Last year, the late night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel added some levity to the contentious GMO debate. He went to a Los Angeles farmers market and asked passerby to define GMO. The responses were hilarious and perhaps revealing.
Of course, this was a comedy skit, so make what you will of the ignorance on display. Did the producers cherry pick the most most ridiculous sounding answers? Surely. Were there as many folks who answered correctly that got conveniently edited out? Who knows?
Still, the random responses elicited by Kimmel seem to be in line with recent research. A 2013 paper on American attitudes towards GMOs reported these survey results:
American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GMO foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.
Now let’s jump to a new Pew poll that is getting widespread media coverage. Here’s one finding.
— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) January 29, 2015
Well, that’s interesting. According to Pew, 2/3 of Americans doubt that scientists have enough information to judge the safety of GMOs. And yet previous (aforementioned) research suggests that more than half of Americans know zilch about genetically modified foods and a quarter never even heard of them. How is that so many people are clueless about genetically modified foods and yet–according to the Pew Survey–67% percent of Americans question whether scientists know enough about their health effects?
Indeed, as this article in Nature reports, the Pew poll
seems to reveal large gaps between scientists and the public when it comes to their opinions on a range of hotly debated scientific issues, such as climate change, evolution and the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.
The gap is widest on the GMO issue. [UPDATE: Read Dan Kahan’s take on this and the whole Pew report]
The Nature piece by Erika Check Hayden includes excellent context on the Pew poll, as does this Atlantic article by Julie Beck and this one at FiveThirtyEight by Christie Aschwanden. Read these before you take the Pew results at face value. Dan Vergano at National Geographic also provides some larger perspective:
Over the last decade, public opinion researchers such as Yale’s Dan Kahan have found that people’s views on many scientific issues, such as climate and evolution, are largely driven by their cultural views. Sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University in Philadelphia likewise found that when political leaders change their views on climate change, voters are more likely to be swayed than they are by the voices of scientists.
In an editorial accompanying the publication of the Pew report, Alan Leshner, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), writes:
Acceptance of scientific facts is not based solely on comprehension levels. It can be compromised anytime information confronts people’s personal, religious, or political views, and whenever scientific facts provoke fear or make people feel that they have no control over a situation. The only recourse is to have genuine, respectful dialogues with people.
(By the way, if the latest Pew report seems vaguely familiar, yes, we have been down this road before–in 2009.)
Below are links to additional media coverage.