If you are on the side of facts and reason on the food-related internet, there’s a good chance you saw Gawker’s delightful take-down of Vani Hari, otherwise known as “Food Babe.” The story ate up my whole newsfeed on Facebook almost all day long, and I loved it. I did. I loved it in that way you love things when you are the intended audience for a story and it just lands. Skewers the opposition. Does everything it’s meant to do for the people who will enjoy it the most. Food Babe is ill-informed at best, and dangerous at worst and I am not defending her, exactly. But Food Babe does not exist in a vacuum.
Food Babe is the manifestation of a set of symptoms, like how boils sometimes appear on your body when you’re trying to fight an infection.
I know first-hand how challenging it is to put science garble into plain language. At work, I communicate science and communicate to scientists, and though I am not a scientist myself, I understand the challenges inherent in trying to tell people about scientific discovery. For a story to matter, people have to care.
A scientific breakthrough is most of the time not very sexy. Discovery starts small – someone in some lab somewhere finds something at the cellular level that could have potential implications, maybe in animal models. It must be studied, and those efforts must be repeated and verified, and peer-reviewed, and then if it is in fact a breakthrough, it still has a long way to go, sometimes decades, before it’s applicable to humans.
As a writer, this is the challenge. You want people to read your work. Page views are validation. You want a good hook, a degree of certainty that media is going to take interest in your story and pick it up and maybe do TV interviews with the lead investigator in front of your building. The temptation to throw a little glitter on that press release is always there. Scientists want to see their work in the news. Journalists want a good story. Readers want a good headline, an action item, something to take away to improve their lives and share on social media.
People want to read that something causes or cures cancer. Anytime I read that wine or beer is actually good for you, I don’t check the sources – that shit gets shared. I want it to be true! It has to be true. I love wine so much.
Good science communication resists the sparkly lure of a click-bait headline or a sensational take on basic science. Good science reporting is clear, effective, never misleading, and makes no promises. Good science writing informs an interested public, and benefits the scientists who make the discoveries, the institutions that support their work, and the people for whom these discoveries are relevant (or will be relevant in the future).
Telling science stories is hard, especially online where anyone can find any number of more-interesting opinions and “facts” to inform or reinforce his world-view. TL; DR, and all of that.
Good science communication doesn’t always make us feel good.
Science is uncertain, and doesn’t make sweeping claims. It can’t. It would fizzle and die before it ever got to peer review.
Science is not about our feelings.
A lot of us are afraid. Or hopeful. Or optimistic. We want to believe that if we live the right way, and eat the right things, and exercise the right amount that we won’t get cancer or diabetes or whatever thing we’re most afraid of. Organic kale and local in-season tomatoes are pretty goddamn wonderful. You know what else is amazing? Those blue slushies from the gas station in July when only something blue will do to quench your ravenous thirst.
And you can enjoy all of these things and live to be 100 or be hit by a bus tomorrow, but only eating the kale and the tomatoes is not a salve. It is not protection against the unknown, because there is no such thing. Health and long life are an odds game, and you can get just as lucky drunkenly slapping the table and shouting “HIT ME!” as you can soberly and carefully counting the cards in the deck.
That doesn’t mean you should stuff your face into a bag of Cheesy Gorditas and just hope for the best. I mean, get into those things sometimes, but also have a salad? And some whole grains? Or a bit of broccoli, every now and again, even with cheese sauce? A healthy diet is not a complex equation: Mostly good stuff, a little bad stuff to preserve your sanity, and don’t drink pop every day. Wine is okay but you should verify my claims here because I am blindly clinging to the belief that my liver is totally fine after all it’s been through.
So if a healthy diet and reasonably good nutrition are so straightforward, why does Food Babe exist? Her blog and her books are the results of the worst possible combination of our secretly Googled paranoia, increasing distrust of corporations and the government, decreasing science literacy among the general public, and shitty online fear-mongering.
Food Babe fills an emotional need the way that Dr. Oz does. She makes people feel good, and often on the internet feelings are more important than facts, which are scary and outside our control.
Not being in control is terrifying. Trusting corporations to make decisions that aren’t wholly influenced by money is not a great idea either. So Food Babe’s message is compelling, even if it is largely unfounded. I just can’t imagine living in a world where everything is so toxic and frightening and costs so much.
The urge to want to feel like if we do the right thing, or avoid the right things, nothing is going to hurt is understandable. And “toxins” are a kind of villain, a bad guy we can arm ourselves against with the right combination of information and abstinence. But it doesn’t really work like that.
I understand about Food Babe. I don’t like what she’s doing, and I’m worried about how many people take her seriously. The problem is Food Babe, and it isn’t. Our problem’s root is in how desperately we need to hear good news, and how little good news there seems to be sometimes, at least in headlines, if you’re not sure where to look. Our problem is in how reassuring some messages are when they reinforce our fears, and when they’re packaged in nice-looking books and pretty blogs, and how we trust things that look professional and sound good, because life is so much easier and less terrifying when someone trustworthy has all the answers.
Just know that there are no miracle cures, no super foods, and no magic juice that’s going to make you pee out all the bad stuff. Wash your produce. Don’t eat meat every day. Drink lots of water. Eat enough fruits and vegetables that it doesn’t hurt or burn when you poop. And read with an eye for the details; we’re all selling something, and whatever it is, it’s motivated by our optimism, our hope, and our fear.
Good science is not going to shout at you or jump up and down, waving its arms. It can’t, and it shouldn’t. Look for it.