"Ignorance generates trust more frequently than knowledge," Charles Darwin wrote in the introduction to his book The origin of the man, 1871. Psychology has confirmed the ubiquity of this cognitive bias, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: people who are unprepared or not very knowledgeable about a subject often perceive themselves as experts. A new study published in Nature Human Behavior He finds that the phenomenon is linked to extreme anti-scientific opinions, such as the opposition to genetically modified foods due to health concerns.
Through surveys, five American researchers of cognitive psychology and marketing evaluated the opinion of more than 2,000 adults in Europe and the United States on genetically modified foods. They were asked how well they thought they understood this type of product and then they measured some real knowledge of the respondents with a test.
The study finds a clear correlation between the three factors studied: the more opposed to transgenics, the more they thought they knew and the worse the participants scored on the test. This is despite the fact that there is a scientific consensus in which "genetically modified foods are safe for health and have the potential to bring great benefits to humanity", write the authors of the work.
The methodology is not identical for all participants, since American and European surveys were joined. In a sample from the United States, for example, the test consisted of ten true or false questions about general scientific culture (for example, "electrons are smaller than atoms") and five more concrete questions about genetics (for example, "All plants and animals have DNA"). With samples from Germany and France, very similar questions were used Eurobarometer.
Ana Muñoz, director of the Research Unit in Scientific Culture del Ciemat, in Madrid, points out that these questions are too specific to measure the general knowledge referred to in the self-assessment of the participants. Therefore, criticizes the methodology of "compare pears and apples" used in the study. However, he believes that it establishes a new and interesting research path, which can be improved by designing surveys and exams that include several levels of abstraction.
Extreme opinions often come from people who believe they understand complex issues much better than they really understand them.
The main author of the study and also author of the book on cognitive biases The Knowledge Illusion (The illusion of knowledge), Philip Fernbach (University of Colorado), notes that the results coincide with previous research on the psychology of fanaticism. "Extreme opinions often come from people who believe they understand complex issues much better than they really understand them," he says.
A consequence of this, according to Matter, is that education and dissemination are not effective when they assume that anti-scientific opinions are born only from ignorance. "Those who know less about science will not be very receptive to what they have to tell them. First you have to figure out a way to let them see the gaps in their knowledge, "he suggests.
Muñoz, unaware of this study, is more cautious in the interpretation of the results: "They have established a correlation, but it could be mediated by factors that they have not studied. It's an interesting result that requires more research, "he says. Your own studies They have revealed that people with more scientific culture tend to have a critical, not negative, attitude towards science. He notes that it is important but difficult to distinguish an informed critical stance from an unscientific stance in a survey.
There are problems – not health, but yes socioeconomic– associated with the current use of transgenic crops. To avoid confusion in the analysis, the researchers repeated the experiment excluding that minority of participants whose concern or opposition to genetically modified foods was not for health reasons. They obtained the same results.
The perception of climate change, a case apart?
In previous studies, this effect had already been found among people anti-vaccinessays Fernbach. His team also conducted the experiment with the focus on opposition to gene therapies, and found the correlation again.
However, the study then investigated the perception and knowledge, subjective and real, of 500 Americans about climate change created by people. The results of this analysis were different. In this case, the researchers did not find a significant relationship between scientific ignorance and opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change (which is real and due to human activity).
Fernbach and his colleagues argue that, in the United States, the controversy surrounding climate change is extremely polarized by ideological issues. In this situation, they say, the commitment to political identity attenuates the effects that individual knowledge and attitude may have.
In a follow-up study, the team is investigating the public perception of other controversies on which there is a scientific consensus, such as the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies (They are not effective beyond the placebo effect). His hypothesis is that the correlation observed among those who oppose transgenics will also occur with any radical anti-scientific stance, but that will take a back seat where the factions of the debate are married to ideologies or to opposing political groups.
Interestingly, the opposition to genetically modified foods in Europe is aligned with certain sectors of the political left, something that the authors of the study acknowledge. It is not like that in the United States. Future research should take into account these differences between the respondents on each side of the Atlantic.
"It will be interesting to see how politics and attitudes are related in Europe," says marketing professor Sydney Scott (University of Washington), who was responsible for analyzing the European sample in the study. "It turns out that Europeans are less willing than Americans to categorize themselves in a spectrum that ranges from liberal to conservative. […]. This makes analysis difficult and probably means that we need new policy measures to get to the bottom of the issue, "he concludes.