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« Should I update my priors on partisanship & trust in industry vs. university scientists? By how much & in what direction?! | Main | More GM food risk data to chew on--compliments of GSS »

What can we *really* conclude from the GSS's 2010 item on the risk of GM/GE crops? An expert weighs in

Never fails! My posts from “yesterday”™ and “the day before yesterday”™ have lured a real, bona fide expert to come forward. The expert in this case is William Hallman, the Chair of the Department of Human Ecology and faculty member of the Department of Nutritional Sciences and of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. He is also currently a Resident Scholar in the Science of Science Communication initiative at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

William Hallman:

As you probably suspect, I am sympathetic to your argument that because so few Americans really know anything about them, asking people about the safety of GM crops is problematic in general.  So, starting with the premise that most Americans are unlikely to have a pre-formed opinion about the safety of GM crops before being asked to think about the issue in the survey, I think that we should assume that most of the answers given to the question are impressionistic, and likely influenced by the wording of the question itself. Which is:

 “Do you think that modifying the genes of certain crops is: “Extremely dangerous for the environment . . . Not dangerous at all for the environment.”

I agree with the idea suggested by @Joshua, that because the risk targeted is “danger to the environment,” it is plausible that the differences seen are because conservative Republicans may be less likely to endorse the idea that anything is dangerous for the environment.  If you were to ask about risks to human health, you might get a different pattern of responses.

But that’s not all.  The root of the question refers to crops. That is, to plants/agriculture, and not to food.  So, are conservative Republicans also less likely to view crops/agriculture a threat to the environment in general? My guess is ‘probably’, but I don’t have good data to back up that assertion.

But wait, there’s more. . .  The question doesn’t actually refer to GMO’s.  It asks whether modifying the genes of crops is dangerous.  I’m don’t know where the specific question falls in the overall line of questioning.  Were there questions about GMOs preceding this?  If not, participants may not have grasped that the question was really about Genetic Engineering.  Technically, you can “modify the genes of certain crops” through standard crossbreeding/hybridization methods. It is, in part, why the FDA has never liked the broad term “Genetic Modification.”  If the question had asked, “Do you think the genetic engineering of crops is dangerous for the environment,” I think you would get a different pattern of responses.  As a side note, I have ancient data that shows that more than a decade ago, Americans were as likely to approve of foods produced through crossbreeding as they were for foods produced through genetic engineering.  

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Reader Comments (2)

I agree with William Hallman's analysis above. I think that the next question for William Hallman is "How does this knowledge, and more importantly lack of knowledge, of genetic engineering affect the manner in which the science of science communication should inform public outreach going forward?

When it comes to GMOs, I think that by "hybridization" most people do think, at best, of some high school biology explanation. And things they know a smidgen about, like breeds of dogs. In which case, they can realize that some outcomes are undesirable, as in "overbreeding" of pure bred dogs.

Perhaps biased by spending much of my later childhood in Eastern Washington, a major wheat growing area, I think that many people may also have an image of scientists scrounging the world to discover just the right resistant genes in plants native elsewhere.

If they knew about it, I don't believe that the general public would find currently used techniques such as radiation induced mutation to fall into the "natural" ie non GMO category of Luther Burbank style hybridization. But then, I grew up in the City of Burbank, and attended one year at David Starr Jordan Junior HIgh School. In addition to being an accomplished scientist and the first president of Stanford, Jordan penned one of the earliest books published in America on eugenics called, "The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit. This was kinda sorta recognized when I attended the school but only recently a subject of great controversy, at least in Palo Alto, California:

Because I am an analytical chemist, I view the labeling controversy regarding GMOs as directly analogous to the lengthy and ongoing battles between health and nutrition advocates and Big Food lobbyists regarding food ingredient labeling. Despite some serious misfires, such as letting the corn industry promote "high fructose corn syrup" used in sodas without using the word "sugar", and other serious subterfuge, like the use of celery powder in preserved meat products then listed as containing no added nitrates, progress is being made. Awareness of problems within the American diet is increasing. The Rice Krispies of my childhood has been replaced this morning by a blueberry and kale smoothie.

In my opinion, Information is power, science thrives in a society with justice, and we all gain with transparency, at least if we do so in an environment in which sensationalist "yellow journalism" of Jordan's era or the"fake news" of today can be effectively combated.

What I think of as a huge concerning issue of our time is the Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda, as described here:

One of the scaffolding's between these two groups is, in my opinion, the leadership in crop science of our land grant Universities which via extension services already do outreach between liberal University towns and right wing rural communities. I did my graduate work at Colorado State, and this week am attending their "Hydrology Days". I note that Rutgers is also a land grant institution. I think that this linkage between two different communities is unique today and potentially quite useful.

I am interested in knowing what suggestions William Hallman has for public communication on the subject of genomics going forward. New technologies, notably CRISPR, are fraught with issues from eugenics to the environment. And, as exemplified by the current patent fights, technological control. How should these concepts be introduced to the public? How do scientists, and science communicators, constructively help our society construct appropriate regulations and guidelines on hot button issues that are fraught with potentials for serious differences in values?

March 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

In a way, it seems that what you're saying is that if GMO issues were currently more politicized, then Dan could get more consistent results. People would then have primary beliefs about it that would be much harder to sway merely through the accidental framing of pole questions that trigger side beliefs.

Why not, instead of a short question, one instead tells a (short) story with all relevant details, attempting to make it as frame-neutral as possible, and then at the end asks the subject to place this story, if it were to come true, on a good-bad scale.

March 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

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