Cornfields in Ohio, courtesy Travis Essinger, Unsplash

The divide between scientific understanding and public belief can be remarkably large. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll, for instance, shows that, while most scientists judge genetically modified crops to be safe for humans to eat, only 37 percent of the American public agrees. When misinformation about scientific issues takes root in society, it can be very difficult to shift public perception, especially when false information aligns with people’s moral values. 

An SFI team led by Professor Mirta Galesic has received a nearly $500,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study how people form beliefs about genetically modified crops and to develop methods to shift public perception toward scientifically grounded beliefs. 

“Genetic modifications of agricultural crops can be an important way to meet the challenges of a warming climate and growing human population,” says Galesic. “However, public distrust of GMOs has hampered application of these promising technologies.”

The two-year project has three main objectives. First, Galesic and her collaborators plan to develop a theoretical framework that can model the complex social-cognitive processes at play as people form their beliefs about GM crops. Then, they will use that model to identify different factors most likely to lead to a shift in those beliefs. Finally, they’ll test those predictions in a national experimental study. 

“Our preliminary studies show that a single friend can have a stronger impact on one’s science-related beliefs than a large group of scientists,” says Galesic. “However, science education efforts have so far mostly relied on communicating facts from scientists to individuals. We believe that it could be more important to encourage communication of scientific facts within groups of friends.”

Galesic will be working with External Professor and Science Board member Nina Fedoroff (Penn State), Science Board Fellow Daniel Stein (New York University), and incoming Postdoctoral Fellow Tamara van der Does, who joins SFI in July. 

SFI is one of four recipients of a larger $2 million grant through the USDA’s Social Implications of Emerging Technologies initiative.