Those who harbor the most extreme views against genetically modified foods typically understand it the least, according to new research. Even worse, the same people also mistakenly think they know the most about it.

The study, which was conducted jointly by researchers at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania, aimed to shed some light on people’s opinions of GM foods and their knowledge of the science behind it.

Respondents were asked a series of questions to rank their attitudes surrounding GM foods as well as their own professed judgment insofar as how much they thought they knew about GM science. The survey then tested respondents’ scientific literacy by asking them 15 true/false questions focusing on general science and genetics.


The study discovered that the stronger respondents’ opposition toward GM foods, so too was their self-professed knowledge of the science behind it, while their actual understanding of science and genetics, meanwhile, was among the lowest measured.

In other words, those with the most extreme opinions toward GM foods knew the least about it, even though they thought they know the most.

“… we find that as extremity of opposition to and concern about genetically modified foods increases, objective knowledge about science and genetics decreases, but perceived understanding of genetically modified foods increases,” the study’s authors wrote. “Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most.”

According to the study, more than 90 percent of respondents reported some level of opposition toward genetically modified foods, despite the fact that consensus among the majority of scientists remains that GM foods are as safe as conventionally grown food. A recent Pew Research Center poll discovered that while 88 percent of U.S.-based scientists believe GM foods are safe, only 37 percent of Americans agree.

The inverse relationship that appears to exist between self-professed knowledge and actual knowledge also arose when researchers turned to other similarly divisive issues. A parallel portion of the study that focused on the attitudes and beliefs surrounding gene therapy saw an identical pattern to the GM study emerge, where an increased opposition and professed knowledge of the subject correlated with those who lacked the most objective knowledge regarding the actual science behind gene therapy.

A similar study that focused on climate change, however, didn't yield the same results. The study posits that “for highly politicized issues, ideological commitments may crowd out effects of individual knowledge on attitudes.” In the climate change study, researchers noted that “… beliefs were highly polarized by political identification, with conservatives much more likely to oppose the scientific consensus than liberals.”

The study was published this week in UK journal Nature Human Behaviour. A series of online surveys conducted between 2016 and 2017 polled national representative samples totaling 2,000 adults living in France, Germany and the U.S. Data was gathered by research companies Qualtrics and Research Now.