Controversy has been swirling around Vani Hari, the online celebrity and speaker known as a the “Food Babe,” for several months. Questions about whether or not she’s a fearmonger have been in the ether for some time, as have articles about some of her controversial stances on good. However, things recently reached a tipping point recently with a crude takedown of the Food Babe in Gawker (NSFW language warning).
Of course, Food Babe responded, pointing to her critic’s potential conflicts of interest, and offering oodles of links to sources she feels backs up her claims.
This controversy has me thinking about where we get our information, and what we do with the things we know.
Real Science vs. Pseudoscience
It’s sometimes difficult to separate out what is real science and what is pseudoscience, especially when many of us barely remember our high school science classes. Another difficulty comes from the nature of science itself. We’d like to think of science as a collection of certainties, but the reality is that science is more of a quest for understanding. The more information we receive, the more questions we have. And as our capacity to observe, experiment, and understand increases, the reality is that sometimes what we “knew” to be true a few years ago turns out to be incomplete, somewhat inaccurate, or even wrong. Science is always in a state of assessment and re-assessment as new information comes to light, or as our technology provides us with the tools to make more accurate observations.
This reality makes it even harder to determine what is the result of real scientific study, and what is the result of pseudoscience, which sometimes appears to be based in the same practices, but often isn’t. Another issue is that sometimes
Another issue is that sometimes we confuse correlation with causation. When a study comes out that indicates a correlation, it’s easy for the media to run with it. In fact, some studies, which may have suspect methodology or be unreplicated, or even be outright debunked, find root in the constant repetition that characterizes media consumption today. There is so much online, and when so many people repeat the same thing, it starts to ring true, or even be considered “common knowledge.”
Our 24/7 news cycle and the prevalence of information “going viral” without anything substantive to back it up leaves us in a position to be overcome by the hype and accept information that may be inaccurate at best, and has the possibility to endanger our health at the worst.
Deciding What to Believe
In the end, it’s up to you to weigh your information and decide what authority you think offers the best results. Sometimes, it’s a matter of following the money. Today, many online celebrities make money by selling expensive products or services, and so their information is slanted in a way to promote that. In some cases, well-known experts end up moving away from hard science as the cult of personality draws them to make controversial claims in the name of remaining highly visible (and keeping the money coming in). Other times, it’s a matter of checking to see who sponsored a particular study and understanding whether that might color the results.
In some cases, it’s possible to learn information by looking at reliable websites. Often, government health websites include the best available data about health and nutrition. There are also other sites, like the Mayo Clinic, and other hospital and medical websites, that offer information that you can usually trust. When you get information from blogs and other media sources, it makes sense to check to see where they get their information. Reliable websites should get their information from sources that are academic and/or peer-reviewed. This increases the chances that your information is the best available (but remember, it can change as we get more information).
Another consideration is what seems simplest. While you might be able to argue the benefits of a particular “superfood” over another, the reality is that, for most of us, good nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. Reducing the consumption of processed foods and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet can probably take most of us a long way. Grow some of your own produce, and get involved with understanding where your food comes from, and you’re likely to accomplish more than if you worry about what the latest food fad happens to be.