Facts, Beliefs, and Genetically Modified Food
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Facts, Beliefs, and Genetically Modified
By Walter A. Brown
The Scientist April 17, 2000
For more than two millennia philosophers and psychologists have
discovered and rediscovered a prevailing psychological truth:
Intuition and fiercely held beliefs often guide us more than the
facts. Nonetheless, the scientific community seems to operate under
the assumption that people think and behave rationally; provide the
facts, most of us believe, and people will behave in accordance with
them. When they don't we wring our hands.
Although the scientific enterprise is firmly established and widely
acknowledged as the engine of progress, the public does not hold back
when it comes to rejecting scientific facts. People avidly seek
unproven treatments and continue to use them long after they have
been disproven, creationism lives and thrives, a substantial and
vocal minority believe that routine vaccinations are dangerous (and
are attempting to outlaw them); and, despite its promise for easing
world hunger and its low probability of risk, the public is
clamoring, successfully in some quarters, to stop the development and
use of genetically modified food (GMF).
When the public rejects scientific facts--as in the case of GMF--the
explanation often put forward is that the public mistrusts the
scientific enterprise. (They've lied to us before; they don't know as
much as they say they do.) But the opposition to GMF is too
reflexive, fervent, and widespread to be accounted for by mistrust of
Who's to Blame
Can we blame New Age balderdash, with its rejection of science,
worship of nature, and veneration of intuition and the mystical, for
the opposition to GMF? I think not. Although consistent with the new
romanticism, revulsion to GMF doesn't arise out of a philosophy, New
Age or otherwise. It's a gut feeling. And that gut feeling is
legitimate. A look at it and where it comes from can usefully inform
the debate about GMF and provide a framework for addressing the
Humans revere nature and the natural order. Edward Wilson makes a
compelling case that this affinity for nature, biophilia he calls it,
is an innate epigenetic program handed down to us by way of natural
selection.1 However it got here, the idea that natural things are
good for you, certainly better than synthetic ones, and its
corollary--don't muck about with nature--is widespread and fiercely
held. It accounts for much of the avidity for "organically"
grown as opposed to insecticide-laden foods and the preference for
herbal supplements and other "natural" remedies over those
concocted by the pharmaceutical industry, and it contributes to the
intuitive revulsion to GMF. With just a bit of a stretch one can
imagine how an innate affinity for natural substances and avoidance
of unfamiliar doctored-up ones protected us through much of our
history. And any "gut reaction" that has been with us for
so long and served us so well deserves respect. Nonetheless, it can
lead to errors in judgement. Natural substances, including plants and
the stuff sold in health food stores, can be toxic; and the scientist
tinkering with crops--notwithstanding Prince Charles' assertion that
such activities should be left to God and "God alone"--is
not necessarily creating poison.
Over the past 50 years cognitive psychologists and evolutionary
psychologists have identified a number of instinctive
information-processing tendencies that we use to assess situations
and estimate probabilities.2 These heuristics, or rules of thumb,
simplify complex problems and allow quick, roughly accurate,
appraisals. Although these rules of thumb often lead to valid
conclusions, they can create errors in judgement.
Aversion to loss is among the most pervasive of these tendencies. A
loss is more worrisome than a foregone gain. Loss aversion guides
investment behavior and health care decisions. And it contributes to
the objections to GMF. In its most extreme--but not unusual--form the
only acceptable risk is no risk. Even the remote possibility that GMF
carries a risk to health or the environment is enough to forgo the
potential gains in food quality, resilience, and
Aversion to Change
Related to loss aversion is preference for the status quo. People
place a higher value, for example, on something they already have
than they would pay to get it in the first place. We don't like
change, and GMF seems like a big change.
We tend to assess things quickly and categorically as safe or
dangerous, good or bad. Again, it doesn't take much of a stretch to
see this mode of thought as adaptive. Better to simply steer clear of
anything wriggling on the ground than to closely examine its
features. Better not to eat the tuna fish that tastes just a little
off. But in the current millennium this categorical approach can lead
to costly errors, as when we conclude that insecticides, chlorine, or
radiation are harmful irrespective of dose, or when we assume that
any modification of corn is dangerous.
The availability heuristic comes into play when we estimate
probabilities. We tend to think of events as more frequent, and more
likely to occur, when examples of those events come easily to mind.
As with other intuitive modes of thought, the availability heuristic
often provides a roughly accurate assessment of probability. But it
can lead to errors. We tend, for example, to overestimate the
relative likelihood of dying in a plane crash as opposed to a car
accident because plane crashes are so highly publicized; we tend to
overestimate the likelihood of a terrorist hijacking right after one
Examples of the disasters that transpire when we manipulate--or
simply modify--nature are more than readily available. They are part
of our mythology, deeply embedded in our psyche. From Frankenstein to
Jurassic Park to man- eating plants, monstrous consequences result
when scientists alter living things. No wonder that GMF provokes
thinly rationalized horror.
Choices that run contrary to the facts sometimes come with little or
no cost. And many of our most consequential activities, from
religious practice to falling in love to bearing children, are
governed--and arguably should be governed--by considerations other
than rational ones. The opposition to GMF, however, does come with a
cost. For the public to be best served, scientific considerations,
not irrational fears, must guide the development and application of
Almost certainly, time alone will bring some reduction in the
hostility to GMF. The concept will become more familiar, strident
voices will run out of steam, the wacko fringe will turn elsewhere.
But the potential for GMF to enhance food production and reduce
starvation calls for a more active approach to the public's
We should acknowledge the specific--arguably hardwired--thinking
tendencies behind the reflexive opposition to GMF. Both the
usefulness of these modes of thought and the ways in which they can
lead to faulty conclusions deserve recognition.
No amount of research will identify all the possible risks of GMF.
That GMF comes with unknown and at this point unknowable risks should
be acknowledged. But the risks to current and future generations of
not moving forward with GMF should also be put on the table.
The public seems unaware of GMF's potential value. In a recent survey
only 8 percent of respondents cited as an advantage of GMF that it
would help feed the poor and hungry.3 In another survey, 73 percent
of respondents supported biotechnology if it reduced pesticide use.4
The benefits of GMF need to be clearly and forcefully articulated.
The features of GMF that are consistent with our intuitive
preferences need emphasis. The fact that, as a result of genetic
modification, Bt corn has its own natural pesticide makes a
compelling story. Potential harm to Monarch butterflies needs to be
seen in relation to the potential benefits to other living things,
our own species for one.
The opposition to GMF, which is largely based on irrational fears,
requires a vigorous response from the scientific community. That
response, to be effective, needs to be informed not just by the facts
about GMF but by a respectful appreciation of the way we think.
Walter A Brown, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown
University School of Medicine and at Tufts University School of
1. E.O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University
2. D. Kahneman et al. (eds.), Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics
and Biases, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press,
3. "Blech," The Economist, Jan. 15, 2000, page 69.
4. D. Steinberg, "Debate heats up on GM foods," The
Scientist, 14:11, Jan. 24, 2000.
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