Can We Make Judgments About Risk Based on Facts, Not Just Emotions? An Encouraging Test Case.
A civil debate about genetically modified food offers hope about our capacity to make judgments about risk based on facts, not just on our feelings.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
I regularly highlight examples of what I call the Risk Perception Gap…when people worry too much about some things or not enough about others, and those perceptions leads to risky choices and behaviors all by themselves. The hope is that by describing this phenomenon and giving it an official name, and explaining the psychology of why it happens, these essays might help us all recognize the emotional nature of risk perception and avoid some of its dangers.
Examples of people worrying too much, or not enough, are everywhere. Ebola, vaccines, climate change, obesity… But it’s also instructive, and encouraging, when people get risk right, when careful open-minded consideration of the evidence produces judgments and decisions that more closely align with the evidence. It was inspiring to witness an example of that the other night, at a debate about genetically modified food.
Usually public forums about GM food are less debates and more just angry invective-laced arguments with lots of interruptions where GMO opponents repeat their values-based tribal beliefs and shout down anything that challenges their views. This one was different, and different in ways that should give us all hope about people’s ability to keep open minds and make choices based on what the bulk of the evidence seems to say.
The setting was a Intelligence Squared debate, part of a privately funded non-profit series created to “restore civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive public discourse to today’s often biased media landscape.” Teams of two debaters argue for or against a proposition in front of an audience, which then gets to ask questions. A moderator helps keep the discussion on point, productive, and civil. The audience is asked to vote before the debate starts, and again afterwards. The winner is the side that gained the most support between the first vote and the second.
The proposition was:
Genetically modified plants, the kind where genes are spliced from one species into another, as only modern agricultural biotechnology can do; for, against, or undecided? (You can see the full debate itself here.)
While there was a clear and passionate difference of opinion, the debate was largely about the evidence. The debaters didn’t yell at each other. They mostly didn’t interrupt each other. They mostly provided direct answers to questions, and when they tried to lapse into sales-pitch talking points the moderator cut them off. (More than once I wished this would be the way that political debates might be conducted.)
Importantly, the two participants who argued against agricultural biotechnology were not the scream-and-yell types who usually show up at public hearings and rallies about GMOs, spewing all sorts of wild and unsupported claims and shouting down anyone who disagrees their perspective. The opponents of the proposition were adamantly anti-GM advocates, but willing to respectfully debate the evidence.
The audience of a few hundred people included several well-known advocates of both sides. But it also included a lot of people who had come not to cheer for their side, but to actually learn more about GM food. Cheering for each side was robust, but when GMO opponents in the audience hissed at the opening statements of the “Pro” side, the moderator shut them down politely but firmly. (A woman who said she had attended dozens of these IQ2 debates told me that this was the first time the audience had tried that.) When the audience got to raise questions, aspects of the GM food issue unrelated to the proposition (e.g. what about those evil greedy corporations patenting seeds and genes?) were disallowed.
When the votes were revealed, what had been a relatively even split in the first poll – 32% for GM Food, 30% against, 38% undecided, had shifted dramatically. The final tally was 60% for, 31% against, and 9% still undecided. People who listened in or watched online could vote too, and a tally that had been overwhelmingly against the proposition before the debate also shifted, coming in at 51% in favor and 49% opposed. (Beware the online tally, of course. Those votes can be gamed by either side, and probably were.)
A closer look at the numbers is particularly encouraging. Half the people voted the same way both times. But half changed their minds, voting differently the second time. Most of these moved from Undecided to one side or the other (mostly to the pro side). But 15% of those who voted For or Against the first time changed THEIR minds! And most of those (12% of the overall population) had voted Against the first time, but changed to either For (9%) or Undecided (3%). (Here’s a graphic of those details.)
It would be naïve to make too much of this. It was hardly a definitive general plebiscite on GM food. The vote may not have even been about GMOs at all. We were asked to vote on who made a more persuasive argument, and the Pro team were markedly better debaters.
But some conclusions can be drawn. One is that the GMO issue doesn’t seem to be one of the classic polarized Right-Left culture war battles. There certainly are cultural affinities among those who most strongly oppose GM food. But GMOs seems to be a group identity issue only to one ‘side’, a small albeit passionately vocal group. The debate results support what most surveys find, that most Americans have barely heard about this issue, much less taken up a position for or against.
But the most hopeful conclusion may be that, despite the natural tendency humans have to quickly make up their minds about things, based largely on emotions, and then to stick to those views no matter what else they may hear, there are also plenty of people willing to find out more before they make up their minds, and who are willing to keep an open mind and carefully think things through. That is crucial if society is to make intelligent choices on a wide range of issues, beyond GMOs.
In a world where so many risk issues are decided by public passions based on very little information and a whole lot of gut instinct and emotion, this debate was a ray of hope that we can do better, that we can bring the power of human reason to bear on the challenge of making the healthiest possible choices. It was model of careful thinking about risk that we would all do well to try and follow.
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