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« MAPKIA! Episode #73: half-time update! | Main | "Politics & Science Webinar" Q&A: vaccine- & GM food-risk perceptions »

MAPKIA! Episode #73: What is the meaning, if any, of the correlation between vaccine- and GM-food-risk perceptions?! 

Winner's prize: an "Alfred E. Noumenal" t-shirt just like Manny's! (subject to availability)Well, it’s been a while, but GUESS WHAT . . . ?

That’s right--time for another episode of Macau's favorite game show...: "Make a prediction, know it all!," or "MAPKIA!"!

I’m sure none of you has forgotten the rules, but I’m obliged by the Gaming Commission to post them before every contest. So here they are:

I, the host, will identify an empirical question -- or perhaps a set of related questions -- that can be answered with CCP data. Then, you, the players, will make predictions and explain the basis for them. The answer will be posted "tomorrow." The first contestant who makes the right prediction will win a really cool CCP prize (like maybe this or possibly some other equally cool thing), so long as the prediction rests on a cogent theoretical foundation. (Cogency will be judged, of course, by a panel of experts.)

Well, “yesterday” I answered some questions from people who had tuned into the cool “Politics & Science” webinar—and sure enough, the answers only generated even more questions.

Actually, the discussion was mainly on Twitter, which of course is the ideal forum for any serious, scholarly discussion.

Over a set of exchanges, the issue of how vaccine-risk and GM-food-risk perceptions were related came up.  Knowing nothing, I of course confidently declared that the two obviously weren’t connected in any interesting way, which prompted @ScottClif to post this:


His data, he indicated, came from MTurk workers, who (if I’m understanding him correctly; I’m sure I am, because it’s pretty much impossible not to get what other people are saying on Twitter) responded to a set of items that he used to form composite “support for organic food” and “anti-vaccination belief” scales.

So I decided to see if I could reproduce something along these lines using CCP data. Here’s what I  came up with: 

Using the “Industrial Strength Risk Perception Measure,” the graph plots responses for “Vaccination of children against childhood diseases (such as mumps, measles and rubella)” and “Genetically modified food.”


There’s a relationship, all right.

The question is . . .

What sorts of individual characteristics or predispositions, if any, account for the observed relationship between vaccine- and GM-food-risk perceptions and what, if anything, can we learn about risk perceptions generally from this relationship?  

@ScottClif and @Jamesnewburg initiated the comparison by speculating that “disgust sensitivities” might explain variance in both risk perceptions & (@ScottClif surmised) link them.

I scoffed. Why?  Because I like to scoff.

But also because, specifically, I see both GM food risks and vaccine risks as defying ready explanation by survey means, although for different reasons: the former because members of the public know and care far too little about GM foods for their survey responses to support meaningful inferences about how they feel about them and why; and the latter because public opinion is so overwhelmingly positive that none of the usual determinants of systematic variance in risk perception (including cultural and political outlooks, religiosity, critical reasoning dispositions, etc.) explain the outliers who say they think they are more risky than beneficial.

I figured that because there’s not anything illuminating to say with survey measures about each one of these risk perceptions, it would be unlikely there’d be anything interesting to say about them jointly.

So seeing even this modest correlation was a bit surprising to me.

Now I’d like to know what if anything anyone thinks can be learned from and about the correlation.

The 14 billion regular readers of this blog are familiar with the kinds of variables that typically are in CCP datasets, including various risk perceptions, demographics, political outlooks, cultural worldviews, and measures of one or another critical reasoning proficiency pertinent to science comprehension.

You might, unsurprisingly, have a hypothesis for which there are not perfect predictors.  But if so, it’s likely that a reasonable proxy can be constructed.  E.g., a “disgust sensibility” index could probably be constructed by combining perceived risks of behavior that connotes social deviancy (e.g., use of street drugs, smoking, and legalization of marijuana and prostitution).

Anyway, I’m willing to try to work with people who have theories that might admit of such a strategy.

As for me, I’ll tell you now: I still favor the hypothesis that the correlation supports no particularly interesting inferences about concern over these two putative risk sources or about risk predispositions generally. I’m going to try to come with a model that I think would give that hypothesis a fair test.  If there are others who feel that way, they are welcome to propose models that would help corroborate or disconfirm this hypothesis, too.

We’ll see!

Okay . . . on you mark, get set,


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Reader Comments (12)

Well, they are just reading the fearmongery from the same places. Organic Consumers Association is generating vaccine fear:

And there's all those syringes in the corn and the tomatoes.

Don't you see? Vaccines are GMOs. GMOs have needles. Hence, must be removed from organic production.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary Mangan


How test? You can't win the shirt w/o a model!

May 20, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Syringes: harmful or healthful?

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary Mangan

Three hypotheses:

1. People who are more scared of both of these are "scared" of everything. They'll put down higher risk perception answers in general. (Which doesn't necessarily mean they actually go through life afraid.)

2. People who are more scared of both of these are scared of artificial things. They're "gaias" who, when prompted, will find risk in anything non-natural.

3. People who are more scared of both of these are scared of big powerful institutions: government, corporations, or both. They think these institutions dictate how to live without people's best interests at heart.

If 1 is correct, we should see that the interaction between vaccine and GM risk perception predicts many other risk perceptions (particularly the less political ones), including radio waves, marijuana legalization, sex ed, etc. (I'm curious if you plot another two "flat" graphs whether you see a correlation comparable to the one you see here. Maybe try drones v. artificial sweeteners?)

If 2 is correct, we should see that the interaction between these risk perceptions predicts risk perception for radio waves and artificial sweeteners and guns and drones but not so much marijuana legalization, sex ed, and other not un-natural things.

If 3 is correct, we should see that the interaction between these risk perceptions predicts risk perception for power lines and fracking but not private gun/drone ownership.

Do these sound like reasonable hypotheses/tests? I'd bet that something like 1 is most likely, but I'm far from certain.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMW


You covet Manny's shirt, don't you...

May 20, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I'm actually hoping you'll be out of it and I can finally get that I <3 Popper shirt.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMW

Heh. I'll pay for the postage to Mw if you figure this out with those concepts.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary Mangan

@Mary & @Mw:

I haven't run analyses yet, but I'd bet, oh, $10K on (1).

As for prizes, I think the only thing left in stock is the synbio ipad.

May 20, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Tried to get this in earlier but had internet connection problems ...

Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations come to mind. Especially # 6:
Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. (Alternate name: Purity.)

A couple of (to me) obvious observations. (With a several generation Northern Californian heritage I ought to be able to reproduce this mindset in my sleep.)

Organic is pure, simple, natural, pure, not polluted. GMO is not natural and more complicated. Vaccines are polluted with chemicals; even the disease has been altered. Sometimes I suspect the idea of "simplicity" can be almost as important as the purity concept.

Body concepts: Body purity, the relation of the body to the rest of society and the Kosmos, the body as a dividing line. Everything out there can be messed up but at least I can draw the line at what I put into my body. What I put into my body is symbolic of what I think, therefor of who I am.

There may also be some correlation with felt importance of religious freedom / freedom of thought and expression.

GMO, vaccines and organic food relate to:

a) man-made / altered / modified substances put into the body.

b) altered diseases put into the body. In the case of GMO the association to comes to mind of splicing bacteria genes into plants. The idea of genes sometimes brings to my mind associations with bacteria and viruses.

c) Invoke ideas of bodily purity. (Everything out there can be messed up but at least I can draw the line at what I put into my body.)
... and now to put some non-organic, genetically modified substance into my well vaccinated body.

Maybe we should ask the antithesis question. What motivates my preference for 'scientifically raised' food, take vitamin supplements, and want to be well vaccinated?

May 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt

Sadly, I don't have any interesting hypotheses beyond what MW has offered.

I just wanted to point out that "pro-organic" and "anti-GMO" are not the same thing.

People who support organic agriculture may do so for a variety of reasons, including:

- fear that synthetic pesticides, hormones, and vicarious antibiotics are bad for the health of the consumer
- fear that synthetic pesticides are bad for the health of agricultural workers, pesticide manufacturers, and others near production areas
- fear that synthetic pesticides are bad for other animals and plants in the environment
- fear that synthetic pesticides contribute to the development of resistant pests
- belief that organic farming correlates with small, family-owned, or local farms, which they may support for other reasons
- belief that organic meat correlates with well-treated and healthy animals, since animals receiving antibiotics are disqualified

Certified organic food has been distinguished from conventionally produced food since before GM food was invented. I am disappointed that it was recently decided to not allow GM food to be certified as organic. Genetic modification seems unrelated to the reasons people used to care about organic food. What's next, will organic livestock have to be unvaccinated too? (Oh no, I hope I didn't just give someone an idea!) :P

May 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHerbety Blerbety

@Cortdlandt-- wants the shirt too .. or the only remaing sybio ipad (no one cold be disgusted by that, no matter what ideology; the e coli mathematicians are adorable; as @Herberty--he/she has one)

models coming

[also resonses to @Cortlandt in earlier post on judges & ideology; behind in correspondence b/c of the massive climate-changed coastal flooding here in in New Haven]

May 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

While I like some of the hypotheses already posted, I'll throw my own in the ring to shake things up. I'll wager that hypochondria is a factor that links the two of these. That would mean we'd see higher rates of visits to alternative medicine practitioners, higher rates of doctors visits (or tests), more purchasing of supplements, probiotics, etc. This is a predictive hypothesis that is also divorced from political ideology.

I would also note that more people probably say they "fear" GMO foods than actually would be more accurate to find out whether people actually take measures to avoid GMO foods, say by refusing to purchase corn syrup or soybean oil, and then correlate that with vaccine refusal. My suspicion is the relationship would be stronger--and anchored in hypochondria more than political ideology.

May 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Levinovitz

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