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Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most

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There is widespread agreement among scientists that genetically modified foods are safe to consume and have the potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind3. However, many people still harbour concerns about them or oppose their use. In a nationally representative sample of US adults, we find that as extremity of opposition to and concern about genetically modified foods increases, objective knowledge about science and genetics decreases, but perceived understanding of genetically modified foods increases. Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most. Moreover, the relationship between self-assessed and objective knowledge shifts from positive to negative at high levels of opposition. Similar results were obtained in a parallel study with representative samples from the United States, France and Germany, and in a study testing attitudes about a medical application of genetic engineering technology (gene therapy). This pattern did not emerge, however, for attitudes and beliefs about climate change.
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Letters
https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0520-3
1Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA. 2Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO, USA.
3Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 4Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA,
USA. *e-mail: philip.fernbach@colorado.edu
There is widespread agreement among scientists that geneti-
cally modified foods are safe to consume1,2 and have the
potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind3.
However, many people still harbour concerns about them or
oppose their use4,5. In a nationally representative sample of
US adults, we find that as extremity of opposition to and con-
cern about genetically modified foods increases, objective
knowledge about science and genetics decreases, but per-
ceived understanding of genetically modified foods increases.
Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the
most. Moreover, the relationship between self-assessed and
objective knowledge shifts from positive to negative at high
levels of opposition. Similar results were obtained in a paral-
lel study with representative samples from the United States,
France and Germany, and in a study testing attitudes about a
medical application of genetic engineering technology (gene
therapy). This pattern did not emerge, however, for attitudes
and beliefs about climate change.
Genetically modified (GM) foods are judged by the majority of
scientists to be as safe for human consumption as conventionally
grown foods1,2, and have the potential to provide substantial benefits
to humankind, such as increased nutritional content, higher yield
per acre, better shelf life and crop disease resistance3—yet there is
substantial public opposition to their use around the world4,5. In the
United States, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 88% of
scientists thought GM foods were safe to eat, while only 37% of lay-
people thought so, the largest gap for any of the issues tested6. Public
opposition to science is often attributed to a lack of knowledge79.
However, findings on the association between knowledge and atti-
tudes about GM foods are mixed, and there is little evidence that edu-
cational interventions can meaningfully change public attitudes10,11.
Sometimes, they even backfire12,13. While research on opposition to
GM foods has primarily focused on what people actually know, it
is also important to consider what they think they know14,15. Self-
assessed knowledge is a strong predictor of attitudes, and people
tend to be poor judges of how much they know16. They often suffer
from an illusion of knowledge, thinking that they understand every-
thing from common household objects to complex social policies
better than they do17. This is why peoples sense of understanding
decreases when they try to generate explanations18, and why novices
are poorer at evaluating their talents than experts19. Gaining knowl-
edge in a domain often has the effect of revealing nuance and com-
plexity, hence reducing extremity of belief20,21. These results suggest
that extreme attitudes sometimes reflect low objective knowledge
paired with high self-assessed knowledge22,23. We examined the rela-
tionships between extremity of opposition to GM foods, objective
knowledge about science and genetics and self-assessed knowledge
about GM foods. We hypothesize that extremists will display low
objective knowledge but high subjective knowledge, and that the
gap between the two will grow with extremity.
In Study 1, we surveyed a sample of US adults (N= 1,000) rep-
resentative of the population for gender, education, income and
ethnicity. Hypotheses and analysis plans were pre-registered on
AsPredicted.org before data collection. Participants were either
assigned to a study about GM foods (N= 501) or climate change
(N = 499). We first present methods and results for GM foods, then
climate change.
In the GM food study (mean age (Mage) = 51.1 yr ; 56.7% female),
participants were first asked two questions to measure attitudes:
extremity of opposition to GM foods (1 = no opposition; 7 = extreme
opposition) and concern (1 = no concern; 7 = extreme concern).
Overall, 90.82% of respondents reported some level of opposition
to GM foods and 93.01% reported some level of concern. Responses
to these two questions were highly correlated (coefficient of correla-
tion (r) = 0.88; P < 0.0001; N = 501) and we averaged them to form a
measure that we call ‘extremity of opposition’ for the main analyses.
Consistent with previous research, there were no significant dif-
ferences in extremity of opposition between self-reported liberals,
moderates and conservatives5,24 (see Supplementary Information
for complete details of all methods and analyses not reported in the
main text).
Next, participants were asked to judge their understanding of
GM foods (‘self-assessed knowledge’), using instructions and a sin-
gle-item rating scale adapted from the cognitive science literature18.
Finally, we measured scientific literacy (‘objective knowledge’)
with 15 true false questions adapted from the National Science
Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators survey25, the
American Association for the Advancement of Science Benchmarks
for Science Literacy26 and recent work on the public understand-
ing of science2729 (for example, “Electrons are smaller than atoms”).
We measured responses to the objective knowledge questions on
a 7-point scale anchored by ‘definitely true’ and ‘definitely false’.
Participants were given 3 to 3 points depending on correctness.
For example, when a participant chose definitely true, they received
3 points if the correct answer was ‘true, and 3 points if the cor-
rect answer was ‘false. We summed points across all questions to
measure scientific literacy. For robustness, we replicated all analyses
after binarizing the scale and treating scores of 1 to 3 as correct and
scores of 0 to 3 as incorrect.
Five of the items in the scientific literacy scale refer to genet-
ics (for example, “All plants and animals have DNA”). We summed
responses to these items to create a genetics literacy subscale. For
robustness, we also replicated the analyses after removing the genet-
ics questions from the scientific literacy scale.
Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods
know the least but think they know the most
PhilipM.Fernbach 1*, NicholasLight1, SydneyE.Scott2, YoelInbar3 and PaulRozin4
NATURE HUMAN BEHAVIOUR | VOL 3 | MARCH 2019 | 251–256 | www.nature.com/nathumbehav 251
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... More educated [7,38], wealthier [38,39], less religious [40], and more liberal participants [37,39] would rate genetic technologies as morally better, other things being equal. Moreover, ethical approval of genetic technologies would be greater when participants know more about those technologies [3,41]. For example, people well versed in genetic technologies will understand the different implications embryonic vs. adult gene editing will have on the body and if it will or will not affect future offspring. ...
... For example, people well versed in genetic technologies will understand the different implications embryonic vs. adult gene editing will have on the body and if it will or will not affect future offspring. Relatedly, expecting that a finding for genetically modified foods generalises to genetic technologies, more extreme ethical judgments would align with greater presumed knowledge [41]. Participants were also expected to rate genetic technologies as morally better if they had prior exposure to genetic testing [38]. ...
... and recorded responses on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from "much less than others" to "much more than others. " Participants then completed a short test of their genetic knowledge, taken from [41], which prompted them to assess claims like "It is the father's genes that decide whether the baby is a boy or a girl. " ...
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Full-text available
Background Policy regulations of ethically controversial genetic technologies should, on the one hand, be based on ethical principles. On the other hand, they should be socially acceptable to ensure implementation. In addition, they should align with ethical theory. Yet to date we lack a reliable and valid scale to measure the relevant ethical judgements in laypeople. We target this lacuna. Methods We developed a scale based on ethical principles to elicit lay judgments: the Genetic Technologies Questionnaire (GTQ). In two pilot studies and a pre-registered main study, we validated the scale in a representative sample of the US population. Results The final version of the scale contains 20 items but remains highly reliable even when reduced to five. It also predicts behaviour; for example, ethical judgments as measured by the GTQ predicted hypothetical donations and grocery shopping. In addition, the GTQ may be of interest to policymakers and ethicists because it reveals coherent and ethically justified judgments in laypeople. For instance, the GTQ indicates that ethical judgments are sensitive to possible benefits and harms (in line with utilitarian ethics), but also to ethical principles such as the value of consent-autonomy. Conclusions The GTQ can be recommended for research in both experimental psychology and applied ethics, as well as a tool for ethically and empirically informed policymaking.
... Based on the information-deficit model, the present study investigated the role of scientific literacy on attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines and preventive behaviors. Scientific literacy is a cognitive factor depicting objective knowledge of science (Fernbach et al., 2019), though there have been debates on the precise definition (Miller, 1983). The information-deficit model assumes that a lack of scientific literacy contributes to negative attitudes toward science (e.g., Bak, 2001). ...
... The information-deficit model assumes that a lack of scientific literacy contributes to negative attitudes toward science (e.g., Bak, 2001). Relevant to the present study, a line of research has shown that scientific literacy is associated with attitudes toward biotechnology-related topics (Rutjens et al., 2018;Fernbach et al., 2019;McPhetres et al., 2019). For example, those who have lower scores on scientific literacy tend to show negative attitudes toward vaccines (Rutjens et al., 2018). ...
... The degree of scientific literacy was measured by objective knowledge about science (Fernbach et al., 2019). Participants asked 15 true−false questions on scientific literacy (e.g., "Electrons are smaller than atoms") adapted from Fernbach et al. (2019). ...
... The existing research pays more attention to examining the complete information processing model of consumers when they understand GM food and decide to purchase it, and then explains the cognitive style of people's attitude toward GM [7,8]. For example, some researchers hold that people tend to oppose GM products because they lack sufficient scientific knowledge but believe they have a wealth of knowledge about GM food [9]. Similar findings were also found in China, showing that consumers do not trust the claims made by the government and scientists, which constitutes a reason people do not choose genetically modified foods [6]. ...
... Numerous previous studies have looked at the trade-off between risk and benefit [11][12][13][14][15] or the impact of knowledge [9,10] on individuals' acceptance of GM foods. These studies help us better understand people's psychological processes when buying GM foods, and perceived risk is considered to be one of the most critical factors to predict people's attitude toward GM products. ...
Based on compensatory control theory, the aim of this study was to examine the effects of perceived control on people's acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods by using both correlational and experimental methods. Compensatory control theory proposes that the lower an individual's perceived control, the higher their need for structure, order, and certainty. Therefore, based on beliefs about GM foods that make some people less certain that those foods are as safe as traditional foods, we hypothesized that individuals with lower levels of perceived control are more inclined to reject GM foods. The analysis of questionnaire responses in Study 1 revealed that individuals' sense of control negatively predicted their risk perception of GM foods, while the need for structure played a mediating role. In Study 2, using a between-subject design, we manipulated participants' perceived control (higher vs. lower) and subsequently measured their risk perception and purchasing preferences for GM foods. The results in Study 2 show that under lower control conditions, individuals recognize higher risks related to GM foods, which, in turn, decreases their willingness to purchase GM foods. These results not only suggest that perceived control is a potential influential personal factor of the acceptance of GM foods but also extend the scope of the application of compensatory control theory.
... This bias may have real consequences for cases of acute misinformation, as a recent study found that a Dunning-Kruger effect for autism knowledge predicted opposition to mandatory vaccinations (Motta et al., 2018). In a related finding, self-assessments of knowledge are inversely correlated with actual knowledge and support for the scientific consensus on GMO foods (Fernbach et al., 2019). ...
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