Body + Brain


What We Talk About When We Talk About GMOs

Debates about GMOs rarely involve facts, according to David Ropeik, a consultant on risk perception. Instead, they tend to revolve around fear and emotion; our built-in risk-o-meters elicit those feelings, whether we like it or not. Ropeik writes in Cosmos Magazine that the “argument about GMOs isn’t really about the facts, any more than the argument about whether climate change is real, or whether vaccines cause autism. The facts on all three are pretty clear.”

Is genetically modified corn safe? Researcher David Ropeik says the facts are clear, but the psychology of risk brings about the conflict surrounding this debate.

It’s our protective animal instincts that sometimes prevent us from seeing new ideas as positive or good. Instead of facts, all we can see are hundreds of potentially disastrous repercussions.

Ropeik outlines several ways that human risk perception rears its irrational head. The first is the “representative heuristic,” which is basically a fancy way of saying that our brains continuously collect information and draw conclusions based on previous associations. Regardless of how informed he or she is about biotechnology, a person who is already adamantly anti-GMO might maintain a negative attitude toward companies like Monsanto and DuPont purely because of what they represent and not because of what they really do.

The second is “loss aversion,” which refers to the idea that loss has greater emotional power than gain. In other words, anti-GMO people abide by a “better-safe-than-sorry” policy. Even if there are some proven benefits to introduction of GMOs, they believe it’s better to steer clear of them altogether.

Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon and Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon University have identified some further “fear factors,” including the idea that GMOs aren’t “natural” and that they’re surrounded by a lot of uncertainty. Ropeik writes:

Indeed, taking a gene from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis - Bt) that produces a natural pesticide and injecting that gene into the DNA of a soy plant, is hardly Mother Nature’s way of hybridising plants. But does that have anything to do with whether it’s actually risky? No.
It’s easy to see why uncertainty breeds fear. When we face a possible threat but we can’t detect it with our senses, or when it’s complicated and we don’t understand it, or when science still hasn’t answered all the questions about the risk, we don’t know what we need to know to protect ourselves. We feel powerless, which makes us feel more afraid. GMOs qualify for all three categories of uncertainty. GM food ingredients are undetectable. The science is complex and hard to understand. And some questions remain (which is why field tests are done, of course).

The bottom line, Ropeik writes, is that when it comes to scientific advances, emotions shouldn’t get in the way of facts. There are ways of communicating risk without infringing on people’s rooted beliefs and their desire to identify with others. We already do it with less contentious topics like the weather—all we need to do is bring it to more controversial topics like GMOs. After all, we’re better off confronting the psychology of risk rather than denying it.