Researchers from the University of Colorado have published interesting results from their survey on acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods. They found that the most extreme opponents of GM foods actually know the least about the science behind it, but believe the opposite. These eye-opening insights shed light on an increasingly relevant topic and could have implications for science communication in other fields alike.

Most scientists agree (scientific consensus) that genetically modified foods are safe to consume and have the potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind. Since many people are really opposed to GM foods, researchers wanted to find out just how familiar the public was with the underlying science.

Interestingly, more than 90 percent of the survey respondents said they were at least somewhat opposed to GM foods.

“This is part and parcel of the psychology of extremism,” said Philip Fernbach, a researcher at the University of Colorado and co-author of the book The Knowledge Illusion, said for The Guardian. “To maintain these strong counter-scientific consensus views, you kind of have to have a lack of knowledge.”

Fernbach and other researchers analyzed surveys completed by the public in the US, France, and Germany. First, respondents were asked to share their opinion on GM foods and to rate their own understanding of GM foods. Next, each respondent answered a series of true or false questions about general science and genetics. Some of the statements the participants had to answer were: “Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do” (false), and “the oxygen we breathe comes from plants” (true).

“What we found is that as the extremity of opposition increased, objective knowledge went down, but self-assessed knowledge went up,” Fernbach said.

According to their paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the team surveyed more than 2,500 people. The results revealed this curious trend.

“The extremists are more poorly calibrated. If you don’t know much, it’s hard to assess how much you know,” Fernbach added. “The feeling of understanding that they have then stops them from learning the truth. Extremism can be perverse in that way.”

The finding has similarities with the Dunning Kruger effect, the observation from social psychology that incompetence prevents the incompetent from recognizing their incompetence. Fernbach and his team believe results could have major implications for science and policy communication. We could say the general belief in the field of communications is that better education is the way to counter anti-scientific attitudes.

“Our research shows that you need to add something else to the equation,” Fernbach said. “Extremists think they understand this stuff already, so they are not going to be very receptive to education. You first need to get them to appreciate the gaps in their knowledge.”

Graham O’Dwyer, a politics lecturer at Reading University with a specific interest in human irrationality, praised the study.

“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.”

O’Dwyer said two other cognitive biases may feed into the trend Fernbach observed. The first is “active information avoidance”, where people reject information that would help them understand the world because it clashes with their existing beliefs. The second is the “backfire effect”, which describes how people can become entrenched in their original positions after rejecting new information.

“This is often used to explain why many Americans refuse to believe in evolution and why so many Americans feel that vaccination is harmful to children,” O’Dwyer said. “It also figures into the debates on global warming and makes correcting erroneous beliefs highly challenging.”

With GM food, we can improve plant resistance to all kind of environmental factors, provide substantially more nutrition, and foster health. Since the opinions of GM food opponents can obstruct GM food research and lead to legislation that slows its adoption, we should care about the general public opinion regarding GM food.

Learn why we should give GMO a second chance, in the video below:

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc