Science

Objections to the Food Babe’s Objections

Yesterday, Vani Hari (the Food Babe) wrote a long reply concerning detractors explaining why and how they got her all wrong to her readers. (I encourage you to read it here.) She does so mainly by doing in reverse what she accuses them of doing to her, and mistaking her subjectivity for objective truths. I haven’t really got that involved with the Food Babe and her subjective meanderings into the food industry, but I thought that now is as good a time as any.

Firstly, I think it is important to agree with Hari when appropriate. Hari reveals some shocking comments made on her site and Facebook page involving slurs and accusations often involving stupid, misogynist, and embarrassing-to-men-everywhere remarks such as “I hope you die…”, “she looks like a clown,” “she got shot with the whore makeup gun,” “ignorant slut” etc. I am ashamed to say  that I share a Y chromosome with such men. An Ad hominem (attacks against the person) is, always and everywhere, completely uncalled for; there is simply no need to resort to such lowly forms of attack to bring one’s point across. (As an aside: I think it says something of sexism that rarely does one find a woman attacking a man simply for being a man on the Internet, yet, evidence of the opposite is far too common. We still have a long fight to wage against sexism.) As Hari writes: “I won’t dignify these immature, and often misogynist, remarks with a response.” And she shouldn’t! Violence of any kind—sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal—simply should not be tolerated against women online or anywhere else.

That being said, I think Hari makes a big mistake. It seems to me that she paints all objections to her activism with an equally objectionable brush stroke. For example, she refers to Dr. Kevin Folta, a publicly funded scientist with all funding sources disclosed on his academic profile (hint: none of them include Monsanto), as “publicly support[ing] and argues for Monsanto and other biotech companies by writing for their industry-funded websites.” That is poisoning the well and an ad hominem, and there is simply no need for it. If she believes Dr. Folta lied, she should simply say so. Saying all those other things is not so very different from the sexist who laments on why she can’t be both “smart” and “pretty.” One has nothing to do with the other, yet she does this several times, and in at least one case, uses a made-up job descriptions to, again, needlessly poison the well. For example, she refers to Kavin Senapathy as a spokesperson for a “hate group.” Now, I don’t know Senapathy personally, but from my interactions with her on Twitter, she is nothing if not a delightful person having given me advice from how babies sleep and how to cope, to vacuum cleaners, and, as a writer, writing about feminism and biotechnology from her perspectives as a woman, and as a mother and eater of food. While her articles are written with a certain flair, I’ve never seen an ad hominem or unsubstantiated criticism emanate from her stories. Is it fair to characterize her as a spokesperson for a hate group simply because she is in the habit of refuting Hari’s truth claims? (The hate group, I imagine, is the website Grounded Parents for whom Senapathy writes. Does that sound like a hate group?) The same can be said of Dr. Folta’s record. Painting such broad strokes of folks who disagree with you is counter-productive at best, and probably, quite a lot more. It seems incredibly silly to me to appeal to the readers’ sympathy by showing disgusting comments she received while immediately painting others in the same, if less intense, manner. I can only hope that her readers call her out on it.

To address some of her other points, she starts defending herself and her points of view with a “What they say” and the “Truth”, which is less truth, and more her subjective position/rebuttal. However, I shall copy-paste her format for clarity. (Again, I suggest you go read her piece to fully contextualize my article. If you have no time, I’ll do my best to accurately represent her viewpoint. I have no interest in strawmen, or women, in this case.) The first one goes:

What they say: I’m not an expert because I am not a scientist or doctor or nutritionist.

Truth: There is an old saying, “these issues are too important to leave up to the experts.”

That is a woefully inarticulate description of the problem. It is true that you don’t need to be any of those things to make valid truth claims, but what you do need are the observations to back those up, and as scientists, nutritionists, and doctors have pointed out, she doesn’t have that. She then paints them with—another!—broad stroke by saying “a high percentage of the ‘expert’ scientists, doctors, registered dietitians and nutritionists in this field have a financial relationship with the entities I investigate.” She offers no evidence for this statement of fact, and of course, even if true, doesn’t make their advice automatically wrong (just worthy of skepticism). This is particularly ironic because she has a similar relationship with the products that she recommends on her website. Of course, she is open about it (as she should be), but her claims, therefore, warrant extra skepticism because she profits from that advice. When that warranted skepticism is applied, her truth claims are found lacking, plain and simple.

The reason why we trust the “‘expert’ scientists, doctors, and nutritionists” is not because of their degrees, authority status, or respect, but because they must present their data, theories, and explanations to the people who’ll subject them to the most stubborn of criticisms and most able to poke holes in their pet ideas. Will this process go astray? Yes, it has, and will do so in the future. (Though several of her examples do nothing but illustrate a false view of this: cigarettes, for one, were never validated by science.) That is, however we may dislike it, the nature of fallibilism: you’ll be wrong on the way to being true. The majority of all ideas in history are wrong; that is why the scientific method is so important. One is far more likely to be wrong than right, and that’s why we need a way of validating truth-claims. Despite Hari’s claims that her “data which often includes access to published, peer-reviewed research,” she often presents subjective accounts, false statements, distortions of facts and science to bolster her claims. Her claim, that she often uses peer-reviewed research inserts itself into the scientific sphere (as many of her other claims) and is therefore open game to be subjected to scientific (and hopefully only scientific) criticism. If she doesn’t like that fact, she shouldn’t make scientific statements. As I mentioned, she conflates the sexist, mygnostic comments against her with reasonable scientific criticisms, and, it seems to me, she does so to the betterment of her public image.

It’s ok to make scientific claims (even if they are guesses), but one must understand how science works and incorporate the feedback mechanisms of science to effectively engage with the natural world. At the beginning of any endeavour concerning knowledge, we’ll be wrong more often that right. That actually makes sense as there are infinitely more ways to say how things are, but only a few ways that things actually are. Getting from the former to the latter requires science, but the way it works is not very intuitive: theories become less wrong, believe it or not, in time by the repeated process of conjecture, experimentation, criticism, and replication. However, they never become certain; always more ‘less wrong’ (I’m sure I violated some grammatical rules there). Over time, this process forces the wrong (it is more accurate to say ‘more wrong’) branches of conjectures and hypothesis’ to be disregarded. Conversely, as this happens, those twigs on the tree that are right (again, it is more accurate to say ‘more right’) contribute to the growing explanatory prowess of science. These branches can then make future predictions, only for the process to repeat itself pruning away the ‘more wrong’ and expanding upon the ‘more right.’ (This is a very simplified account, but will have to suffice for now; this post is long enough as it is.) Dietary science is a relatively new field compared to the other sciences, and so it is no surprise that we were wrong about certain things in the recent past (margarine, trans fats etc.) as Hari points out. However, that we were wrong on these particular items, and because they are artificial, does not imply that she can apply a postmodernist account of knowledge to pick and choose what she considers to be dangerous, which, as many have noted, resembles relying on the naturalness of the product to imply safety.

What They Say: Our findings are based on pseudoscience or we hate science and we are “fear mongering”. 

The Truth: If our findings didn’t have any concerns, do not have a solid basis in fact, why are companies willing to drop these controversial chemicals? 

As oncologist David Gorski wrote: “companies live and die by public perception.” Therefore, it is easier simply to give into such demands then to make a fuss (which would only be used against them later on—a double-whammy of bad publicity). In fact, this is what happened in Europe when products containing GMOs were required to be labeled. Despite the fact there is very little to no scientific evidence implicating GM food as an unhealthy food product, the public perception stirred up by some activist groups was sufficient to force food companies to replace GM ingredients in their food products with more expensive non-GM ingredients. It is no surprise then to find that companies would rather substitute a more expensive ingredient to bolster its public perception than risk a backlash. They’ll do this even if there is no evidence showing harm because their profits are more important than small ingredients here or there that can be replaced (you can’t replace lost profits). They’ll just pass on the cost of the increase to the consumer. This is, in itself, not evidence of anything and says nothing of any of their ingredients desirability or otherwise, as Hari claims. This truth-claim is, similarly to the first, false. She also goes on to mischaracterize the regulatory process of foods, and gives the false impression that because so-and-so supports her work, how can she be wrong? Peer-review doesn’t work that way; there are many who object to your work, so how you be right? (The opposite fallacy.) Who does and doesn’t support her is irrelevant, only the evidence counts.

What they say: The phrase “If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it” is not scientific.

The truth: I didn’t come up with this clever phrase, but think it’s great advice.

That phrase isn’t scientific, it’s not clever, and it is horrible advice! I can’t pronounce “phylloquinone,” but my health would suffer if I decided to forego it. (That is vitamin K.) I’d be a fool to take that advice here, and in the hundreds of other chemicals that make up our food, be they natural or artificial. Almost all chemicals have stupidly-hard-to-pronounce names. Hexanoate (gives a pineapple-y smell), palmitoleic acid (fatty acid), and the previously mentioned phylloquinone are just three that are found in bananas, among dozens of other equally-hard-to-pronounce chemicals that make up a banana. To be fair to her position, she claims only that it applies in the “majority of cases.” However, It is still not a “clever phrase” since basically all chemicals are hard to pronounce. Imagine if a natural banana had to carry an ingredient list? Would her advice still apply then? No, because “bananas are natural,” I imagine her answer would be. But that is not evidence, because if I handed her a bag of natural almonds (they contain cyanide), the “are natural” part of her supposition would no longer be evidence for its safety. That tells you that something’s naturalness is neither evidence for nor against its safety. Plain and simple: the “clever phrase” shows itself to be not so clever. I find it hard that this needs explaining at all to the intelligent person that I’m sure Hari is. Bananas are easy to pronounce only because we name the thing as well as all the things inside it. It is not just a banana, it isn’t made of banana; it is a natural chemical cocktail that evolved to propagate the genes that constitute it. (Neodarwinisn suggests that evolution works at the gene level, not the organism level.) This advice is like saying that you should only befriend people whose name you can pronounce. (It’s a good thing for the Indian and Icelandic populations that that’s not the case!)

There are many more points, but this post is long enough, and I believe I’ve rattled on for long enough. Some of her points may be valid. I only tackled the few that are more objective in nature (above). Please do read the rest of Hari’s points to assess their validity, though many of the others invoke her character and intentions, to which I wouldn’t be comfortable dissecting.

Conclusion

In the end, it’s hard to take someone like Hari seriously. She’ll rail against certain carcinogens while embracing others (alcohol, for example, is a carcinogen she enjoys and routinely ingests). It is clear that consistency and evidence are not all that important to her, but rather the worldview and the value it provides her and her #foodbabearmy. The problem arises when it is passed off as scientific and investigatory when it is not. An investigation is “the act or process of investigating; a careful search or examination in order to discover facts, etc.,” not the contents of her naturalistic worldview. Hari’s investigations can only be called that by the first half of this definition and not the latter. She investigates insomuch as it validates and propagate her natural, clean-eating worldview.

The Food Babe is absolutely correct in ignoring and condemning such blatant sexism and misogyny against herself as has happened and I’ll be right there with her when it does happen again. However, it is wrong of her to do the same to those she doesn’t agree with or object to her sensationalism and wilful one-sided view of “facts,” which have been documented elsewhere. The recent ‘Is The Food Babe a Fearmonger? Scientists are Speaking Out‘ seems to be what started this whole kerfuffle and it too deserves to be read.

War and Food

I recently finished reading Robert Greene’s marvellous book, The 33 Strategies of War. The book is essentially a 33 stage journey in destroying your enemies on the battlefield, politics, the office, and other scenarios as explicated in the book and explained via fascinating historical example. As I was reading this delightful compendium of strategy, history, bloodshed, and intrigue I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the strategies seemed strangely familiar. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself, “last time I checked I wasn’t a warmonger.” Yet, with this strange sense of deja vu, and due to the absorbing nature of the material, I continued reading…until, at last, it hit me. About halfway through the book I realised that “I didn’t know these strategies, I had seen these strategies…” From where is a very good question? From the anti-GMO brigade.

War is not some separate realm divorced from the rest of society.” ~ Robert Greene

At first, that struck me as an odd realisation. Yet the similarities in tactics and strategy were just too uncanny…the pieces just…fit, and continued to fit as I progressed. And I remembered that, often times, the antis proclaim themselves as waging a war so it’s not much of a leap, then, to using the strategies of war. It is interesting to note that a recent study published in the Environmental and Development Economic Journal of Cambridge early in 2014 calculated the lost life years due to opposition to genetically modified golden rice (Wesseler et al, 2014). All in all, it estimated that 1.4 million human life years have been lost as a direct result of anti-GMO opposition. Collateral damage?

From a quick analysis of Greene’s 33 strategies, which have been lifted from thousands of years of history, I surmise that the antis use about half. It is a funny thing, isn’t it, to be writing about environmentalists waging war; however, it should be done. As Greene writes early in the book: “[Judge] people by the results of their actions, the deeds that can be seen and measured, the manoeuvres they have used to gain power,” and not their intentions. (This is known as the philosophical system of consequentialism.)

The 1st strategy, Declare War on your Enemies, is perhaps the most evident in use: It is no surprise that in basically any hit-piece on GMOs, an enemy is named and shamed. This strategy focuses the energy of the group toward a specific end; this, usually, also entails the end of the enemy. (This explains the fervor with which Monsanto is targeted.) This strategy is, as Greene recounts, the most important, as it reduces infighting among one’s camp, and makes it easier to evaluate strategies by asking a simple question: will this hurt my enemy? If the answer is “no,” abandon it to find one that does.

The 4th and 7th strategies: Create a Sense of Urgency; and Transform your War into a Moral Crusade are prevalent, yet are so self-explanatory in my view that I shan’t meander into an explanation — just read anything from online media mogul Mike Adams or renowned academic Vandana Shiva to see them in action (“cancers,” “end of humanity,” “evil corporations,” “seed of death…seeds of renewal” among other hyperbolic statements are littered throughout their work).

The 10th and 20th: Create A Threatening Presence; and Maneuver Them Into Weakness are the MOs of the Food Babe and her #foodbabearmy. They are large and loud enough that corporations have trouble ignoring the Food Babe’s demands. Yet, the corporations have been placed, by design, in a position where they’re ‘damned if they do’ (respond to her simpleton demands) or ‘damned if they don’t‘ (ignore her, which would be used against them). Not coincidentally, both of these outcomes fulfil the fifteenth and twenty-eighth strategies: Control the Dynamic; and Give Your Rivals Enough Rope to Hang Themselves. (As scientifically illiterate as the Food Babe is, you gotta give her props as a general.)

Strategy 23, which involves Weaving a Seamless Blend of Fact and Fiction, is, without a doubt, the most used strategy. There are just enough grains of truth in any article lambasting GMOs that the fictions, when present (read: basically always) are allowed undue cognitive leeway by readers, having had their skeptical defences previously lowered. (Note: Generally those truths are the percentage of crops in the USA that are genetically modified. You can safely ignore just about everything else though occasionally they will accurately describe the process of genetic modification — occasionally.)

There are, of course, many more such strategies — most of them being used liberally among the decentralised anti-GMO movement each, it seems, catering to their strengths. However, the most troubling aspect of this Battle Royale is the candor and manner in which scientists and science journalists are treated when dealing with these scientific subjects. This subject is, after all, one of the very reasons that science journalism exists: to communicate the benefits and risks to the public, yet, as occupations, they’ve been almost universally sidelined, ignored, and sometimes threatened. There are many reports of both scientists and science writers being threatened, mostly online, but sometimes offline (strategy 30: Penetrate their Minds).¹ Also, in a few extreme cases, labs and fields have been destroyed (strategy 33: Sow Uncertainty and Panic Through Acts of Terror).² How — perhaps why is the better question — did it come to this? I’ll get to that shortly, but first, a quick tangent on the marketplace of ideas.

The crux of the issue really comes down to this: why can’t ideas defend themselves?³ The historical purpose of criticism has been to strengthen an idea through argumentation (logical, philosophical, experimental). If an idea cannot survive a routine round of criticism, it is modified (to be criticised again) or, more usually, thrown out due to the simple fact that the majority of ideas are wrong. At this juncture, the idea holder has two options: forget the idea; or, defend it. The latest psychological research leaves very little doubt that people are biased toward the latter (conservatism bias: the failure to revise one’s beliefs in light of new evidence). Further, the next steps are just as predictable as the first: defending a failed idea (in our case: GMOs are unsafe) requires the liberal use of logical fallacies, ignorance of empirical facts, charges of conspiracy, and, often, misleading or false knowledge to give the appearance of scientific standing.

It follows then, that, in the conservatism (bias) of the anti-GMO brigade, they have employed the strategies of war to cleverly give their failed idea/s an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas, where even true scientific ideas must compete. (Whether they have done so accidentally, i.e., trial and error until finding working strategies, or purposefully is a good question.) It is clear that their ideas cannot defend themselves on the grounds of their epistemic strength, they need the strategies of war to be taken seriously.

The fact that anti-GMO movement has continually gained political strength and have become the de facto trusted sources of information on the science of biotechnology has puzzled many saddled with the weakness of thinking rationally. “How did it happen?” I imagine many quietly asking themselves and their colleagues and friends. It seems that was no accident either. I shall let strategy 27 speak for itself: Seem to Work for the Interests of Others While Furthering Your Own.

FOOTNOTES: 
[1] - Paul Raeburn, Are these science writers and publications facing death threats for covering GMOs, Knight Science Journalism MIT, July 24 2014 
[2] 
(a) - Marcel Kuntz, Destruction of Public and Governmental Experiments of GMO in Europe, Science Daily, Vol 3. Issue 4, 2012 
(b) - Leigh Phillips, Nanotechnology: Armed Resistance, Nature, Aug 29 2012 
[3] - I believe this meme was spoken by Carl Sagan, though the quote may not be word-for-word. The reason for this footnote is that I can't find an attribution to it, so I am not sure if it is accurate. Still, the point still stands: why can't ideas defend themselves.

On GMOs & Changing Your Mind…

A few months ago I wrote a post titled What Would it Take? In it, I asked both proponents and opponents of GMOs what it would take to change their minds on their current position. Much to my disappointment only the PRO camp responded—which tells you something there.

Granted, I don’t have the biggest audience in the world, but I know I have Julee K, perhaps the only person whose mind I was instrumental in changing on the dicey issue of GMOs in a piece I did titled The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientistthough, it is probably more fair to say it was Dr. Kevin Foltaand ask her a few questions on how it felt to change her mind on so visceral and emotional an issue, and you can find our back and forth below.


1

Hi Julee, before you changed your mind, I’m sure that you had read other pro-GMO pieces from other scientists, yet it was me, a non-journalist, non-scientist conducting a Q&A with plant geneticist Kevin Folta that actually began the unwinding of your philosophy. What was it about this particular interview that instigated such a deep change in your outlook?

I’m going to have to set up my answer to this question with a little backstory so please bare with me.

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Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…

It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.

The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.

This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

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Whaddya Know, GMKnow Responds

It happened. It actually happened. The proudly anti-GMO group, GMKnow, responded to the question I posed to them two days ago. If you’ve read my last post, then you’ll know the story so far. If not, read it here (and the twitter conversation here). The summary, if you don’t care to, is this: I asked them why mutagenetic radiation breeding, which blasts seeds coated in Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS), sodium azide (SA), N-nitroso-N-methylurea (NMU) with X-RAYS, Gamma Rays, and fast neutrons inducing thousands of random double-strand chromosomal breaks, safer than GM seeds. The reason I asked is because a multitude of mutagenic seeds today are sold as organic food. Yet, the fierce furore over GMOs is inversely correlated to the silence over the radiation breeding of crops. GM crops tend to have 1-4 added genes, while organic mutagenic-created crops have had their genomes essentially scrambled resulting in changes to hundreds, if not thousands, of genes. It’s truly bizarre. I asked GMKnow three separate times for an answer over Twitter, which they deflected each time, instead, bringing up childish, illogical tropes about “GMO-biotech Ag science” and ad hominens such as “Sir Pesticide.” 

After my post was shared across Facebook and Twitter (I am assuming it found its way over to them), they finally decided to respond. If you tuned into Part one of this charade, I would hope you have not been holding your breath for a logical answer, because one I did not get. Let’s go through them and distill the stupid.

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