Scientific American: Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe
... In the paper, we identify several intuitions that may affect people’s perception of GMOs.Psychological essentialism, for instance, makes us think of DNA as an organism’s “essence” - an unobservable and immutable core that causes the organism’s behaviour and development and determines its identity. As such, when a gene is transferred between two distantly related species, people are likely to believe that this process will cause characteristics typical of the source organism to emerge in the recipient. For example, in an opinion survey in the United States, more than half of respondents said that a tomato modified with fish DNA would taste like fish (of course, it would not).
Essentialism clearly plays a role in public attitudes towards GMOs. People are typically more opposed to GM applications that involve the transfer of DNA between two different species (“transgenic”) than within the same species (“cisgenic”). Anti-GMO organizations, such as NGOs, exploit these intuitions by publishing images of tomatoes with fish tails or by telling the public that companies modify corn with scorpion DNA to make crispier cereals.
Intuitions about purposes and intentions also have an impact on people’s thinking about GMOs. They render us vulnerable to the idea that purely natural phenomena exist or happen for a purpose that is intended by some agent. These assumptions are part and parcel of religious beliefs, but in secular environments they lead people to regard nature as a beneficial process or entity that secures our wellbeing and that humans shouldn’t meddle with. In the context of opposition to GMOs, genetic modification is deemed “unnatural” and biotechnologists are accused of “playing God”. The popular term “Frankenfood” captures what is at stake: by going against the will of nature in an act of hubris, we are bound to bring enormous disaster upon ourselves.
Disgust also affects people’s attitudes towards GMOs. The emotion probably evolved, at least in part, as a pathogen avoidance mechanism, preventing the body from consuming or touching harmful substances. We feel repelled by things that possibly contain or indicate the presence of pathogens such as bodily fluids, rotten meat, and maggots. This would explain why disgust operates on a hair trigger: it is better to forego an edible meal under the misguided assumption that it is contaminated, than to consume sickening, or even lethal, food that is erroneously thought to be safe. Hence, disgust can be elicited by completely innocuous food. ...
... The impact of intuitions and emotions on people’s understanding of, and attitudes towards, GMOs has important implications for science education and communication. Because the mind is prone to distorting or rejecting scientific information in favour of more intuitive beliefs, simply transmitting the facts will not necessarily persuade people of the safety, or benefits, of GMOs, especially if people have been subjected to emotive, anti-GMO propaganda.
In the long run, education starting from a young age and specifically targeted at tackling common misconceptions might immunize the population against unsubstantiated anti-GMO messages. Other concerns can be addressed and discussed in the wider context of agricultural practices and the place of science and technology in society. However, for now, the best way to turn the tide and generate a more positive public response to GMOs is to play into people’s intuitions as well. For instance, emphasizing the benefits of current and future GM applications — improved soil structures because herbicide resistant crops require less or no tilling, higher income for farmers in developing countries, reduced vitamin A deficiency, virus and drought resistance, to name a few — might constitute the most effective approach to changing people’s minds. Given the benefits and promises of GM technology, such a change is much needed.
This is one of the most insightful articles I've read on the topic. I think his advice in the last paragraph is particularly important and needs to be heeded when dealing with any number of unjustified oppositions to factual realities - from climate change, to vaccinations, to nuclear power. Yet our propensity is to just shout the facts louder and to use opposition to the facts as a rallying cry for our tribe versus the "anti-science" dolts from the other tribe.