Extreme opponents of GM foods know the least science, but think they know the most

New research on the public's opinion about genetically modified foods illustrates an alarming cognitive bias.

Extreme opponents of GM foods know the least science, but think they know the most
(Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A recent study compared the public's scientific literacy with their attitudes on GM foods.
  • The results showed that "as the extremity of opposition increased, objective knowledge went down, but self-assessed knowledge went up."
  • The results also suggest that, in terms of policy efforts to boost scientific literacy, education about a given topic alone isn't going to be enough.

In 1999, the social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a study that uncovered a darkly comical cognitive bias. It describes how, to put it crudely, dumb people tend to incorrectly believe they're smarter than others. Why? Because they're too stupid to realize they're stupid. Dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect, the cognitive bias conjures in people a sense of illusory superiority, one that calls to mind the adage "ignorance is bliss".

Now, a new study on public opinion about genetically modified foods doesn't quite show that ignorance is bliss, but it does suggest that ignorance is the fuel that empowers people to hold and voice strongly anti-scientific beliefs.

The findings, published in Nature Human Behaviour, come from public surveys issued in France, Germany and the U.S. that measured scientific literacy and attitudes about GM foods. (Genetic engineering, by the way, involves selectively introducing genes to a crop in order to create a new crop with desired characteristics. Despite labels at the supermarket that say "No G.M.O.s", decades of scientific research have failed to show any evidence suggesting GM foods are harmful, and they're viewed as safe by the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization.)

In the surveys, more than 2,500 people answered true-false statements such as "Electrons are smaller than atoms" (true) and "Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do" (false).

The results revealed a troubling trend.

"What we found is that as the extremity of opposition increased, objective knowledge went down, but self-assessed knowledge went up," study author Philip Fernbach told The Guardian. "The extremists are more poorly calibrated. If you don't know much, it's hard to assess how much you know ... The feeling of understanding that they have then stops them from learning the truth. Extremism can be perverse in that way."

In terms of policy implications, the findings suggest that educating the public about a given problem isn't going to change many minds.

"Our research shows that you need to add something else to the equation," Fernbach told The Guardian. "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."

​Cognitive biases and scientific literacy

The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of many cognitive biases that make it difficult for us to interpret reality. Another prominent bias in terms of scientific literacy is cognitive dissonance, which describes the mental conflict we experience when confronted with information that contradicts our current worldview. This inner conflict can prevent people from accepting new ideas, as Bill Nye once described on his Netflix show:

"[So] instead of changing your worldview, which you may have held your entire life, you dismiss the evidence — and along with that you dismiss the authorities that may have provided the evidence."

In 2016, Business Insider put together a great infographic that provides a quick overview of 20 cognitive biases that can subtly steer our thinking — often in a bad direction.

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Keep reading Show less

Science confirms: Earth has more than one 'moon'

Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.

J. Sliz-Balogh, A. Barta and G. Horvath
Surprising Science
  • Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
  • These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
  • The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
Keep reading Show less

Millennials reconsidering finances and future under COVID-19

A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.

Personal Growth
  • Millennials have been labeled the "unluckiest generation in U.S. history" after the one-two financial punch of the Great Recession and the pandemic shutdowns.
  • A recent survey found that about a third of millennials felt financially unprepared for the pandemic and have begun saving.
  • To achieve financial freedom, millennials will need to take control of their finances and reinterpret their relationship with the economy.
  • Keep reading Show less

    6 easy ways to transition to a plant-based diet

    Your health and the health of the planet are not indistinguishable.

    Credit: sonyakamoz / Adobe Stock
    Personal Growth
    • Transitioning to a plant-based diet could help reduce obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
    • Humans are destroying entire ecosystems to perpetuate destructive food habits.
    • Understanding how to properly transition to a plant-based diet is important for success.
    Keep reading Show less
    Culture & Religion

    Karma doesn't work how most people think it does

    Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast