Vani Hari, aka the "Food Babe".

Vani Hari, the “Food Babe”.

The default mode of human activity is to construct our own internal model of reality based upon our desires, biases, flawed perceptions, memories, and reasoning, and received narratives from the culture in which we live. That model of reality is then reinforced by confirmation bias and jealously defended.

But we also have the capacity to transcend this pathway of least resistance. Philosophy is the discipline of thinking carefully and systematically about ideas to see if they at least are internally consistent. Science is the discipline of systematically and carefully comparing our internal models of reality against objective reality, and then changing those models to suit the evidence.

Everyone engages in a combination of bias, superstition, logic, and evidence-based reason to varying degrees – the question is, to what degree? The goal of science-based medicine is to increase the proportion of science and reason in the mix with respect to the practice of medicine and public health.

There are many forces at work in society, however, that explicitly oppose the role of science because, in my opinion, they find it inconvenient to their internal model of reality or whatever narrative they are selling.

At its core, we are engaged in a cultural battle over reality. We advocate a transparent, fair, and rigorous science-based approach to determining what is reality. Others, however, are trying to break or replace the rules of science so that they can advocate for a version of reality that is consistent with their narrative.

This has probably always been part of the human condition, but seems to be more acute recently, likely because of the power of the internet and social media. It is quite easy these days to create an alternative infrastructure dedicated to promoting a particular version of reality.

If you are, for example, an anti-vaccine ideologue, you can have your own experts, studies, journals, websites, and networks, creating an echochamber dedicated to your version of reality.

Sometimes these echochambers arise spontaneously as part of a grass-roots movement. Sometimes they are manufactured deliberately as part of a campaign to erect a pocket of alternative reality in our society, or to defend a vested interest.

We address many examples of manufactured alternative realities on SBM, and I am going to focus on one today for the purpose of illustration – Vani Hari (aka the Food Babe).

Hari is an up-and-coming food activist (although she is getting to be old news rather quickly). We have discussed her here and on other science-based blogs because she appears to be an utterly scientifically illiterate ideologue.

Her narrative is that all chemicals are bad, anything synthetic is bad, and anything that superficially seems yucky to her must also be bad. She has literally stated that there should be no amount of any chemicals in food. She has also famously stated that any substance whose name she cannot pronounce should not be in food.

She is, unfortunately, media savvy and has been very effective at self-promotion. Her routine is to identify something she finds yucky in food, completely misrepresent the science, then fearmonger about the safe ingredient in order to bully companies into doing PR damage control. Recently, however, the scientific community is noticing how dangerously scientifically illiterate she is.

Last week The New York Times published an unflattering article about Hari. Here is a typical passage:

Kevin M. Folta, the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, described Ms. Hari’s lecture at the university last October as a “corrupt message of bogus science and abject food terrorism.” (Her fee was $6,000.) Dr. Folta added, “She found that a popular social media site was more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you’re talking about.”

The article also quoted our own David Gorski:

David H. Gorski, a surgical oncologist who also has a degree in chemistry, wrote on Science-Based Medicine that the beer ingredient is propylene glycol alginate, which, despite its name, is not even close to propylene glycol, is not antifreeze and is derived from kelp.)

Hari recently responded to the NYT article, which is more interesting than the article itself because it demonstrates, in my opinion, her utter intellectual dishonesty – something which is necessary to maintain a bubble of alternative reality.

In her response she blatantly plays the shill card. She tries to dismiss her critics:

as manufactured by “the processed food lobby” and “industry-funded science.”

In her reply she states about Kevin Folta:

Ms. Rubin quotes Kevin Folta, chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He does not specialize in health or nutrition; rather he is a crop scientist specializing in GMOs who seeks industry funding and support for this research (3).

This, of course, answers none of Kevin’s criticisms of Hari. He is a publicly funded geneticist without any conflicts of interest. He would like to see some of the genetically modified plants he has studied make it to market (like disease resistant strawberries) – how does that in any way affect his criticisms of Hari’s unscientific statements?

She also goes after David, stating:

The piece mentions Dr. David Gorski, who also has received pharmaceutical industry funding (6). He likes to vilify “quackery”, and has even attacked the venerable Cleveland Clinic for using some alternative medicine (7). He is simply wrong that there is no propylene glycol, the antifreeze kind, in some beers and alcohol. We know Fireball Whiskey contains it (8) and it’s listed as an approved ingredient in alcohol on the government website ttb.gov (9). This is easy to prove if you aren’t looking to discredit someone. I answered this previously in a response to my critics back in December 2014 (10), but this was ignored and has been re-hashed time and time again.

These statements are, how we say, “factually challenged.” David has responded on his own blog, but to reiterate a couple of points here: David received a small amount of pharmaceutical company funding years ago. This hardly amounts to a conflict of interest in pointing out Hari’s bad science. This is not even part of the food industry. It is easy to see how Hari uses any sliver of an appearance of a conflict as a witch hunt to discredit her critics.

Hari also tries to pull one over on her readers with the propylene glycol issue. She clearly mistook propylene glycol alginate in beer for propylene glycol, because she doesn’t understand that these are different chemicals. The fact that there is a small amount of propylene glycol in Fireball Whisky is completely irrelevant.

Conclusion

The culture war continues. The Food Babe and others are attempting to distort the process of science in order to promote their alternative world view. Part of the strategy is to dismiss and discredit scientists who know enough to level devastating criticism at their particular brand of nonsense.

We are seeing this from antivaxxers, anti-GMO activists, and others as well. Unfortunately, this controversy can have a chilling effect and make it difficult or unappealing for scientists to engage with the public.

However, we need to engage all the more because of popular nonsense like that peddled by self-proclaimed but entirely incompetent “experts.”

 

 

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.

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