Planet Earth

Risk, trust, and GMOs: can understanding fears help alleviate them?

Science SushiBy Christie WilcoxJan 30, 2015 7:24 PM


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Afraid of GMOs? Perhaps its time to evaluate why. It seems like the outcry against a potential trial of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has become a national news topic nearly overnight. Though Oxitec has been considering the plan for years, a recent town hall received attention from the Associated Press, and BOOM — suddenly, it seems like everyone is talking about GM mozzies. As I explained in my last post, the bulk of the conversation is centered around fear of GM technology, though the fears of "mutant DNA" causing human health problems are completely baseless. But the science doesn't seem to matter: people just don't trust GMOs, no matter what anyone says about them. Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released their annual Science and Society report (PDF), where they asked over 2,000 members of the general public and over 3,700 scientist members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for their opinions on a diversity of scientific issues. You might have thought that with how contentious debates about evolution or climate change can be, that scientists and the public would differ greatest on those issues. But the largest point gap by a good margin was whether GM foods are safe to eat: a whopping 88% of scientists unequivocally answered yes, while only 37% of the public agreed. And it's no wonder: the same survey found that only 28% of adults think that scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops. The public simply doesn't think that scientists have all the facts. In turn, the scientists feel that the public simply doesn't understand: 84% say that limited public knowledge is a major problem for science in general. In a way, the scientists are both right and wrong. The scientists are right when they say a lack of knowledge of science literacy is to blame. Part of the fear of genetic modification is rooted in the fact that the technology is complicated and hard to understand. We're all afraid of things that we don't know: when we were kids, most of us were afraid the dark. Fear of darkness is a completely normal fear because guess what? The unknown is scary. The gentle illumination provided by a night-light gives us control, allows us to see that there is nothing to fear in the void, and over time, we learn not to be afraid. But understanding the inner workings of genetic modification isn't as simple as flipping a switch. Even scientists in other fields don't always completely understand how genetic technologies work, just like I, as a biologist, am still somewhat baffled by quantum mechanics. But what do the scientists do in response to such fears? They say "trust us." They say it over, and over, and over again. Hell, I've said it. I've stated how The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, and every major scientific body in the world agree on the safety of GM crops. I've brought up that The Royal Society of Medicine stated unequivocally that there are no ill effects; that a combined statement from 14 Italian scientific societies and a joint document prepared by the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and the Third World Academy of Sciences concur as well. I've gone on and on about how there are more than 600 studies (>125 of which were independently funded) that show the extensive safety record of GM crops. Indeed, I've yelled it from the rooftops: there is ascientificconsensusthatGMfoodsare safe. But it's not just a matter of knowing, as many scientists would like to believe. They're wrong to think that the facts alone will sway. If simple data were enough to change minds, there would be no climate skeptics, no antivaxxers, and no one fundamentally opposed to genetic modification. The public's belief that scientists don't know the consequences of genetic modification reveals what really underlies the overwhelming distrust of GMOs. It isn't a lack of information: it's a misunderstanding of risk. Though we like to think highly of our rational minds, human beings are actually terrible at assessing risk. Think about it: we're far more scared of sharks than cars, though the former kills a minute percentage of the people that the latter does every year. In terms of potential harms, the people of Florida have more to fear from mosquito-vectored tropical diseases than they do from GM mosquitoes. Instead, many are far more afraid of scientifically impossible side effects of genetic modification than the very real danger of dengue and chikungunya outbreaks. It's not rational. But human beings don't determine risk rationally — we do it emotionally. Emotionally speaking, we care more about loss than gain. A lot more. If we make a pro-con list of whether to do something or not, for example, rational thought would suggest that as soon as the pros outweigh the cons, we should go for it. But empirical estimates Žsuggest that losses are weighted about twice as strongly as gains, which means that the benefits of technologies like genetic modification are often overlooked and devalued when compared to the potential downsides. This phenomenon, called loss aversion, also means that even the perception of a potential loss, no matter how factually unfounded, has strong emotional pull. Thus, the way humans assess risk, saying GM crops will improve yields doesn't feel like a strong reason to support them, but even the slightest chance they could cause disease is more than enough reason to fear them. We also have a hard time with things that are different, foreign, and 'un-natural'. It's termed an "appeal to nature", and it's one of the core rhetorical arguments against genetic modification. I've never seen a very convincing explanation for why we are so averse to our own creations, why as a species, we seem to instinctually trust that which is natural versus that which is man-made. We automatically equate "natural" with "good" and "safe", though there is no logical reason to do so. Our homes, clothes, even shoes are unnatural, yet we do not seem to mind. Meanwhile the most deadly substances known to man (tetrodotoxin, botulinum toxin) are made by other species, yet we tend to think of 'organic' and 'all-natural' to mean healthy and harmless. And when it comes to technological advances, our appeal to nature factors into how we assess risk: we tend to assign greater risk to our synthetic achievements than they actually deserve. That we appeal to nature seems particularly bizarre given that we also tend to prefer that which we can control and fear that which we cannot. We are scared of GMOs, in part, because we cannot see them. GM crops and animals look exactly like their counterparts, and the idea that we cannot tell the difference to make our own choices is terrifying. It should be a comfort that there are no differences — it's a testament to the success of the technology — but it means that we must loosen our grip. Actually, one of the best arguments I've ever seen for labeling GMOs is that it will reduce this facet of people's fears; that giving back that littlest bit of control may be enough to change the way we evaluate the risk of genetic technologies. Some think that if labels were mandatory, consumers would soon forget they were there, like most do with nutrition labels on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps ironically, it's the potentially-irrational fears of companies that they'll lose business (which as I mentioned, is a very emotionally charged fear) that have led to such heated legal battles over labeling. The fear caused by lack of control goes beyond labels, too: indeed, the general public has no control over basically any aspect of GMOs. They do not control the companies that produce them. They don't control which types of GMOs are made, or where they are tested. Everything is in the hands of companies and governments, both of whom are thought to be easily corrupted by money. There is limited trust of both the producers of GMOs and those that oversee them, and that lack of trust breeds fear. Trust is vital when it comes to assessing risk. The truth is, while we think we make our own decisions, by and large, we base our beliefs on those we know and trust. Human beings are prone to in-group bias, where we tend to view those we consider like us more favorably (a natural us-versus-them attitude), and we often adapt our morals and beliefs to those around us, our 'tribe'. We not only absorb beliefs from those around us, we ingrain our beliefs into our very self-images. We adjectivize. We don't hold beliefs, we are our beliefs. We don't approve or disapprove of abortion — we are Pro-Choice or Pro-Life. Evolutionarily speaking, our tribal nature makes sense. We depend on others from birth for survival; thus there's a reason going against the grain is often called "social suicide". To disagree with those close to you is to risk banishment or abandonment. Which is why when someone you trust — your mother, your best friend, or even a celebrity you relate to — suggests that Oxitec's mosquitoes could inject GM DNA into you, you're more likely to ignore the facts and empathetically feel their fear. And once we've made up our minds, we stop evaluating the arguments against our opinions. We stop lining up the facts for each side, and fall victim to what is called "confirmation bias": the tendency to view information that agrees with our preconceptions regardless of whether it's true. We do it in little ways, like believing a smile means your crush is into you, or googling to show that headaches and nausea really could mean you have cancer before going to the doctor to find out what's wrong. Then there are those who use a snowstorm as proof against global climate change. To this day, there are those that staunchly defend the infamous Seralini rat study, even though countless scientists have shown how deeply flawed it is (the study was retracted by the original journal, and then republished by another without peer-review — a huge no-no in science circles). Combine a lack of knowledge, loss aversion, appeals to nature, desire for control, tribalism, and confirmation bias, and it suddenly is quite obvious why so many are scared of GMOs. It also explains why scientists aren't: many not only understand the genetics involved, they work with GMOs. Modified bacteria are used to teach lab courses, and altered mice, bacteria, and other model organisms are used to study disease. They're familiar, not foreign, thus there's no fear of the unknown and less of a feeling of lost control. But perhaps most importantly, the culture of academia is one which is supposed to stand in support of technology, to be innovative and forward-thinking. Appeals to nature don't as easily sway, as scientists are taught to trust the facts, divorce emotions from our decisions, and be 'unbiased'. And, of course, we are not immune to tribal associations, but in our case, our colleagues and leaders are the ones designing GMOs or analyzing the data to evaluate them, not warning against them. What's less clear is how to close the gap — how to get scientists and the general public on the same page when it comes to genetic modification or any technology for which denialism runs deep. There's clearly a disconnect, and it will take more than simply stating the facts to bridge the divide. What we have learned from social science is that our fears are complex and driven by a myriad of factors. Perhaps if we can acknowledge within ourselves just how far our emotions have pulled us from rationality, we will finally be able to have a real and meaningful conversation about GMOs. Tomorrow, I'll be on CBS This Morning explaining exactly why "Frankenmosquitoes" are not going to mutate human DNA, lead to catastrophic environmental impacts, or otherwise cause any harm whatsoever, and instead, have the potential to prevent major disease epidemics. Those are the facts. And while I know that they aren't enough, I hope that they're a start.

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