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.
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.