A new PEW survey does a deep exploration of public attitudes toward genetically modified organisms (GMOs), organic food, and scientific consensus. While the numbers are better than I thought they would be, perhaps indicating some progress, they still indicate a large disconnect between scientific and public opinion on food matters.

GMOs are safe

It is reasonable to take as a premise for understanding this survey that there is a strong scientific consensus that GMOs are safe for human and animal consumption. Every major scientific and medical organization that has systematically reviewed the published data (most of which, by the way, is independent from industry) have come to the same conclusion, that current GMOs on the market are safe and that there are no inherent risks to current technologies used to create GMOs. The latest such report, a 2016 review conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and discussed here on SBM in May, also concluded GMOs are safe.

In a 2015 Pew survey, 88% of scientists surveyed reported they felt GMOs were safe. That was higher than the 87% who reported they believed in man-made global warming. So arguably there is a stronger scientific consensus that GMOs are safe than there is for anthropogenic global warming.

At the same time there is no convincing evidence, after 50 years of research, that organic food is more healthful than conventional produce.

In that same 2015 Pew survey only 37% of US adults agreed with the statement that GMOs are safe to eat. That was a 51% difference in opinion between scientists and the general public, the largest gap of any issue covered in the survey.

As an aside, when discussing GMO safety and the healthfulness of organic vs conventional food many advocates will argue that many people choose organic or to avoid GMOs for reasons other than health, either environmental or reasons of social justice. However, this survey also found that 76% of people who choose organic do so for perceived health benefits. It’s also irrelevant to this discussion, which is about the public perception of the scientific consensus on health.

The New Survey

The new Pew survey goes into more detail about public attitudes toward GMOs, food in general, and scientists.

Of those surveyed, 39% reported that they felt GMOs were worse for health than conventionally grown produce, while 55% felt that organic produce was better for health. This is asking the question the other way around from the 2015 survey which found that only 37% of adults feel that GMOs are safe.

We cannot conclude that this means attitudes have changed from 2015 to 2016. It’s possible, for example, that in the current survey many people felt that conventional food was also unhealthy.

In any case, there remains a profound disconnect between public and scientific opinion on the issue of organic and GMO produce. This is likely the result of activist and marketing campaigns to both promote the more expensive and more profitable organic produce and to vilify anything GMO.

Interestingly, negative attitudes toward GMOs do not vary by any predictable demographic. Numbers were roughly equal across the political spectrum, and for gender, age, and income.

For the public GMOs are not a partisan issue (which is in stark contrast to other scientific issues, such are global warming, which are dominantly partisan). The same is not true, however, of the main political parties. The Republican Party has been consistently opposed to mandatory GMO labeling, while the Democratic Party has been largely for it.

If GMOs are not a partisan issue for the public, what factors do align with the false belief GMOs are not safe? Not surprisingly, of those who said that they follow the issue of GMOs closely and care about the issue, those who believe GMOs to be worse for health jumped from 39% to 75% and that organic food is better for health from 55% to 81%.

The survey does not capture the arrow of causation, however. It is possible that being misinformed about GMOs and organics raises the level of concern about these issues.

Distrust of science

One strong predictor of negative attitudes toward GMOs is negative attitudes toward scientists and a misunderstanding of the scientific consensus.

Of those surveyed, 53% stated they felt that half or fewer of scientists believed GMOs are safe, and 35% said they do not feel scientists understand the health effects of GM foods.

Only 35% said they trusted scientists “a lot” to provide full and accurate information on GMOs, while 43% said they trusted scientists “some” and 21% “not too much/not at all”.

Also, 30% of those surveyed said that scientists were influenced by industry concerns most of the time, and another 50% some of the time.

This is disappointing but not surprising. People distrust science for a variety of reasons, but the research shows that if people come to distrust science because of a political view they hold that is at odds with the scientific consensus, their trust in science in general also suffers.

We should therefore be very concerned about campaigns of misinformation about organic produce and GMOs. They not only confuse the public about the science, and the nature of the current scientific consensus, but they also weaken overall trust in science itself.

Such misinformation campaigns are arguably contributing to what is being called our “post-truth” society. In this world there is no consensus, only propaganda. There are no scientific facts, only opinions. You can accept any science that supports your position, and breezily dismiss any science that contradicts your position.

There are ready-made conspiracy theories to suit any purpose. Just play the “shill card” whenever evidence contradicts your position.

Science communication

Science communicators, including our own humble contributions, are trying to improve the situation, but clearly we need to be doing a better job.

On issues where there is a strong scientific consensus, we need to clearly and forcefully communicate that consensus and the underlying science. We additionally need to expose the tactics and illogic of the anti-science position.

Both factual knowledge and critical thinking skills are required to combat the many anti-scientific campaigns out there. We can have an impact, but it seems to require tireless vigilance over years or decades. We may be turning the corner on issues like homeopathy. We are just getting started correcting years of misinformation on GMOs.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.