Education and age, not political ideology, divide US attitudes on GE foods and biomedicine

American public attitudes about the safety of eating genetically engineered foods and the safety of childhood vaccines do not split down party political lines, unlike attitudes to climate change and energy, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center. Factors like education, gender and age were found to be more divisive on attitudes to food safety and biomedical topics. For instance, those educated to higher level were more likely to consider GE foods as safe, while older people were more skeptical of altering a baby’s genetics to prevent disease and more likely to agree that childhood vaccinations should be required.

 

Dr. Brandon McFadden, Assistant Professor, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Florida (webpage):

Expertise: Consumer choice regarding controversial food technologies, GE labelling.

“Several of the results from the Pew Research Center (PRC) phone survey are similar to results I found from an online survey more than a year earlier that examined the effect of scientific information on beliefs about the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.  This indicates that some of the results are robust and stable.  For example, we both came to the conclusion that people with more scientific knowledge were more likely to agree that GM foods are safe to eat.  We came to this same conclusion even though the PRC used general questions about science to measure scientific knowledge while I used specific questions about genetic modification.  We also both concluded that females were less likely to agree that GM foods are safe to eat.  Many studies have determined that females are generally more risk-averse than males, and the results for other science-related topics in the survey appear to agree with this narrative. 

“The most interesting result from the PRC survey is that there was no significant difference between beliefs of Democrats and Republicans.  This has implications for further analyses, as opposition may be a result of values systems that disagree with some characteristic(s) of GM foods.  While the majority of people that belong to both parties believe that GM foods are not safe to eat, it is likely that Democrats and Republicans oppose GM foods based on different personal values.  I found similar results from my survey when I lumped all Democrats together as one category and all Republicans together as one category.  However, when I separated political party by degree of affiliation (i.e., strong democrat, democrat, lean democrat, lean republican, republican, strong republican) I found that people who identified as strong democrat were more likely to agree that GM foods are safe to eat.  The PRC survey did not allow people to select a strong party identification, which may have provided more insight.”

 

Dr. Andrew Maynard, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences & Director of the Risk Science Center, University of Michigan (webpage):

Expertise: Risk assessment, science communication, environmental health policy, and responsible development and use of emerging technologies. 

“Political leanings are frequently associated with attitudes toward science and technology in the U.S. Yet as the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center on Americans, Politics and Science Issues shows, public attitudes toward science and technology depend on a far more diverse and complex factors.

“As with all statistical analyses, there are some uncertainties surrounding the results. However, the approach used enables different influences to be disentangled from one another, allowing a clear picture to emerge of how different factors influence attitudes. Within the caveats that apply to any such assessment, the survey paints a nuanced overview of factors influencing American attitudes toward the development and applications of science, technology and engineering.

“These findings challenge often-used narratives that attitudes toward science in the U.S. is divided down political lines. Of the 22 areas explored in the survey, attitudes were strongly predicted by political party or ideology in only 6 of them. Age, on the other hand, emerged as a strong predictor of attitudes in 10 areas, including genetic modification of babies to reduce disease risks and early access to new drug-based treatments. Level of education and/or scientific knowledge was a strong predictor of attitudes in three areas, building more nuclear power plants, safety of genetically modified foods and the use of animals in research.

“Data on attitudes toward the safety of childhood vaccines show a high degree of consensus across different groups, with the majority of survey participants in each category agreeing that vaccines are generally safe – a finding which some may find surprising, given recent media coverage over the MMR vaccine in the U.S. While there was evidence of some variation in attitudes between political ideologies (83% of moderates agreed that vaccines are generally safe, compared to 84% of conservatives and 91% of moderates), there was no statistical difference between party affiliations.

“Politics played an even smaller role in predicting attitudes toward genetically modified (GM) food. According to the poll, 57% of U.S. adults – largely irrespective of party affiliation or political ideology – think it is generally unsafe to eat GM crops. On the other hand, gender was an important factor, with 65% of women as opposed to 49% of men considering GM food unsafe, and science knowledge strongly influenced attitudes – 66% of adults with less science knowledge considered GM foods unsafe, compared to 47% of adults with a greater general knowledge of science. Interestingly, 50% of U.S. adults responded that they sometimes or always look for GM labeling when shopping, suggesting that food labels are an important source of information when consumers make purchasing choices.

“These data illustrate the dangers of assuming all science issues are politicized in the U.S., and provide valuable insights into factors that influence attitudes. They also highlight that, sometimes, it isn’t the science and technology so much as the decisions around them that matter. For example, while most Americans agree that childhood vaccines are generally safe, only 68% agree that they should be required. This drops to 59% amongst adults between 18 – 29.

“Overall, the survey counters simplistic narratives around politics and science, and lays a strong foundation for public engagement and dialogue around science and technology. By understanding better the factors that affect people’s attitudes toward science and technology, it becomes easier to engage them in meaningful dialogue around how they are developed and used within society.

“This is crucial for ensuring science policies that are supported by the American public. But it is also critical for developing technologies that have the potential for great good, and yet may be derailed by naïve assumptions over public opinions, and what influences them. In areas like the use of gene editing in human embryos, bioengineered transplants and genetically modified foods, misunderstanding who is concerned and why, may be equally or more damaging to progress than the concerns themselves.”

 

Dr. William K. Hallman, Chair of the Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University (webpage):

Expertise: public perceptions of controversial issues concerning food, health, and the environment; recent research projects have included consumer perceptions and behaviors concerning genetically modified foods.

“This new report published by Pew, Americans, Politics and Science Issues, represents a significant effort to examine the American public’s views on a variety of scientific topics and to explore the degree to which political affiliations and ideologies, knowledge of science, level of education and other demographics are predictive of those views.  The report provides an intriguing outline of statistical associations among these variables and most often appropriately describes these relationships as predictive. However, readers (and writers) need to be careful not to assume or imply that the associations are causal.  Indeed, the report itself occasionally uses the word influences, suggesting that more than an association exists.

“While the margin of (sampling) error is reported, neither the response rate for the survey or the demographics of the sample that participated is reported.  This is potentially problematic because when response rates are low (which is often the case with telephone interviews) it is difficult to assure that you have a representative sample of the population.  The data that make up the report are further weighted, which can be an appropriate thing to do; but, if you begin with a sample that is not representative, weighting can actually exacerbate the problem of non-representativeness.  As a result, it is difficult to know how representative or replicable the results reported may be.

“There are other important methodological issues that require attention. It appears that all of the opinions reported throughout the survey were collected in the form of forced choice questions.  That is, the participants are never presented with the option to say, “I don’t know.”  Instead, they are asked to simply indicate yes or no, favor or oppose, generally safe or general unsafe, etc.  The problem with this is that the scientific controversies to which the participants are asked to respond are obviously complex, and in many cases, it is unlikely that the participants have every really thought about them before the survey. Unfortunately, rather than volunteer that they “don’t know,” many Americans will simply choose one of the answers presented to them.

“Particularly troubling is the section on public opinion about genetically modified (GM) foods. In it, Pew reports that “About two-thirds (67%) of adults say scientists do not clearly understand the health effects of GM crops; 28% say scientists have a clear understanding of this.”  Yet, previous studies examining American public perceptions of GM foods (including our own) have shown that half of Americans say they know little or nothing about GM foods (one-quarter indicate they are completely unfamiliar with the term), more than one half say they know little or nothing, and two-thirds report having never had a conversation about GM foods in their entire lives.  As a result, it is unclear how participants would have the knowledge necessary to answer the question about what scientists understand about the health effects of GM foods. But, because they are not given the explicit option of saying “I don’t know,” participants are more likely to choose one of the response options provided by the interviewer.

“Similarly, the report indicates that “About half of U.S. adults report that they always (25%) or sometimes (25%) look to see if products are genetically modified when they are food shopping.”  Yet, our studies suggest that only about 4 in 10 Americans say that they believe that there are foods with GM ingredients in US supermarkets, and only about one-quarter know that GM foods aren’t required to be labeled in the United States. Therefore, it is difficult to know how to incorporate these new findings into an overall framework where it is clear that most Americans know very little about the subject about which they are supposed to have an opinion.”

 

Reference:

Americans, Politics and Science Issues‘ by Lee Rainie et al, published by the Pew Research Center on July 1, 2015.

 

Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):

None declared

 

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