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.

27 responses so far

27 thoughts on “GMO and Dunning Kruger”

  1. BetaclampDan says:

    Fantastic article and very informative.

    “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.”

    This reminds me of another problem in the GM debate is the proliferation of ‘documentaries’ feeding the hysteria and doubt concerning GM crops.
    Netflix is terrible for this, and while I love the service and am a member it hasn’t escaped my notice that there seems to be a growing number of Anti-GM propaganda on it’s streaming service.

    I downloaded the EEC decade long report on GM crops from 2001- 2010 and was astounded at the benefits, (especially in creating pest-resistant crops), but it was a little complex and required a large amount of side study. This I think puts people off.
    It is much easier to accept a fear-mongering ‘documentary’ than it is to learn a whole new branch of jargon and aim to make oneself knowledgable about agriculutre etc.

  2. Michael Finfer, MD says:

    “This has lead to a 51 point gap (the largest of any topic covered) between what scientists believe about GMOs and what the public believes.”

    I think that a better to phrase this is that there is a 51 point gap between what scientists know (or the scientific consensus) and what the public believes. To say what scientists believes seems to be misleading to me. Ideally, scientists strive to know and not to beleive.

  3. Patrick says:

    Dr. Novella,

    A bit of deja vu (I’ve messaged about this before): I believe you’ve misquoted the findings from the “Consumer Perception of Genetically Modified Organisms and Sources of Information.” It reports “90.0% know that insertion of a fish gene would NOT make a tomoato taste fishy.” (Emphasis added).

    Although that statistic is encouraging, it’s abundantly clear, as you point out and echoed from the report, that there is much scientific illiteracy regarding basic biology.

    I’m a big fan of the blog, read it daily, thanks for the link to the fascinating survey findings!


  4. SoapyGuy says:


    You are correct that the cited study doesn’t support the 90% finding among Latvians (it indeed found the opposite), but I think Dr Novella conflated it with a Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University study from 2003 which found that 58% of respondents in the US thought that “Tomatoes genetically modified with genes from catfish would probably taste “fishy.”” Direct link to pdf here: HTML link here:

  5. Insomniac says:

    I agree with Patrick that there seems to be a misquote about tomatoes tasting fishy.

  6. Patrick – crap, you’re right. I made the correction. It is 10% in one survey and 40% in another.

  7. maxferrario says:

    Unfortunately Dunning Kruger doesn’t explain everything: if only more scientific information/knowledge would translate into more support for scientific findings!
    See for instance “People Furthest Apart on Climate Views Are Often the Most Educated – For attitudes on global warming, political identity is a more important signal than academic acumen or scientific literacy”
    “Looking at a nationally representative survey of views on stem cell research, the Big Bang, human evolution, nanotechnology, genetically modified views and climate change, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that respondents with the most education and the highest scores on scientific literacy tests had the most polarized beliefs.
    On climate change, the researchers found that political identity was a more important signal of where respondents stood than their academic acumen or scientific sophistication.”

  8. Willy says:

    D-K in the form of Trump:

    Sadly, there are enough additional lyric possibilities to make this a a much longer song.

  9. Patrick says:


    Thanks for the link! It remains clear scientific illiteracy is a large component to anti-science/pseudoscientific ideas perpetuated among the public and throughout media.

  10. Wilko says:

    There is hope on this debate. The Young Turks had a hit piece on GMO’s recently.

    There is no need to watch their segment. The point is to see the comments. When I first got interested in this topic, 3 years ago, the comments would overwhelmingly be anti-GMO. It looks from this post by TYT that the tide might be turning.

  11. Gingerbaker says:

    And yet…..

    Lots of studies have been done. How many with the rigor that a drug must reviewed by the FDA? Do you know?

    Because GMO’s are not classified as drugs, you know, they are “food”. And so they are not thoroughly characterized for their pharmacokinetics, distribution, metabolism, drug interactions, interactions with organelles, interactions with enzymes, etc.

    And there LOTS of versions of GMO’s. Some are simple – a gene has been substituted in a cell line, the cell line produced as a foodstuff, nothing active or possibly active can be expected.

    But, some GMO’s have multiple sets of initiators. Instructions for DNA interaction that may actually have biological activity in humans. Nobody thought this worth investigating?

    Well, it seems like people thought about it for about ten seconds, then dismissed the whole idea because everybody thought these molecules would be destroyed by the acid in people’s stomachs. Except….

    It turns out some, at least, are not. There are reports of some activators not only surviving stomach acid, but actually making it intact into the blood stream of humans.

    So, without the requisite pharmacological and biochemical research being done, how can anyone say with 100% confidence that all GMO’s are safe?

    I am really quite shocked at the blithe and total acceptance of GMO’s within the scientific community, and rather appalled at the sloppiness with which people have researched the matter.

    I am NOT saying that GMO’s are unsafe. They have huge potential benefit. BUT we can not responsibly say they are safe to eat until they have been fully characterized as biological agents, not just foodstuffs.

  12. praktik says:

    Gingerbaker – if that approach makes sense for GM foods that came from what we call “GE techniques” – wouldn’t it also be true for ANY method of breeding?

    These all “mash genes” together, sometimes in ways more unpredictable than w/ more careful and precise GE techniques.

    So shouldn’t all the things you list be even STRONGER reasons to argue for classification of ALL foodstuffs as “biological agents”.

    We could have another horror story like the kiwi fruit any day now!!

  13. Gingerbaker says:

    “Gingerbaker – if that approach makes sense for GM foods that came from what we call “GE techniques” – wouldn’t it also be true for ANY method of breeding?”

    I don’t think so. And to be frank – I am NO expert on the topic. But think about what I am saying here. Some GMO products have multiple genetic activators arranged so to have biologic activity – to initiate, to cut and snip I just don’t know – and these sequences, along with the gene being inserted can survive digestion and enter the human bloodstream.

    We do not know, AFAIK, where they go, their absorption, their metabolism, their effects on human blood cells, on the DNA of human blood cells or tissues. We do not know how they might interact with other mutagens, pesticides, estrogenic molecules, prions. What if somehow they have an effect which is not seen for decades, like prions?

    These possibilities may be far-fetched. The fact is, though, I do not believe they have been studied. And this is very basic stuff that all drugs have to go through. So, speculation about this is not appropriate. What we (I) need to know is if basic pharmacologic profiling has been done.

  14. praktik says:

    I think all the arguments you make apply – even moreso – to conventional breeding.

    Just look at the horrorscape of the kiwifruit allergy situation.

  15. Mattness says:


    I don’t want to come across as rude, as alleging the Dunning-Kruger effect probably is, but I hope the comment section here is enlightened enough that when something like that is pointed out we do not degenerate into a flame war, especially since that is kind of the topic of this blog post. 🙂

    That being said, to summarize you say:
    – you are no expert
    – certain, apparently very obvious test HAVE to be made to guarantee safety
    – you don’t think these things have been studied

    Now from my point of view, this is were your skeptical humility should kick in and say that, as a rule of thumb, if you’re not an expert and come up with an obvious scientific test that should be done, it HAS been done. As a lemma you could add that, probably any random PhD student/researcher actively studying that topic would have at some point thought about that as well, and, since we are not hearing an outcry in the science community about failing standards in agricultural safety testing, has been discarded as unnecessary or otherwise bad thinking. There are researchers out there devising protocols and sounds scientific tests, and consider things like differences between foods and drugs.

  16. Ginger – it has not been established that DNA from food gets into our blood stream. That claim is based on one small, highly flawed study that does not justify these extreme conclusions. It was instantly incorporated into anti-GMO propaganda, however.

    But – if DNA from out food survived and was absorbed into our blood, why would the genes from a GMO food be any different than all the other food we eat?

    Scientists have thought about these issues. The only people being sloppy are the anti-GMO activists. At least you acknowledge you are no expert. I recommend you listen to what the experts are actually saying, not what activists are saying the experts are saying.

  17. RickK says:


    Are you more worried about GMOs than you are about mutation breeding?

    If you’re not aware, mutation breeding is where seeds are subject to chemicals or radiation to randomly damage the DNA and generate new varieties. There is no control – just a shotgun blast to the DNA then growing whatever survives.

    Thanks to Big Organic marketing, these species mutated from chemicals or radiation are perfectly acceptable to organic farming standards.

    So if concerned with laboratory-controlled manipulation of a single gene, but you’re just fine with products mutated by random destruction to DNA, then you should probably ask yourself why.

  18. praktik says:

    And there is no graver warning of the danger out there from “messing with nature” than that we get from the kiwi fruit – a pernicious scourge that still makes kids sick every year.

    You might have known this from all the kiwifruit awareness campaigns and narratives about how we failed to “learn the lessons” of risks inherent to conventional breeding and just unleashed this toxic threat to all of us with hardly any safety testing.

    Guess new Zealand and Australia were fitting laboratories to test this frankenfood on small children there?

    Who cares when there are kiwifruit profits to be made right?

    Just goes to show you where the true hearts of the mad breeders are fruit orchards are, to just make new toxic fruit for profit and shamelessly promote this product as safe.

    They had no idea their crazy conventional breeding techniques, just mashing genes together willy nilly, would lead to this toxic doomscape. When they had kiwi blood money to get who would have said “no, let’s study this new fruit for safety before selling it”

    And now we all pay the price for this, with thousands of allergic reactions, mostly amongst children, annually.

    Move over Monsanto, I’m looking at you specialty crop growers!!!

  19. praktik says:

    Kiwi Awareness Facts – The More You Know

    FACT: kiwis have sickened and hurt infinity more people than any GMO cultivar ever consumed by humans

  20. Giovanni Tagliabue says:

    The whole discussion about so-called “GMO(s)” is misplaced, because “GMO” means nothing. Please see 2 of my peer-reviewed papers on the (pseudo-)subject, fully downloadable:
    The necessary “GMO” denialism and scientific consensus. Journal of Science Communication.
    Nature as a totem, “GMOs” as a contemporary taboo. North American Journal of Psychology.
    Somebody may wonder why many scientists and science communicators (including myself) are spending so much time and energy to debunk a ghost. The problem is that incoherent, rotten memes with socio-political fall-outs are more detrimental than plainly wrong but ineffective ideas.
    Best regards from Lombardy!

  21. Lukas Xavier says:

    So, without the requisite pharmacological and biochemical research being done, how can anyone say with 100% confidence that all GMO’s are safe?

    Is anyone in fact saying that? Could you point out who?

    For that matter, can you say that about non-GMO foods? Not without some creative definition-work, I think.

  22. Shane Annigan says:

    Hi Steve,

    The linlk on the MSU’s webpage appears to be quite succinct. Is there any place where more data would be available (e.g. the picture that shows a gap between > 30 and 55+ y.o. when it comes to the question of foods “containing genes”)?

    Many thanks,

  23. oligocyte says:

    The truly important thing to recognize in addition to (or perhaps in parallel to) Dunning-Kruger is that in any population 50% are below average .. and average is not all that great.


    Science done right is hard; faith (in whatever it is you have faith in) is, well easier. An anti-GMO screed is ?a page or three. GMO reviews are long detailed referenced, and require substantial background to be in place, intellectually, to truly evaluate.

  24. Gingerbaker says:

    Mattness and Steve,

    1) Mattness, if you don’t want a flame war, you really should not start throwing the term “Dunning Kruger” around. I have a BS in Biological Science, did basic research for about 7. I have a co-authorship on 1 paper. I am no expert on GMO’s not even close. But I am not completely clueless about science.

    2) I also worked in the pharmaceutical industry. I can read a clinical paper. I can read a package insert. I have a pretty good understanding about how drug development proceeds.

    3) GMO’s have never had to be examined as drugs, merely as foods. For you both to make the argument that if there was something to be concerned about, we would have heard about it already – and at the same time neither of you are familiar with the record of characterization that have been completed or if, indeed, anything at all has been completed – is not a compelling argument.

    4) I do NOT have any concerns about GMO safety. I am NOT worried about this at all. BUT – I do not understand the argument that it is proper to say these compounds are safe until we have characterized them biologically to the same standard that we characterize every single drug approved by the FDA.

    5) Steve – you say that GMO DNA getting into the bloodstream was reported only once. Once is enough, it seems to me, to suggest it should be looked into.

    I got into this same discussion at The Panda’s Thumb. A geneticist there said that there are some GMO products that would have 4 separate synthetic genetic agents (activating, splicing sequences of some sort – you see, I do NOT understand this stuff) preserved alongside the substituted gene. As I recall, his argument was that these agents do not survive the digestive tract, and nobody has heard of any problems. I just looked for that thread, but thepandasthumb comments retrieval appears irretrievably broken. I no longer have access to a medical library. I do not know anyone who works in this field.

    I would be very happy indeed if basic pharmacologic/biokinetic studies have indeed been done and were shown to be nothing but encouraging. As they are likely to be. This is just very basic stuff that all other active agents that I know of get put through before they are allowed to go into the bodies of humans. I simply have no way of finding out if it has been done. And I am rather flabbergasted that every scientist would not want to know that the food we give to our kids just possibly has not been properly tested, when this sort of evaluation is SOP for the FDA and not hard to do.

  25. Gingerbaker says:

    OK, some quick Google scholar googling…

    from PLOS, a review study with 1000 human samples from “four independent studies”, title is “Complete Genes May Pass from Food to Human Blood”


    (“Uptake of transposon DNA from the human alimentary tract”, Forsman et al, Mol Genet Genomics 270:362-368 (2003). The time dependent appearance of alimentary DNA 1-3 hours post a meal cannot be explained by contamination.

    also, from [ An overview of the last 10 years of genetically
    engineered crop safety research
    Alessandro Nicolia, Alberto Manzo, Fabio Veronesi & Daniele Rosellini
    To cite this article: Alessandro Nicolia, Alberto Manzo, Fabio Veronesi & Daniele Rosellini (2014)
    An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research, Critical Reviews in
    Biotechnology, 34:1, 77-88, DOI: 10.3109/07388551.2013.823595
    To link to this article:

    ” DNA fragments can be transferred across the GI barrier.
    This natural phenomenon has been demonstrated only
    for high-copy-number genes that have been detected in
    internal organs, tissues and blood of different animals and
    even in cow milk (Parrot et al., 2010; Rizzi et al., 2012;
    van de Eede et al., 2004 and references therein).
    In humans, the transfer through the GI tract of a highcopy-number
    gene from rabbit meat has been reported
    (Forsman et al., 2003).”

    “Transgenic DNA transfer through the GI tract has
    been reported in the literature in pig, lamb and rainbow
    trout (Chainark et al., 2006, 2008; Mazza et al., 2005;
    Sharma et al., 2006;), but in micro quantities and in
    the case of pigs and lambs with questionable reproducibility
    due to possible cross contamination (Walsh et al.,”


    GM feed appears to cause changes in pig uteri and stomachs:

    Basic upshot of all this:

    1) Lots of scientists recognize there may be valid concerns. For what it is worth, David Suzuki is one of them.

    2) Work HAS been done, sometimes with results that are surprising and show that contrary to previous opinion, some GMO DNA can survive animal and human digestion and make it into the bloodstream and , in some animals, into tissues. There is evidence that GMO DNA can make it into wild bacteria and that may have potential health effects on humans, but this, so far, is theoretical

    3) This work is not easily done, it is expensive. It is not clear that this issue has been given the research needed to consider the issue resolved, but, given the economics of things, without harm being evident, it is difficult to justify spending tons of money.

    4) It is not clear – at all – that there is evidence of harm to humans by GMO materials they consume

    5) So, it seems to me that the situation is complicated and unresolved, but there it does not seem to be any evidence yet of any harm done to humans

    6) That said, I don’t think we can say there are no safety issues, or that all that could be looked at has been looked at, or that we can confidently say there will never be issues or concerns with GMO safety. That does not mean that many or even all of the other concerns expressed by the anti-GMO crowd are valid

    7) What I would love to see is brainstorming by high-powered scientists – geneticists, biochemists, oncologists, microbiologists to draw up some “worst-case” analyses. Because, frankly, all I see on the internet is the science community digging in its heels on the issue and deriding (Dunning Kruger, eg) anyone who questions the status quo that there are zero concerns.

    8) And just in case I have not made it clear, I believe that GMO foods have enormous potential to improve the fate of billions and I would like to see them in use.

  26. praktik says:

    Gingerbaker – let me suggest a few sources to follow up on which you may enjoy.

    Layla unfortunately doesn’t post much on her blog anymore but she has a whole series of fascinating posts with great links to follow up on. I think you need to balance your informational take here.

    The issue is not so much that doubts or uncertainties exist – its the relative risk you place on these doubts.

    In the same review you excised quotes from, you took a few that talked about DNA fragments crossing the GI barrier and then neglected to copy this: “It can be concluded that transgenic DNA does not differ intrinsically or physically from any other DNA already present in foods and that the ingestion of transgenic DNA does not imply higher risks than ingestion of any other type of DNA ”

    Which followed a bit after the ones you posted.

    One way to look at it is imagining a giant, see-through glass aquarium with impenetrable glass and an impenetrable cover. Its filled with great white sharks.

    They can certainly hurt you – were you in the tank with them, if you had *exposure*

    When people talk about the risks from GMOs in scary ways they are basically acting like you’re in the tank with the sharks – when really you’re safely outside it – needing to eat inhuman amounts of GM crops to get any serious exposure to their related pesticides (if thats their claim). If their claim is something else about unknown “safety issues” and “no long term studies” then why aren’t they talking about the horrifying spectre of Big Kiwi, and the new protein that came about from conventional breeding – these products are pushed to market with a small fraction of the safety measures demanded for GE crops!

    Check out Layla’s post here on DNA, GMOs and the gut:

    Also a few other of my faves from her:


    Also really like THoughtscapism, the series on glyphosate is ESSENTIAL!

    FOr a look at how GE tech impacts farming,’s Marc Brazeau is just great at highlighting, holistically, what GE crops can mean for the environment, and how we should go about assessing overall ecosystem impacts:

    Novella’s own post here on the need for better crops – and soon! – is also essential reading:

  27. praktik says:

    Is there a cost for irrational fears of GE cultivars?

    Sure is – here paranoia about sugar derived from GE beets, chemically identical whether source is Roundup Ready Sugar Beets or Conventional or Organic, is likely to lead:

    – much more applications of chemical inputs on conventional sugar beet vs GE, as producers switch back to the worse option environmentally as consumers are demanding the worse option based on irrational fear
    – more days in the field for farmers applying this “chemotherapy” for beets
    – less areas under conservation tillage
    – more importing of sugar from sugar cane – which has a much higher carbon footprint, especially if sourced from the developing world where burning cycles are more frequent.

    Its important that risk be balanced appropriately – else we are likely to endure higher costs – socially, environmentally and materially, to produce less/worse products. Thats what happens when you base policy on fear, not evidence

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