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 |


DNA.

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.