Critical Thinking

How can Belief, Trump Science?

Over the past several weeks, I have become fascinated with the fall of “The Food Babe”.

For those who haven’t been following, The Food Babe, aka Vana Hari, is a food advocate who “teaches people how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store, how to live an organic lifestyle, and how to travel healthfully around the world”.  She does this by making interesting claims such as:

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Unfortunately for Ms. Hari, those who understand the science of food have taken on her claims here, here and here ( here and here…plus a few more).    She has responded (and here), with, well, some ad hominem attacks.

So why does “The Food Babe” still have an “army” of followers…

From my analysis, she has a method (or consistent equation):

1. Identify a large, public target

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2. Identify a word that is hard to pronounce for the public (and claim it is a chemical or toxin) in one of their products.  She even suggests, “Avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce or that you’ve never heard of…”. I assume this includes dihydrogen monoxide (if you need to, google it…)

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3. Identify what other products (non-food) that “chemical” is used in

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4. Create a public message and/or campaign to eliminate that “chemical” from their product

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5. Identify the removal of that “chemical” as a “win”

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6. Use exciting language to her favor, and identify her cause as a “movement“.  She identifies herself as the average consumer and opponents as “multi-billion dollar corporations”, “Pro-Chemical” and “Pro-GMO”.     She also commonly utilizes the words “chemical” “toxins” and “additives”

(Ex. “With this much game-changing activism and success in a short period of time, it comes as no surprise that some powerful corporate executives and some “independent” voices they help to finance, disagree with our work.”)

So why does all of this matter?  Ms. Hari has a degree in a science.  Well not the science you would think: she does not hold a medical degree, PT degree, dietary degree, chemistry degree, biology degree, etc.  She holds a computer science degree.   So why do people follow someone, who lacks the formal scientific education to make such claims?

I suspect the equation she utilizes equates to some form of hope.  Her equation appears to combine ad hominem attacks, fallacies of irrelevance, post hoc reasoning errors and language, to build and substantiate beliefs.  While this sounds absolutely insane to those in the scientific communities , we see others utilizing a similar formula everyday in various realms: attack medicine (ie. “Avoid big pharma because they’re all about treatment vs a cure”), promote continuing education (ie. “Learn this guru’s approach to get your patients better), and sell.

I suspect we are all prone to excitement and beliefs.  We like to feel empowered, connected and validated. We also like to hold the belief that there is a higher power out there attempting to influence our lives, and we simply can’t let them do it.  But why do we do this?

Well, we do know that we all  were born with  a very complex and connected brain, that has regions such the anterior cingulate cortex that tackles conflict resolution, and is also involved in reward anticipation, decision-making, and emotion.  We have a limbic system that helps regulate emotion, behaviors, etc.  We  are hard-wired in a way that could cause us to fall victim of the formula above.

We all need to be skeptical; educate others in “right terms; and question extraordinary claims.   

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5 replies »

  1. Joe, Offered the right brain, belief will ALWAYS trump science for several reasons. Among them the former requires less work than the latter and “faith” is considered an asset by many. Perhaps The Food Babe simply overplayed her hand. That’s easy to do, especially when you’re talking about the thing that helps us survive – food.

    • I would certainly agree that presentation is extremely important. Look at what Carl Sagan managed to do. Not easy by any means. Story, analogy, metaphor and humanness seem important, but there’s something more. The “food babe” tried her attractiveness. That’s not going to work for me.

  2. Would it be reasonable to say, “any expert should be able to explain anything to anyone, or they don’t truly/fully understand it themselves?”
    Perhaps belief requires no proof what-so-ever (leap of faith)?

    And it’s been said, “Humans only do things for emotional reasons”, (Prof Watson), I assuming emotions and logic are not an easy mix, is it a lot for us ask for rationality and logic in such a highly emotional animal?

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