18 June 2017
15 January 2019
People often suffer from an ‘illusion of knowledge,’ write the authors of a new study that finds that people who hold the most extreme views about genetically modified foods know the least
Recently, researchers asked more than 2,000 American and European adults their thoughts about genetically modified foods.
They also asked them how much they thought they understood about GM foods, and a series of 15 true-false questions to test how much they actually knew about genetics and science in general.
The researchers were interested in studying a perverse human phenomenon: People tend to be lousy judges of how much they know.
Across four studies conducted in three countries — the U.S., France and Germany — the researchers found that extreme opponents of genetically modified foods “display a lack of insight into how much they know.” They know the least, but think they know the most.
“The less people know,” the authors conclude, “the more opposed they are to the scientific consensus.”
“Science communicators have made concerted efforts to educate the public with an eye to bringing their attitudes in line with the experts,”they write in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
But people with an inflated sense of what they actually know — and most in need of education — are also the ones least likely to be open to new information.
“This suggests that a pre-requisite to changing people’s views through education may be getting them to first appreciate the gaps in their knowledge,” the authors write.
The problem is similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect: The less competent a person is at something, the smarter they think they are.
“Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices,” David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote in their 1999 paper describing the phenomenon, “but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”
Or, as English actor and comedian John Cleese once said: “If you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are.”
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Extreme views often come along with not appreciating the complexity of the subject — “not realizing how much there is to know,” said Philip Fernbach, lead author of the new study and a professor of marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder. “People who don’t know very much think they know a lot, and that is the basis for their extreme views.”
His team’s findings held across education levels, and for people on both sides of the political aisle.
Genetically modified foods are a nonpartisan issue, Fernbach said. “People on the right and the left both kind of hate GMO’s,” even though the majority of scientists consider them to be as safe for human consumption as conventionally grown ones.
“Genetic engineering is one of the most important technologies that is really changing the world in a dramatic way and has the potential to have tremendous benefits for human beings” Fernbach said. “And yet there is very strong opposition.”
In one of their studies, 91 per cent of 1,000 American adults surveyed reported some level of opposition to GM foods.
The more extreme the opposition, Fernbach and his co-authors found, the less people knew about the science and genetics, but the more their “self-assessed” knowledge — how much they thought they knew — increased.
“If somebody is well calibrated, those two things should be pretty highly correlated: If I know how much I know, then if I know a little I should say I know a little, and if I know a lot I should say I know a lot,” Fernbach explained. “Therefore there should be a high correlation between self-assessed and objective knowledge.
“And indeed, that’s actually true for the people who are moderate, or people who have the attitude that is consistent with the scientific consensus,” he said.
However, as people become more extreme, that relationship degrades and flips so that people who think they know more actually know less.
“Extremists have this characteristic of being much worse than the other people at evaluating how much they know,” Fernbach said.
The authors, who included collaborators from the University of Toronto, also explored other issues like gene therapy to correct genetic disorders, and human-caused climate change denial. They found the same effects for gene therapy, but not for climate change denial. Fernbach hypothesizes that climate change has become so politically polarized that people subscribe to whatever their ideological group says, regardless of how much they think they know.
Humans often suffer from an “illusion of knowledge,” the authors write, “thinking they understand everything from common household objects to complex social policies better than they do.”
“So, the obvious thing we should try to do is educate people,” Fernbach said. “But that generally hasn’t been very effective.”
Sometimes it backfires, and people double down on their “counter-scientific consensus attitudes,” Fernbach said. “Especially when people feel threatened or if they are being treated as if they are stupid.”
He and his colleagues plan to look at how their findings play into other issues, like vaccinations and homeopathy, “to see how prevalent this miscalabration effect is.”