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Weekend update: OMG-- we are now as politically polarized over cell phone radiation as over GM food risks!!!

Some "Industrial Strength Risk Perception Measure" readings from CCP/Annenberg Public Policy Center study administered this month: 

Click for bigger, 3d, virtual reality view!

Interesting but not particularly surprising that polarization over the risk associated with unlawful entry of immigrants rivals that on global warming, which has abated recedntly about as much as the pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Interesting but not surprising to learn (re-learn, actually) that it's nonsense to say Americans are "more afraid of terrorism than climate change b/c the former is more dramatic, emotionally charged" etc. That trope, associated with the "take-heuristics-and-biases-add-water-and-stir" formula of "instant decision science," reflects a false premise: those predisposed to worry about climate change do in fct see the risk it poses as bigger than that posed by domestic terrorism.

And completely boring at this point to learn form the 10^7 time that there is no political division over GM food risk in the general public, despite the constant din in the media and even some academic commentary to this effect.  

Consider this histogram:

The flatness of the distribution is the signature of the sheer noise associated with responses to GM food survey questions, the administration of which, as discussed seven billion times in this blog (once for every two regular blog subscribers!) is an instance of classic "non-opinion" polling. 

Ordinary Americans--the ones who don't spend all day reading and debating politics (99% of them)-- just don't give GM food any thought.  They don't know what GM technology is, that it has been a staple of US agricultural production for decades, and that it is in 80% of the foodstuffs they buy at the market.  

They don't know that the House of Reps passed a bipartisan bill to preempt state-labelling laws, which special-interest groups keep unsucessfully sponsoring in costly state referenda campaigns, and that the Senate will almost surely follow suit, presenting a bill that University of Chicago Democrat Barrack Obama will happily sign w/o more than 1% of the U.S. population noticing (a lot of commentators don't even seem to realize how close this non-issue is to completely disappearing).

Why the professional conflict entrepreneurs have failed in their effort to generate in the U.S. the sort of public division over GM foods that has existed for a long time in Europe is really an interesting puzzle.  It's much more interesting to try to figure out hypotheses for that & test them than to engage in a make-believe debate about why the public is "so worried" about them!

But neither that interesting question nor the boring, faux "public fear of GM foods" question was the focus of the CCP/APPC study.

Some other really cool things were.

Stay tuned!

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Reader Comments (19)

It is interesting, but I think makes one mistake. Here you measure risk perception across political leanings, and I'm not surprised by the results-- the fear mongers are equally affecting everyone. That is likely because their misrepresentation of science affects the credulous, especially those with children, and that transcends party lines.

A useful analysis would be to examine the political alignments of those fomenting the mistrust. I think you'll find strong tendencies toward one political affiliation.

The flat lower graph reflects the public accurately. I don't think the interpretation of "just don't give it any thought" is not correct. I think they don't know what to believe, or where to get information, so they act as if there is greater risk because they have the means to do so. They know they are eating the stuff, but they also are bombarded by misinformation and don't necessarily believe the scientific information (that well has been poisoned). They do give it thought, they want better answers, and are just unsure.

My interpretations come from years of interacting with people in the anti-GM movement and talking about the science with the public.

January 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Folta

I think there is a fascinating disjunction as well between the views of the population in general and Congress on the issue of GMOs. I think it may be accurate that concern/opposition to GMOs is somewhat the same across the political spectrum. Numerous surveys has also shown that the opposition is for the most part not very deep. It would be interesting to know the intensity of the opposition among people who identify as liberal/Democrat versus conservative/Republican vs. independent. However there is a HUGE gap at the national Congressional level between Democrats and Republicans. There, in the vote against the bill that would establish a nationwide voluntary labeling bill, 94% of House Republicans supported the bill, while a stunning 73% of Democrats voted against it. So at the policy level at least, the GMO issue is almost entirely ideological, at the level of the split on climate change. What this suggests that the survey showing no ideological split on this is quite limited and superficial. At the policy level, the GMO issue is almost entirely politicized, with the Democrats coming across as rejectionists of the science consensus while Republicans embracing of the science consensus. Sad that liberal policy makers are taking what the consensus science community believes is a scientifically ignorant position. This underscores how challenging it is to do public opinion surveys. It's not what people say in response to questions that matters; it's what policy influentials DO in crunch time that matters--and sadly, Democrats are the Luddites on this issue.

January 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJon Entine


I think we disagree, if we do, only about how to characterize the "general public." I don't dispute the view you have of the identity & motivations of those who are parties to what is, for sure, a very fierce political dispute. But my claims is that the dispute is one that is being engaged in by a very small group of actors. It is a special interest dispute, essentially, w/ very high financial stakes. But the public has no genuine concern or even awareness of the controversy.

My view is based on the social science research that I cite & discuss in varios blogs, which you can find if you start w/ the links in this one.

January 24, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


I think the question is, "what's the question"?

I accept that those who actually care tend to have political outlooks you describe. My only point is that it is simply a mistake to say the US general public, or any sizeable or politically identifiable portion of it, has a position, much less one opposed to science.

Does that make a survey that helps to demonstrate that "superficial"? It's not superficial if the question is the one that I'm answering-- the mistake, too, that I'm correcting, since in fact there is a constant din in the political media about public opposition to GM foods.

It's "superficial" to *think* that the intensity or stakes of a political controversy necessarily depend on a divided public. I agree w/ that for sure.

As for how strongly the democrats are invested in the issue, I bet there aren't more than 12 members of the House who bothered to raise this issue in the last election & not a single Democrat who voted *for* the preemption bill whose constituents will punish him or her (remember, 60% of them can't even name their congress person!).

I'm willing to bet a free Bumblebee 'My first drone!' club" membership and an "I ♥ Popper/Citizen of the Liberal REpublic of Science" t-shirt that the Senate approves the preemption bill & Obama signs it. What can you put up of similar value? ($10K in cash is fine, if unimaginative)

January 24, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

==> "A useful analysis would be to examine the political alignments of those fomenting the mistrust. I think you'll find strong tendencies toward one political affiliation."

How does his fit into the equation?

January 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

The whole purpose of terrorism is to instill fear in people. Lots of studies highlight people's intense emotional recall of terrorism events. How many people wake up in the middle of the night worrying about climate change? Part of this effect is clearly driven by the affect and availability heuristics.

Your contention that "heuristics and biases" are a catch-all explanation aka "instant decision science" is highly misleading. I recommend a paper by one of your law colleagues, Cass Sunstein,

"On the Divergent American Reactions to Terrorism and Climate Change". Notably, his constructive critique of the cultural cognition explanation for this divergence (p. 17).

Whether or not "terrorism" is more emotionally charged for people (across the board) than climate change is an interesting question, current research would point toward the affirmative, regardless of political party affiliation. Nonetheless, if you question this, it would seem prudent to test the hypothesis empirically that the risk of climate change is an equally salient emotional issue for people as the risk of terrorism.

p.s. most people who worry about climate change do not discount the risk of terrorism.

January 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJames

@James-- I've read the paper.

Its premise is false. It's not true that Americans are less concerned about climate change than terrorism. Some are, some aren't: fear varies systematically by cultural outlooks on these issues. The survey measures in the post illustrate that.

What's more, the theory of the paper is wrong: overreliance on heuristic, System 1 reasoning is not associated with "less concern" about risk of climate change, & conscious effortful System 2 reasoning with "more."

Rather, the more disposed people are to use effortful conscious information processing, the more polarized they become. The conflict over climate change is rooted in idenity-protective cognition, which studies show is *magnified* by system 2 reasoning.

Sunstein’s conjecture was plausible--preciesely b/c "heuristics & biases" do explain many phenomena. But more conjectures are plausible than are true.

That’s why we collective evidence.

If reading papers w/ evidence in them is of interest to you, then you can read read some by following links in this reply & in the post.

January 25, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Jon Entine draws an interesting distinction with

There, in the vote against the bill that would establish a nationwide voluntary labeling bill, 94% of House Republicans supported the bill, while a stunning 73% of Democrats voted against it. So at the policy level at least, the GMO issue is almost entirely ideological, at the level of the split on climate change.

Fear of GMOs is New-Agey which makes it correlate somewhat with liberalism. Although a couple I know of as extreme Tea-partiers as you can imagine, NRA members, and he never goes anywhere without his NRA cap -- They are also as New-Agey as you can imagine - into all kinds of nutrition fans, and co-editors of the newsletter of the NJ Metaphysical Society, where "metaphysical" means weird shit that scientists will scoff at.

Members of congress, esp in the Republican case (note the staggering 97% vs 73%) tend to be in every way more polarized than regular citizens because they are so close to the source of artificial polarization. This right wing identity is not a natural phenomenon.

January 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris

Let me suggest another sort of inquiry into the source of our fact-polarization. On the internet, promoters of obscure or semi-obscure misinformation have a huge asymmetrical advantage.

Tom O'Bryan, a chiropractor and self-promoted as an "internationally recognized speaker specializing in Gluten Sensitivity & Celiac Disease" is quite likely the main guy responsible for the anti-gluten fad, and has not doubt gotten quite rich off it. People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, but that disease affects about 1 in 100 people.

Now, some experiments with Google. Thanks to the filter bubble different people will get different results from Google, unless you anonymize yourself, and "hit counts" are of very dubious value unless they are very small, so the following will give just a rough idea.

If you Google{ "Tom O'Bryan" } Google claims 330,000 hits, and you will go through many pages without finding anything critical of the good doctor. I gave up trying. When I did Google{ "Tom O'Bryan" quack }, I got 222 nominal hits, including and My conclusion: he is pretty much below the radar and nearly all that ends up on the web about him comes from him and his associates or believers. If Wikipedia had an article on O'Bryan, that would have come up on the 1st page but they don't.

If you google "GMO", you will get a reasonable distribution of pro and con articles from the start. But when I google{ GML "pig intestines" } I get, among 22,800 nominal hits, about a 9:1 ratio of items tracing back to a probably very flawed study that summarizes as "GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush! Shocking photos ..."

If you google{ Obama wedding ring } Google announces 3,600,000 hits and from the start it is about a 9:1 ratio of items claiming that something about Obama's wedding ring proves that he is a muslim. There is much variety, including "BARACK OBAMA'S GAY SHARIA WEDDING RING!!!". In the first few pages, about 1 in 10 items is a Snopes or factcheck or some such criticism of the theory.

If you google{ Obama muslim } you get a non-overwhelming majority of items critical to the idea, at least for the first few pages.

Finally, if you google{ Obama religion } you get mostly items asserting Obama is after all a Christian. In general, the closer you get to a representative or key phrase of a supporting argument for a theory with a big or moneyed set of promoters -- and moreover the theory is ignored by most people -- the more Google will seem to confirm that it is true.

Searches that represent the headline claim will elicit more criticisms, while searches that represent an obscure supporting claim will come up almost completely positive.

People who get the anonymous right wing emails, or go to the 2nd or 3rd tier RW sites, which circulate the rumors of the day are treated to an endless parade of "last nails in the coffin of the AGW hoax", and when they look on the web they find almost nothing but support, heightened by the filter bubble effect since Google's interest is to show them things they like seeing.

January 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris

I personally believe that the public's perception on the "safety" of genetic engineering has more to do with their perception of the value of the technology and its association with societal issues they are concerned with. To put it another way, people don't determine whether ge is good/virtuous based on whether they think it is safe. Rather the other way around, they perceive it is safe only if they believe it is good/virtuous. People have a perception that empirical assessments of a question like "are gmos safe to eat must be consistent with value assessments of whether the technology is beneficial to or threatening to other societal values. Thus, polls asking about whether people they believe eating ge foods is safe is at most a proxy question for do you believe ge is an innovation that provides society with anything of value in relation to the societal tradeoffs that accompany it. It would be interesting to see a poll with side-by-side questions 1. Do you believe genetic engineering provides capabilities that can be beneficial and valuable to society?, & 2. Do you believe foods derived from genetic engineered organisms are safe to eat?

I think most people's perception of ge is shaped by its association with pesticide use, industrial farming, and fears of monopolization of intellectual property. Unfortunately, most people's perception of ge is has been shaped by and intertwined with the early, predominant uses of the technology, herbicide tolerance and bt traits and Monsanto's efforts to protect its intellectual property. One thing that is undermining the anti-gmo position is that we are starting to see more applications that diverge from the stereotype of herbicide tolerance/pip in major field grains. The chestnut is one application that I believe will go a long way to change perceptions. Restoring the chestnut is something that most Americans would believe is a good, beneficial endpoint. The GE traited chestnut is, as far as I know, not a commercial venture and it's intellectual property is not be closely guarded as a commercial good. Again, it would be interesting to see a poll where people were asked two questions for each item on a list of applications of the technology. For example: 1. Do you believe that using ge to restore the American Chestnut is a beneficial use of the technology? and 2. What level of concern do you have with the safety of consuming chestnuts with ge acquired traits

January 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRick Leonard

Dan, Thanks for your reply and a willingness to engage in a discussion.. One question: you write: "the public has no genuine concern or even awareness of the controversy." That's just wrong, I believe. Lack of intensity, yes; lack of awareness, no.

The high degree of interest demonstrated by the intense public debate in the states that voted on labeling also appear to contradict that statement. The fact that food manufacturer's are responding to this 'food debate' by embracing the non-GMO label suggests that their data are more robust than the data you may be generating. To make the kind of changes that are being made on packaging is a direct response to increasing public awareness as demonstrated by purchasing habits--real behavior.

I think we both can agree that the public's sophistication on the science of GMO related issues is not robust, but that's different from saying the public is not genuinely concerned and awareness is low. Most people are at least 'vaguely' aware of the GMO debate, and poll after poll has shown when they are 'pulled' with such questions as "Do you support the labeling of foods that include GM ingredients," some 50-94% say yes. That's pretty high 'awareness.'

You might have the answer to this question in your data: for the those who are strongly critical/wary of GM foods, does the safe/unsafe and no label/label divide track either Republican or Democrat. Do you have data that distinguishes expressed opinions versus actual buying habits as I"ve learned from decades of reporting on "green" sensibilities that expressed public opinion and buying habits can be hugely different.

My guess would be that at higher income levels, the Republican/Democrat divide is not so big, but at the lower the income level, there would be more strongly anti-GMO sentiment (but more importantly buying practices) with that anti sentiment far more present among liberals/Democrats. This would suggest to me that this issue is quite political/ideological. We know it's hyper ideological at the policy level. It would be very surprising if this hyper divide did not show up across other categories as well.

January 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJon Entine


The general public's lack of familiarity with GM foods period, much less any controversy over them, has been discussed over & over on this blog.


American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GM foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.

Before introducing the idea of GM foods, the survey participants were asked simply ”What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already on there?” In response, most said that no additional information was needed on food labels. Only 7% of respondents raised GM food labeling on their own. . . .

Only about a quarter (26%) of Americans realize that current regulations do not require GM products to be labeled.

Hallman, W., Cuite, C. & Morin, X. Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods. Rutgers School of Environ. Sci. Working Paper 2013-2001.

Buy a ballot question (anyone with the $ can) & people will form an opinon & vote. As the results in Calif, Or. & Wash. state show, the positions they form bear no resemblence to the results in non-opinion surveys that bad researchers & media pollsters generate when they interview people who didn't have any meaningful opinon before they were surveyed.

Ordinary Americans don't debate GM foods. They eat them.

(ACtually, *I'll* eat my genetically modified cat if there the interaction you propose between income and ideology predicts GM food risk perceptions. Will let you know)

January 26, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, fist let me say I'm a great admirer of your work...and the general concepts underlying the cultural cognition project. The polls I've read and having covered this issue for more than 30 years--since when you were in college--underscores how difficult it is to make generalizations and grand statements---and you try to avoid that. I touched on some of them in an edited book I wrote 12 years ago, Let Them Eat Precaution.

I don't think what you wrote is actually responsive to the points I was trying to make, however.

I did not suggest that there is an interaction between income and ideology; just the opposite in fact. I think the more affluent are generally reactive against GMOs, as the 'foodie' movement brings together opposite ideologies.

However I do maintain that certain memes take hold among ideological factions. Examples of that are for/against gun control, whether global warming is a natural or human induced phenomenon, vaccine safety, abortion rights, etc. Gay rights used to fall into that category but cultural norms have changed dramatically on that issue. I think they are shifting, slowly, on vaccines. GMOs fall into that category. Among the more affluent, who have a somewhat romantic view of food--and this group crosses ideological llines--there is a great suspicion about linking 'technology' with food. I do not see a strong left/right divide among that group.

However, among the larger population, there is no question that those who define themselves as 'progressive' or 'liberal' are more strongly opposed to GMOs, in part because it matches up with their tribal suspicion of large corporations. It just so happens that antagonism to corporations is an animating meme for the Democratic party, so ti makes perfect sense that at the policy level, Democrats are 10 to 20 times more likely to voice public concerns about GMO safety and support labeling.

So we don't disagree, in some key ways. Yes, ordinary Americans don't debate GM foods. But ordinary Americans rarely determine elections either. Candidates are chosen by partisans...those who are most active in campaigns. It's the reason why Republican politicians are to the right of the Republican voting population and Democratic politicians are to the left of the Democratic voting population.

So, for better or rose, GM labeling is are now a litmus test issue...much like gun control or abortion. Regardless of the general indifference of 'ordinary voters' (who are vaguely opposed to GMOs and softly support labeling), Democratic politicians from Nancy Pelosi to Chuck Schumer to Bernie Sanders have to raise this flag. Like it or not, Democrats have emerged as the symbol of Luddism on the GMO issue...and it will come to haunt the party in years to come, I believe.

January 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJon Entine

==> "However, among the larger population, there is no question that those who define themselves as 'progressive' or 'liberal' are more strongly opposed to GMOs, in part because it matches up with their tribal suspicion of large corporations."

What evidence can you provide of more suspicion of large corporations, in association with ideology, among the larger population. I think that if asked "Do you trust large corporations," most folks on both sides of the larger left/right divide (looking aside the insufficiency of that taxonomy) would say "No."

January 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Many polls have shown that Democrats are much more suspicious of corporations, and have consistently showed that for decades. Here is one in 2012 by Gallup:

"Democrats, as would be expected, are disproportionately displeased with the size and influence of major corporations, with 71% dissatisfied and 23% satisfied. Republicans break even in their views of major corporations, with 48% satisfied and the same percentage dissatisfied. Independents -- as was the case in their views of the federal government -- are slightly more negative than the national average."

In 2013, the split was about the same:

But these polls way understate the intensity of distrust factor. Anti-corporatism has been an animating ideological factor in the Democratic party since at least the 1960s. It's a litmus issue for liberals. For Republicans, the issue is "bigness" and bureaucracy, hence their outsized suspicion of "Big Government." Along with that comes a suspicion of "Big Corporations", but that suspicion has never taken on the shape of a litmus test issue (unlike Big Government, which is a conservative litmus test issue)

January 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJon Entine


The data just aren't there. It's not possible for something to be a marker when people don't have an opinion on something-- which is what the research I quoted suggests is the case for GM foods.

Here is income & political outlook. The effect is the opposite of what you hypothesized ("my guess would be that at higher income levels, the Republican/Democrat divide is not so big, but at the lower the income level, there would be more strongly anti-GMO sentiment (but more importantly buying practices) with that anti sentiment far more present among liberals/Democrats") & in any event is tiny & concentrated in a very very very minute part of the population.

Positions on an issue that vast majority of people in population have never had occasion to think about until surveyed -- the situation illustrated by the study I cited -- can't possibly be a "litmus test" of identity.

I think you are mistakenly generalizing from your exposure to people who are in fact interested -- a very small number of people -- to the general population.

January 27, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Jon -

The poll you linked is w/r/t opinions about the influence of large corporations on that would cover one aspect of "suspicion."

That seems to me to be a somewhat short of equating to a major disproportion, relatively, in "tribal" distrust of corporations, let alone that "tribal" distrust being an explanatory moderator/mediator between views on corporations and views on GMOs.

Perhaps among activists on GMOs there is a notable association with ideology, but that doesn't mean that the association plays out with the public at large.

Unless you provide actual data, directly on point, I remain dubious. I see Dan's evidence as pretty compelling to support a conclusion that there just isn't a strong ideological divide on the issue.

January 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshus


Talking about Bayes (in some of your posts) and political attitude polarization, you might enjoy this study, which claims to find no effect for the phenomenon of attitude polarization across political domains, including global warming:

Also highlights that the original Lord et al. study is highly flawed in its analysis. People update in light of new evidence, regardless of their cultural or prior attitudes (it seems).

February 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJames

@Jon Entine. If I understand him, Jon makes two interesting predictions:
1. Anti-GMO "activists" strongly tend to the political left.
Now ... how to test for "activism"? Make it self-reporting? Based on particular actions?

2. Politicians supporting the anti-GMO cause tend to be Democrats.

Since the number of politicians is well defined and their statements/positions should be available on the internet it should be possible to do the research from home. There might be more "industrial strength" methods but the results would be worthy of a preliminary test.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt

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