Genetically modified organisms have a PR problem.
Asking people on the street technical questions for their hilarious responses is a tried-and-true talk show gag. But when Jimmy Kimmel decided to ask people at a local farmers’ market what they thought GMOs were (and if they try to avoid them), he unknowingly highlighted a tremendous problem in science communication. Take a look:
Of course, videos like these are edited to preferentially include the funny responses, but I think the context matters. These are people buying food at a farmers’ market, people who are probably very conscious of where their food comes from. The incorrect answers are telling, but even more so is the fact that many of the people know that GMOs are bad regardless. I think this gets to the heart of the issue: if scientists want to communicate that GMOs are safe to eat, facts aren’t going to work.
And the facts are one-sided. The most comprehensive study to date, including 100 billion animals over 29 years, recently found that GM food is as safe and nutritious as traditionally grow food. This conclusion echoes the findings of both the World Health Organization (pdf) and The National Academy of Sciences. Aside from a highly publicized study out of France that was internationally debunked and retracted, the all the evidence that we have points to the fact that GMOs are safe for consumption. These findings have been publicized in just about every popular scientific outlet I can think of, and yet, they probably aren’t changing any minds.
Since we started studying science communication, we’ve found that the throw-a-bunch-of-facts-at-your-face approach doesn’t really work (the so-called “deficit model”). There are psychological quirks like the “backfire effect” — when information contradictory to a belief only strengthens that belief — which make straight data dumps poor communication strategies. It’s one thing to see that in a study and think about it in the abstract, it’s another to see it happen in real-time on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
If Kimmel’s video shows anything, it’s that emotions and values matter just as much as facts do, especially when health is at stake. It’s perfectly understandable to be weary of an unfamiliar technology. The discussion surrounding GMOs should acknowledge that before bombarding people with statistics and studies.
Have questions or comments on this post? Find me in the drift @Sci_Phile.