In sharp contrast to public views about GMOs, 89% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe.
That's the most eye-opening finding in a Pew Research Center study on science literacy, undertaken in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and released on January 29.
The overwhelming scientific consensus exceeds the percentage of scientists, 88%, who think humans are mostly responsible for climate change. However, the public appears far more suspicious of scientific claims about GMO safety than they do about the consensus on global warming.
Some 57% of Americans say GM foods are unsafe and a startling 67% do not trust scientists, believing they don't understand the science behind GMOs. AAAS researchers blame poor reporting by mainstream scientists for the trust and literacy gaps.
The survey also contrasts sharply with a statement published earlier this week in a pay-for-play European journal by a group of anti-GMO scientists and activists, including Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, and philosopher Vandana Shiva, claiming, "no scientific consensus on GMO safety."
A huge literacy gap between scientists and the public on biotechnology is one of the many disturbing nuggets that emerged from the Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted in cooperation with the AAAS, the world's largest independent general scientific society. The full study, released on January 29, is available here.
The first of several reports to be released in coming months, this study compares the views of scientists and the general public on the role of science in the United States and globally.
The eye opening take-away: The American population in general borders on scientific illiteracy. The gap between what scientists believe, grounded on empirical evidence, often sharply differs from what the general public thinks is true. The differences are sharpest over biomedical research, including GMOs.
- 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while only 37% of the public believes that’s true--a 51-percentage point gap
- 68% of scientists say it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides, compared with 28% of citizens--a 40% gap.
- A 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research--89% of scientists favor it, while only 47% of the public backs the idea.
The scientist/public perception gap is less pronounced over climate, energy and space issues.
- 37-percentage point gap over whether humans are the primary cause of climate change--87% of AAAS scientists say it is, while 50% of the public does.
- 33-percentage point gap on the question about whether humans have evolved over time--98% of scientists say we have, compared with 65% of the public.
- By a 20-percentage point margin, citizens are more likely than scientists to favor offshore oil drilling.
- By a 12-point margin, the public is more likely to say that astronauts are essential for the future of the U.S. space program.
The survey represents a sample of 2,002 adult citizens and 3,748 scientists who are all members of the AAAS.
"As scientists size up the culture and their place in it," Pew said in a statement. "Scientists are notably less upbeat than they were five years ago and express serious concerns about public knowledge of science and the way scientific findings are covered by journalists."
The scientists believe that media hype is one possible reason for large gaps in opinion between their views and that of the public, particularly in the debate over GMOs. Seventy-nine percent of scientists said that the media doesn't distinguish between "well-founded" and "not well-founded" scientific research. Additionally, 52 percent agreed that the media oversimplifies the science.
Three years ago, the AAAS released an unequivocal statement on the safety of GM foods and why a consensus of its members oppose mandatory labelling:
There are several current efforts to require labeling of foods containing products derived from genetically modified crop plants, commonly known as GM crops or GMOs. These efforts are not driven by evidence that GM foods are actually dangerous. Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Rather, these initiatives are driven by a variety of factors, ranging from the persistent perception that such foods are somehow "unnatural" and potentially dangerous to the desire to gain competitive advantage by legislating attachment of a label meant to alarm. Another misconception used as a rationale for labeling is that GM crops are untested.
The AAAS also has addressed claims by anti-GMO advocacy groups, frequently echoed in the media and on activist websites, that GM foods are less tested or nutritionally deficient when compared to organic or other conventional foods.
... contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent.
Looking further at the demographics of respondents, the survey finds that those with a college degree are split on GMO safety: 49% say it's generally safe while 47% say it's generally unsafe. Women are more wary than men: only 28% of women think eating GM foods are safe compared to 47% of men. Race also divides the issue with blacks (24% say its safe) and Hispanics (32%) being more cautious than whites (41%).
The demographics of respondents on pesticide are quite similar to the responses on GMOs. More men say foods with pesticides are safe than women do. Those with more education are more likely to say food grown with pesticides are safe.
When it comes to GM labeling, exactly half of respondents said they "always" or "sometimes" check for a non-GMO label when they are shopping. Of course, those who check labels correlate higher with those who think genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat.
So why are citizens so out of step with scientists on GMO safety?
"One possible reason for the gap: when it comes to GM crops, two-thirds of the public say scientists do not have a clear understanding about the health effects," surmised the researchers.
Yet, oddly enough for a society that doesn't trust scientists on the GMO debate, science itself still holds an esteemed position in the minds of adults. Seventy-nine percent of respondents believe that science has contributed positively to society with 62% saying it has been beneficial for the quality of food. However, the percent of people who believe that science has contributed negatively to food is up 10 points from 2009: 34 percent of respondents say that science has had a negative affect on food.
The public also highly values government investment in science research: 71% support government-funded basic science research and 61% said government funding is essential for scientific progress.
Pew also asked scientists another question: How good is the general state of science is today? Scientists were more negative this year than they were in 2009. Only 52% say that it is a good time for science today while 74% said it was good in 2009.
And due to the public perception of GMOs at least, scientists' more sober assessment might make sense.
Who's to blame? Scientists (75%) say lack of STEM education in grades K-12 is the biggest culprit. The release of the next report is expected in mid-February.
How can scientists and the government bridge the disturbing literacy gap between the mainstream scientific community and a skeptical public? asks Alan Leshner, CEO of the AAAS, in an editorial accompanying the survey release?
Speaking up for the importance of science to society is our only hope, and scientists must not shy away from engaging with the public, even on the most polarizing science-based topics. Scientists need to speak clearly with journalists who provide a great vehicle for translating the nature and implications of their work. Scientists should also meet with members of the public and discuss what makes each side uncomfortable. In these situations, scientists must respond forthrightly to public concerns. In other words, there needs to be a conversation, not a lecture. The public's perceptions of scientists' expertise and trustworthiness are very important but they are not enough. Acceptance of scientific facts is not based solely on comprehension levels. It can be compromised anytime information confronts people's personal, religious, or political views, and whenever scientific facts provoke fear or make people feel that they have no control over a situation. The only recourse is to have genuine, respectful dialogues with people.
Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter.