Democrats pride themselves on their commitment to science. Citing climate change, they contend that they are the party of truth, while Republicans are “denialists.”
But with respect to genetically modified organisms, many Democrats seem indifferent to science, and to be practicing a denialism of their own. What’s going on here?
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine just issued a book-length report, strongly reaffirming what American and European scientists have long said: Food from genetically modified crops is no more dangerous to eat than food produced by conventional agriculture.
The report also finds no clear evidence that genetically modified crops cause environmental harm.
And yet the public is deeply concerned. One survey finds that only 37 percent of Americans believe that genetically modified food is safe to eat.
What explains that? Sydney Scott and Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania and Yoel Inbar of the University of Toronto asked a representative sample of Americans whether they supported or opposed genetically engineering plants and animals.
Consistent with previous studies, 64 percent of participants opposed genetic engineering. Astonishingly, 71 percent of the opponents, and 46 percent of the whole sample, were absolutists: They want to ban genetic engineering regardless of the benefits and risks.
Scott and his co-authors also found that people who most strongly oppose genetic modification are not weighing risks and benefits. Their opposition is a product of the fact that they find the whole idea disgusting.
You could support labeling of genetically modified foods even if you agree with the National Academies report. You might point to the continuing uncertainties with respect to environmental harm, or say that people have a right to know what they’re eating.
But whenever government imposes a labeling requirement, a lot of people will infer that the experts think that there’s a health risk here. In my view, that’s a convincing argument against mandatory labeling of genetically modified food.
But the main point is not that labeling is a bad idea (though I think it is), or that reasonable people cannot endorse precautionary measures. It is that most opponents of genetic engineering are not motivated by an analysis of the evidence or of relevant risks and benefits. They’re motivated by the primitive emotion of disgust – which isn’t exactly a sensible foundation for regulatory policy.
For consumers, the lesson is simple: Genetically modified foods are safe to eat. For public officials, the lesson is clear: In a democracy, public opinion always deserves serious consideration – but in a democratic system that prizes evidence-based decisions, sound analysis is a trump card.
Cass Sunstein is director of the Harvard Law School’s program on behavioral economics and public policy.