Health Panic

I just posted about the problem of "miracle cures" and bad science reporting, this is an accompanying post.

For similar reasons to those I posted before, lots of ill-informed (or totally fabricated) health scares circulate on the internet. A favourite target of those are genetically modified organisms, which are apparently the devil incarnate, to which some people oppose the wholesome "natural" food.

An example of such scary misinformation being debunked is the sarcastic post Oh, no! GMOs are going to make everyone autistic! criticising a "researcher" who, without any background in any relevant field to that discussion, tries to link, through spurious correlations, GMOs and autism.

I won’t discuss here the science of why GMOs are not a health hazard – there is an excellent, well sourced blog post that does that: What does science say about GMO’s–they’re safe.

This post is more concerned with the fallacies that are mobilized in the discussion against GMOs. A report on a study about the reasons why people oppose them (Psychology of the appeal of being anti-GMO), quotes one of the authors: "‘The popularity and typical features of the opposition to GMOs can be explained in terms of underlying cognitive processes. Anti-GMO messages strongly appeal to particular intuitions and emotions,’ says lead author Stefaan Blancke, a philosopher with the Ghent University Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences. ‘Negative representations of GMOs–for instance, like claims that GMOs cause diseases and contaminate the environment–tap into our feelings of disgust and this sticks to the mind. These emotions are very difficult to counter, in particular because the science of GMOs is complex to communicate.’"

One of such intuitions is the naturalist fallacy I commented before, which was quite humorously and devastatingly demonstrated when a "natural food" site published a photo of a beautiful photo of a mushroom with the caption “We cannot make food better than nature.”

The mushroom in the picture, however, happened to be a poisonous variety. See The Bullshit Hypocrisy of "All-Natural" Foods for details.

Aside from the obvious error of the assumption that "natural" is the same as "healthy", what we usually think as being "natural" is anything but; plants and animals have been modified through selective breeding and grafting for millennia, and it is safe to assume that nothing we eat today is "natural" in the sense of not being somehow touched by human agency in its development and, yes, genome. Just to give an example, a series of common vegetables that look very different one from another are actually artificially produced varieties of the same plant: Brassica olearacea. See Kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage are all varieties of a single magical plant species for details.

Or, for another example of how a common staple has been manipulated over time, producing a wild variety of options, there is an infographic humorously presented by PZ Myers: Ban corn — it’s a GMO!

The bottom line is, don’t trust what you see on the internet – including this post and the precedent. Go check the sources. Peer reviewed papers published in respectable journals, that’s were the science is (and the occasional book from credible publishers and authors).

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