Science communication is a challenge in itself. It demands training, practice, and a good deal of patience. There are some issues that are hard to communicate even for natural-born talents or seasoned, trained professionals. Being a bacterial geneticist and having worked with genetic modification in the lab, genetics is both my favorite scientific subject to talk about, and also the hardest.
While many other controversial issues like climate change and evolution have to deal with politics and ideology much more than with their scientific basis, genetics is about the understanding of basic scientific concepts, and our own – sometimes unnoticed – sense of morality and culture.
Few people outside academia, or even from different academic fields, have an actual grasp of how biotechnology works. It is no wonder that surveys show that genetic modification in foods and drug development has a higher acceptance among scientists than among the public in general. A survey conducted by Pew Research showed that while 88% of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that GM foods are safe, the general public is nowhere near as convinced, with only 37% of the population regarding GM food as safe. It is the widest gap between expert and general public opinion in the biomedical sciences.
Surveys conducted in the US by the National Science Foundation and in Brazil by DataFolha/Instituto Questão de Ciência show that more than 40% of the US population and 73% of the Brazilian population (a country with a largely agricultural-based economy!) are afraid of GM foods.
Is it the lack of knowledge about GM biotechnology that drives people’s fears? According to William Hallman, of Rutgers University, who specialises in risk perception, people tend to overestimate how much they know about a subject, and draw their conclusions and make choices from there.
A survey conducted by Hallman showed that while people had very little knowledge of what GM food is, whether or not they are consuming it, and how it could (or couldn’t) affect their health or the environment, they had very strong feelings about it, and made decisions based on those feelings. Many really believed that they had never eaten anything genetically modified, and others had no idea of what crops in the US are GMOs. Some who reported that they were against GM foods, did, however, report that they were in favour of research into developing trees that could clean contaminated air or water, and into more nutritious crops to help malnourished children in poor countries – which, of course, are applications of GM technology.
In the same survey, Hallman used a set of questions to assess how much the respondents knew about how food is grown in the US. Only 22% admitted to knowing very little, but the replies to other questions showed that most respondents really overestimated their actual knowledge. The problem, according to Hallman, is that if people already believe that they master the subject, they are unlikely to seek more information about it.
He concludes that people often take mental shortcuts based on gut feeling, rather than knowledge. Commenting on the results of his survey, he states that when it comes to GM foods, most people “have not heard very much, they do not know very much, they have never talked about it, they are unaware that they are eating it, and yet they have an opinion”.
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at the New York Univeristy, and author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”, offers an explanation for this strong “gut feeling”. He hypothesizes that the human mind is guided by what he calls moral foundations. When these moral foundations are disrupted, we feel uncomfortable. He proposes six modules of moral foundations that guide human attitude and vary according to culture and background: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression.
According to such a model, we could argue that genetic manipulation would violate the “sanctity” and “fairness” foundations, as people perceive it to be a violation of the sacredness of nature, to the benefit of large multinational corporations. This violation of moral foundations could lead to the gut feeling that there is just something wrong about GM foods. After all, many religious traditions (and, even among non-religious people, a lingering intuition based on the prevalent religious culture) suggest that meddling with the “essence” of things represents hubris, an attempt to play God. Today, many people equate DNA with “essence”, as we can see in the idiom “it is in my DNA…”. Centuries of mythology, folklore and science fiction (Frankenstein was originally published in 1818) led to the belief that every time humanity tries to interfere with the “natural order”, punishment follows.
Maybe it’s time to direct our efforts not only to providing scientific knowledge – the gap between scientists and public in GM food perception shows that it is still a necessary effort – but also to addressing people’s fears, with a better understanding of where these fears come from. Working with community leaders and even faith leaders could be one way to start.
Biotechnology can save lives, ensure food security, provide vaccines against local and global diseases, develop new medicines and help to deal with environmental issues. But if we don’t communicate properly, hesitancy among people and policy makers will ensure all of these potential gains remain exactly that – mere potentials.