Take the panic over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Ninety percent of all corn grown in America is genetically modified now. That means it grew from a seed that scientists altered by playing with its genes. The new genes may make corn grow faster, or they may make it less appetizing to bugs so farmers can use fewer pesticides.
This upsets some people. GMOs are "unnatural," they say. A scene from the movie "Seeds of Death" warns that eating GMOs "causes holes in the GI tract" and "causes multiple organ system failure."
The restaurant chain Chipotle, which prides itself on using organic ingredients, produces videos suggesting that industrial agriculture is evil, including a comedic Web series called "Farmed and Dangerous" about an evil agricultural feed company that threatens to kill its opponents and whose products cause cows to explode.
Michael Hansen of Consumer Reports sounds almost as frightening when he talks about GMOs. On my show, he says, "It's called insertional mutagenesis ... you can't control where you're inserting that genetic information; it can have different effects depending on the location."
Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project responds: "We've eaten about 7 trillion meals in the 18 years since GMOs first came on the market. There's not one documented instance of someone getting so much as a sniffle."
Given all the fear from media and activists, you might be surprised to learn that most serious scientists agree with him. "There have been about 2,000 studies," says Entine, and "there is no evidence of human harm in a major peer-reviewed journal."
That might be enough to reassure people if they knew how widespread and familiar GMOs really are -- but as long as they think of GMOs as something strange and new, they think more tests are needed, more warnings, more precaution.
Yet people don't panic over ruby red grapefruits, which were first created in laboratories by bombarding strains of grapefruit with radiation. People don't worry about corn and other crops bred in random varieties for centuries without farmers having any idea exactly what genetic changes occurred.
We didn't even know what genes were when we first created new strains of plants and animals. There's no reason to believe modern methods of altering genes are any more dangerous.
In fact, because they're far more precise, they're safer.
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