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.
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.