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GM: are people informed, or do they just feel informed?

GM: are people informed, or do they just feel informed?

Jayesh Navin Shah, a researcher working on the Public Attitudes to Science survey 2014, discusses public views of GM.

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Genetically modified (GM) crops – the hardy perennials of science stories – were back in the news last week. The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, made a speech at the Rothamsted Research Institute about the future of GM in Europe, and the potential for the UK to become a world-leader in GM crop technology.

Politicians have long tried to engage the public with the issue of GM, with very mixed success – this Guardian blog post rounds up over a decade of politician’s speeches on the subject. In the media, polarised views are presented and there is much heated debate. So how can policymakers ensure an informed discussion of the science behind GM, in the next weeks and months?

We know that the polarised for-and-against views in the media don’t reflect what the public as a whole thinks. A recent British Science Association survey showed that concern about GM food has declined in the last decade. And though people are still concerned, it’s not at the top of their minds. When Ipsos MORI asks people unprompted every month what they see as the most important issues facing the country, GM and food security never come up.

This isn’t surprising given that many people have little idea of what “genetically modified” actually means. The recent Wellcome Trust Monitor survey found that only a third of adults and young people think they have a good understanding of the term. Eight per cent of adults say they have never heard of it. We recently tested out some questions for our upcoming Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) 2014 survey, and some of the people we asked were confusing “genetically modified” with “organic”, of all things.

So I guess we just educate the public in order to have a more thoughtful debate, right? Well, maybe not. PAS 2011 showed, broadly, that people who felt more informed about GM crops tended to be more strongly for and against. In other words, becoming more informed might just make people’s existing views, for and against, more entrenched.

So there is a difference between feeling informed and being informed. Any of us might believe we have an informed view on a science issue, but we might have only looked at the sources which support what we think already.

In PAS 2014 we are working with the Ipsos MORI Connects online community to find out how people hear about science, what makes them feel informed, and which ideas, of all the things they hear, tend to affect their views. We’re also asking more in-depth questions about GM crops and food security in the PAS 2014 survey, which should give new insights beyond how informed people simply feel about GM crops.

So to everyone else interested in science communication on GM and other polarising issues, what are your hypotheses? How do you think people form opinions? What makes people feel informed about an issue like GM? How can policymakers tell if they really are informed? What new insights are you looking to PAS 2014 to provide, and what should we be asking to get these insights?

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