Opponents of GMOs Know a Lot Less About Them Than They Think They Do

90 percent of scientists say GMOs are safe. So why doesn't the public agree?

As anyone who has ever argued can attest, it’s nearly impossible to change a person’s mind when they are convinced they are right. This situation is even more challenging, scientists declare in a study released Monday in Nature Human Behavior, when people whole-heartedly believe they understand a complex topic better than they actually do. And it’s exceptionally challenging when those people are talking about a scientific topic as complex as genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are living things like plants and animals whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated. Some crops, for example, are designed to be resistant to insect damage, while others have been engineered to be more nutritious. Approximately 90 percent of American scientists believe GMOs are safe to eat, yet only a third of consumers believe the same.

In the new study, scientists examined why people who distrust GMOs feel the way they do. Lead author and University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor Philip Fernbach, Ph.D., has had a long-standing interest in what he calls “the psychology of extreme beliefs” and how it connects to science denial. Genetic modification, he tells Inverse, emerged as the perfect subject to explore those ideas.

“It’s a really important technology but has very high levels of opposition, despite a scientific consensus around safety,” Fernbach explains. “Also, living in Boulder, Colorado, this is a fun topic to work on because it is such a controversial issue here.”

GMOs, rice
Genetically-engineered, nutrient-rich "golden rice" and regular white rice.

Fernbach and his colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. and European adults on their opinions about genetically modified foods. They were also asked how well they thought they understood the science behind GMOs and were tested on their general scientific literacy — basic science questions, like whether or not an electron is smaller than an atom.

The vast majority of study respondents, a total of 90 percent, reported that they had at least some distrust of GMOs. But when the study team pursued why those people felt that way, they discovered that the more strongly a person reported they were opposed to GMOs, the more knowledgable they thought they were on the topic. Furthermore, the individuals who were the most convinced they knew their stuff scored the lowest on both the GMO and general science tests.

The results weren’t as statistically significant when the same surveys were given on the subject of climate change, though. While the pattern of results was directionally the same — the extremity of opposition to and self-assured understanding of climate change increased, while the scientific literacy of those extremists decreased — climate change beliefs were most predicted by a person’s political identification. Conservatives were more likely to oppose the scientific consensus than liberals.

With GMOs, politics doesn’t come as much into play in one’s opinion of the concept — which makes these results more in line with previous research on the psychology of extremism. Extreme views, Fernbach says, often stem from people feeling like they understand complex topics better than they actually do. This, he concedes, makes it trickier to change extreme beliefs.

“The results suggest that getting people to change their minds about GMOs is not just a matter of educating them,” Fernbach explains. “The extremists already think they understand the issue, so you might first have to get them to appreciate that their knowledge is shallow or incorrect.”

Intuition, it’s shown time and again, can not be the foundation of scientific thought. Science is based on inquiry and facts — building blocks one may have to force feed to someone until minds are changed.