Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, September 26, 2016

RNA attack

It's a common strategy.  If simply spouting alarmist rhetoric doesn't cause your target audience to panic sufficiently, throw in some quasi-technical nonsense to make it sound like your position actually has scientific merit.  Unfortunately, it has a way of working, as people like Vani "The Food Babe" Hari discovered when she launched her "if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't be eating it" campaign, which if it succeeded, would rob your diet of most of its essential nutrients, leaving behind only easy-to-say stuff like "starch."

It's the old "if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit" approach dressed up in new clothes.  It's a favorite strategy of such anti-science types as the anti-vaxxers and anti-GMOers (who in many cases are one and the same).  Witness the latter's latest sally against the scientific establishment, which revolves around the claim that if you're eating GMO food, it contains RNA (true) and this RNA can alter your own genes (false).

I learned about this bizarre statement from Sterling Ericsson's wonderful blog A Science Enthusiast, wherein we learn that the anti-GMO cadre have gone from the diffuse claim that all GMOs are bad to proposing a specific mechanism by which they do their dirty work -- they contain "engineered RNA" that then can get into your cells and interfere with your normal cellular processes.  And to the non-scientific, even the actual research can certainly sound like the stuff of science fiction; gene-modification techniques like CRISPR, switching genes on and off with RNA interference, inserting DNA from one species into another to generate organisms that express "foreign" genes as they would their own.

[image courtesy of Christopher Bock, the Max Planck Institute, and the Wikimedia Commons]

My objection to the anti-GMO stance has always been that it lies squarely in the midst of the package-deal fallacy; just as our "natural" genes have thousands of different functions, each GMO is different from all the others.  GMOs are no more all bad than genes are, and each one has to be tested for safety individually.  (And they have been, extensively.)  But the addition of the "ingesting engineered RNA" claim adds a whole new layer of pseudoscience to the anti-GMO stance.  Rather than making it stronger, it makes it weaker, and (further) shines a harsh light on exactly how unscientific the claim itself is.

Because all of the food we eat contains nucleic acids, DNA and RNA both.  If you eat lettuce, you're eating (among other things) lettuce DNA and RNA.  If you eat a hamburger, you're ingesting the genetic material from cows (and tomatoes and whatever else you like on your burger).  If you eat "Slim Jims," you're consuming DNA from... well, whatever the hell organism "Slim Jims" are made from.  I dunno.  But presumably it was some kind of living thing at some point that had its own genetic material.

And miraculously, we don't start expression lettuce, cow, tomato, or Slim Jim genes, nor do any of those interfere with our own gene expression.  The reason is that in your small intestine you have enzymes called nucleases that break down the DNA and RNA of the organisms we eat, specifically to prevent us from accidentally incorporating foreign genetic material into our cells, which could cause us to express foreign proteins (depending on what they were and where they were produced, this could certainly be deleterious).  So the DNA and RNA in our food -- which is there even in the most organic-y of organic free-range locavore diets -- never survives the passage through our digestive system intact.

That includes any "artificially engineered" DNA and RNA, because your body can't tell the difference between the genetic material that came from a healthful, natural, non-engineered peach and that which came from BT corn purchased directly from Monsanto.  It all breaks down, natural and artifical alike.  If there's a health effect from eating GMOs, it doesn't come from the DNA and RNA -- it comes from the proteins they produced within the genetically modified organism before you ate it.

And like I said, those have been tested to a fare-thee-well.  But this is not likely to persuade the anti-GMOers, for whom the naturalistic fallacy is very nearly one of the Ten Commandments.

So anyhow, be on the lookout for this.  Call it out for the nonsense it is.  As I've said many times before, you do not make your point stronger by leaning on poorly-understood science.  All you do is make it seem like the rest of your claim has little merit as well -- which in this case, seems to be the truth.

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