Aug 28 2017

GMO and Dunning Kruger

GMO-surveyIncreasingly in modern society, with perpetual access to the internet, lack of information is far less of a problem than misleading or incorrect information. As Dunning (of Dunning-Kruger fame) noted:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

I would add to that list – deliberate propaganda. People can feel as if they are well-informed because their heads are full of nothing but propaganda. Just have a conversation with an anti-vaxer, creationist, or flat-earther and you will see. Lack of information is not their primary problem.

Attitudes toward GMOs are also largely a function of information vs misinformation. After two decades of a dedicated anti-GMO campaign by the organic food lobby and Greenpeace, the public is largely misinformed about GMOs and organic food. This has led to a 51 point gap (the largest of any topic covered) between what scientists believe about GMOs and what the public believes.

Michigan State University has recently published their Food Literacy and Engagement Poll which sheds further light on this issue. For example, 20% of respondents believe they rarely or never consume food with GMOs and another 26% did not know. Meanwhile, 75-80% of packaged food contains GMO ingredients. Most corn and sugar derives from GMO crops. There are also “hidden” GMOs. For example, just about all cheese is produced with enzymes (rennet) derived from GMO yeast. Laws requiring GMO labeling or outright banning GMOs, however, always carve out an exception for cheese, because the cheese industry would essentially not exist without it.

None of this matters, of course, because sugar (for example) from a genetically modified sugar beet and a non-GMO sugar beet is identical. The source has no impact on the purified form.

But here is the most interesting nugget from the survey – a total of 37% of respondents thought the following statement was true: “Genetically modified foods have genes and non-genetically modified foods do not.” That figure was 43% in those younger than 30 years old (compared to 26% in those 55 years and older). Meanwhile, in the same survey 46% of those younger than 30 said they purchase organic food whenever possible, while only 15% of those 55 and older said they did. There seems to be a pretty good correlation there between being misinformed about genes in GMOs and preferring organic food.

This is not a simple misunderstanding about genes. First, not knowing that all food contains genes is a profound level of scientific illiteracy. But this is not simple lack of knowledge – it also reflects direct misinformation. Other surveys (reviewed here) show, for example, that:

10-40% of those surveyed believe that insertion of a fish gene into a tomato would make the tomato taste fishy

41% believe that eating a GM tomato would change a person’s genes

68% believe that GM food genes can become incorporated into a person’s genes permanently and be passed down to future generations.

These numbers vary by country, but the trends are all similar. More than half of US consumers surveyed mistakingly believe that GMO tomatoes, wheat, and chickens are available on the market.

These surveys only sometimes hit upon another feature of public attitudes that is critical – trust in scientists. In the MSU survey only 59% said they trust academic scientists, while 49% trusted government scientists. This is a common theme whenever I discuss this issue with the public, similar to many controversial scientific topics.

Here is a typical response I just receive from someone who is anti-GMO:

“I appreciate your view but please post a peer reviewed scientific study that was not financed by Monsanto or any of the other manufacturers. And if you think they are safe because it was approved by the FDA you are deceiving yourself. The industry is largely self regulated.”

This is tricky because you cannot trust all scientific studies or all scientists. Most studies are preliminary, flawed, and ultimately wrong. On just about any topic you can find a scientist who backs most any opinion. It is very easy to dismiss any scientific studies you don’t like – just assume they are biased. Notice also how it is easy to shift the burden of proof away from oneself. This is not always wrong – if someone else is making a specific claim it is reasonable to ask them to defend it. But the statement above is different. It is essentially dismissing any studies with conclusions the person does not like with the automatic default assumption that it is a biased industry study.

Meanwhile, the truth is very different. There are thousands of independent studies on GMOs. Europe in particular has funded a great many studies into the safety of GMOs from a very anti-GMO bias, and yet the result of their hundreds of millions of dollars worth of research is:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

You have to look at the big picture of any research program – what do the best, most independent studies say? What is the consensus of academic scientific opinion? What are the results of systematic reviews?  However, you can cherry pick individual studies that support one position, deny the rest as de facto biased, and feel as if you have a well-informed opinion. In fact, all this work is done for you, and packaged in propaganda that will push your ideological buttons.

The result is that those people who feel they are the most informed are likely to be the most misinformed, and to have opinions which run contrary to the evidence and the consensus of scientific opinion. This is exactly what Dunning was referring to.

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