Why Do We Fear GMOs More Than Global Warming?

February 1, 2015 7:14 pm Last Updated: February 2, 2015 8:05 am

Almost eight out of ten scientists believe climate change is a very serious problem, but only a third of the general public agrees, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

On the other hand, almost nine out of ten scientists consider genetically modified food safe, but less than two in five Americans agree.

The scientists tend to blame a lack of education on the issues. The public tends to doubt whether scientists know what they’re talking about, the Pew survey shows.

And both may be right, in a way.

It all comes down to how we perceive danger, according to psychology professor Paul Slovic.

Slovic has been publishing on the science of risk perception for decades and he’s concluded it’s not as simple as scientists convincing the public they’re right. Sometimes it needs to be the other way around.

Common folk simply don’t see the world as a set of data. That is a problem, as it’s easier for emotions to mix in. Yet it’s also an advantage. Unbound by empirical evidence, people sometimes assess risks more accurately than scientists.

People’s understanding of a risk is “much richer than that of the experts, and reflect legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessment,” Slovic wrote in one 1987 paper.

In a 2004 paper Slovic gave an example of a study exploring the costs of treating smokers by the Czech Republic government. “Employing a very narrow conception of costs, the analysis concluded that smokers benefited the government by dying young,” Slovic wrote.

Phillip Morris, who commissioned the study, was forced to apologize for it.

But the public also gets it wrong, and smoking is a fitting example. It took decades of studies to convince many smokers that filling their lungs with spoonfuls of tar is harmful.

“[T]here is wisdom as well as error in public attitudes and perceptions,” Slovic stated.

And so while our gut tells us cutting genes is wrong, we feel a few degrees of rise in global temperatures will somehow work out.

The solution lies in the attitude, according to Slovic.

“Each side, expert and public, has something valid to contribute. Each side must respect the insights and intelligence of the other,” he wrote.