Are Rich People Stupider Than Poor People About GMOs?

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Look, I hate rich people just as much as the next filthy liberal hippie. That’s why I was so excited to read a news headline proclaiming that they’re just as stupid as I thought: “Wealthy Americans know less than they think they do about food and nutrition.” I wanted to just nod along with that and move on but you know me, I can’t do that. I have to ruin everything, even things I like. Especially things I like. So I kept reading.

The headline and article are based on a poll produced by Michigan State University. The Food Literacy and Engagement Poll is designed to gauge the public’s understanding of what we choose to eat, and this year they specifically questioned people about whether they purchase genetically modified foods or “foods with chemicals.”

This is where it gets sticky — they (apparently) literally asked people if they avoid foods with chemicals. I tried to find the exact wording but after combing the web I’m unable to find the actual data — only other articles written by the author, Sheril Kirshenbaum, someone who is probably well known to skeptics in the audience because she has collaborated frequently with Chris Mooney on books and articles about scientific literacy.

Kirshenbaum’s article points to a page on MSU’s site about the poll, but it only includes a few questions and it was published in August of 2017. I can’t actually find the research behind it in any online journals, which makes me wonder if it’s ever been reviewed and if this is the same data set that Kirshenbaum used back in 2017 to write several articles for the same outlets now reporting on this news. It’s…a little sketchy, because in polls, language matters, a lot. Seemingly minor edits to your questions can get drastically different results, like asking someone if they “believe” in evolution, or asking if they accept the scientific evidence that species have changed over time.

If you asked me if I avoid purchasing foods with chemicals, I would have to have a good long think about that. I know that chemicals are in everything. I know that water is a chemical. But I also know that in casual discourse, “chemicals” can refer to dangerous substances. I also know that researchers are often interested in knowing whether there’s a particular chemical consumers want to avoid. What are they asking here? I wouldn’t know that in this case, they are asking a “gotcha” question to show that people are idiots who don’t know what chemicals are. Why not just ask them to define chemicals, or to list what things they avoid when buying food? The only purpose of this question is to make people look stupid. And it worked! Congrats. 73% of affluent people said yes, they avoid chemicals, compared to 65% of poor people. Is that difference statistically significant enough to say that affluent people are dumber than poor people? We don’t know, because we don’t know how many people are in each group.

The same goes for the question about avoiding GMOs, which are proven to be safe for people to eat. Despite that, Kirshenbaum says that 43% of affluent people avoid them compared to 26% of poor people. That’s a bigger gap, but is it significant? And even if it is, do we know that poor people are not avoiding GMOs because they believe GMOs are safe, or are they eating conventional foods because the non-GMO “organic” products cost so much more and are generally more available at high-end shops? Kirshenbaum doesn’t say if she even asked.

She says that about 50% of the affluents thought they knew more than average about food, compared to about 30% of poor people. Are they wrong? She admits that more rich people were familiar with terms like BPAs and GMOs, and if the only other info we have to go on is that fewer poor people avoid GMOs and about the same number of poor people avoid chemicals, it kind of seems like rich people do know a little more.

Speaking of the differences between the two groups, I’d also like to point out that Kirshenbaum decided that the affluent group was any household that earned more than $50,000 per year. That’s not even for individuals: it’s households, so one or two-income families. It obviously depends on where you live, but I’ve lived in Boston, Seattle, London, Buffalo, and San Francisco and in most of those places, a family making $50,000 would still qualify for public assistance and low-income housing. Other researchers who study such things qualify “affluent” as a household making at least double that, $100,000/year. So why did Kirshenbaum choose to draw the line at $50,000? Was that line established before the data was collected? If so, why was it not mentioned in the articles about this data that came out last year? And if the line was chosen after the data was collected, then there’s a chance that the line went at $50,000 because that’s what was needed to achieve any statistical significance. But we don’t know, because there is no open data.

I don’t doubt Kirshenbaum’s conclusions, that the public is fairly ignorant about food safety. But this study doesn’t do anything to convince me that rich people are worse than anyone else. Unless the rich person is Gwyneth Paltrow. Obviously.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. My instant instinct when I read about the disparity was that the conclusion didn’t seem like the most obvious explanation. As opposed to the affluent being less educated, it seemed to me more likely that the affluent simply could afford to care more. Assuming identical levels of education, and assuming the question was worded appropriately to determine this, poorer people simply can’t afford to CARE about “chemicals” or bogeyman GMOs. So even if they believe these are harmful, or at least less healthy, just like they can’t afford lower-fat meals, for example, they can’t afford fancy organic food. So they’ll look at a price tag long before they look at the ingredients, and even if they do look at both, a 20-50% price difference is going to sway them. Same thing that keeps poor people willing to take more dangerous jobs around legitimately dangerous chemicals or machinery. They simply can’t afford to care about the risks, real or perceived, as much as richer people.

    1. Education and affluence correlate to some extent, but a lot of uneducated rich people exist, just as our generation can study for a PhD only to be rewarded with the appellation Dr Mooch by the Mitt Romneys of the world while waiting in line at food pantries. Said uneducated rich people are actually the worst far-right types: They’re the Erik Princes and Donald Trumps of the world.

  2. That “chemicals” question says more about the appalling lack of education in those designing surveys… also “amen” to the two responses above.

    Being poor means the struggle for survival eliminates all but the most pressing and immediate higher level considerations, while being rich is often a matter of pure dumb luck rather than any inherent worth other than a certain ruthlessness and ill deserved entitlement at the very core.

    1. While speaking about economics, I really want an article about AI’s weaknesses now. Turns out there’s no real correlation between job loss and automation.

      (This actually makes sense. If you talk about globalization and unemployment, their other tactic is to shift the debate to “coal’s not coming back!!!1”, as if coal was germane to the discussion.)

      1. Sorry mate, I’m not quite with you – who is “they”, what did “they” say about automation/economics/globalisation/AI and where do you stand on those questions?

        1. Well, it’s complicated. I’ll limit it, however, to the ad hoc hypothesis used to explain away unemployment (which is really due to a combination of extremely cheap labor and Chinese mercantilism) since the crash: AI. The simple reality is, AI is not equal to human intelligence. That’s not because humans are special, mind; it’s because we have, for instance, the ability to discount choices immediately. AIs can’t be programmed for infinite choices, nor can they be programmed for all probable situations.

          The real problem is, you still need humans to override automation. You need people to build and maintain machines. The self-reproducing, self-maintaining automaton is another myth, as is its corollary, the self-upgrading (as in, automatically downloads hardware) computer.

          1. No argument so far but who is “they” and how does that relate to Rebecca’s post?

          2. Pundit class? That’s a pretty broad category – including our dear Rebecca for instance. So some subset (filthy hippies? Clinton supporters?) are being Luddites in your view?

          3. I’m not trying to wind you up, Jon, I really like you but I’m just uncertain where you’re coming from on this one.

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