Tag Archives: Charlatans

Lies Damn Lies: The Great Food Anxiety Con

How to spot the woo pitcher wooing you.

Introduction.

Let’s hear it for Orthorexia Nervosa, the new eating disorder caused by the Internet. It’s a capital way to lose weight – even better than gluten intolerance – but it takes a lot of fun out of dinner.

food wooSufferers fear food, or rather “toxins”,  impurities and unhealthy elements contained in food. They are afraid of “chemicals”, GMO’s, Additives, of government conspiracies to allow “Big-Pharma” and “Big-Ag” to foist dangerous foods onto trusting consumers. Leary of food born poisoning and an endless catalog of dread diseases like cancer, autism and Alzheimer’s they juice, detox, restrict their diets and spend a lot of money on costly supplements, often provided by the people who warn them about the risks in their groceries.

Orthorexia is a form of Anorexia you can catch from blogs and TV. Its alternative name is Food Babe Syndrome, after Internet faux nutrition and pseudo science guru Vani Hari  who alerts her leagues of followers to the dangers lurking on their plates. Hari’s anxious fan base is so vast that her coverage has forced corporations like Subway and large breweries to change their production processes based on incorrect claims regarding their ingredients.

Her followers distrust their food and the sources providing it based on her uninformed pronouncements and scare tactics.  unnecessary angst. 

Hari, who has become so influential that she is one of the choices for Time Magazine’s Person of the year for 2015, is one of  a widening circle of food prophets and profiteers whose product is nutritional angst. Counting on confirmation bias among their followers they sell wheat belly, chemical warnings, agricultural panic and what is generally known as “woo” or food charlatanry to a frightened public through self proclaimed advocacies to “protect the consumer” from supposed lies and machinations and conspiracies of science, government and industry – the ever present them we all know is out to get us.

These “advocacies” are in reality profitable businesses which provide the speakers generous returns from books, speaking engagements, supplement sales along with the fame, all at the low cost of an internet page and a good spiel. The “advocates” are today’s equivalent of the frontier’s traveling snake oil salesman, operating in a nearly uncontrolled wild west environment of the World Wide Web. They prey on scientifically unsophisticated consumers, you and me, with a smoke and mirrors mix of  clever misrepresentation and confounding of scientific data or lack of it and plain hogwash dressed up in scientific sounding words such as “excitotoxin”, a rich command of fallacies and vague references to reports by scientists and  “medical doctors”.

It is easy to see how people come to believe their omnipresent messages. They are inescapable and broadcast by hoards of well meaning or well profiting web sites whose memes flood every social media.

The more popular they become, the more difficult it gets to find factual information about the food risks, wonder cures and all round quackery they disseminate.  Internet search algorithms favor the most visited sites, not the most accurate (although this may change soon if Google actually begins to rank sites for accuracy). 

This is partially due to the fact that legitimate scientists spend most of their time doing science, not promoting it, while the pseudo-science salespeople put all of their effort into marketing their message and themselves. 

Take the wheat belly myth, for instance. A search for William Davis’ highly profitable fiction “Wheat Belly Series” yields pages of misinformation, most by Davis himself. If you succeed in finding any scientifically accurate information on his message it will be after ten pages of links. This exceptional video by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, for instance, can only be found if you know it exists. (update: a repeated search revealed several links to critical commentary on the first Google Page. That was not the case previously, so the new Google algorithm may be in trials.)

The new age snake oil sales men and women’s endeavors find support in mainstream media.  Seeking what readers apparently want to hear or perhaps simply no longer staffed well enough to carry out good research, otherwise reputable publications broadcast unsupported claims regarding foods, additives, health claims, health warnings and holistic cures. Outlets like the Huffington Post and at times PBS have either reported their stories or have adherents on their staff, to the dismay of legitimate scientists. UPI has incorrectly reported pseudo-science as fact, and Consumer Reports has a well known pseudo-science activist on their writing staff.

The level of “woo” on the Internet and in media has exploded in the last three years. It is a serious problem, which has so far attracted very little investigation.

Most of us are not  going to develop eating disorders or buy supplements from Joseph Mercola, but we will be less secure in our food decisions, and we are more likely as citizens to call for government intervention where none is necessary or where a stand by government agencies could have negative effects on issues like genetic crop engineering or food restrictions based on misinformation presented to us as science.

In supporting or not opposing these food cult leaders, many of whom also support the even more damaging message that vaccination causes autism, we support their claims of alternate cancer cures and vaccination opposition. (Oddly, most of them oppose vaccination in addition to accepted food practices and foods. They cause harm.

That’s just wrong. No. It’s evil. Anyone who makes you anxious for eating a hot dog or a cup of cherry vanilla ice cream – Anyone who rains on  your food parade or endangers your health with profit in mind – deserves to be censured, silenced or even imprisoned. This rarely happens.

For the considerable financial rewards they reap, pseudo-science advocates” face scant accountability. Joseph Mercola  who opposes Vaccination (as does Hari) and genetically engineered crops has been censored by the FDA.    ABC’s television doctor Mehmet Oz, who perpetuates the claims of the best known charlatans was chastised in a Senate hearing by Claire McCaskill last June, and TV diet pitchman Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to ten years in prison after violating the terms two previous judicial slaps on the wrist, but for most of the players the risk benefit ration of accountability is heavily weighted to the benefit side with nearly personal risk to the bloggers or authors or messiahs from their misleading and  damaging claims.

That means we are on our own when faced with food questions. If there were no real nutritional threats like e-coli infections or the overuse of antibiotics in meat production, we could simply ignore warnings about the food we buy. That is not the case, so we need ways to determine what information presented to us is credible and what is not.

For the past weeks I have been gathering sites and “tells” which sometimes obviously, sometimes less so show what you can generally assume is woo and what sources can be trusted along with a compendium of fallacies used in the charlatan’s art. There are too many to deal with all at once, so the will be offered  in installments.

Here is a starter:

If it doesn’t make sense, it’s probably not true

Conspiracy theories.

Nearly all of the pseudo-science gurus use conspiracy theories to make their readers  insecure. By undermining trust in existing government watchdogs and scientific organizations they bind their readers to their own ends.

Take the claim that the government and industries are in cahoots to keep you in the dark about the dangers of pesticides and technologies whose end result will be to poison and kill you and make half of the children in this country autistic. (But the guru will save you).

The financial incentives of the villains, both governmental and industrial don’t add up. What would be the outcome if they succeeded.

  1. Death or disablement would remove tax payers from the nation’s income stream.
  2. The expense of caring for predictably half of the country’s children, now autistic and probably orphaned,  and their surviving but disabled parents would break the country, which would have no money anyway, because all the tax payers would be dead or poisoned.

Why would the government do this? What possible incentive could they have? This would require a whole lot of work and time with what reward? And what part of the government is involved in the conspiracy? The FDA? Congress, which can’t even agree on a budget? Are they that organized and effective? The President?

Who would profit and how? What’s in it for “them”, whoever “they” are? Big Ag would not be able to sell its products to a population it has managed to decimate.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?  Even your congressional representatives are too smart for that.

Could the FDA be messing up or not doing its job? Surely.  The Veterans Administration did for years, but malfeasance with limited returns is not very likely. Remember there are hundreds of thousands of skeptical science people around the country just waiting for the Department of Agriculture or the FDA to get anything wrong and then point it out in huge gaffaws. They don’t exactly operate in a vacuum.

As a side exercise you might want to ask yourself what Davis earns on his book empire, what Hari asks for a speaking engagement or what Mercola earns from his supplements that might motivate them to create distrust in the establishment.

The conspiracy theory just doesn’t wash. It’s purpose is to intimidate you, to make you dependent on Hari or Mercola or Mike Adams, Deepak Chopra (yes, he’s in the mix..sorry) or any of the other big lie advocates.

Follow the money. Or lack of it. That conspiracy receives a total of five woo stars, three for creativity and two for outrageous.

First rule of spotting woo: Forget your fears and ask yourself: Does this really make sense. Have fun.

More to come.

Leave a comment