Monday, February 23, 2015

Babe in the Woods

100% Chemicals. I can guarantee it.
"There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever." -Vani Hari, in The Atlantic.

Statements like this invariably make me cringe. Of course, everything that is a thing, is a chemical. Not ingesting chemicals is essentially advice to starve yourself to death. Vani Hari, the progenitor of this pronouncement, styles herself as the "The Food Babe." Thing is, She using classic sensationalist tactics to gather pageviews, a practice that infurtiates me.

For the past month, at least, I've been working on a series of posts about artificial sweeteners. This process has me reading several books, multiple published peer-reviewed studies, and generally has me sweating every detail to ensure that I'm delivering accurate information. If you read my Policies, you'll see I'm not a research chemist or someone who works in the industry. None of this is my forte, so I have to work extra hard to generate a short, relate-able post with good information in it.

None of this is a complaint. I enjoy doing the legwork and research. I love learning new things about sub-fields of chemistry. What concerns me is that  the economies are drastically different. Hari can dash off a Googled-together link soup of highly dubious claims, throw a clickbait headline in the there, and pump it through context sensitive advertisers in what? Ten minutes? An hour? Professional Journalists working on a "short" piece about biotechnology have to verify sources, interview people, throw out bad information, and ultimately come to a responsible conclusion. A scientist studying one small aspect of biotechnology has to go even further, study the issue longer, and is subjected to more paperwork than anything Hari ever encounters writing an irresponsible blog post about some harmless chemical or another.

This economy of effort strongly favors Hari's type of messaging. I don't have her time, her funds, or her following to make a dent in the nonsense she's spewing. Fortunately there are others helping to fight back.

Look, I'm sympathetic to the idea that not everything that can be put into food should be put into food. However, when you look at how we live today, we're far healthier than at any other period in human history. We can't very well live forever, and I accept that no matter how well I eat or how much I exercise, I'll eventually die. So I don't understand these claims of how we're being gradually and slowly poisoned. They make no sense in the modern context of people being fairly long-lived.

I could do a series of posts on why Hari gets everything wrong, but it would take up an unbelievable amount of time. Proving negatives is difficult when it's not impossible, and I'd have to put a lot of effort into making sure I'm being accurate. The fact is that a well-informed society needs something more than science bloggers typing away angrily at their computers to combat this kind of fuzzyheaded fearmongering. It needs people to be more skeptical of claims, and to look hard at where they come from. Who do you believe? Someone who has spent decades in a field doing the work saying, "Probably...", or someone with a finance degree saying, "Definitely!"

"Probably" is a lot less satisfying, I know, but it has a higher chance of being correct. A popular quote attributed to Bertrand Russell goes,
"The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
With anything involving the human body, we're looking at highly complicated, highly variable systems that are evaluated using a very complicated set of statistical metrics that ultimately spit out percentages. Absolute certainty is elusive, and hard to pin down. So here's my rule for people who are concerned about foods and additives: Unless your doctor says otherwise, and the FDA approved it, it's probably fine.

It's not certainly fine. Your doctor could be an idiot, or the FDA might have missed something, but between the two of them, there is a lot more knowledge of biology, chemistry, and biotechnology than you probably understand. It's not that you're stupid or incapable, it's just not what you do. I don't spend a lot of time telling accountants that the way they do things has slowly been bleeding their company dry of money for years, because it's not my field. I haven't put in the time to understand it. I can do math, but it's not the same. In fact, just saying, "I can do math," belittles the practice. It would be like saying I could do a better job taking care of your kids because I've babysat before.

I encourage people to use the scientific knowledge they gained in high school and from books in their daily lives, but it's important to understand the limits of your knowledge. Time and time again, I've learned this lesson the hard way. Vani Hari will tell you that you don't need an advanced degree to understand biotech and chemistry.  I both agree and disagree.  You may not need an advanced degree to understand it, but you certainly want to be getting your information from people who can check your conclusions for accuracy.

Science, as a profession, whether it's practiced by academics, engineers, medical specialists, or privately employed scientists has gotten too big for everyone to be in cahoots, and consensus should not be confused with collusion. Does the hand of industry reach out often to pull science in one direction or another? Absolutely, but it's nowhere near being the closed ranks of a cabal of greedy people that Hari makes it out to be. Especially because there is so little money in science. Sure, companies like Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and others can make out like bandits. The simple fact is that employment is a function of supply and demand, and universities are increasingly churning out students with graduate degrees in the sciences because they're seen as a sort of "sure thing." Nothing could be further from the truth.

However, if you are tempted to follow the Food Babe down the path she's leading you, let me point something out to you. The Food Babe is eventually just going to be replaced by the Food Guru, or the Foodinator, or the Food Fluff-Patrol. These people don't last, they're fast flying, fast-talking fads. They're inevitably replaced by the next irresponsible gimmick. Where does that leave us, the people advocating responsible reporting and understanding of science? We'll still be here, hacking away at our laptops, telling you to think critically. Minus the million-dollar book deals.

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