Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

People with the most extreme views opposing genetically modified crops and foods also tend to think they know most about the science on the subject. However, according to recent research, those in such a group actually know the least.

The findings were reported by researchers at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania. The team surveyed more than 2,000 American and European adults about their opinions on genetically modified food and how well they thought they understood the science behind it. A battery of tests later assessed each participant’s actual knowledge of GMO science.

More than 90% of the study’s participants showed some degree of opposition or downright hostility towards genetically modified food, despite the fact that the vast majority of experts and scientists in the field agree that GM foods are safe and have the potential to significantly improve global food security. But the study’s main finding was that the more participants are opposed to genetically modified foods, the more likely they are to think they’re knowledgeable on the subject. Yet, this group also scored the lowest on tests.

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“This result is perverse, but is consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism,” said Phil Fernbach, the study’s lead author and professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business. “Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do.”

The findings are in line with the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University, by which a low level of competence is directly correlated with high confidence in perceived competence. In lack of genuine knowledge, a person is unable to critically assess their performance in a given field of expertise, thus leading to an overestimation of their competence. This happens not only at a low level of knowledge, but also at well above average levels, as explained by Steve Novella on his blog.

“Our findings suggest that changing peoples’ minds first requires them to appreciate what they don’t know,” said study co-author Nicholas Light, a Leeds School of Business PhD candidate. “Without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus.”

In the same study, the authors also investigated gene therapy and climate change denials and found the same results apply to gene therapy.

The same pattern, however, didn’t emerge for climate change denial, which in many places, such as the US, is politically polarized. As such, people’s attitudes with respect to climate change (i.e. whether or not it is happening as a result of human activity, per the current scientific consensus) will lean more towards which group they’re affiliated with rather than how much they know about the issue.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.