Knowledge helps change GMO opinions

Science Notes: Skepticism toward science, technology largely due to a lack of understanding

The practice of altering foods genetically through the introduction of a gene from a different organism has courted controversy right from the start.

While genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are considered safe by an overwhelming majority of scientists, including the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association, only about one-third of consumers share that view.

A team of psychologists and biologists from the University of Rochester, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Cardiff University in Wales, set out to discover if the schism could be overcome; that is, to see if consumers’ attitudes would change if the public understood the underlying science better.

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The short answer is “yes.”

The team’s findings were recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

“Political orientation and demographics inform attitudes and we can’t change those,” says Jonathon McPhetres, the study’s lead author who recently finished his PhD at the University of Rochester. Previous research has shown that more than half of Americans know very little or nothing at all about GM foods.

In a series of studies, the team discovered that people’s existing knowledge about GM food is the greatest determining factor of their attitudes toward the food — overriding all other tested factors. In fact, existing GM knowledge was more than 19 times higher as a determinant — compared to the influence of demographic factors such as a person’s education, socioeconomic status, race, age and gender.

The team replicated the U.S. findings in the United Kingdom and the Nether- lands, where opposition to modified food has tended to be higher than in the United States, and where GM food is highly regulated in response to consumer concerns.

The team found that specific knowledge about GM food and procedures is independent from a person’s general science knowledge — making the first (GM knowledge) a nearly twice as strong predictor of GM attitudes.

The researchers followed up by conducting a five-week longitudinal study with 231 undergraduates in the U.S. to test, first, if a lack of knowledge about GM foods could be overcome by teaching participants the basic science behind GM technology, and second, if greater knowledge would alter attitudes.

Their findings, argues the team, lend direct support for the deficit model of science attitudes, which, in broad terms, holds that the public’s skepticism toward science and technology is largely due to a lack of understanding, or absence of pertinent information.

McPhetres is now heading to Canada for a joint post-doctoral appointment between the University of Regina in Saskatchewan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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