People who know a lot about genetically modified foods are inclined to agree with the scientific consensus that such foods are safe to eat. But, those who know plenty about global warming are cautious about the science that says humans cause the phenomenon, a new University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences study shows.
Furthermore, the study showed some people still make what researchers call "illusionary correlations," such as "genetically modified foods cause autism."
Perhaps science communication should address people's perceptions about illusionary correlations versus their knowledge of global warming and genetically modified foods, said Brandon McFadden, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of food and resource economics and author of the study. Merely providing people with information is insufficient to change behavior, McFadden said.
Genetically modified (GM) foods are defined by the World Health Organization as foods derived from organisms whose genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, for example, through the introduction of a gene from a different organism. Most genetically modified crops have been modified to be resistant to plant diseases or to increase tolerance of herbicides, according to the WHO website (http://www.who.int/topics/food_genetically_modified/en/).
McFadden cited in his paper a recent Pew Research Center survey of scientists and the U.S. general public. Most of the scientists (88 percent) agreed that GM foods are safe to eat, compared to 37 percent of U.S. adults. The survey also found that most scientists (87 percent) agree that human activities cause global warming, compared to 50 percent of American adults.
McFadden wanted to know more about the reasons for the gap between public opinion and scientific consensus.
In a study published Nov. 9 in the online journal PLOS ONE, McFadden surveyed 955 people online to measure their actual and perceived knowledge about genetically modified food and human-caused global warming.
McFadden asked any array of questions. Among those questions trying to find out participants' knowledge about genetically modified food, he asked "true/false" questions such as: "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do." Only 31.9 percent said that was true.
He also asked questions to measure illusory correlations such as, "To what extent do you agree with the following statement: 'Genetically modified crops have caused an increase in food allergies.'" To that, 36 percent either agreed or strongly agreed.
And there were several questions about global warming, including: "True or false: The greenhouse effect is the same thing as global warming." Some 45 percent said this was true.
"Intuitively, it would seem that greater knowledge would be associated with being more agreeable with science," McFadden said. "Indeed, individuals with greater knowledge are more agreeable with science in general; however, people with greater knowledge become less agreeable when the issues are contentious."
Materials provided by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Original written by Brad Buck. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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