Scientists discover source of public controversy on GM food risks: bitter cultural division between scaredy cats and everyone else!
Thursday, April 21, 2016 at 11:05AM
Dan Kahan

Okay. Time for a “no, GM food risks are not politically polarizing—or indeed a source of any meaningful division among members of the public” booster shot.

Yes, it has been administered 5000 times already, but apparently, it has to be administered about once every 90 days to be effective.

Actually, I’ve monkeyed a bit with the formula of the shot to try to make it more powerful (hopefully it won’t induce autism or microcephaly but in the interest of risk-perception science we must take some risks).

We are all familiar (right? please say “yes” . . .) with this:


It’s just plain indisputable that GM food risks do not divide members of the U.S. general public along political linies. If you can’t see the difference between these two graphs, get your eyes or your ability to accept evidence medically evaluated.

But that’s the old version of the booster shot!

The new & improved one uses what I’m calling the “scaredy-cat risk disposition” scale!

That scale combines Industrial Strength Risk Perception Measure (ISRPM) 0-7 responses to an eclectic -- or in technical terms "random ass" -- set of putative risk sources. Namely:

MASSHOOT. Mass shootings in public places

CARJACK. Armed carjacking (theft of occupied vehicle by person brandishing weapon)

ACCIDENTS. Accidents occurring in the workplace

AIRTRAVEL. Flying on a commercial airliner

ELEVATOR. Elevator crashes in high-rise buildings

KIDPOOL. Accidental drowning of children in swimming pools

Together, these risk perceptions form a reliable, one-dimensional scale (α = 0.80) that is distinct from fear of environmental risks or of deviancy risks (marijuana legalization, prostitution legalization, pornography distribution, and sex ed in schools).

Scaredy-cat is normally distributed, interestingly.  But unsurprisingly, it isn’t meaningfully correlated with right-left political predispositions.

So what is the relationship between scaredy-cat risk dispositions & GM food risk perceptions? Well, here you go:

Got it?  Political outlooks, as we know, don’t explain GM food risks, but variance in the sort of random-ass risk concerns measured by the Scaredy-cat scale do, at least to a modest extent.

We all are famaliar with this fundamental "us vs. them" division in American life.  

On the one hand, we have those people who who walk around filled with terror of falling down elevator shafts, having their vehicles carjacked, getting their arms severed by a workplace “lathe,” and having their kids fall into a neighbor’s uncovered swimming pool and drowning.  Oh—and being killed by a crashing airplane either b/c they are a passenger on it or b/c they are  the unlucky s.o.b. who gets nailed by a piece of broken-off wing when it  comes hurtling to the ground.

On the other, there are those who stubbornly deny that any of these  is anything to worry about.

Bascially, this has been the fundamenal divide in American political life since the founding: Anti-federalist vs. Federaliststs, slaveholders vs. abolitionists, isolationists vs. internationalists, tastes great vs. less filling.

Well, those same two groups are the ones driving all the political agitation over GM foods too!

... Either that or GM food risk perceptions are just meaningless noise. Those who score high on the Scaredy-cat scale are the people who, without knowing what GM foods are (remember 75% of people polled give the ridiculous answer that they haven’t ever eaten any!), are likely to say they are more worried about them in the same way they are likely to say they are worrid about any other random-ass thing you toss into a risk-perception survey.

If the latter interpretation is right, then the idea that the conflict between the scaredy-cats and the unscaredy-cats is of any political consequence for the political battle over GM foods is obviously absurd.  

If that were a politically consequential division in public opinion, Congress would not only be debating preempting state GM food labels but also debating banning air travel, requiring swimming pool fences (make the Mexicans pay for those too!), regulations for mandatory trampolines at the bottom of elevator shafts, etc.

People don’t have opinions on GM foods. They eat them.

The political conflict over GM foods is being driven purely by interest group activity unrelated to public opinion.

Got it?

Good.  See you in 90 days.

Oh, in case you are wondering, no, the division between scaredy-cats and unscaredy-cats is not the source of cultural conflict in the US over climate change risks.

You see, there really is public division on global warming. 

GM foods are on the evidence-free political commentary radar screen but not the public risk-perception one.

That's exactly what the “scaredy-cat risk disposition” scale helps to illustrate.

 

Update on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at 4:34PM by Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Oh-- & in case you were wondering this, no, I didn't mistakenly regress the same ISRPM  on Scaredy Cat™ in both Figures:

Scaredy Cat, in my view, is measuring some generic "I am/am not afraid of anything I can think of or you happen to mention" disposition.  It  will have about the same relation to "anything I can think of or you happen to mention."

For that reason, it might be a nice tool for flushing out risk perceptions that don't vary systematically on the basis of anything interesting in particular (as will be true for lots of things; people have opionions on many fewer things than survey researchers purport to measure their opinions on).

Or that's my position. And I'm sticking w/ it, until I update based on new information.

Now, is this information on the basis of which I should revise my view of Scaredy Cat?

You tell me!

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (http://www.culturalcognition.net/).
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