Quick analysis of a woo-poll (a survey on woo annoyance) and unexpected discussion on the perceived “harmlessness” of GMO-woo and scientific illiteracy

Introduction:

I conducted a quick, unscientific poll using a third-party Facebook app to test the app and the general interest in polls.  The poll was designed to be easy to take and appealing to the followers of the Scienceosaurus blog.  The poll rated the level of annoyance of several forms of antiscientific woo (it’s a woo-poll).

With the aid of some well-intentioned hand waving, a few interesting results can be inferred from this poll.  This post will present those results and discuss some of their implications.  The discussion focuses on the implications of incorrectly ascribing “harmlessness” to forms of woo that are perceived as less harmful.

Background:

Scienceosaurus.com t-rex logo for web surveysThe woo-poll’s primary purpose was to test an app and gauge participant interest.   So, it was designed for ease of use and consisted of only 10 questions.

Six of these asked participants to rate their annoyance level for specified examples of unscientific woo.  (Woo is defined by the poll as “a slang term for unscientific explanations that are phrased so that they appear scientific.”)  An annoyance scale of 1 (not annoyed) to 5 (can’t stand it) was used.  Here are the 6 examples of woo, as written in the poll:

  1. Flat Earth-ism
  2. Climate change denial
  3. Crystals are magical!
  4. Homeopathy works
  5. GMOs will poison your body!
  6. Astrology reveals the future…

Four other multiple-choice questions were asked to frame participant demographics and gauge the perceived intrusiveness of the poll (see extra information).

Results:

General:

First off, this poll did help me assess the third-party Facebook polling app.  I thought it attempted to mine too much information from participants; so, I’ll find something else for future surveys.

However, the woo-poll did generate a surprising amount of interest—so I’m writing this post.

A total of 106 people visited the woo-poll and a staggering 88 of those people had the fortitude, brain power and sex appeal to become participants.  Fair play to that savvy 83%!  Thank you all very much.

Unfortunately, I’m only able to access about half of that beautiful data set.  This is because the app is greedy (not free) and I am cheap (super poor—please buy my t-shirts).  In the future, I plan to purchase a subscription to another polling service that will allow access to more data.  However, due to a quirk in how the app reports data, the number of participants that opted to leave an answer blank is an accurate statistic for the entire data set.

Annoyance questions:

Flat Earth-ism scored a mean response of 3.5/5 on the annoyance scale.  Eight respondents didn’t answer this question, which was described by the poll as indication that the participant was not at all annoyed.  “1” received 20% of the votes and “5” received 45.7%.

Climate change denial scored a mean response of 4.3/5 on the annoyance scale.  Three respondents didn’t answer this question, which was described by the poll as being not at all annoyed.  “1” received 2.6% of the votes and “5” received 57.9%.

Crystals are magical! scored a mean response of 3.2/5 on the annoyance scale.  Two respondents didn’t answer this question, which was described by the poll as being not at all annoyed.  “1” received 15.4% of the votes and “5” received 33.3%.

Homeopathy works scored a mean response of 4.0/5 on the annoyance scale.  Five respondents didn’t answer this question, which was described by the poll as being not at all annoyed.  “1” received 5.7% of the votes and “5” received 40%.

GMOs will poison your body! scored a mean response of 3.1/5 on the annoyance scale.  Ten respondents didn’t answer this question, which was described by the poll as being not at all annoyed.  “1” received 21.9% of the votes and “5” received 15.6%.

Astrology reveals the future… scored a mean response of 3.2/5 on the annoyance scale.  Seven respondents didn’t answer this question, which was described by the poll as being not at all annoyed.  “1” received 27.8% of the votes and “5” received 30.6%.

Other:

The demographics results are posted in the appendix (“extra information”).  They have been excluded here since no pertinent information has been gleaned from them.

I’m happy to report that no one found the poll too intrusive.

Analysis:

Data:

Unfortunately, with a sample size of 40, there’s not enough data to reveal any correlations between answers and participant demographics.  (If such a correlation exists.)

However, the mean annoyance numbers do reveal that climate change denial was the most annoying woo.  Conversely, GMOs will poison your body was the least annoying woo with an annoyance score of just 3.1.  Blank response data corroborates the annoyance data and show that ten people didn’t find the GMO woo annoying at all.  This also suggests that some of the poll’s participants may have thought that the GMO-woo wasn’t really woo.

Comments:

My website (Scienceosaurus.com) and its Facebook page are relatively new.  And, having dedicated the last 12 years of my life to learning and conducting real science (unlike this funny woo-poll), I have a very small—likely awkward—social media presence.  So, I’m really happy with the level of participation in this poll.  And that participation includes many thoughtful comments.

Most of these comments can be paraphrased as: “most of these examples I don’t mind; in fact, I think they’re funny.  What I don’t like is anti-vaxx woo; why isn’t that in the poll?”

Firstly, the woo-poll was not meant to be comprehensive.  I think most participants understood that, but were still (justifiably) keen to report their annoyance for anti-vaccine woo anyhow.  And I agree, anti-vaccine woo is super annoying and devastatingly harmful.  Boo that woo!  BOOOOoo!

Discussion:

An underlying issue:

However, one aspect of the comments paraphrased above does deserve some discussion.  That is the notion that some of this woo is actually harmless.  Don’t get me wrong; there’s no wrong answer to this poll.  And I’m not admonishing anyone’s opinion.  We’re all free to covet our own pet peeve(s).  But it is incorrect to give some types of woo a pass altogether just because they seem to be—or even objectively are—less harmful than others.

Anti-GMO woo:

The GMO question is a good example.  It was found to be the least annoying woo in the woo-poll.  And several alluring and undoubtedly well-read commenters described this woo as harmless.  Also, many participants who left this question blank ostensibly didn’t even consider this statement to be woo at all.  But just consider the phrasing from the woo-poll.  Do GMO’s “poison your body”?  Of course not (cf. European Commission, 2010; Nicolia et al., 2014).  They are made of the same exact chemicals as all the other food that humans consume.  If genetic modification by itself produced poison, there would be no such thing as sexual reproduction.  We would all just bud clones of ourselves and live boring lives, likely stuck to some slimy rock in a stagnant bay.  Furthermore, without genetic modification, we wouldn’t have catnaries (Figure 1)!

Quick analysis of a woo-poll (a survey on woo annoyance) and unexpected discussion on the perceived “harmlessness” of GMO-woo and scientific illiteracy. Image of a bird with a cat head.
Figure 1: The elusive catnary. No, just kidding. This is the common photo-shopped photo-montage.

A misguided perception of harmlessness:

However, despite the patently ridiculous nature of this premise, it’s easier to give GMO woo a pass.  Previous researchers have found that this is due to some combination of murkiness in the reporting of scientific findings (Frewer et al., 2002), a misunderstanding of the importance of the GMO debate (cf. Wunderlich and Gatto, 2015), and a carefully cultivated (get it?) public image of organic, GMO-free crops (cf. Blancke et al., 2015; Lu et al., 2017).

It’s easy to see genetic modification as a sort of imposter in the wholesome, Green Acres-esque stereotype of farming; so, it seems easier to write this woo off as someone else’s amusing nonsense.  But to think that a belief in the toxicity of GMO crops is anything short of a shocking affront to reality itself requires a fundamental misunderstanding of not only the current state of GMO research, but also how insidious scientific illiteracy is.  At the very least, it’s important to realize that the mistrust in science and over-reliance on “gut-feelings” that are required to believe GMOs are poisonous are transferable to other areas of thought.  These illogical thought processes can be developed by any form of woo and subsequently applied to any other.

GMO reality:

Contrary to popular opinion, anti-GMO propaganda is poised to be one of the more harmful woos included in the woo-poll.  If we disregard our understandable knee-jerk reactions and flawed intuition regarding the role of genetics in the rustic, ultra-important and easily-romanticized world of agriculture, this harmfulness becomes obvious.  It’s hard to do this, especially in competition with the legions of zealotic woo-preachers shouting organic doctrine from chemically-unburdened soapboxes that will likely just argue [*read as “poison the well”*] that dissenting opinions are the result of corruption from other interested parties [*read as “you’re just a PAID SHILL”*], but let’s give objectivity a shot anyhow.

Many studies have concluded that GMO crops are safe and increase efficiency (e.g. Uzogara, 2000).  Still more studies find that GMO crops are good for the environment (e.g. Phipps and Park, 2002).  And even more studies describe how GMO crops will help alleviate the plight of malnutrition (e.g. Mayer et al., 2008; Bouis et al., 2010).  So, discounting the importance of this woo elucidates a correctable ignorance and possibly even a tacit approval of the malnutrition of the world’s poorest people (cf. Potrykus, 2012).  Anyhow, without genetically modified carrots, what would the endangered grasshabbit eat (Figure 2)?

Quick analysis of a woo-poll (a survey on woo annoyance) and unexpected discussion on the perceived “harmlessness” of GMO-woo and scientific illiteracy. Funny photo-shopped image of a grasshopper with a rabbit head.
Figure 2: The elusive and endangered grasshabbit. No, this is another example of the common photo-shopped photo-montage.

Summary:

A short poll on the annoyance associated with different types of antiscientific woo (a woo-poll) has unexpectedly revealed that some woo is often considered harmless.  Anti-GMO woo was found to be the example associated with the lowest annoyance and the most perceived “harmlessness.”  However, there is no such thing as harmless woo.  To highlight this point, I’ve discussed the ways in which GMO science is muddied in the public view and how multiple lines of evidence point to the benefits of GMO crops.

This point—that there is no harmless woo—could have been made with any of the woo examples used in the poll.  Anti-GMO woo was used simply because of its perceived harmlessness in the small dataset generated by the woo-poll.

Conclusion:

Serious conclusion:

I don’t care if anyone thinks GMO-woo is relatively harmless.  (Personally, I find the flat-Earth woo to be the most annoying because it requires the most profound and widespread misunderstanding of scientific principles.)  And I don’t want to assume that anyone doesn’t have a good personal reason for disliking some other woo with an intense hatred.  My point is that, as educated and thoughtful members of a global society that’s sustained by science in almost every way, we have a duty to recognize that there is no such thing as “harmless” woo.

Memorable, funny, vulgar conclusion:

Thinking that one type of woo is harmless simply because it seems less serious than some other woo is like not bothering to wipe your ass because the shit you just took seemed cleaner than some other bowel movements that you’ve had to clean up after.  So, remember: clean your brain’s ass, don’t give woo a pass.

References:

Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J., & Van Montagu, M. (2015). Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends in plant science, 20(7), 414-418. http://www.cell.com/trends/plant-science/abstract/S1360-1385(15)00077-1

Bouis, H. E., & Welch, R. M. (2010). Biofortification—a sustainable agricultural strategy for reducing micronutrient malnutrition in the global south. Crop Science, 50(Supplement_1), S-20. https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/cs/abstracts/50/Supplement_1/S-20

European Commission. (2010). A decade of EU-funded GMO research. Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf

Frewer, L. J., Miles, S., & Marsh, R. (2002). The media and genetically modified foods: evidence in support of social amplification of risk. Risk analysis, 22(4), 701-711. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0272-4332.00062/full

Lu, H., McComas, K. A., & Besley, J. C. (2017). Messages promoting genetic modification of crops in the context of climate change: Evidence for psychological reactance. Appetite, 108, 104-116. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666316304779

Mayer, J. E., Pfeiffer, W. H., & Beyer, P. (2008). Biofortified crops to alleviate micronutrient malnutrition. Current opinion in plant biology, 11(2), 166-170. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369526608000277

Nicolia, A., Manzo, A., Veronesi, F., & Rosellini, D. (2014). An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical reviews in biotechnology, 34(1), 77-88. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/07388551.2013.823595

Phipps, R. H., & Park, J. R. (2002). Environmental benefits of genetically modified crops: global and European perspectives on their ability to reduce pesticide use. Journal of Animal and Feed sciences, 11(1), 1-18. http://biotechbenefits.croplife.org/paper/environmental-benefits-of-genetically-modified-crops-global-and-european-perspectives-on-their-ability-to-reduce-pesticide-use/

Potrykus, I. (2012). “Golden Rice”, a GMO-product for public good, and the consequences of GE-regulation. Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology, 21(1), 68-75. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13562-012-0130-5

Uzogara, S. G. (2000). The impact of genetic modification of human foods in the 21st century: A review. Biotechnology advances, 18(3), 179-206. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0734975000000331

Wunderlich, S., & Gatto, K. A. (2015). Consumer perception of genetically modified organisms and sources of information. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 6(6), 842-851. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4642419/

Extra information (Appendix):

Background (demographics):

Here are the four multiple-choice questions to meant to assess demographics, with their choices:

  1. What are your Political leanings?
    1. Progressive
    2. Center
    3. Conservative
    4. Other
  2. How old are ya?
    1. 18-25
    2. 26-35
    3. 36-45
    4. 46-60
    5. 61-75
    6. 76-122
  3. You religious?
    1. Oh yeah!
    2. Sort of; I believe in something.
    3. Don’t really think about it much.
    4. No way!
  4. Did you find any of this too invasive?
    1. Yeah
    2. Nah

Demographics results:

Political leanings broke down as:

  • 7% Progressive
  • 6% Other
  • 1% Conservative
  • 6% Center

Age broke down as:

  • 5% 36-45
  • 8% 26-35
  • 6% 46-60

Religion broke down as:

  • 2% No Way!
  • 4% Sort of; I believe in something.
  • 7% Don’t really think about it much.
  • 7% Oh yeah!
Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.