This year has served as a new inflection point in the challenge of gaining broad public acceptance of science. We’re seeing Americans resist guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease. But the truth is, this kind of apprehension did not start with COVID-19. Well before anyone had heard of the virus, there was already a growing fear and distrust surrounding the guidance of scientific experts. According to a 2019 poll of 2,000 American adults, for example, 45% reported that they doubt vaccine safety, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support that feeling.
Debates over the safety of new technologies and the motives of their creators are happening in many scientific fields. As a critical example, there remains a growing fear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) among the public that will likely continue well after the SARS-CoV-2 is gone. Just as those who are resisting shutdown orders, social distancing rules, and mask-wearing guidances are making it more difficult to stop SARS-CoV-2, fear of GMOs threatens to derail the agricultural industry’s progress towards strengthening our food supply chain. In an world that depends on GMOs to survive – where 90% of our corn and soy comes from GM varieties – farmers are getting frustrated with the growing anti-GMO movement.
“Why are Millennials willing to eat at Chipotle – whose food has killed people – but won’t eat GMOs, which haven’t killed anyone?” a farmer asked Eve Turow-Paul, author of the book Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning.
To be fair, as Turow-Paul correctly points out in her book, Chipotle’s food hasn’t killed anyone, though it has caused extra horrible trips to the bathroom for some of their burrito-eaters. However, the point stands: Despite the lack of evidence that GMOs are harmful to humans, half of the shoppers across the world now make purchasing non-GMO products a priority. Most young people perceive GMOs as less healthful than their non-GMO counterparts. The anti-GMO sentiment is so strong that you can find non-GMO labels on everything these days, even on foods where no GM alternative exists (oats) and on products that never contained genetic material in the first place (salt and water).
If these fears continue to spread, they could hinder the global effort to fortify food supplies and prevent our economy from collapsing as a result of climate change.
So, how did we get here? Why are people so afraid of something that we rely on to keep us fed and healthy?
A Lack of Understanding
Turow-Paul argues that the non-GMO movement is not simply a result of science denial; rather, it’s a result of people simply not understanding what a GMO is. For example, in a 2017 poll from Michigan State University, more than a thousand Americans were asked if it were true or false that ‘genetically-modified foods have genes and non-genetically modified foods do not.’ 37 percent of respondents marked “true.” Think about that for a moment.
At the same time, Turow-Paul explains that our most basic human need is the feeling of personal safety, which happens to be something we all struggle with when deciding what to put in our bodies. Consequently, ignorance about GMOs and other technologies breeds angst and distrust towards the companies, scientists, and government bodies that are creating and promoting them. At a time when distrust in major institutions (including food manufacturers) is already at or near an all-time high, people are not going to readily accept more foreign concepts, like GMOs, without a change in how these institutions talk about them.
Many want government, lawmakers, and scientists to step in and help keep us safe, particularly when dealing with issues that require nuanced and detailed understanding for proper judgment. However, when these authoritative groups all work together to promote a concept (like modifications to the food we eat, or say, wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19) without effectively communicating its science, safety, and importance, the very human distrust of consolidated power takes root via the fear of the unknown. Furthermore, when the media misrepresents complex science, or the public becomes aware of companies’ and lawmakers’ questionable incentive structures, the public’s trust in these institutions falters, and they begin to resist innovation.
Restoring Trust in Scientific Advancement
I can point out many real-world examples where a lack of consumer and patient trust negatively impacts technological efficacy, but my point (and Turow-Paul’s point) is this: to fix it, the institutions that are creating and promoting scientific innovation, including government, scientists, and companies, need to be more transparent about their processes and faithfully engage with the public on the basis of sound science.
With clearer communication and greater transparency, consumers and patients might begin to trust authority figures more, rather than turn away from them. A strong commitment to outward communication has the potential to provide consumers like us with what we have been looking for: a better sense of product safety. From there, scientists and the industries they serve can further innovate and deliver on their promises to create a safer and healthier world.
This article was adapted from CG Life‘s blog, How to Restore Trust in Science and Address Public Fear of the Unknown.