Political Ignorance

Public Ignorance and GMO Foods

Fear of GMO foods is an example of the broader problem of political and scientific ignorance.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


In a recent Washington Post op ed, Purdue University president and former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels highlights the dangers of the campaign to ban or severely restrict genetically modified (GMO) foods:

Of the several claims of "anti-science" that clutter our national debates these days, none can be more flagrantly clear than the campaign against modern agricultural technology, most specifically the use of molecular techniques to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Here, there are no credibly conflicting studies, no arguments about the validity of computer models, no disruption of an ecosystem nor any adverse human health or even digestive problems, after 5 billion acres have been cultivated cumulatively and trillions of meals consumed….

Today, their scientific successors are giving birth to a new set of miracles in plant production and animal husbandry that cannot only feed the world's growing billions but do so in far more sustainable, environmentally friendly ways. And though the new technologies are awe-inspiring, they are just refinements of cruder techniques that have been used for centuries.

Given the emphatic or, as some like to say, "settled" nature of the science, one would expect a united effort to spread these life-saving, planet-sparing technologies as fast as possible to the poorer nations who will need them so urgently. Instead, we hear demands that developing countries forgo the products that offer them the best hope of joining the well-fed, affluent world….

For the rich and well-fed to deny Africans, Asians or South Americans the benefits of modern technology is not merely anti-scientific. It's cruel, it's heartless, it's inhumane — and it ought to be confronted on moral grounds that ordinary citizens, including those who have been conned into preferring non-GMO Cheerios, can understand.

Reason science writer Ron Bailey has some additional thoughts on Daniels' op ed and the enormous benefits of GMO foods here; see also this helpful review of the evidence by William Saletan of Slate. The point is not that all GMO foods are always good for you, but that there is no reason to treat GMO products as a class differently from more conventional food supplies.

As Bailey and Daniels note, the scientific consensus holding that GMO foods are no more dangerous than "natural" ones has not prevented large parts of the general public from concluding that GMO foods are somehow problematic, and should be either banned or severely restricted. Fear of GMO foods is part of the more general problem of widespread political and scientific ignorance. For example, surveys indicate that some 80 percent of Americans support the idea of mandatory labeling of "foods containing DNA," (see also here), even though DNA is the basic genetic building block of life, and is contained in nearly all foods. Not surprisingly, the percentage that believe DNA worthy of mandatory warnings is very similar to the percentage (84 percent) who endorse mandatory labeling of foods "produced with genetic engineering."

Much of what I said in my 2015 analysis of the DNA question is readily applicable to the ongoing debate over GMO foods:

The [DNA] survey result is probably an example of the intersection between scientific ignorance and political ignorance, both of which are widespread. The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don't really understand what DNA is, and don't realize that it is contained in almost all food. When they read that a strange substance called "DNA" might be included in their food, they might suspect that this is some dangerous chemical inserted by greedy corporations for their own nefarious purposes.

Polls repeatedly show that much of the public is often ignorant of both basic scientific facts, and basic facts about government and public policy. Just before the 2014 elections, which determined control of Congress, only 38 percent realized that the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives before the election, and the same number knew that the Democrats control the Senate. The public's scientific knowledge isn't much better. A 2012 National Science Foundation survey even found that about 25% of Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. Issues like food labeling bring together political and scientific knowledge, and it is not surprising that public opinion on these subjects is very poorly informed….

Political ignorance is not primarily the result of stupidity. For most people, it is a rational reaction to the enormous size and complexity of government and the reality that the chance that their vote will have an impact on electoral outcomes is extremely low. The same is true of much scientific ignorance. For many…, there is little benefit to understanding much about genetics or DNA. Most Americans can even go about their daily business perfectly well without knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun….

Unfortunately, this is a case where individually rational behavior leads to potentially dangerous collective outcomes. While it doesn't much matter whether any individual voter is ignorant about science or public policy, when a majority (or even a large minority) of the electorate is ignorant in these ways, it can lead to the adoption of dangerous and counterproductive government policies.

In this case, public ignorance can be exploited to promote efforts to ban or restrict GMO foods. For relatively affluent Americans and Europeans, that mainly means our food would be more expensive and less diverse than it could be otherwise. For many poor people in the developing world, it could mean worsening poverty, malnutrition, or even starvation. Even mere mandatory labeling of GMO foods can cause harm by increasing costs, misleading consumers, and exacerbating information overload.

In addition to simple ignorance, there is also a problem of bias in the evaluation of information. Both ordinary people and politicians have a strong tendency to overvalue any political information that fits their preconceptions, while downplaying or even rejecting anything that cuts against them. Some forms of policy-relevant scientific ignorance are particularly prevalent on the right, such as denial of the existence of global warming. Fear and suspicion of GMO foods, by contrast, is most common on the left. Both tendencies reflect the way in which these positions are congenial to adherents of particular ideologies. For example, fear of GMO foods dovetails with more general left-wing suspicion of corporate interests and with some strands of environmentalism.

Some might argue that voters should not defer to the views of experts on scientific questions such as GMO safety or global warming. After all, the experts might be biased or just simply wrong. While we should not just blindly defer to experts, there is good reason for a presumption in their favor in situations where the experts are opining on matters within their professional sphere, there is a broad expert consensus that cuts across ideological lines, and there is no good reason to believe that the experts (as a group) are somehow corrupt. I discussed the issue of when we should (and should not) defer to experts in more detail here and here.


NEXT: James Zogby: Calling Hummus "Israeli Food" = "Cultural Genocide"

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  1. Knowledge of anti-science is not “ignorance” but “false knowledge”

    1. Do you mean fake news, or alternative facts?

      1. Huh? I mean “study proves vaccines cause autism” and “roundup causes cancer”

  2. Bottled water should have the following warning:

    Warning:This product contains Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) a colorless and oderless chemical compound. Although the U.S. Government and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) do not classify DHMO as a toxic or carcinogenic substance, misuse can lead to asphyxiation, hyperhydration, and DEATH.

    1. I believe you are being sarcastic but, Carol Browner (VP Gore aide, Obama Environmental Czar) when she was Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, pushed for regulations that pouring bottled water into any lake or stream in Florida was a regulated and prohibited pollution. It was asserted to be an introduction of non-native water into the Florida aquifer and ecosystem. The fact that Nestle owned “Zypher Hills” bottled water is actually bottled in Florida in the town Zypher Hills was somehow was overlooked.

      1. Source, please? I haven’t been able to find a reference to this, though I’ve found stuff on Browner and “mission creep.”

      2. I’m not sure that’s completely wrongheaded. Bottled water is not necessarily unprocessed. I can see at least evaluating the effect of altered water on an ecosystem.

        Certainly your appeal to incredulity isn’t going to cut it.

        1. The occasional bottle of water into a large body of water won’t hurt the ecosystem (any more than the occasional boater that urinates into the water), but as you mention, bottled water could very likely have a different pH, different mineral content, different temperature, etc. from the water in the ecosystem such that if thousands and thousands of bottles were emptied into the body of water at one time, the ecosystem could be adversely affected.

          1. Strangely enough, you could say the same of rain.

            1. Except that rain is considered part of the ecosystem. Imagine a lake with a stream that feeds into the lake. The stream may be dumping water of a different temperature, pH and mineral content into the lake, but the stream and lake are part of the ecosystem and the plant and animal life will have adapted to it.

    2. I /love/ the DHMO stuff. For those not in the know, there’s an entire website devoted to the spoof, and it shows exactly how to mislead and terrorize the public about perfectly innocent stuff. BTW: (spoiler alert!): DHMO /is/ just water.


    3. Very deadly stuff. Kills more people than assault rifles every year.

    4. This is no laughing matter. DHMO is more addictive than nicotine, and the withdrawal symptoms are worse than heroin.

  3. The comments in the WaPo article are hilarious.

  4. While I agree that much of the opposition to GMOs is based on ignorance, I am skeptical of some of the more flamboyant examples in this article. For example, I do not believe that “25% of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun”. Some Americans? Sure. One in four? No way.

    I think it is far more likely that some fraction – probably a quite large fraction – of respondents simply wanted to screw with the pollsters and deliberately gave wrong answers. Regardless of my belief, I’ve reviewed that particular poll and their methodology did nothing whatsoever to rebut or even assess that possibility.

    With all due respect, I suspect that many of the other polls cited in this article are subject to the same criticism. I am not convinced that ignorance, whether scientific or political, is actually as bad as those polls imply.

    1. I can understand why you believe that. You are surrounded by friends, family, co-workers, colleagues who are all part of that 75% of the population that knows the Earth revolves around the sun. You probably haven’t talked to a single person in the past year that would be part of the 25%. Thus, you have a huge personal bias to not believe the poll because it makes no sense when literally every person you interact with (100%) knows about the Earth’s orbit.

      But, I hate to break it to you, but there are millions and millions of people in the United States that are largely hidden from your view and are as ignorant as a box of rocks.

    2. “…did nothing whatsoever to rebut or even assess that possibility.”

      What do you want them to do to assess that possibility? And what data are you relying on for the assertion that poll respondents are messing with pollsters?

  5. Seriously? Speaking of public ignorance. There is no such thing as “scientific consensus” in science; it is a made up, political term just like assault rifle!

    1. Assault rifle is a real term (although often misused). I think you meant to say “assault weapon.”

    2. Both “scientific consensus” and “assault rifle” are real measurable things.

  6. As a person that grew up on a farm, and then have spent the entirety of my 45 years of employment working in retail agriculture, I have followed the lying enviromental movement closely. Wide swaths of the movement are propoganda.GMO? Its been going on since the discovery of hybridization. Something the left refuses to acknowledge. Just one example is the use of Bovine somatotropin (BST). I was working in NE Iowa and SW Wisconsin. Heavy Dairy country. The Vets in the area were having a hard time, laundering Cash. Dairymen were buying the BST with cash, to hide it from their wives, because they were more prone to the propaganda. Anyway, all of the disasters predicted by the enviro-wackos, came up as zeros. So the next time they spout some nonsense about enviromental doom, ask them about BST

  7. I did a research project in 2001 on the safety of GMO foods, and came to the same conclusion that GMO foods are completely safe. Having said that, I can appreciate a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to people believing scientists about food claims. I grew up at a time when scientists convinced people to replace butter with margarine. I’m also not convinced at all that artificial sugar substitutes are completely safe. Just like with pharmaceuticals, there’s so much money and lobbying behind the scenes that everyone should be skeptical about the safety of anything going into their body.

    1. scientists convinced people to replace butter with margarin

      Why is this your example? In the not so recent past smoking was considered “healthy”. That advice was based on the data of the time. Guess what? Times change. We learn and we adapt.

      Its ok to be skeptical. Its not ok to summarily dismiss the scientific consensus because of your “feelz”.

      1. Margarine was my example because it occurred in my lifetime. Smoking may be another example, but I don’t believe there was ever a scientific consensus that smoking was healthy. Regardless, smoking has been known to be unhealthy long before I was born.

        And I agree that scientific consensus should not be summarily dismissed.

      2. In the not so recent past smoking was considered “healthy”.

        What do you consider “the not so recent past”?

        Cigarettes were called “coffin nails” 120 years ago

        1. I’m sorry, I misread you: “the not so recent past” does mean “a long time ago” and from the context I guess I read it as “the recent past”

  8. One of the biggest differences between the world of the Enlightenment and today is that the enlightenment era saw the world as easily intelligible by reason. People could be expected to use reason and science to understand and control the world safely and reliably.

    Today, we recognize that the world is much more complex and harder to predict than we had thought. Whereas before we thought the world could be understood through general laws based on average behavior, it now appears that much of natural and human history is based on extreme events – rare events that result in major changes. Evolution in particular is very hard to predict ex ante. Nicholas Taleb introduced the Taleb distribution, which results in a small gain nearly all the time and a very large loss very occasionally. He said that human beings have a hard time assigning a weight to a very small risk of very large loss. Our tendency is to ignore it.

    All this makes obscurantism much more rational than it would have been a century before. Indeed, only a couple of generations ago scientists would have scoffed at the idea that fossil fuels could result in global warming, antibiotics would result in speeding up bacterial evolution and creating superbugs, etc., regarding this as anti-science. We used to believe there was a fixed, static world out there we could study and control. We had no idea how dynamic and resistant to our controls it has turned out to be.

    1. Cont.

      Our recognition of how complex the universe is means awareness we are much more ignorant of the consequences of our actions than we once thought. The universe is far less intelligible, our reason far less able to lead us to reliable predictions, our confidence in our certainties less justifiable, than we had previously imagined.

      For this reason, strong risk aversion is a rational course. It may not be the correct course. But we don’t know this with any certainty, and certainly not with enough certainty to classify our risk profile as obviously correct and strong risk aversion as ignorance. Taleb suggests we might be the ones ignoring the potential form obscure disasters.

      Our ability to experiment with the universe is limited. We can’t simply call a new one into being if the one we have goes.

  9. Carry on, clingers.

  10. People answer poll questions based on assumptions about what the pollster means, not based on the literal wording of the question. It doesn’t make sense to ask if foods containing DNA should be labelled, so they’ll answer as if they were asked about foods containing modified DNA, even if the question as written doesn’t contain the word “modified”.

    I once saw a box taking donations for breast cancer. I’m pretty sure that everyone who put anything in the box did so because they read that as “fighting breast cancer”, and were not actually cancer supporters.

    This has nothing to do with political ignorance, or any ignorance.

    1. You think most people know the existence of “modified” DNA, let alone what the term even means?

  11. This is the first time I’ve heard about a DNA survey on plants. What I have heard of is GMO that resist glyphosate(Roundup). I have used Roundup and it does kill plants and the area in which it is used may recover. Roundup works by penetrating the plant and travels to the root system. What people, including myself, are concerned about is how much Roundup residue remains in the Roundup resistant GMO plants. If you think Roundup is safe for human consumption, take a sip or two and post a comment new years day 2019.

    1. There a “sip or two” of Roundup in the average rhubarb?

  12. False equivocation on GMOs and “global warming”, which has since been relabled “climate change” in order to include climate data not conforming to the “global warming” paradigm…

  13. I’m not buying this nonsense. GMO cannot be justified by the need for greater food production. There are other technologies that can be used to increase food production. Hydroponics is in its infancy. Plants can be aerated to supply higher concentrations of oxygen & CO2, which can greatly increase food production.

    We don’t need carcinogenic technologies to meet the greater need for food.

    1. “Carcinogenic technologies” according to Bill Goode, and literally nothing else.

  14. I think part of the problem is that “big science” is not nearly as trustworthy as it used to be, even though it produces more facts than in the past. The scientific process has become such a large endeavor that it suffers from maladies associated with this.

    For example, scientists tend to be judged on metrics such as citation scores, rather than from direct understanding of the value of their work. Metrics are the tools of large organizations, and they often lead, as in science, to gaming the system.

    Also, our worship of science has led society to demand answers even when the science has not yet advanced to the state where it can give them. Hence, climatology has been corrupted with vast amounts of money focused specifically on the global warming hypothesis (since re-branded as “global warming”). This sort of corruption weakens the science, as it incentivizes quick answers where scientific inquiry has not (or may never be able to) produced solid results.

    All of this leads the public to rationally, not based on ignorance, distrust pronouncements on public policy from the scientific establishment. Unfortunately, rational ignorance comes in because while it is rational to distrust the pronouncements, few have the time or perhaps the ability to get reliable information from the existing science. And, of course, the distrust opens the door to charlatans outside of valid science, whether credentialed scientists or quacks.

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