522 Postscript: Lack of Polarization in the Population and Thoughts About Polarization Among Egalitarian Communitarians

I can’t say as I was particularly surprised about the outcome of the 522 vote in Washington earlier this month. I don’t think there is all that much interest by consumers in GMO’s or GMO labeling. Here’s what I said about that in August:

Economists have a pair of concepts, stated preference and revealed preference that say a lot about this issue:

Revealed preference theory, pioneered by American economist Paul Samuelson, is a method for comparing the influence of policies on consumer behavior. These models assume that the preferences of consumers can be revealed by their purchasing habits.

It’s very easy to tell a pollster that you want something and another to put a little effort into it. The stated preference is that people want labeling. The revealed preference; judging from the shelves at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, two chains whose customers are ostensibly the most passionate about the issue and whose supply chain is in the best position to be responsive to these demands; shows that people apparently don’t really care that much about labels. Enough to say yes to a pollster or sign a petition, but not enough to change their shopping habits. Markets aren’t perfect, but one thing they do really well is match consumer goods to consumer preference. Clearly producers in the natural and health segment of the market don’t see a enough demand to respond to the most motivated anti-GMO consumers or it wouldn’t take Whole Foods until 2018 to shift their product mix over.

Both Yale’s Dan Kahan and Grist’s Nathanael Johnson extend this line of thinking to an analysis of the vote.


And as soon as the money began to flow, Elway saw a shift in his polling numbers: The measure had a huge 45 percent lead in September. Then the ads began to run, and that lead dropped to 4 percent in October.

“There was a 41 point swing in six weeks, which is unprecedented,” he said. “I’ve been tracking politics in this state for 30 years and I’ve never seen such a big swing in such a short amount of time.”

Among the people who had seen the ads, the measure was losing.

“When we asked them why they were voting no, people were reciting the talking points from the ads back to us,” Elway said.

It’s clear that, in this case, advertising swayed public opinion. But at the same time economists have established that it’s hard to change opinion with political spending. So what gives? Well, there’s an exception to the rule. While it’s nearly impossible for advertising to shift core values — like getting a lifelong Democrat to vote Republican or vice versa — it is possible for advertising to change the mind of someone who hasn’t fully committed. When people haven’t encountered the arguments on each side, those arguments tend to work.

One poll found that 93 percent of Americans favor labeling GM food. But half of the people questioned in that poll weren’t aware that GMOs were already widespread in processed foods — in other words, they were concerned, but brand new to the debate. In previous Washington polls Elway conducted on food safety, GMOs had come in sixth out of six potential problems with the food supply. So, while it’s clear that there’s widespread anxiety about GMOs, it doesn’t seem to be deep-seated.

Kahan writing ahead of the vote:

They help to illustrate that GM foods in US is not a focus for cultural polarization in the public *as of now*. I am comparing “Hierach individualists” & “egalitarian communitarians” b/c those are the cultural groups that tend to disagree when an environmental issue becomes a focus of public controversy (“hierarch communitarians” & “egalitarian individualits” square off on public health risks; they are not divided on GM foods either).

 photo hi_ec_gw_gmo_zps4c1e6e7c.png
 photo gm_foods_others_zps22bbd14d.png
 photo SCIGM_zpsfbb1ec8a.png

The panel on the left shows that cultural polarization on climate change risk grows as individuals (in this case a nationally representative sample of 2000 US adults) become more science literate — a finding consistent with what we have observed in other studies … I guess that is happening a bit w/ GM foods too– interesting! But the effect is quite small, & as one can see science literacy *decreases* concern about GM foods among members of both of these portions of the population (and in the sample as a whole).

It’s pretty clear that the general population is neither polarized or energized by the GMO issue.

It’s the final chart of Kahan’s that I find the most intriguing. It points to a need for a different axis to gauge cultural polarization than “Hierachical individualists” & “egalitarian communitarians” in order to track GMO polarization, not in the population maybe, but in the debate. What caught my eye is the surprise result that perception of risk DECREASES among both groups as scientific literacy increases. This is the opposite of what you see with most culturally polarized issues. The more numerate and scientifically literate people are, the better they are at convincing themselves that their culturally determined position is supported by the evidence. It’s certainly a reassuring sign and one that I see mirrored in the nearly complete lack of support 37 and 522 got from newspaper editorial boards.

WITHIN the debate I’ve experienced the same increased polarization as numeracy and scientific literacy increase. GMO critics are able to convince themselves of the correctness of their narrative with greater confidence the greater their fluency with scientific concepts and the ease with which they navigate the technical literature. (It’s beyond the scope of this post, but what GMO critics get wrong about the science is a misunderstanding of macro scientific method issues: what a scientific consensus is, the way scientific consensus functions as the null hypothesis, single study syndrome, a lack of understanding why human trials aren’t warranted, misapplication of the precautionary principle, etc)

The fault line seems to flow from people’s relation to the Natural Fallacy and levels of what I refer to as Pastoral Sentimentality. Pastoral Sentimentality breaks down into:

a. A rejection or discomfort with the corporate sphere intruding into agriculture.
b. A rejection or discomfort with the technological sphere intruding into agriculture.
c. A rejection or discomfort with the legal sphere intruding into agriculture.

These attitudes represent a fault line mostly within the Egalitarian Communitarian value cluster that Kahan identifies, so polarization isn’t going show up along the HI/EC divide. I’d love to see some work done to tease this out. It would be working in the other direction. Taking the polarization as a given amongst Egalitarian Communitarians and sussing out what the differences in the underlying attitudes on each side of the fault line within that value cluster. The other value among Egalitarian Communitarians that make them more susceptible to the arguments of GMO critics is anti-corporate sentiment. But that runs across the value cluster and wouldn’t seem to provide a distinction between anti-GMO EC’s and non anti-GMO EC’s.


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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

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