A controversial fundamentalist religious foundation with right-wing ties has funded a study on consumers’ perceptions of GMOs. The study appears to have some flaws–as do the researchers’ conclusions about the study results, as we will see below. The bigger question though: Why did a fundamentalist religious foundation fund a study on GMOs?
Problem #1: GMO Opponents are Idiots, conclude researchers
A new study on public perceptions of GMOs has just been published and the study authors have drawn some rather remarkable conclusions surrounding the results. In short, the study’s authors have concluded that consumers who are strongly opposed to eating genetically modified foods are clueless and ignorant people in general who think they know far more than they do.
In a scientific research news publication featuring their study entitled,
“Genetically modified food opponents know less than they think, research finds”
the piece includes a summary of the findings:
“People most opposed to genetically modified foods think they know the most about them, but actually know the least, new report finds.”
“This result is perverse, but is consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism. Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do.”
–Phil Fernbach, the study’s lead author and professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business
What is perverse, I would argue, is leading readers to believe critical insights about consumers’ GMO knowledge-base were obtained when, according to the surveys used*, they were not even tested for. Rather, the researchers base their conclusions about consumer ignorance primarily on study participants’ responses to general science questions (Ex: True or False? Men and women normally have the same number of chromosomes) as opposed to testing subjects’ in-depth knowledge specifically about GMOs.
“The surveys asked respondents how well they thought they understood genetically modified foods, then tested how much they actually knew with a battery of true-false questions on general science and genetics.” (source)
It should be noted that while one of the four surveys (Survey #2) used in this study linking opposition to GMOs with ignorance did ask respondents a fair number of questions specifically about GMOs, the bulk of these questions focused on testing participants’ beliefs that genetically modified plants and animals are morally wrong and getting their emotional responses and trust level responses to vignettes and questions about genetically modified plants and animals, Monsanto and Big Ag. Other questions focused on socio-political aspects of GMOs (Ex: how much GMO foods mean to them, whether it would affect their vote if candidates supported/opposed regulation or labeling of GMOs and their anticipated future level of activism in opposing GMOs).
Some morality- and ethics-based scenarios and questions about GMOs appear to have been used in a pre-test/post-test measure apparently to determine whether study participants could be swayed in their beliefs about GMOs after reading passages and answering questions about GMOs helping humanity (Ex: Scenarios in which GMOs might be used to “prevent blindness and death due to vitamin deficiency”).
Those questions on Survey #2 that did specifically ask about knowledge of GMOs included:
– How much do you know about genetically modified food? (Possible responses: a 5-point scale ranging from ‘nothing’ to ‘a great deal’)
– Genetically modified animals are always bigger than ordinary ones (T/F)
– By eating a genetically modified fruit, a person’s genes could also become modified (T/F)
– Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do (T/F)
Problem #2: Biased Survey Questions and Biased Statement appearing above the GMO Questions may have Contaminated Results
In scientific studies in which data are collected via surveys, designing the measurement’s questions to be free of bias and to be sure one is asking what one thinks s/he is asking, is imperative. If there are leading statements or questions on the instrument there is a risk the study participants’ responses will be biased and therefore contaminated.
The surveys in the present GMO study had the following “definition” statement listed before the questions on GMOs:
“Genetically modified foods are foods created through the manipulation of a plant’s or animal’s genetic structure using biotechnology. This is done to create foods with certain attributes such as faster growth, resistance to pathogens, or enhanced nutritional value.”
Setting aside the issue that the survey authors are reaching with “enhanced nutritional value” as a declared attribute of scientific fact, there is a distinct chance for biasing the study participants’ responses on GMOs by having them read the second sentence of this “definition” prior to responding to questions about GMOs.
Likewise, bias is also a distinct possibility with the way the survey authors worded some of the questions on their measures. The following questions are good examples:
– Would you buy genetically modified tomatoes (which last longer in your refrigerator)?
– Would you buy meat (which is less expensive) from animals that were fed genetically modified corn?
– Would you buy chocolate (which tastes better) containing genetically modified lecithin?
Given the bias issue along with other potential problems raised in this article it is difficult to have a high degree of confidence about the findings or the conclusions.
Problem #3: Biased Results can be used for Social Engineering of Public Opinion
In addition to asking questions surrounding the topic of climate change denial in the present GMO study, the researchers have revealed their plans for future topics (including issues like vaccinations, nuclear power and homeopathic medicine) which makes the current study appear to be a part of a larger, concerted socio-political agenda. One such goal appears to be an organized effort in changing people’s perspectives on a variety of topics:
“Our findings suggest that changing peoples’ minds first requires them to appreciate what they don’t know. Without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus.” — Nicholas Light, study author and Leeds School of Business PhD candidate
And on the topic of “scientific consensus”, this little nugget appeared in the aforementioned scientific research news report on the GMO study:
“Despite a scientific consensus that GM foods are safe for human consumption and have the potential to provide significant nutritional benefits, many people oppose their use. More than 90 percent of study respondents reported some level of opposition to GM foods.”
If you did not catch the two ton elephant in the room, here is the problem: There is no such “consensus” among scientists that GMOs are definitively safe for human consumption. There can’t be. And the reason is because genetically modified foods were never fully safety-tested in peer-reviewed scientific studies before dumping them into the U.S. food supply. And until scientists begin to make progress in the protracted process of testing GMOs with all possible relevant variables against every manner of environmental setting, with people from numerous ethnic, cultural and age groups, and myriad of health conditions, we are a long way from having such a “consensus”.
But getting back to social engineering, what is so bad about using research findings to teach people to change the way they think about important life issues? Well, for certain things like pubic health concerns educating (or reeducating) people can be a good, even necessary, thing for public well-being and safety (think: motorcycle helmets). Headlines from studies like those funded by agenda-driven organizations with millions of dollars in their war chest can be used to retrain the masses as to the “correct” way to think and go through life. But not everything in life is a one-size-fits-all. Not all agendas are in everyone’s best interest. And if those with deep pockets and political power are determined to change life according to their agendas they won’t stop at reeducating people about their food or homeopathic medicine. For those who have the mind and the money for it, there is a never ending list of things for which to change public policy and create social stigma in order to “bring people in line” with the empowered elite’s way of thinking.
Problem #4: The Study was Funded by a Controversial Fundamentalist Religious Foundation
It is commonplace among many scientists and some journalists to pull back the curtain on scientific studies to see the authors’ affiliations and who funded the research. The reason such details are often looked at with a critical eye is to ascertain whether the researchers may be biased in their conclusions about the results or whether a researcher’s or university’s affiliation with a stakeholder may have affected the study design and methodology, thereby contributing to bias.
In the case of the current study linking opposition to GMOs with ignorance, a major funder was the ‘Humility & Conviction in Public Life’ project at the University of Connecticut. Now that sounds pretty innocuous until you dig a little deeper and learn that the University of Connecticut’s ‘Humility & Conviction in Public Life’ project was funded by the controversial religious fundamentalist foundation, The John Templeton Foundation. The John Templeton Foundation as it turns out, has awarded $5.75 million to the University of Connecticut’s Humanities Institute for research on “balancing humility and conviction in public life”. Wow. The grant is one of the largest humanities-based research grants ever awarded in the United States.
OK, so what is the problem with The John Templeton Foundation funding the scientific research study? The issue is that since the beginning The John Templeton Foundation has been seen by many scientists and scholars as highly controversial because the organization strives to merge/blend/conflate or otherwise blur the boundaries between science and religion. (One could conceivably argue that genetically modifying (science) produce, plants and animals (nature) would make GMOs the quintessential poster child for this effort.)
Many scholars, in fact, have raised concerns about the biased nature of the awards, research projects and publications backed by the well-endowed John Templeton Foundation. (It funded work in intelligent design in the 1990s but then abandoned that activity a decade later after it faced public shaming and sharp criticism from the mainstream scientific community, and in 2013 it was reported that The John Templeton Foundation is funding the climate change denial** movement.)
** It should be noted that surveys for the current GMO study also included questions about attitudes and beliefs about climate change.
“According to Guillaume Lecointre of the French National Center for Scientific Research, the Templeton Foundation has links with fundamentalist Protestantism, is openly creationist, and funds projects throughout the world whose aim is to unify science and religion, blurring the epistemological lines between the collective and public empirical enquiry and the individual and private metaphysical conviction. According to Lecointre, this type of private funding would be “disastrous for the autonomy of scientific research”. The Foundation has also been criticized for supporting Christian-biased research in the field of the scientific study of religions. The Templeton Foundation has had links with the Discovery Institute, an American conservative and creationist think-tank, and other similar organizations.” (source)
“I cannot agree with the Templeton Foundation’s project of trying to make religion respectable by conflating it with science; this is like mixing astrology with astronomy or voodoo with medical research, and I disapprove of Templeton’s use of its great wealth to bribe compliance with this project. Templeton is to all intents and purposes a propaganda organisation for religious outlooks; it should honestly say so and equally honestly devote its money to prop up the antique superstitions it favours, and not pretend that questions of religion are of the same kind and on the same level as those of science—by which means it persistently seeks to muddy the waters and keep religion credible in lay eyes. It is for this reason I don’t take part in Templeton-associated matters.” — A.C. Grayling (source)
. . .
Survey questions on Religion from the “GMO” study:
Religious: How religious are you?
• Not at all
Fundamentalism: Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Christian Bible?
- The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. (1)
- The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word. (2)
- The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men. (3)
- None of the above adequately describe my feelings about the Bible. (4)
Religion: What religion do you belong to?
- Atheist or Agnostic (1)
- Buddhism (2)
- Christianity – Catholicism (3)
- Christianity – Protestantism (9)
- Christianity – Other (4)
- Hinduism (5)
- Islam (6)
- Judaism (7)
- Other (8)
Note: While it is possible these questions on religion may be “dummy questions” inserted to fool participants and prevent them from knowing the true purpose of the study, given the number of possible answer options and the fact that these questions were all lumped together, that seems unlikely.
Also of note: the current study appears to be curiously similar to a recent 2018 public survey conducted by the Pew Research Center that linked opposition to GMOs with ignorance of science in general.
See the Pacific Standard write-up of the Pew survey: “The Less People Understand Science, the More Afraid of GMOs They Are
A lack of scientific literacy is correlated with undue fears around genetic modification, chemicals, and common food production techniques.”
This fun fact is of interest because the Pew Foundation has also received a significant amount of grant funding from The John Templeton Foundation—specifically to survey people about religion.
Despite the researchers’ conclusions, you do not need to know a lot about science to see that the current study is starting to look, walk and sound like a genetically modified duck. There will be more of them coming down the pike and they won’t always be labeled so keep an eye out for the agenda under their wings.
Journal Reference: Philip M. Fernbach, Nicholas Light, Sydney E. Scott, Yoel Inbar, Paul Rozin. Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most. Nature Human Behaviour, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0520-3