Jonathon McPhetres, a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Rochester, admits he’s “personally amazed” what we can do with genes, specifically genetically modified food—such as saving papayas from extinction.
“We can make crops better, more resilient, and more profitable and easier for farmers to grow so that we can provide more crops around the world,” he says.
Yet the practice of altering foods genetically, through the introduction of a gene from a different organism, has courted controversy right from the get-go. While genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are considered safe by an overwhelming majority of scientists, including the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association, only about one-third of consumers share that view.
UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTANCE
In a series of studies, the team discovered that people’s existing knowledge about GM food is the greatest determining factor of their attitudes towards the food—overriding all other tested factors. In fact, existing GM knowledge was more than 19 times higher as a determinant—compared to the influence of demographic factors such as a person’s education, socioeconomic status, race, age, and gender.
In one study, using a representative US sample, participants responded on a scale of 1 (don’t care if foods have been genetically modified), 2 (willing to eat, but prefer unmodified foods), to 3 (will not eat genetically modified foods). Next, the team asked 11 general science knowledge questions—such as whether the universe began with a huge explosion; antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria; electrons are smaller than atoms; and how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun.
HOW TO OVERCOME THE SKEPTICISM?
The researchers followed up by conducting a five-week longitudinal study with 231 undergraduates in the US to test, first, if a lack of knowledge about GM foods could be overcome by teaching participants the basic science behind GM technology, and second if greater knowledge would alter attitudes. McPhetres worked with Jennifer Brisson, an associate biology professor, who vetted the students’ learning materials.
The team discovered that learning the underlying science led to more positive attitudes towards genetically modified foods, a greater willingness to eat them, and a lowered perception of GM foods as risky.
Their findings, the team argues, lend direct support for the deficit model of science attitudes, which—in broad terms—holds that the public’s skepticism towards science and technology is largely due to a lack of understanding, or absence of pertinent information.
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