Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Scientist's Take on the Appeal of "The Food Babe"

A recent article that appeared in a popular beauty/fashion site has reignited scientists' complaints about a particular "food activist," The Food Babe, because the article claimed to feature "a point of view," and...we take issue with that.

I tweeted a few comments about this, but then I remembered that I have a blog, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write an informative piece that clarifies most scientists' objections to this sort of chemophobia and fearmongering that this particular woman seems to capitalize on.

You see, when we say that it's not "a point of view," we mean: water is composed of H2O molecules - two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Is this contentious? Hundreds of years of research suggest that it is not. Thus: not a "point of view."

The scientific procedure used to promote and publish research findings internationally is not without its flaws, but this is how it goes. A research group (at a university, in industry, in a government lab) completes an objective or establishes a result, and they seek to publish it and make it known to the world. They do so by drafting an article and submitting it to one of many scientific journals (e.g., Science, Nature, ACS or RSC) based on the type of science (e.g., medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, math, narrowed down into further niche fields forever and ever) it is. These journals are rated by their impact factor (generally, the higher the impact factor, the more prestigious and reliable it is) and staffed by editors who are, themselves, scientists, or who have had a graduate level education in a relevant scientific discipline.

If an article is selected, it undergoes peer-review. That is, the editor discreetly sends it to a handful of other experts in the field (other scientists and professors) and have them evaluate it based on a set of criteria: is it new and noteworthy? Is it valid and credible? Does it make a point and is it relevant? Corrections, clarifications and additions are requested, and submitted, and then the article is printed and knowledge is shared.

This sometimes gets bogged down in politics, biases, etc., but for the most part, it is successful and important. Nothing gets published without first being vetted by other scientists. We wouldn't expect claims to be accepted without substantive evidence, in the form of experimental evidence (or theoretical, if you happen to be a computational scientist, but I digress). We cite all references to previous work or studies that lay out background (all those tedious footnotes and endnotes - one paper can have a hundred citations. We are damned serious about it.) So we don't really take people seriously, if they do expect that kind of ready acceptance to their claims. 

The very basis of science is that we are continually discovering new phenomena and pushing boundaries. With that kind of premise, it's really hard to accuse researchers of being absolutely and resolutely close-minded or not open to new ideas and challenges to old ideas. That's how the field grows. Sure, people can be stubborn (there are famous debates about established scientists' refusal to accept quantum mechanics) but we're not rejecting other statements purely out of hand or without some good reason.

I can see the appeal of some of the Food Babe's advice. Eat more greens, eat less fast food, read labels, eat less sugar - essentially, pay attention to what you eat. What I do not appreciate, however, is the lack of evidence and lack of basic science understanding that accompanies most of her tirades against the food industry and the FDA. I think targeting these large, nebulous corporations can be easy if you are struggling with something and can't find a direct reason for it - you want someone to blame. However, environmental stimuli coupled with the variety of our nutritional intake makes for a tangled, intricate system of effects on our bodies, and it's hard to pinpoint all of that on exactly one factor, which is what "activists" like this woman would have us believe.

I really invite discussion and questions on the structures of science research and anything else related to this topic. I think there isn't enough emphasis placed on creating an environment that encourages a basic understanding of chemistry and biology fundamentals, even as we call for more STEM here, there, and everywhere. And to be quite frank, scientists aren't always the best at communicating details to the general public, either, which is also a mistake, but one that is trying to be addressed. Science and scientific research are not some closed off, obscure things in an ivory tower somewhere. Scientists shouldn't be elitists; we just spend more time on research and have a larger background in a specific field. We're not smarter or more intelligent, and we don't look down upon those who choose other careers and callings. We should and can endeavor to make our findings readily available to the average person, too, so you can make your own informed decisions.