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Emotions vs. Science – A Gap in the Perceptions on Vaccines & GMOs

March 18, 2016

Emotions and science clash on several fronts. In recent years, vaccines are arguably the most visible battleground for emotions vs. science, but genetically modified food/organisms (GMOs) and agriculture products are another extremely volatile topic. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that an overwhelming majority of scientists surveyed — 88 percent — feel that it’s safe to eat foods containing genetically modified ingredients. And yet, only 37% of the general public responded the same way.

What’s driving this gap? And what does it mean for the future of agriculture practices? It seems that topics concerning perceived safety for individuals and families are the most prone to this clash of emotion vs. science. That’s why people get heated about vaccines and GMOs but not quite so much about other scientific topics (then again, there was a whole lot of hullaballoo when Pluto was downgraded from planet status…).

National Geographic notably highlighted a “War on Science” in which, according to their feature, emotions among the general public thwart scientific progress — potentially to the detriment of all of us. The article highlights one of the primary issues, which is that the rise of the Internet has allowed many people to reinforce their own (possibly inaccurate) perceptions via similarly minded groups, and even “experts,” online.

When topics related to agriculture are on the debate floor, where does that leave farmers? Business must go on. And with the workload facing farmers, few if any have the time to fight misconceptions. Even if they did, it probably wouldn’t be a good use of their time. Liz Neeley works for an organization called Compass, which helps train scientists in communication practices. Neeley told National Geographic that simply combating emotion-fueled skepticism with facts doesn’t work. Why? Because we tend to trust information only from people we already trust. That means we simply seek out information from the same sources that reinforce what we already believe. Thus, changing beliefs is incredibly difficult.

Long story short: For the general public, emotion seems to trump science. The question is: Should farmers play into the power of emotion rather than try to combat it? If so, how? We’re interested in your ideas.