Published: Jan. 14, 2019

Despite the fact that broadly among scientists genetically modified (GM) foods are generally recognized as safe to consume—and actually have potential to benefit us—there are still strong opponents to their use. Leeds Assistant Professor of Marketing Philip M. Fernbach and Leeds PhD candidate Nicholas Light, in collaboration with additional researchers from Washington University in St. Louis; the University of Toronto; and the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a paper featured in Nature Human Behaviour that found a correlation between opponents’ extreme views of GM foods and their perceived understanding of the subject.

Using a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, marketing and psychology researchers asked their opinions about GM foods and how well they thought they understood genetically modified foods. Then, researchers tested how much respondents actually knew with a series of questions on general science and genetics. Results indicated that people’s perceived understanding of GM foods increased along with opposition and concern about their use, while objective knowledge of science and genetics decreased. In other words, extreme opponents think they know the most about this multifaceted topic but actually know the least.

Fernbach’s previous research on the “knowledge illusion” tells us that often people think they understand everything from common household objects to complex social policies better than they do, which can be problematic for scientific research. And substantive efforts by science communicators to educate the public on scientific findings and topics, including GM foods, have had limited success.

This new research by Fernbach and his colleagues highlights the quandary of educating those with the strongest views against GM foods of its benefits when they emphatically believe otherwise—and perceive they already have an in-depth knowledge of the subject. What’s more, these people may be likely to maintain this limited perspective because they are unlikely to choose to seek or open their minds to new information.

As Light told CU Boulder Today, “Our findings suggest that changing peoples’ minds first requires them to appreciate what they don’t know. Without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus.”

Although, this appreciation of our gaps in knowledge could be the first step to changing people’s views through education.

Read more about Fernbach and Light’s research here or watch the video explaining the study.