Study suggests science education improves attitudes about GMO food

By Joan Conrow

January 24, 2019

New unpublished research has found that teaching people the science behind genetic engineering leads to more positive attitudes toward GM foods — upending the belief that facts don’t change minds in the GMO debate.

The important element appears to be which facts are shared, and how.

“Our results show that providing members of the public with weekly modules of factual and value-free knowledge results in increased acceptance of GM foods,” the researchers wrote.

“These results also provide a relatively simple mold for future interventions to overcome GM skepticism, suggesting that researchers and scientists may wish to focus on communicating the basic science behind GM technology and increasing science literacy,” according to the pre-print abstract.

Previous studies focused on communicating that GM foods are low in risk or beneficial, an “approach that ultimately resulted in more polarized attitudes towards GM foods, possibly because the communications triggered a reactance response by confronting subjects with value-laden information without addressing the root-causes of skepticism,” the researchers wrote.

The new research suggests that “if efforts are to be made to change attitudes by communicating scientific information, this information should be presented in a neutral fashion which avoids confronting people with new, disagreeable opinions or facts which threaten pre-existing beliefs and convictions,” the paper states.

Public opposition to GM foods has been harsh — and attitudes towards GM foods divide the public from scientists more than any other topic, including widely divisive ones such as climate change or vaccinations, the paper states.  However, very little research has been done to understand why.

“The research that does exist has focused on identifying the role of immutable beliefs, such as morality and politics, which are difficult to change. Therefore, research may benefit from identifying mutable predictors of science rejection—predictors which can be modified through interventions—so efforts can be made to increase public support for scientific advancements,” the paper states.

The researchers conducted four studies to investigate whether illiteracy about GM technology was a strong and unique predicator of GM food skepticism. Results from the first two studies found that it was, while the third study demonstrated that this predicator was consistent in the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

The first three studies were correlational — designed as a foundation for understanding how to change attitudes. The researchers then conducted a final study to inform a causal understanding of the relation between GM-specific knowledge and GM attitudes. They sought to overcome the lack of knowledge by teaching people the basic science behind GM technology using a five-week, longitudinal experimental design.

Participants learned about the science behind genetics, DNA and modification procedures through freely available videos and infographics. The information presented was value-neutral and avoided “ideological” claims that GM food were safe or good. Instead, participants were encouraged to think about the information presented and make their own decisions about GM foods.

Meanwhile, participants in a control group learned about the science behind nutrition, metabolism, and how the body processes calories, fats, and vitamins, and other aspects of healthy eating.

By week five, those who were taught the science behind genetic engineering reported more positive attitudes toward GM foods, a greater willingness to eat GM products and lowered perceptions of GM foods as risky.

“Researchers and scientists may wish to revisit attempts to communicate the science behind their advancements,” the authors concluded. “Rather than combatting claims made by science skeptics and inundating the public with statements about the safety or benefits of their products, perhaps time and money is better invested in basic but targeted education to address the general underlying misconceptions about science.”

The authors went on to describe two applications of their research: informational campaigns and outreach efforts geared towards communicating domain-specific knowledge instead of combatting nonfactual claims in a defensive fashion; and a smartphone app that prompts people to read information about a certain topic or technology, presented in manageable modules.

The research was conducted by Jonathan McPhetres and Jennifer Brisson of the University of Rochester, Bastiaan Rutiens of the University of Amsterdam and Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University in Wales.