A feminist mother and science advocate’s response to Vani Hari, the “Food Babe”

posted in: Commentary | 30

EogmuHn-_400x400Originally published on the Genetic Literacy Project.

Vani Hari, better known as “Food Babe,” is a self-proclaimed investigator of food and consumer advocate. Yet, some of her so-called investigations have been based in little to no evidence, while most of the rest of her claims are outright drivel. She has made her mark in an all-too-easy exploitation of public fear of the “unnatural,” distrust of establishment and love for fads.

As expected, her opposition has been growing. Scientists and skeptics have begun criticizing Hari’s assertions. Within the last several months, the frequency of articles, blog posts and social media opposition has skyrocketed.

I’m a mother and science writer, and I’ve been critical of Hari’s work over the last several months. I am not a scientist by the traditional definition. I don’t have a PhD., nor have I authored peer-reviewed research publications. Still, I have a unique perspective afforded by the intersection of a sound working knowledge of genomics, genetics, and bioinformatics. I’ve garnered this knowledge being raised by a molecular biologist, working for a small private-sector genomics R&D company, and via coursework and extensive reading on the subject.

In addition to writing on the subjects of feminism, atheism, and biotechnology in agriculture and medicine, I took on the position of spokesperson for Chow Babe, an open social media critic of Food Babe. While Chow Babe is a parody of Food Babe, she has gained a following of nearly ten thousand people sharing one common notion – that Vani Hari is a charlatan without evidence for her propaganda.

Maria Godoy of NPR’s “The Salt” took notice and contacted me and a few scientists to discuss scientific backlash against Food Babe. Considering that NPR is a renowned and reputable organization, I gladly obliged. Over the weekend–shortly after the piece was published and after declining to be interviewed for the NPR piece–Food Babe lashed out at her critics.

Food Babe refers to me as follows (and yes, I’ll explain why I know she’s talking about me specifically):

“Seemingly reputable news organizations like NPR (in a blog post titled “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out”) even linked to the hate groups – quoting one of their spokespeople and repeated their ridiculous and biased messages as if they have any merit.”

I am the only one quoted in the NPR piece with the title of “spokesperson.” (For more information, see Chow Babe’s post describing how I became her spokesperson in late October.) Therefore, it’s obvious that Food Babe is referring to me. As with all of the individuals she criticizes in her response, she omits mentioning me by name for fear of having to engage in extensive discourse. Also, it’s likely that she’s been advised to refrain from naming her foes to avoid liability.

Although this isn’t the first letter I’ve written to Food Babe, here is my personal response:

Dear Vani,

Scientists, skeptics, farmers, and scientist-writers like me have given you ample occasions to have civil debates. Not once have you taken the opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, I will continue to reach out with the hope that you’ll agree to a direct dialogue.

10730911_1567744076778936_1807429254740783159_nYes, I happen to be Chow Babe’s spokesperson, but first and foremost I’m an outspoken writer challenging unscientific and misleading propaganda. Early on in my criticism of scientific misinformation, I noticed you perhaps unintentionally misleading your followers on the subject of cancer. For example, you once asked your readers whether eating the “best foods on the planet” and avoiding environmental toxins would prevent cancer in an individual with a BRCA 1 or 2 mutation. In short, this notion is completely erroneous. The likelihood of breast or ovarian cancer is very high with these specific hereditary mutations, and your suggestions to avoid a cancer diagnosis are mere wishful thinking. Here is my piece criticizing your stance on BRCA mutations in detail.

In addition, you frequently demonize so-called carcinogens without scientific basis. For instance, you demonize group 2b carcinogens like carrageenan. Carrageenan is categorized as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” yet you happily post selfies drinking alcoholic beverages. You must know that wine, beer, and spirits are classified by the IARC as group 1 carcinogens, meaning they are known to cause cancer in humans. You discuss cancer often on your blog, yet it’s painfully clear that you don’t understand how carcinogenesis works even at the most basic level.

This brings me to my next point. You state in your response that one doesn’t need a PhD to be a consumer advocate or food investigator, and that “just because you have a degree, doesn’t make you right.”

Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree that one doesn’t need a PhD to discourse about food and food-related science. Nevertheless, I always believe that it’s critical to draw from mainstream experts. Claims need to be supported by the broad weight of empirically based studies and not just reflect someone’s opinion or a one-off study that fits preconceived notions. To blithely abandon the scientific consensus to embrace views considered unscientific by the most reputable science bodies in the United States and world suggests ideology and activism for its own sake, and not science. At minimum one needs a solid grasp of the science behind claims in order to be credible.

You do not appear to understand what a “science experiment” means as distinct from pure opinion; what you deem “personal experience.” You state the following:

“I know with my own body, that eliminating food additives was one of the best decisions I ever made — before that I was on several prescription drugs, felt and looked awful. I have more energy now than I did 10 years ago, 10 years older! – How is that possible if there isn’t something to all of this healthy eating? Or more directly, to eliminating the chemicals that major food companies have yet to justify to us with any explanation.

Others without a PhD have also conducted the same experiments, using their bodies and personal experience, and have come to a similar conclusion.

I use a variety of published scientific papers, interviews with experts, studies and opinions from noteworthy and respected public interest groups in my writings (they are usually blue hyperlinked throughout my posts). We are still learning the impacts of the food we eat – much of it hasn’t even been studied – thousands of chemicals in our food supply remain untested. So much new information is being discovered every single day.”

Vani, using one’s body and personal experience does not a science experiment make, no matter what the self-proclaimed “conclusion.” A valid experiment must be conducted under controlled conditions with a clear hypothesis, and confounding factors must be minimized. For the results to be compelling, they must be reproducible. In other words, you need confirming independent studies by reputable scientists.

As Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The evidence you cite to corroborate your extraordinary claims is far from extraordinary; indeed it’s dicey and weak. The so-called credentialed experts you cite may have PhDs, yet this makes them no less wrong. There is no body of evidence to support their claims and they are not primary researchers in these fields. You take dubious or totally fabricated findings, almost always unscientific and often anecdotal, and tout them as alarming, scary truth. If this isn’t unscientific fear-mongering, I don’t know what is.

I was shocked and heartbroken to see you conflating my message and those of my comrades with the hateful, and violently misogynistic messages you’ve received. You call me the spokesperson for a “hate group,” yet I’m a feminist, skeptical and above all else compassionate writer. Many women have been targets of misogyny online. Internet misogyny is a scourge that we all should continue to combat together. I too have been targeted, told that I’m “poisoning” my children and that it will be my fault if they ever suffer a terminal illness. In addition, I’m Indian-American just like you, and have always defended you against ignorant racist remarks, in part because I know how it feels.

While these attacks are deplorable, they are irrelevant to the majority of sensible, scientific and civil backlash against your work. Conflating misogyny with relevant opposition is underhanded. You are using this in an attempt to derail the entire conversation–a public conversation in which you’ve never even been willing to engage. You’re throwing yourself a pity party and inviting your entire army.

VaniLetter
An email sent by Ms. Hari to her email subscribers

The fact is you have refused to engage with reasonable critics of your writings–the misinformation, sometimes dangerous, that you spread so carelessly. Being critical of your campaigns does not make someone hateful. I’ll repeat, it’s hurtful and offensive to paint all of your opponents with a “hate group” brush. Peruse the 4000+ members of the Banned by Food Babe group and read the comments. These are not the comments of a hate group.

Vani, you exemplify the most condemnable misogynistic attacks as representative of your opponents. None of the people or organizations you lambast in your post condone these awful attacks. Yet, you personally are responsible for unsubstantiated, utterly fabricated ad hominem attacks against many of us, and to which I’ve been subjected all too often–the “shill” gambit.

Not everyone who is critical of you is automatically a shill for Big Ag or Big Biotech. Unfounded accusation of shilling is based in ignorance and is disingenuous. This is an empty tactic. If any of us truly has a “financial incentive” to oppose you, please, produce tangible evidence, don’t just spew rhetoric.

How is Dr. Kevin Folta, department chair of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, one of the most independent of scientists in the world with no industry connections making money from the biotech industry and Monsanto? How are Chow Babe, Science Babe, Food Hunk or I profiting from criticizing your views? Produce evidence.

Vani, I implore you to stop name-calling and throwing tantrums, and to respond to the relevant questions posed to you. And if you disagree, rather than retreat into your echo-chamber of support, venture out and engage with critics. We’re all willing and eager to dialogue, in public, and in any forum of your choosing.

Sincerely,

Mother, Feminist and Science Advocate,

Kavin Senapathy

Follow Kavin Senapathy:

Kavin Senapathy is an inquisitive agnostic born in Washington D.C. and living in Madison, Wisconsin, with her nerdy husband, curious toddler daughter, infant son, and needy puggle. Her interests and pastimes fluctuate wildly, but always consist of family, reading and writing, cheese, and the world of genetics/bioinformatics. Kavin works for a genomics/bioinformatics R&D. She is not a scientist but wears several hats. Opinions expressed are her own and do not reflect her employer. Follow Kavin on Facebook and twitter @ksenapathy