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« More GSS "science attitudes" measures & their effect on perception of GM crop risks | Main | Check it out-- a matchmaking sight for scholarly collaborators! »

Trust in science & perceptions of GM food risks -- does the GSS have something to say on this?

So here’s something fun.

I found it while scraping the bottom of the barrel of a can of GSS data that I had consulted to prepare remarks on the role of “trust in science/of scientists” that I gave at a National Academy of Sciences event a couple of weeks ago.

The GSS has a variety of measures that could be construed as measuring “trust” of this sort. The most famous one is its “Confidence in Institutions” query. It solicits how much “confidence” respondents have in  “those running” various  institutions, including the “science community.” The item permits one of three responses: “hardly any,” “only some,” and “a great deal.”

The wording is kind of odd, but the item is a classic, having been included in every GSS study conducted in 1974.  One can find dozens of studies that use it for one thing or another, including proofs of partisan differences in trust of science.

Well, it turns out that in 2010, the GSS asked this question:

Do you think that modifying the genes of certain crops is:

1. Extremely dangerous for the environment

2. Very dangerous

3. Somewhat dangerous

4. Not very dangerous

5. Not dangerous at all for the environment.

So I decided to see what would happen when one uses trust in since, as measured by the institutional confidence item, to predict responses to the genetically modified crops item. I also included a political orientation measure formed by aggregating responses to the GSS’s 7-point liberal-conservative ideology item and its 7-point party orientation item.

In my analysis, I measured the probability  that a respondent would select a response from 1-3—the ones that evince a perception of danger.

Here’s what I found:



I hadn’t expected partisan identity to matter at all, given that surveys now typically find no meaningful correlation between attitudes toward GM foods and party identity. You can see, though, that there is a bit of a partisan effect here, with those are right-leaning ideologically inclined to find less danger in GM crops as their Always eat your raw data before trying to draw inferences from a regression model. Click it!“confidence” in the “scientific community” increases.  For a "conservative Republican," the estimated difference in the probability of finding GM crops to be environmentally dangerous at the "great deal" vs. "hardly any" response levels is -18% (+/- 15% at 0.95 LOC).

Left-leaning respondents, in contrast, don't budge a centimeter as their science-community “confidence” increases (-3%, +/- 12%). 

What should we make of this, if anything? 

I’m not sure, actually.  I still am inclined to see responses to GM food questions as meaningless—a survey artifact—given how few people are actually aware of what GM foods are. Obviously, here, the level of concern expressed is way out of line with people’s behavior in consuming prodigious amounts of GM food.

We also don’t have any decent validation of the “confidence in science” measure: I’ve never encountered it being used to explain other attitudes in a way that would give one confidence that it really measures trust in science. The same goes, moreover, for all the other “trust” measures in the GSS, which consistently find high levels of trust in science among politically diverse citizens.

But maybe this finding should nudge me in the other direction?

You  tell me what you think & maybe I’ll revise my view!



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Reader Comments (21)

I think that this is a battle being fought on a very narrow front. And in my opinion, that is because our media is corporate dominated and it is to their advantage to limit the public conversation. And make it seem as if opposition to their practices overall is coming from a handful of anti-science extremists.

Also, the question, as phrased above (good, bad or ugly) is not science based. The actual answer would be "It Depends". The science of genomics can be applied in situations and manners that are quite helpful, or quite dangerous. It is entirely possible to make "Frankenfood". Or set loose a destructive epidemic.

In this sense, I do think that the results are meaningless, since the underlying question is not really directly a measure of scientific understanding.

One big underlying question has to do with who decides the trajectory of scientific progress. There is no reason scientifically, that we couldn't have focused on crops for the US Midwest that were water conserving and strong as weeds. And we could have increased the variety and nutritional value of those crops. Instead, we got King Corn. And soy. Big Ag and Big Food were the decider and they went with GMO products that re-enforced their own product line of pesticides. And fostered large monocultures. This changed the economic structure of the Midwest, accelerating the consolidation of smaller farms, and the demise of small towns. The remaining farmers are the ones that most successfully adapted to these changes. They are now farming spreads that were formerly plowed and cared for by 5 or 6 farm families. This necessitates the GMO methods. They overproduced to the extent that new markets, such as ethanol, were devised, even though this production is questionable from an energy analysis and other resource use perspective. But these farmers are now caught in a spiral of downward trending commodity pricing as the rest of the world catches up. Brazil is now a big producer of soy, for example. A lot of this production is dependent on "tragedy of the commons" environmental practices that make them non sustainable. Depletion of water and soils, destruction of wetlands, and in cutting of forests. These changes have also led to sweeping effects on the American diet. Too much simple sugar and animal fat, not enough vegetables.

Another has to do with the way that our legislative and regulatory mechanisms are set up. It is much easier to stop a new practice than to go backwards and regulate existing practices. In food ingredient regulation for example, the US started with a sweeping category of existing chemicals labeled as "GRAS" or generally recognized as safe. And started testing with newly developed food additives. Only lately has there been pressure to look back and analyze substances that have been used for a very long time, but still might have health issues It would not be illogical to start genetic regulations in the same manner. It is straightforward to ask a new seed producer for the genetic makeup of his crop. More complicated to go back and analyze gardener's heirloom tomatoes. But still true that there is much we could learn if we were to examine the genetic makeup of current foodstuffs more closely.

We also have an economic system that is based on application of patent laws. This works strongly against fostering a diversity of scientific development. And often obscures the breadth and depth of science that is behind any new breakthroughs. A small scale example of this has been played out with GMO seeds. But an up and coming issue involves the new CRISPR genomic technology, in which the scientists who arguably had the most to do with the origination of these methods have been cut out and forward progress will need to be focused through a narrow lens of patent permissions.

We have a system in which placing new policies within an enhancement of previously existing partisan identities has political benefits.

Science communication enhancement only starts with a recognition that those polarizing tendencies and resulting identity based decision making is real. We need to recognize how skillfully those tendencies have been utilized by moneyed interests that want to warp the directions of scientific progress in their favor. And then we need to develop communication methods that can broaden public perceptions of science and the role that they need to play in regulating scientific progress towards the common good.

March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

A friend directed me to this post because of our mutual interest in food production and labeling (the biggest flashpoint being GMOs), but I've been completely derailed from the content because I have no idea what GSS stands for. Could you clarify, please?

March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Church


General Social Survey

March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

=={ I hadn’t expected partisan identity to matter at all, given that surveys now typically find no meaningful correlation between attitudes toward GM foods and party identity. }==

I think it is worth noting that the wording of question itself may narrow the responses of respondants towards thinking of environmental risk, as opposed to health risk from GMOs.

The first choice of 1. Extremely dangerous for the environment and the last choice of 5. Not dangerous at all for the environment. would seem to me to narrow all the choices towards the theme of the "environment."

As such, I would expect the answers to show a political identification consistent with pretty much any questions related to environment, where responses trigger ideological identification (and identity-protective/aggressive cognition) associated with pretty much any questions related to environmental policies.

Thus, if you ask questions only about "GMOs" you might get one set of responses and if you ask about "GMO impact on the environment" you'd get a different set.

That doesn't exactly explain the patterns you found, and in particular not the differing pattern among lefties and righties...but I do think that it complicates analysis.

March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- that's a really good point: typical GM question is "safe to eat"; here "dangerous to environment"; latter definitely connects w/ ideological sensibilities & helps respt to lock in

March 16, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

The question "Do you think that modifying the genes of certain crops is" is just too ambiguous. What kind of modification? For what purpose? I'm generally in favor of beneficial GMO work, but would answer such an ambiguous question neutrally because it just isn't clear enough to know what was intended. I'm on the left, and have a great deal of confidence in the scientific community. But not a great deal of confidence in large corporations. So, the question makes me suspicious as to what the questioner was really digging for.

So, maybe that's what is going on. Conservatives that have confidence in science might also have more confidence than I do in large corporations. To them, whichever way the ambiguity swings on the question, they still would rate it as lower risk.

March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

One hypothesis - conservatives think of industrial scientists as part of the scientific community, and liberals think only academic scientists are.

Another hypothesis - conservatives judge them safe for scientific reasons, while liberals judge them unsafe for ideological ones. Only if scientific reasons are in play does the opinion of trusted scientists constitute a factor.

Third hypothesis - GMO concern is perceived as a liberal position (whether it is or not) and so trust in scientists works the same way scientific literacy does. The popular science media sells the story that they're controversial and of concern, and conservatives with no trust in scientists have no justifications for not accepting the media line. Conservatives with high trust do - they can cite "experts" - but only conservatives are motivated to seek such reasons. Liberals, even those with high trust in scientists, have no motive to seek out reasons to disbelieve the media line, and positive reasons not to.

March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Dan -

You may find this interesting.

March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- many thanks... depressing

March 17, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@NiV-- those seem like good hypotheses, although see today's post.

WE also know that conservatives & libs alike have very high levels of expressed confidence in "those" who are "running" the "science community; ;how would you test whether they have different groups of scientists in mind? Guess we could do it by seeing what relationship of "WHICHSCI" is to "CONSCI', conditioning on political outlooks. I'l do that "tomorrow"-- unless you do it today & tell me what answer is

March 17, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I think that it will be "interesting" to note that if Trump's budget goes through, the whole nature of who is a scientist will be tested.

NiV has a point, although I'd differ sharply in the interpretation. It is true that much of the scientific R & D done in industrial settings is considered proprietary and thus not published or subject to peer review. But in the process of seeking governmental approval, industry often does have to either publish work themselves or fund other outside researchers to replicate their work. We already have a system in which much academic research receives funding from corporate sources. This material does receive peer review. However, the topics chosen for study and perhaps more importantly those not studied, are subject to bias. This is outside of the normal scientific funding review process as held by scientist dominated institutions such as the NSF (National Science Foundation) or NIH (National Institute of Health).

Republicans, with input from well funded right wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, have come up with a mechanism for funding that would sever the relationship between regulatory agencies and scientists working in the relevant fields. These are cleverly named as "the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017, and the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017". These bills are designed, and named with quite a bit of culturally cognatively based thought as to how to make them seem appealing to the public. In practice, they put the Merchants of Doubt on steroids and hamstring efforts by scientists to present the best available evidence. Science journalist Ed Yong does a good job at explaining the situation here:

When it comes to GMOs, "safe to eat" and "safe for the environment" are different, but both quite real metrics. Both questions are both weak on detail. As I tried to point out above, like almost any scientific advance, the science of genomics can be applied in helpful or quite harmful manners.

On safety, one question might be "Are our current regulatory mechanisms strong enough to ensure that GMOs developed for foodstuffs are safe to eat?". Or one might even ask: "Should genetic analysis of all foodstuff be required to ensure safety and authenticity?" This has already been done, for example here:

Regarding the environment there are many questions that might be asked. One category would have to do with the impact of the release of the genetically modified organism into the environment. How stringently should that be tested or regulated? The other has to do with how the release is managed. For example, if the use of GMO corn, soy and cotton, modified to survive applications of glyphosate herbicides had been more carefully regulated, adaptation of competing weeds, such as Palmer pigweed to herbicide resistance might have been thwarted or at least greatly delayed. As it is we are now engaged in an escalating "arms race" in which new GMO products need to be introduced. This means that rather than being able to use the relatively safe glyphosate, farmers are now using GMO seeds that are resistant to 2, 4, d.

Forcing the public to answer in a yes/no fashion boxes in the conversation. I'm hoping that Kyle Church who commented above will return with more thoughts on food labeling, which is an interest of mine also. (I am an analytical chemist).

Off topic but related to NiV's comment on the composition of the members of the body of people deemed to be scientists: I think it should be concerning obvious that the solution that we are nearing, under the Trump administration, for the statement that "97% of climate scientists have concluded that human activity is causing global climate change" is to work to ensure that only those in the remaining 3% are employed or receiving research funding. Changing the power structure really can change the direction of scientific progress. As a polling question, I also think that "conclude" is a wrong word choice. Most scientists are careful to couch their conclusions in the language of science, which always expresses some uncertainty, even when the preponderance of the evidence is quite extensive and can be deemed as highly reliable information upon which to base future predictions.

Dan, I look forward to your update!

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

It's not just crops anymore.

One of the areas of current controversy has to do with genetically modified mosquitoes, which may remove species, in order to thwart diseases such as malaria or Zika:

In China, scientists are already experimenting on human embryos:

And in the US, Republicans would like to force the collection of employees genetic information:

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Gaythia -

Thanks for that link to the Atlantic article. From the article:

So to recap: The Reform Act means that holding an EPA grant, which isn’t truly a conflict of interest, renders a scientist ineligible for SAB membership, while people with actual conflicts of interests can join as long as they disclose. In fact, “the bill doesn’t even define conflicts of interest,” says Wendy Wagner, an environmental law expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “The term doesn’t even appear.”

Interestingly, this is being done in the name of "de-politicizing science." I don't particularly buy the "Republicans are anti-science" line of thinking (they aren't anti-science so much as anti-science that doesn't fit with their ideological orientation), but I do think that these initiatives will not have the effect of "de-politicizing science," but instead, de-scientizing politics.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

More evidence that the communication problems are created by clever manipulation, this analysis of the rise of Breitbart News:

Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda

"What we find in our data is a network of mutually-reinforcing hyper-partisan sites that revive what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics,” combining decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world. “Fake news,” which implies made of whole cloth by politically disinterested parties out to make a buck of Facebook advertising dollars, rather than propaganda and disinformation, is not an adequate term. By repetition, variation, and circulation through many associated sites, the network of sites make their claims familiar to readers, and this fluency with the core narrative gives credence to the incredible."

The question to answer is: How to recognize and deal with "operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment".

Questions regarding a simplistic Are GMOs safe? IMHO, falls into the category of clickbait.

I think that we could also step back in time and look at previous permutations of these sorts of mechanisms. Newspaper headline based "Extra, Extra, Read All About It!" yellow journalism for example. This worked for a previous generation of robber barons, including Hearst:

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

"Off topic but related to NiV's comment on the composition of the members of the body of people deemed to be scientists: I think it should be concerning obvious that the solution that we are nearing, under the Trump administration, for the statement that "97% of climate scientists have concluded that human activity is causing global climate change" is to work to ensure that only those in the remaining 3% are employed or receiving research funding."

I'm never quite sure whether people are being humorous in repeatedly citing that statistic to me, even after all the many times I've talked about it. You do know it was actually 82% and 18% respectively, don't you?

Possibly more concerning is the misunderstanding of how the scientific process works. Science works less like 'intelligent design' and more like 'evolution by natural selection'. People publish papers which consist of tentative works in progress, and other scientists try to knock them down. If they try as hard as they can and fail, scientific confidence in the result increases. If they don't try, it doesn't. As Popper explained, science is based on falsificationism - a hypothesis is not proved by finding confirmation of its predictions, by by finding disconfirmation of every conceivable alternative hypothesis. And if you're not busy generating alternative hypotheses, trying as hard as you can to knock a reigning hypothesis down, then the scientific process is being undermined at its root.

For both these reasons, science policymakers *should* be funding science trying to disprove anthropogenic climate change, because it's only by the failure of such research that the hypothesis can be proved. Without systematic scepticism of even the most widely accepted dogmas, science is moribund. It's a sign of just how far science has gone off the tracks that so many scientists don't see that as just obvious.

"On safety, one question might be "Are our current regulatory mechanisms strong enough to ensure that GMOs developed for foodstuffs are safe to eat?"."

It's the wrong question. The question should simply be "Is our food safe enough to eat?" Whether it's GMO or not is irrelevant. If you're killed by entirely natural aflatoxins in contaminated maize (which GMOs, incidentally, could fix), then should you really be comforted by the idea that "well, at least it was a *natural* poison"?

Virtually all foods contain natural toxins, the long-term effects of most of which are entirely unknown. We consider them "safe enough", even though the toxins they contain are often not regulated or monitored. We can't say with 100% assurance that they're entirely safe. It makes absolutely no sense to regulate GMOs any differently to any other foodstuff. The only question you should be asking is "does it contain anything unacceptably toxic?", not "does it contain GMOs?"

Fear of GMOs is a superstition. Freedom of belief means we should allow people to take precautions and pay extra for labeling if they like (while we let other people ignore the issue and take the cost savings), but it's got nothing to do with safety.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Sorry - just realised I cited the statistic incorrectly myself! It's 88%/12% for climate scientists, and 82%/18% for scientists generally. For some reason, I missed the word 'climate' in your comment.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

On the statistic, I was just repeating a line from a previous post here. Quibling about the exact number is silly, and merely a matter of where you draw lines around the people defined as "climate scientists". And sadly, as I've pointed out, if NASA's earth sciences division is eliminated, that potentially will put a number of climate scientists out of work. And thus out of the ranks of professional scientists. That would make the collection of new climate data much more difficult, but would not change the evidence that we currently have.

In general, extended years of use does give knowledge. Regulations necessarily must start someplace, and new items is a good place to begin. Definitely they should be extended to items already in existence as time and money allow. The fact that some naturally occurring chemicals are toxic, is no reason to not regulate the chemical industry.

The solution to the inadequacy of "Contains GMOs" type labeling is not to work to shut such attempts down, but rather to work to extend labeling efforts so that a much more complete database of foodstuff origins can be obtained and made public. Big Ag and Big Food have much of this data already. Knowledge is power, and citizens ought to be able to access much more of the information regarding our food chain. Not that any individual is likely to sort through much of this information. But it would be available to researchers evaluate methods, and allow for many more current unknowns to be evaluated. The result would be that the public would be able to make better decisions.

Food ingredient labeling is an example of such a work in progress. Progress that is considerably slowed by pushback and and subterfuge from Big Food. But still, progress in nutritional awareness is being made. This is leading to positive dietary changes

In my opinion, the reason that we are currently locked in this narrow arguement is that Big Ag and Big Food do not want to have these more complex conversations with the public. I think that is well demonstrated by the lengthy and continuing arugments going on regarding food ingredient labeling.

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

"Quibling about the exact number is silly, and merely a matter of where you draw lines around the people defined as "climate scientists"."

It's a question of accuracy in science. 3% or 12%? It's just a 400% difference! But I'm sure if the error had been the other way round, people would be just as forgiving...

"And sadly, as I've pointed out, if NASA's earth sciences division is eliminated, that potentially will put a number of climate scientists out of work. And thus out of the ranks of professional scientists."

If it's just a matter of jobs, all they have to do is change emphasis. I've explained before how climate scientists could construct a Trump-friendly proposal for updating climate science.

However, that's democracy. If you're going to accept public funds for doing science, then you have to accept the public's vote on what gets funded. It's their money. On the whole, I 'd say it was an improvement, but I accept others of different political perspectives will disagree.

"In my opinion, the reason that we are currently locked in this narrow arguement is that Big Ag and Big Food do not want to have these more complex conversations with the public. I think that is well demonstrated by the lengthy and continuing arugments going on regarding food ingredient labeling."

I think they've tried to have more complex conversations with the public, and failed to convince. Hence the continuing arguments over unnecessary and illogical calls for food labeling, like GMO.

I'm all in favour of food monitoring and labeling where there's enough public demand to make it worth the cost - the market delivers that automatically. (You can charge extra for labeled food - something food producers are all in favour of.) The argument is over monitoring/labeling that only a small minority want, but that they force the majority to pay for.

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Food ingredient labels were strongly opposed by the food industry, using a very analogous set of arguments to what is being used now with regards to GMOs. Part of the success of King Corn was due to the ability of the corn/sugar industry lobby to thwart clear and and straightforward labeling. For years, they fought to keep "high fructose corn syrup" on labels in place of the word "sugar" in such products as sodas. This is part of the reason for the dominance of King Corn in American agricultural industry, which leads to our current GMO products. And rising rates of diabetes in the American population.

Efforts to force honesty and greater disclosure have been lengthy and ongoing:

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

"Part of the success of King Corn was due to the ability of the corn/sugar industry lobby to thwart clear and and straightforward labeling. For years, they fought to keep "high fructose corn syrup" on labels in place of the word "sugar" in such products as sodas."

It's an interesting argument, because I've seen it being proposed both ways. It depends on what the purpose of the labeling is perceived to be.

I've seen people argue that it should be labeled "sugar" because they're interested in preventing obesity and think that people understand that "sugar" has lots of calories but don't know what "high fructose corn syrup" even is. (Personally, I think most people know what "syrup" is, but it's possible they don't. I've not seen any surveys on the point.)

On the other hand, I've seen people argue that it should be labeled "high fructose corn syrup" because it's chemically different to sucrose, and (it is argued) has a different biochemical effect, and some people may wish to avoid it and turn to sugar instead as the healthier alternative.

Food producers want to use whatever labeling maximises their profits, and that's done by delivering what consumers want. If consumers will pay a premium for knowing food has/does not have HFCS or sugar in it, they're all in favour. And if they were arguing for the HFCS alternative, that's presumably because more consumers wanted that.

The argument arises because there are other people who think they know better than the consumers what's good for them, and what they *ought* to want, and so force a one-size-fits-all solution on everyone. It doesn't please the consumers, and it doesn't please the manufacturers, but it does please the regulators, and the special interest groups pushing their various 'health food' theories.

I'm reminded of the many years for which saturated fats were seen as bad by those same health-food regulators, and how food manufacturers had to add salt and sugar in their place to keep the food palatable, having been forced to reduce the fat content. Now the situation has reversed, saturated fat is healthy again, and sugar is bad. I'm not convinced they know what they're talking about. And I don't want to pay the price of conforming to their obsessions while they sort it out. "Scientific" labeling of food would require that they place verified error bars on their health advice.

Legal regulation of food labeling should be limited to ensuring that whatever is printed is *accurate*, and to ensure food safety (e.g. reporting common allergens). You can make helpful recommendations on what else to add, but otherwise it should be down to consumer choice. It's not something the government ought to have any role in, in a liberal society.

Opinions differ, of course. :-)

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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