How do people respond to scientific information about GMOs and climate change?

The journal Food Policy just published a paper by Brandon McFadden and me that explores how consumers respond to scientific information about genetically engineered foods and about climate change.  The paper was motivated by some previous work we'd done where we found that people didn't always respond as anticipated to television advertisements encouraging them to vote for or against mandatory labels on GMOs.  

In this study, respondents were shown a collection of statements from authoritative scientific bodies (like the National Academies of Science and United Nations) about the safety of eating approved GMOs or the risk of climate change.  Then we asked respondents whether they were more or less likely to believe GMOs were safe to eat or whether the earth was warming more than it would have otherwise due to human activities.    

We classified people as "conservative" (if they stuck with their prior beliefs regardless of the information), "convergent" (if they changed their beliefs in a way consistent with the scientific information), or "divergent" (if they changed their beliefs in a way inconsistent with the scientific information). 

We then explored the factors that explained how people responded to the information.  As it turns out, one of the most important factors determining how you respond to information is your prior belief.  If your priors were that GMOs were safe to eat and that global warming was occurring, you were more likely to find the information credible and respond in a "rational" (or Bayesian updating) way.  

Here are a couple graphs from the paper illustrating that result (where believers already tended to believe the information contained in the scientific statements and deniers did not).  As the results below show, the "deniers" were more likely to be "divergent" - that is, the provision scientific information caused them to be more likely to believe the opposite of the message conveyed in the scientific information.  

We also explored a host of other psychological factors that influenced how people responded to scientific information.  Here's the abstract:

The ability of scientific knowledge to contribute to public debate about societal risks depends on how the public assimilates information resulting from the scientific community. Bayesian decision theory assumes that people update a belief by allocating weights to a prior belief and new information to form a posterior belief. The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of prior beliefs on assimilation of scientific information and test several hypotheses about the manner in which people process scientific information on genetically modified food and global warming. Results indicated that assimilation of information is dependent on prior beliefs and that the failure to converge a posterior belief to information is a result of several factors including: misinterpreting information, illusionary correlations, selectively scrutinizing information, information-processing problems, knowledge, political affiliation, and cognitive function.

An excerpt from the conclusions:

Participants who misinterpreted the information provided did not converge posterior beliefs to the information. Rabin and Schrag (1999) asserted that people suffering from confirmation bias misinterpret evidence to conform to a prior belief. The results here confirmed that people who misinterpreted information did indeed exhibit confirmation, as well as people who conserved a prior belief. This is more evidence that assuming optimal Bayesian updating may only be appropriate when new information is somewhat aligned with a prior belief.