Attitudes toward genetically modified crops & science

By Razib Khan | June 23, 2012 12:20 pm

In the further interests of putting quantitative data out their instead of vague impressions, I noticed two GSS variables which might be of interest. One queries the impression of effect on the environment of genetically modified crops. The second asks about whether science does more harm than good. The latter question exhibited almost no year to year variation of note, so I just threw them in a pot together. But for the environment and genetically modified crop question I show responses for the year 2000 and 2010. As you can see there is a modest difference in regards to the first where liberals are more skeptical.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis
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  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    I am more than a little amazed there’s so little difference between ideological groups. I wonder what on earth is going on there, since otherwise there do seem to be big differences…

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #1, say more about otherwise.

  • Matthew Rigdon

    The devil’s in the details. The questions asked may be priming people a certain way and there’s more to this than just the science in America.

    Enough people have worked for corporations where someone screws up and buries the evidence or shifts blame. While evolutionary forces can create dangerous crops (poisonous mushrooms abound), we know there’s nothing we can do, so who cares? We know from this that you can certainly create poisonous corn or wheat, etc, and people may be responding from a fear of what goes wrong in a corporate environment (although most of the corporate malfeasance people are familiar with involves a copier. However, we extrapolate from personal experience. If my cubemate is photocopying his butt, imagine what the guys in the lab are doing…)

    It would be instructive to try and figure out how our particular market for genetic crops factors in to people’s feelings about science. My concern with GMOs (my mother has a farm, so this could affect my family) is the patents and legal rulings around GMOs. If a neighbor plants a Monsanto crop and it spreads over to our property (something that can’t be controlled), suddenly Monsanto has a legal claim to my mother’s property because SHE didn’t buy a license (there are also issues concerning how you can’t legally replant that crop, you have to buy all new seed). When people see that article in the news, I wonder how much of that scenario they blame on the American patent and legal system, and how much they blame on science.

  • http://@theogonia31 Shashi

    #1 Gwern, I too would like to know these big differences.

    I suspect that if you ignore data about usual ‘hot button’ issues (abortion, etc) (that members of both ideological camps have bought into wholesale to the point where they are almost ‘movements’) then we won’t find much difference. Specially if these questions are abstractly framed or are too general to evaluate on the fly . My hunch is that people more readily access the heuristic “What did/would [my trustworthy source of most opinions] think about..” and they are more likely to never have answers ready for abstract/general questions because
    a) They don’t know what Obama/Bush would say or can’t recall from memory
    b) They won’t indulge in a long & cognitively expensive process of reasoning from first principles on the spot (refer to razib’s earlier post)

    Therefore, they would end up using intuition/feeling, getting similar answers regardless of ideological preference because people are equally ignorant (“on average”;)

    I don’t have any evidence to support this thesis but I am sure people here can evaluate based on what they know if this model works.

  • Tomasz R.

    The question about GMO is stupid. Shows problems with abstract thinking. There’s no single “GM crops” entity. Genetic modification is just a mechanism. It’s obvious that modifications that cause plants to produce toxins killing insects, or allows farmers to spray with extra doses of superchemicals are dangerous to the envrionment, while modifications that just cause plant to produce additional vitamins don’t pose as much danger.

    Is the process of genetic engenerring dangerous by itself? That would show how much people trust competence, honesty and knowledge of GMO providers (both corporations and scientists). Are they able to control everything (gene expression, gene transfers to other species etc.)?

  • DarwinCatholic

    Actually, I’m not super surprised by this. A percentage of the same conservative Christians who are against evolution are also against GMOs and are enthusiastic for “organic” produce and meat. Sometimes they root it in “messing with God’s creation” but other times its just basic luddism and idealization of an image of an agrarian past.

  • Tomasz R.

    @DawrinCatholic – this was not a question about health effects, which is a major factor in GMO opposition by consumers, but about environmental impact. This begs a question – have their checked if respondents were farmers, therefore the answer being a result from empirical experience, rather than just expressing an opinion?

    “Idealization of agrarian past” may also be a fading trend. We have “agriculture is evil” movements like a Paleo Diet that praises pre-agricultural food, and also extension of environmentalism to anti-agriculture (eg. Lierre Keith “The Vegetarian Myth”).

    Here Paleo Diet expert Robb hunts with Atlatl
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrHCpxoBcyU

    (Discovery – I caveman)

  • Isabel

    You don’t have to look hard for examples of “science” screwing up. Yet lay people are often considered “anti-science” for not jumping on the GMO bandwagon or for doubting any other scientific innovation. People were once told that refined sugar was a great source of calories, along with many other things that turned out not to be true. Yet anyone who even suspects HFCS is unhealthy today is tarred as anti-science. Coconut oil is bad for you, said (and till say) many peoples’ doctors. etc etc. How about the green revolution? Poisoning of freshwater systems by excessive nutrients flowing in from the fields?

    Big agriculture *has* led to a shittier diet for most Americans. This is fact, not sentiment. Sadly, the ag lobby is way too powerful. Eating less meat would definitely help the environment. There are many wonderful things about organic food (it promotes species diversity, at least on a local level) and growing your own vegetables is definitely accessible to nearly everyone. There are psychological as well as physiological benefits. I agree that GMO’s are probably not dangerous to health, and probably not to the environment either (and could have benefits) but I understand why people are concerned.

    It’s almost funny when scientists claim (I have heard this multiple times) that “that was then, it’s not like that now! Science is self-correcting!” Like instead of meaning “science will get it eventually” in terms of individual cases they interpret it to mean “science has perfected itself and you can believe everything we tell you now”. Recently a bunch a Monsanto employees were foaming at the mouth and piling on some non-scientist on Michael Eisen’s blog for doubting that scientists were always right and for saying things like she told her doctor not to prescribe anything that hasn’t been on the market for at least five years. Sounds sensible to me!

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    I wonder if the ideological differences are greater on matters about which people have no personal experience to base their opinions than on matters outside the range of their opinions.

    There used to be a saying that in some kinds of trials in Russia (I can’t remember which) you’d rather have peasants judging your case than city people because they knew how the real world worked and would ignore elite ideologies in making their decisions.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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