result is consistent with what we know about the psychology of extremism. Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand things better than they do."

Concluding, the team wrote: “Those with the strongest anti-consensus views [on GM food] are the most in need of education, but also the least likely to be receptive to learning; overconfidence about one’s knowledge is associated with decreased openness to new information. This suggests that a prerequisite to changing people’s views through education may be getting them to first appreciate the gaps in their knowledge.”

Fernbach added: "Education is unlikely to be effective in this context because the extremists already think they understand the issue."

Speaking to the Guardian, Graham O’Dwyer, a politics lecturer at the U.K.'s Reading University, said the study helps explain why "correcting erroneous beliefs" is difficult: “It carries a clear argument that is very convincing, and it also feeds into a wider set of concerns in relation to ignorance, overconfidence, and erroneous views in our present times.”

This story has been updated to include quotes from Philip Fernbach and Graham O'Dwyer. 

GM foods File photo. The strongest opponents to GM foods think they know most about the topic, but really they know least, according to a study. iStock

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