When Beliefs Triumph Over Facts
Assumptions often get the best of extreme opponents to GMOs.
Perception matters when it comes to what people think about genetically modified (GM) foods. Despite consensus among scientists that GM foods are safe, there is still strong public opposition to them. According to a 2018 poll by Pew Research Center, nearly half of the American public believes that GM foods are worse for humans’ health than non-GM foods. Leeds Associate Professor of Marketing Philip Fernbach and doctoral candidate Nicholas Light led a team of researchers in an exploration into why some people hold such beliefs and what can be done about it.
What did the researchers find out?
They ran a series of surveys with a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, measuring peoples’ attitudes toward GM foods and asking questions that gauged the extent to which they actually understand the science. They suspected people didn’t know as much as they thought, and they were particularly interested in the extremity of opposition and how that relates to people’s knowledge. They found a correlation between opponents’ extreme views of GM foods and their perceived understanding of the subject. As it turned out, the participants who thought they knew the most about GM foods actually knew the least. In addition, the more extreme people were in their anti-GM beliefs, the larger the gap between what they thought they knew about the genetics and science and what they actually knew.
The researchers found similar results in a parallel study they conducted with representative samples from the United States, France, and Germany, and in a study testing attitudes about a medical application of genetic engineering (gene therapy). This pattern did not emerge when they asked questions to determine attitudes and beliefs about climate change. They speculate that this has more to do with political ideology, as climate change is polarized along party lines, whereas GM foods are not.
Are there ways to convince these strong opponents to reconsider the scientific evidence?
“Thinking we understand things better than we do can lead to overly extreme views. What we’ve found is that the effect of learning more about a topic pushes us to become more moderate, and we understand the world is more complex than we thought,” said Fernbach.
What the GM study suggests is that if you can get people to appreciate what they don’t know, then they may be open to some type of educational intervention. However, people have to want to learn the information. This is a common problem for most interventions because to get people to change their mind, they have to be open to the information.
“It’s not just a matter of telling people what they don’t know but getting them to appreciate that they don’t know very much in order to help them be more receptive to knowledge,” says Light.
There are other researchers working on how to do those interventions, and Fernbach’s team is doing some related work on designing and testing interventions. They’re targeting some of the false beliefs people have about different scientific issues, particularly those where there is a strong scientific consensus. The idea is to target false beliefs that people have about these issues.
What are the next steps?The team shared all of their findings and the code they used to analyze the data publicly on an open science website, allowing other researchers and scientists to analyze their data themselves and critique their methods. Fernbach and Light are open to the feedback. Communicating with other researchers pushes science and knowledge forward.
They are currently working to replicate their findings, examining other topics with scientific consensuses, and testing how these knowledge effects might generalize.
The GM study furthers the fundamental ideas Fernbach addressed in his book, The Knowledge Illusion, in which he and co-author Steven Sloman argue that humans tend to overestimate what they think they know. However, if we can appreciate the gaps in our knowledge and tap into the communities of knowledge that surround us, we will live more enlightened and productive lives.
Even though there are strong opinions on both sides of these types of sensitive topics, like GM foods, there is hope in studying the psychology behind why this is. Then, we can figure out how to help people be more open-minded and less extreme in their beliefs. And that’s a giant leap toward acceptance of scientific evidence.
Leeds Associate Professor of Marketing Philip M. Fernbach (right) and doctoral candidate Nicholas Light (left), in collaboration with researchers from Washington University in St. Louis; the University of Toronto; and the University of Pennsylvania, were interested in issues about which people hold beliefs that run counter to a scientific consensus. They chose to study a subject (GM foods) that has a lot of opposition and a scientific consensus of safety to see how much consumers really know about the topic compared with what they think they know.