The findings of an interesting study published on 14 January in Nature Human Behaviour suggest that many extreme opponents to genetically modified (GM) foods may actually know the least (1). Based on parallel studies performed on nationally representative samples of adults in the United States, France, and Germany, the scientists discovered that opposition to and concern about GM foods tend to increase as knowledge about science and genetics decreases, whereas a person’s self-proclaimed understanding of the topic increases.
The majority of scientists agree that GM foods are safe for human consumption and could potentially provide a number of benefits to humankind, including increased nutrition, higher yields per acre, longer shelf life, and disease-resistant crops. Nonetheless, many people remain opposed to the use of GM foods.
The researchers asked more than 2000 American and European adults for their opinions about GM foods, including how well they understand GM foods, and subsequently tested their actual knowledge using a true-false questionnaire on science and genetics. More specifically, participants were asked to rate both their opposition to and concern about GM food on a numbered scale. The participants were then asked to judge their self-assessed understanding of GM foods and finally, their general scientific knowledge was assessed using a true or false questions adapted from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators survey, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Benchmarks for Science Literacy, and recent work on the public understanding of science.
According to the authors, 90.82 per cent reported some level of opposition to GM foods and 93.01 per cent had some level of concern. Similar results were obtained for the United States, France, and Germany. Moreover, the same pattern was observed in another study testing public attitudes about the medical application of gene therapy.
One potential consequence of overconfidence in one’s own knowledge is less openness to new information. In other words, those with the most extreme views were found to be the most in need of education, but also the least likely to be receptive to learning. Unfortunately, this means strategies focused on scientific communications aimed at educating the general public tend to have limited success and are often abandoned.
Surprisingly, the same was not seen for attitudes and beliefs toward climate change. The authors suggest the difference is because climate change views are more likely to be politically polarized ― attitudes depend on the ideologies of the political party they identify with rather than how much an individual knows about the issue ― since climate change has become a mainstream topic in most political debates.
Public opposition to science is often attributed to a lack of knowledge. According to the authors, “Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most.” This suggests that in order to change people’s views, they first need to recognise the gaps in their knowledge. Clearly, new and creative approaches are needed to bring more knowledge about scientific technology within the scope of the general public.
(1) Fernbach, P.M. et al. Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most. Nature Human Behaviour (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0520-3
Image credit: Rosalee Yagihara (Vancouver, Canada), CC BY 2.0.