by Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia
In yesterday’s post, I stated that I hated hoaxes worse than I hate outright scientific ignorance. In response, a loyal reader sent me an article referencing a survey in which 80% of respondents said they favored mandatory labeling of foods that contain DNA.
I kept looking, in vain, for a sign that this was a joke. Sadly, this is real. It came from a study done last month by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics. And what it shows, in my opinion, is that there are people out there who vote and make important decisions and (apparently) walk upright without dragging their knuckles on the ground, and yet who do not know that DNA is found in every living organism.
Or maybe, they don’t know that most of what we eat is made of cells. I dunno. Whatever. Because if you aren’t currently on the Salt, Baking Soda, and Scotch Diet, you consume the DNA of plants and/or animals every time you eat.
Lettuce contains lettuce DNA. Potatoes contain potato DNA. Beef contains cow DNA. “Slim Jims” contain — well, they contain the DNA of whatever the hell Slim Jims are made from. I don’t want to know. But get the picture? If you put a label on foods with DNA, the label goes on everything.
Ilya Somin, of the Washington Post, even made a suggestion of what such a food-warning label might look like:
WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.
Despite the scary sound of Somin’s tongue-in-cheek proposed label, there’s nothing dangerous about eating DNA. Enzymes in our small intestines break down the DNA we consume into individual building blocks (nucleotides), and we then use those building blocks to produce our own DNA every time we make new cells. Which is all the time. Eating pig DNA will not, as one of my students asked me a few weeks ago, “make us oink.”
But this highlights something rather terrifying, doesn’t it? Every other day we’re told things like “30% of Americans Are Against GMOs” and “40% of Americans Disbelieve in Anthropogenic Climate Change” and “32% of Americans Believe the Earth is 6,000 Years Old.” (If you’re curious, I made those percentages up, because I really don’t want to know what the actual numbers are, I’m depressed enough already.) What the Oklahoma State University study shows is: none of that is relevant. If 80% of Americans don’t know what DNA is, why the fuck should I trust what they say on anything else even remotely scientific?