It appears facts are not enough to spread scientific truth.

Focus groups conducted by University of Adelaide researchers suggest that if scientists continue to present “just the facts”, most people will not engage or modify their thinking.

The study looked specifically at women's attitudes towards genetically modified (GM) foods.

“In previous surveys... women consistently were more opposed to GM foods than men, and so we set out to better understand the reasons why,” said researcher Professor Rachel Ankeny.

“GM foods are an important issue for the community, and with women still playing greater roles in the provision of home care and food preparation, we need to better understand how women are thinking and what their values are in relation to these issues.”

The focus groups included women from a range of educational backgrounds, including those involved in plant and agricultural science, and others in health science, as well as women with lower levels of education.

“All of the women with science backgrounds used evidence to support their stance, but the way they did so came as a surprise to us,” said co-author Dr Heather Bray.

“Women who had backgrounds in plant science said the lack of evidence of harm meant that GM food was safe to eat.

“The women in health sciences said it was a lack of evidence of safety that made them cautious about consuming GM food.

“These perceptions are based on two very different concepts of risk, despite both groups being highly educated in science.

“For women without science backgrounds, GM food presented 'unknown' risks, and hence was to be avoided.

“There was a range of other issues apart from the science that arose in our study, a major one being a general lack of trust of science,” Dr Bray said.

Professor Ankeny says it is important for scientists to realise that science has economic, social, and cultural impacts, and if people are presented with ‘just the facts’, the discussion leaves out critical topics and values.

“People – including people highly educated in science – come to these issues with their own ideas, experiences, and values, and they are not necessarily going to endorse particular scientific theories or applications based simply on facts being provided to them,” she said.

Importantly, the work points to shared food values - applied with different outcomes - between those who eat and those who do not eat GM foods.

“Shared values are an important foundation for science communication, and we hope that our work can contribute to the development of better engagement strategies for both scientists and the public,” Dr Bray said. 

Their findings are published in the journal New Genetics and Society.