Monkey Cage: Why you can ignore that survey showing Americans want to label food containing DNA

Posted: January 20, 2015 at 11:43 pm

Heres the headline:

80% Of Americans Support Mandatory Labels On Foods Containing DNA. DNA!

Hahaha! Americans are so dumb etc etc. As Robbie Gonzalez writes, Not GMOs. DNA, the genetic material contained in every living thing known to science and practically every food . . . The results smack of satire, but theyre real. . . . The results indicate that most Americans do not understand the difference between DNA and a genetically modified food. . . . The survey results are also symptomatic of chemophobia, an irrational fear of chemicals . . .

I dont buy it. I agree with Thomas Lumley, who writes:

Theres no way this is a sensible question about government policies: it isnt a reasonable policy or one that has been under public debate. Most foods will contain DNA, the exceptions being distilled spirits, some candy, and (if you dont measure too carefully) white rice and white flour. Nevertheless, 80% of people were in favour.

There was also a question Do you support mandatory labeling for foods produced with genetic engineering. This got 82% support.

It seems most likely that many respondents interpreted these questions as basically the same: they wanted labelling for food containing DNA that was added or modified by genetic engineering.

As Lumley puts it:

If you ask a question that is nuts when interpreted precisely, but is basically similar to a sensible question, people are going to answer the question they think you meant to ask. People are helpful that way, even when it isnt helpful.

As the philosopher H. P. Grice noted many years ago, people try to give informative answers. And this leads to problems when you try to directly interpret the responses to trick survey questions. The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has made related points in the context of tricky psychology experiments that make people look really foolish. Sometimes a respondent will look foolish in the context of trying to solve an artificial problem. Or, as Lumley writes, Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.

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Monkey Cage: Why you can ignore that survey showing Americans want to label food containing DNA

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