Skepticism

Why the Food Babe Doesn’t Need Vanquishing: The Misinformation Hydra

 

Hydra fight

The 400-page tome The Fear Babe:  Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, dubbed “the book the natural and organic food industries don’t want you to read” has been nearly a year in the making, if not longer. On its surface, the book, which I co-wrote, is a systematic debunking of claims from Vani Hari, the famous “food activist” better known as The Food Babe, who goes head-to-head with what she paints as the Big Bad Food Industry, one blog post and activist stunt at a time. The self-styled investigator of what’s “really in your food”, known for the easily-debunked statement that “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever” with her legion of loyal followers known as the “Food Babe Army”, has a tried-and-true formula:  Identify a scary-sounding but innocuous food ingredient or process (like azodicarbonamide), choose a company with household name recognition (like Subway), send followers to petition (read: bully) said company, and rake in additional followers who purchase from her affiliate links and subscribe to her $17.99 per month eating guide, rinse, and repeat.

The Food Babe doesn’t need vanquishing

Appointed the “Enemy of Chemicals” by James Hamblin in The Atlantic, and a baloney-peddling “business” by Michelle Francl in Slate, the most widely-read takedown of the Food Babe’s quackery came from Yvette d’Entremont, who pulled no punches lambasting the blogger as “full of shit” in Gawker. But the Food Babe is just one symptom of a larger problem, one head on a seemingly immortal misinformation hydra. She is an ideal framework for examining a looming American and increasingly international crisis:  the proliferation of quackery, and a public eager to lap up seemingly convincing misinformation from the mouths and social media pages of charismatic television doctors, popular bloggers, and moms next door.

This book isn’t for those looking for diet tips. In stark contrast with Vani Hari’s book The Food Babe Way, which promises readers they’ll “lose weight, look years younger, and get healthy in just 21 days”, The Fear Babe authors make no lofty promises. Instead, it is a systematic, evidence-based, rational yet humorous debunking of the most ubiquitous food myths of our day, using the all-too-popular Food Babe’s claims as a context to teach the reader critical thinking. We aim to leave the reader armed with a misinformation radar, and with the ability to smell BS from a mile away. And if you want to lose weight? Sorry, the book offers no gimmicks.

An Indian-American science defending mom, a savvy southern gentleman, and a British brain join forces

The three co-authors, each with a penchant for debunking unscientific media misinformation, were devoting our free time to the shared passion, each in our own way, when we joined forces to research and write the book we hope will leave readers with sharpened critical thinking skills and a healthy relationship with their dinner plates. A mom of two young kids, I’m not a scientist but a science advocate with a passion for all things genomics and biotechnology. I was quoted in a January NPR exposé about the blogger: “What she does is exploit the scientific ignorance and fear of her followers”. Like Ms. Hari, I’m the daughter of Indian immigrants. In addition to her scientifically baseless assertions, I take issue with the blogging babe’s exotification of India, and her painting of its citizens as noble savages, along with her laughable albeit dangerous claim that real, traditional Indian diets require raw milk. Mind you, this is the same woman who wrote:

“Dad and Mom had my brother first and then, seven years later, me. They named me Vani, a name I hated as a child because my schoolmates made fun of it and no one could pronounce it. But in Indian, it means “voice”—how prophetic, because I’ve definitely developed one.”

-Food Babe Way, page 7

Makes you wonder whether Vani Hari truly believes there’s a language called “Indian” among the nation’s myriad tongues, or more likely, that she simply didn’t believe her readers savvy enough to Google the words “Hindi” or “Sanskrit”.

A few months before that NPR article broke, my co-author Mark Alsip, a Wisconsin-born southern gentleman, and a skeptic with an eye for detail, had launched the Bad Science Debunked blog. “I started the blog because of all the nonsense I saw on social media’, he explained of his motivation to refute Vani Hari’s quackery, among other charlatans he tends to target. “I had family members on chemo at the time, so issues like vaccines (herd immunity, compromised immune systems) and cancer woo were very personal to me. It’s hard to watch someone you love, dying, looking for answers, and see all the false promises and dangerous advice they have to wade through”.

The Fear Babe was originally the brainchild of Marc Draco, a sharp-witted UK native with pre-digital era publishing industry experience and a wry sense of humor, who jokingly describes himself as a “brain pickled in a jar of glyphosate”, the herbicide anti-GMO activists love to hate. A veteran member of Banned by Food Babe, a growing group of nine thousand members all banned from Hari’s social media pages, usually for questioning the veracity of her claims and lifestyle advice, Draco started “Food Babe in Black and White”, a site of memes examining Vani Hari’s fallacies.  “Vani spreads a lot of nonsense and someone had to stand up as a voice of reason,” he explained as to why he started compiling the memes.

With our common passion for refuting misinformation, it was only natural that both Alsip and I agreed when Draco asked us to join him on the project, which began as a few simple memes, and ended up a solid volume discussing everything from biotechnology to BRCA mutations, flu shots to FODMAPS, consumer psychology, and even the occasional mom joke to boot. In Shards, the longest chapter in the book, we discuss nearly every major Food Babe assertion, from the danger of aspartame and GMOs, to the idea that certain veggies endow us with “night vision”.

Can the Food Babe Army trade hashtags for hash browns?

We reached out to Vani Hari for comment early on while writing our book. Though her husband, who Hari calls “Mr. Food Babe”, signed for the registered letter sent to her Charlotte, North Carolina home base, the food activist chose not to respond. Nevertheless, the sentiment I’ve expressed often, the offer I’ve extended to Ms. Hari several times via my writing remains open:  We don’t want to silence you. You have a wide-reaching platform with which you could do much good. We are happy to discuss in any forum of your choosing, and I’m certain that if you admitted your mistakes, scientists, farmers, skeptics and science advocates alike would welcome you with open arms. After all, owning up to errors and correcting them are basic tenets of the scientific method.

Dr. Kevin Folta, science communicator, geneticist, and head of the horticultural department at the University of Florida, wrote in the foreword to The Fear Babe:

“What if the Food Babe Army traded hashtags for hash browns, and invested their endless energy serving the underfed here in our own country?”

We don’t know whether the army will ever put down their hashtags in favor of evidence, but we do hope that our book brings the critical thinking revolution we dream of. And if you’d like a side of hash browns with that? Enjoy them without fear.

 

Featured image: “Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Hydra fight” by Columbia Pictures – Trailer for the film. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, co-Executive Director of March Against Myths, public speaker, Forbes contributor and author in Madison, WI. She is also co-author of "The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House". Follow her on Facebook and twitter @ksenapathy

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1 Comment

  1. December 10, 2015 at 4:40 pm —

    Interesting about ‘trading hashtags for hashbrowns’. The ‘slacktivist’ phenomenon has been with us forever. To use an example far more substantive than ‘yoga mats’ in beer or whatever, the antiwar movement deflated after Nixon got rid of the draft. I think the current #SignalBoost phenomenon is a modern extension of this.

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