Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a controversial subject. While scientists almost universally agree that GM foods are perfectly safe, sometimes even beneficial, for human consumption (88 percent), very few laypeople agree (37 percent) – that is the largest disparity for any issue that has been tested in this way.
What's more, according to a paper recently published in Nature Human Behaviour, the laypeople most ardently against GM foods are also the people who know the very least about the topic, even if they themselves think otherwise. It's the perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (DKE).
For the study, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto, and the University of Pennsylvania surveyed more than 2,000 people from the US and Europe, asking them how they felt about GM foods and how much they thought they knew about them. They then went on to test their knowledge with a series of true and false questions.
Interestingly, the vast majority (over 90 percent) expressed at least some reservations about GM food. However, the stronger the reservations, the lower their score on the knowledge part of the experiment. Yet, and perhaps more curiously, those with the strongest reservations and lowest scores also reported being knowledgeable on the subject.
Lead author Phil Fernbach, a professor of marketing at UC Boulder's Leeds School of Business, called the results "perverse" but said they were "consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism".
"Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do," he explained in a statement.
I.e. they are victims of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a bizarre psychological phenomenon that affects us all to at least some extent, first described by social psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning back in 1999. It is an ignorance of ignorance whereby people with lower competence levels rate themselves more favorably, whereas those with higher competence levels will do the reverse.
The problem is, Fernbach and colleagues say, is that this DKE may prevent people who know less about scientific issues from seeking out new knowledge or being open-minded in light of new evidence – meaning they are likely to stay in the dark.
"Our findings suggest that changing peoples' minds first requires them to appreciate what they don't know," Nicholas Light, a Leeds School of Business PhD candidate and study co-author, said in a statement.
"Without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus."