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Trust Versus Information in the GE Food Debate

A recent review of survey data has found that Americans are still pretty evenly split over their acceptance of genetically engineered (GE) food. What struck me, though, was this sociologically naive explanation of one difference between supporters and opponents:

The researchers also found that people who pay more attention to the news tend to support GE food more than those who don't.

"Overall, research shows that GE foods are safe and effective, though some people still harbor reservations about it," said Shanahan. "I suspect that the more people are exposed to the news, the more aware they are of biotechnology and, therefore, more supportive of it."

I call Shanahan's explanation naive because it flies in the face of decades of environmental sociology. One of the most robust findings is that providing information has very little effect on people's thinking about an issue. The idea that if we just got the facts out to people they'd change their minds is powerfully appealing, but also wrong.

Let me propose an alternative hypothesis to explain the correlation between GE support and newspaper readership that is more consistent with environmental sociology and psychology. (It's an explanation couched in two extreme "ideal types," with the obvious caveat that the population is actually made up of people on a gradient in between them.) Newspaper readers and GE supporters tend to be middle-class white men. They're people who buy in to the system -- they feel like government and corporations do, or at least can, understand and listen to them. They feel competent in interacting with the system and trying to get what they want from it. They read newspapers because they basically trust information that has been endorsed by prestigious publications, and feel that information written by the system about the system is reliable and useful to them. They trust the results of science to be basically competent and to ask the right questions. And they trust that a combination of the invisible hand and government oversight would keep really bad products off the shelves.

Opponents of GE are just the opposite. They come disproportionately from among women, the poor, and non-whites -- people who have been abused by the system. They have learned to distrust the system because they have seen it ignore or even undercut their values and interests. They don't feel efficacious in their dealings with the system, or even confident in their understanding of it. They don't bother reading the news because it doesn't contain information that's relevant to their lives or their struggle for survival. And they don't trust science, or the government and corporate decision-makers using it. From their perspective, even when science is done rigorously and honestly (which is not always the case), it doesn't ask the right questsions -- scientists' pro-system values critically shape the framing of the questions. So it's no wonder they're suspicious of GE food.

In summary, people's feelings toward GE and their news reading habits are both effects of their trust in the political-economic system. Just showing the "facts" produced by the system* to people who distrust the system is unlikely to change any minds.

*Whether or not the system's facts are true ones is irrelevant here.


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