Why GMO Myths Are So Appealing and Powerful

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 30, 2013 8:22 PM


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Guest post by Cami Ryan, a Canadian agricultural researcher: Last week, an executive with a biotech trade group asserted in an interview that it wasn’t too late to win the hearts and minds of consumers suspicious of genetically modified foods. Biotech advocates just need to do a better job of explaining the technology and its benefits. The headline for the piece read:

 It’s not too late to change the conversation on GMOs

While I admire this optimism and agree that we should continue to engage in conversations about GMOs, there are certain present-day realities that constrain our efforts to find common ground on this very controversial topic. At the top of this list is the sheer amount of information we are inundated with every day. Many of us are tapped into mobile technology. We are referred to as ‘just in time’ users (Rainie and Fox 2012). We account for 62% of the entire adult population who often look to online sources and online social networks for information. Anti-GMO interest groups have successfully leveraged these networks to disseminate misinformation and influence public opinion. Using carefully crafted words (frankenfoods!) and images (syringes in tomatoes), they create myths--GM corn causes cancer, fish genes have been forced into tomatoes or GM corn kills the larvae of monarch butterflies--that tap into people's fears about genetic engineering. When you combine these myths with our cognitive habits, things become even more complex:People are conspiratorial thinkers:Public Policy Polling (2013) conducted a survey earlier this year where (among other things) it found that 20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism while another 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot. As Maggie Koerth-Baker reported in her article in the NY Times last week: "Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness” where the human brain jumps into “analytical overdrive … in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative.” People think in ‘pictures’: We humans think in pictures in orderto visually organize and process information. To do this, we use parts of our grey matter that pulls together both the emotional and the creative facets of our brains (Bostrom and Clawson 2000). So, the myths, metaphors and images that are leveraged by interest groups to push an anti-GMO agenda are often visually compelling and can be powerfully influential (i.e. “Frankenfood”).

[Scary peppers.


People are pattern seekers:We humans like to ‘connect the dots’ …from A to B and everything in between. In fact, all animals do this. This is referred to as associational learning. According to Michael Shermer (1997), it is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise and it is how all organisms adapt to their environments. People are conformists:Ideological loyalties arise within our close personal networks where ideas are communicated and reinforced by the people around us. “People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand” (Entman 1989: 255). And, as Dan Kahan (2012) suggests, when an environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings - ones that announce that‘If you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them.’- humans will think that their lives will go much better if they just conform with the group. Additionally, humans not only source information from personal networks, we seek information that validates our beliefs. Psychologists refer to this as ‘confirmation bias’ (Plous 1993; Risen and Thomas 2007; Arceneaux 2012). We human beings are adaptable, social creatures and we are pattern seekers. Human behaviour suggests that we will always be dealing with mythmaking, magical thinking, and oppositional viewpoints – particularly around innovative (and new) technologies. Myths provide context and explanation during times of change. As Claude Levi-Strauss (1966) observed, myths offer gateways to a nostalgic past or to what may be perceived as a more promising future. What I find most compelling about what Levi-Strauss said – particularly in the context of the GMO debate – is his claim that mythmaking is, in and of itself, an act of power. We see this demonstrated over and over again by the anti-GMO movement with the success they have in perpetuating myths about biotechnology. Is it too late to change the conversation on GMOs? No, of course not. But I think that it may be a bit short-sighted to think that we will win the hearts and minds of a population. The best we can do is to continue to engage in and constructively counter the mythmaking of the anti-biotech activists. References: Arceneaux, Kevin. (2012). Cognitive Biases and the Strength of Political Arguments. American Journal of Political Science. Volume 56, Issue 2. Pps: 271-285 Bostrom, Robert P. and Vikki Clawson. (2000). "How People Think: Human Information Processing". Available online at: http://www.terry.uga.edu/~bostrom/How%20People%20think.doc. Accessed on: January 4, 2012. Entman, R. (1989). “How the Media Affect What People Think: An Information Processing Approach.” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 51, No. 2 (May, 1989), pp. 347-370. Kahan, D. (2012). Why we are poles apart on climate change, Nature, 488 (7411) 255 Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Plous, Scott (1993), The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, McGraw-Hill. Rainie, L. and S. Fox. (2012). Just in Time Information through Mobile Connections. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Report. Available online at: http://pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2012/PIP_Just_In_Time_Info.pdf Retrieved May 8. Risen, Jane, T. Gilovich. (2007). “Informal Logical Fallacies.” In Critical Thinking in Psychology (R. Sternberg, H.L. Roediger III, D.F. Halpern (eds)). Cambridge University Press. Pps: 110-130. Shermer, Michael. (1997). Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. Henry Holt and Company: New York.

Cami Ryan is a researcher with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan (Canada), and an outspoken advocate for agriculture and science. Follow Cami on Twitter and visit her blog, where she holds forth on agriculture and food-related issues.

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