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Viewpoint: Scientific ignorance fuels skepticism of crop biotechnology

How can you identify a scientifically ignorant person? Ask him if he’s concerned about the health effects of GMOs. If the answer is yes, you’ve identified somebody who probably couldn’t pass an 8th grade science test.

Too harsh? Not according to Pew, which just released the results of a survey that showed that 49% of Americans said GMOs are bad for your health. Here’s the truly jaw-dropping finding (emphasis added):

The survey finds a 10-percentage-point increase in the share of adults who say foods with GM ingredients are worse for one’s health from a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, when the share was 39%. The uptick in concern has come primarily among those with low levels of science knowledge; there has been no shift in this belief among those with high levels of science knowledge (based on a nine-item index of factual knowledge across a range of topics).

There’s no nice way to put this. The scientifically ignorant are driving society’s science debates.

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Dumber and Dumberer

A few years ago, I reported on a study that found that people who were uninterested in science were the ones who were most fearful of it. I wrote that they “believe that science causes more problems than it solves, believe that humans should not tamper with nature, [and] feel that technology advances too quickly for them to understand.”

That paper’s finding was in complete agreement with the results of the new Pew study. And it adds to the growing narrative that one of the biggest threats to science comes from a society that remains willfully ignorant about it. How can we educate people about science if they don’t want to be educated?

Related article:  Can AI-enhanced plant breeding deliver high yielding non-GMO crops?

Even worse, there are plenty of people who are willing to make a quick buck by cashing in on the public’s ignorance. That’s why products like gluten-free water and GMO-free salt are on store shelves. The makers of those products know fully well that they are deceiving a public that largely doesn’t know what gluten and GMOs actually are. And because junk science itself has become a profitable industry, there’s little financial incentive to properly educate Americans.

It’s simply a truth of human nature that we are far more motivated by fear than by gratitude. That’s why political campaigns are almost universally about how horrible the other candidate is. It’s much easier to get a person to vote against someone (out of fear) rather than for someone (out of gratitude).

The bottom line, then, is that science debates are actually a struggle against human nature. And that is one tough thing to overcome, but it can be done.

Dr. Alex Berezow is a Senior Fellow of Biomedical Science at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @alexberezow

This article originally appeared at the American Council on Science and Health as The Scientifically Ignorant Drive GMO Debate and has been republished here with permission.

4 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Scientific ignorance fuels skepticism of crop biotechnology”

  1. I hope that among the educated people who are concerned about the health effects of GMOs there are some considering the effects upon the plants and animals themselves. It really doesn’t scare me to think of eating GMOs; after all, the many additives and processings we submit our food to are probably much worse. I’m concerned about the far-reaching effects upon lie on our planet. The increased use of pesticides on crops is one action that has already resulted. The requirement that farmers buy fresh seed every planting season from GMO-sourcing companies affect the cost of crops to farmers and consumers and those with back-yard gardens. If GMO crops are so stable genetically, are producers suggesting that the genetic modifications are not “permanent” or that self-breeding the crops will cause some genetic problem? Or, is this just another way to “recoup” the massive costs of developing GMO plants and animals–like pharmaceutical companies argue.

    Of course, introducing novel organisms into new areas could not be the concern. After all, the rabbits in Australia have probably learned by now not to cross the rabbit fence and kudzu certainly won’t continue to wipe out territory as it takes over the South. If you’ve not been to the southern US you may not know that “Kudzu is an invasive plant species in the United States. It has been spreading in the southern U.S. at the rate of 150,000 acres (61,000 ha) annually, ‘easily outpacing the use of herbicide spraying and mowing, as well increasing the costs of these controls by $6 million annually’ [from Wikipedia]”. Even if the GMO products don’t take over the world, they may push out other species that we might want in the future. Did the Irish potato famine or the grape crises in wine country affect humans?

    Yes, as a PhD in Genetics, I could probably be considered educated and I very much object to the typical American pattern of jumping headlong into new technology without considering the possible ramifications. Too bad so many educated and uneducated people believe all the glowing hype fed to them by companies only trying to make more money. .

  2. I must be one of the illiterate scientifically Ignorant people who question what people call science these days. If for example you take BT corn which in my humble understanding workes by blowing apart the intestines of insects, yet science claims it does no harm to the human gut. I wonder about the substantial increase in intestinal disorders over the last 20 years or so. This is not to mention that we know that glyphosate which is the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide paralyzes the gut. So when you say the people who think genetically altered crops are not harmful to humans. I tend to think your science is influenced by the company’s bottom line… Just my opinion from the facts available to me.

  3. Most people have no idea how far GMO has gone, there is virtually no item we stuff into our mouths that isn’t a GMO product of some sort. People also weren’t paying much attention in their biology classes either. An insects digestive system bears no resemblance to any mammals digestive system. Want to go back to the dark ages and constant famine, want to go back to getting a 2/3 less production from the land crops are planted on, want to have everything in your cupboards infested with insects eating your groceries? Well then let’s get rid of GMO. Poor dietary habits and poor choices in what goes in your cake hole are the real problem with digestive issues people are suffering from and I don’t see much of that. Take a look at pictures from the 40’s and 50’s and see how fat and jolly the population was.The average 18 yr old soldier in WWI was 5’7 and had an expanded chest of 38 in. Most teenage girls are bigger than that today. Oh yea another class everyone apparently skipped, home economics!! You know the one that taught meal planning, healthy cooking and other proper nutritional techniques that actually involved making supper other than pizza, burgers and fries. GMO’s aren’t the problem, the educational system is the problem.

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