Tag Archives: Woo

Woo Spotting Two: Who’s selling you a line about your food?

Who’s selling you a line about your food?

Recap: There are a lot of unprincipled pseudo-scientists whose business is lying to you about food and your health for profit.

The pseudo-science they pedal is called “woo”. Woo is generally fueled by exploiting anxiety, hope and concerns about health.

“Woo” sites have much in common including ample low hanging signs of disingenuous claims. We don’t need to discuss the values of their message to recognize the genre.

Woo Spotting Rule Number Two: Any person or site Claiming to Know the Cause or Cure for Multiple Disorders is a charlatan.

Bad News charlatans warn that one thing – wheat, a herbicide, artificial sweetener, GMO corn, milk – causes a wide array of ailments.

Remember William Davis, the publisher of the Wheat Belly series? The Canadian Broadcast Company aired a fascinating study of Davis’ claims and practices  in The War on Wheat in the news program The Fifth Estate.  Davis claims that alterations in wheat during the “Green Revolution” are responsible for most of the feared diseases of our age.  In this screen shot you can see some of the ailments Davis claims are Caused by gluten.

Predatory quack William Davis.

William Davis preaches Wheat Belly. CDC: The Fifth Estate.

One food component, gluten, causes all that? Do you really think that possible. Remember the last rule? If it doesn’t make sense it’s probably bogus? Does this really make sense? .

Consider  Kevin Trudeau, the author of The Natural Cures Book  doing ten years in prison for fraud in his diet book. The book promises cures for cancer, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome and every other grand 21st century affliction. Trudeau does not focus on one “natural” ingredient but provides a compendium which will save you from modern medicine.

The good news charlatans, Davis’ counterparts, claim on a myriad of web sites that a natural product like Vinegar or Garlic is a better cure than traditional medication for a catalog of ills. This is a little more sinister. People can die and have died from these claims. Steve Jobs did.

Some compounds in some foods and plants do, of course, have impact on disease or metabolic function, but legitimate research deals with these one component and one ailment at a time in disciplined detail.  Science and accurate medicine is not based on instant insight – for instance Davis’ appendicitis revelation – but on years of painstaking experiments. If you believe that the Virgin Mary appeared on a piece of toast, that’s fine, but you should not believe that a scientific truth about a dread disease would reveal itself to someone who then monetizes it.

Science is complicatedWoo is simple.  Legitimate research deals with one aspect of a food at a time, with one disease at a time. Pseudo scientists intuit panaceas.

Woo Spotting Rule Number Two:

Frauds promise easy answers and “natural’ cures for the great puzzles of medicine: Parkinson, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, The Common Cold or Crohn Disease. They exploit the scariest and most dramatic bogey men of health to separate you from your wallet. Parkinson’s is sexier than piles of ingrown toenails.

They dish up misinformation suggesting that conditions which have puzzled legitimate science for years can be conquered with simple ingredients or their own supplements, but, Garlic does not kill cancer .Safeway does not sell Miracle cures. Juice cures cannot replace the tools standard medicine has thus far developed, as incomplete as they are. It’s sad, but it’s true. Nor will a single ingredient prevent cancer or heart disease.

Legitimate researchers need years to determine which components of foods  impact a condition – metabolism, weight gain, tumor growth, dementia, for instance –  positively or negatively, and they never (ever) market their findings themselves. They publish them in scientific journals. Science Daily is a site where you can check for published studies. Charlatans use their observations for which they seek out corroborating anecdotes to create alarm or hope.

Scientists do research. Pseudo scientists feign enlightenment. Scientists publish peer reviewed studies in journals. Pseudo-scientists self promote.

Summary so far: If a web site or a person suggests that a food or food trait causes or a cures multiple ailments or that a food can cause or cure dramatic, feared diseases for which no trained and dedicated teams of researchers have been able to find an answer, they are predators and you are prey. They are messing with you, exploiting your fears and hopes. You have nothing to gain.

 

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Late Breaking News. Food Babe Smack Down.

Talk about Timing.

Summarizing the last post, there are people who manage to convince others that what they eat and drink is bad for them, motivating them to purchase books, supplements and a load of wrongness. The most influential of them is Vani Hari, who calls herself Food Babe, exploits her readers’ lack of scientific sophistication and bullies companies with bad science.

Hari is probably more low life cunning than smart; she lacks the foresight to check her information before launching a campaign, leading her to make pronouncements that the airlines insert nitrogen into the air and food should not contain chemicals, but she’s pretty and with a background in marketing she’s hoisted her star to celebrity status. Time Magazine counts her among the 30 most influential people in America. That’s about to change.

Food Babe has pissed off a lot of people, some who mock her with names like Food Chick and Science Chick on web sites and social media. One of them, Science Babe, a blogging chemist whose real name is Yvette D’Entremont, has had Hari in her cross hairs for some time. Yesterday she blind sided her in a Gawker article titled “The Food Babe Blogger is full of Shit”.  Ouch, Food Babe shot back with a nasty bit of Ad hominem, stating that she was “full of Love”,  but D’Entremont is “probably pro chemical..” which, considering that D’Entremont is a chemist might be the first accurate statement Food Babe has made. Science Babe won the round and possibly the war in an unfair fight, as chemist D’Entremont actually knows what she is talking about.

This is not the first time the media has focused on Food Babe. Last month the New York Times published a measured piece and NPR aired a critical segment in December, but both remained without fallout. (It seems logical that the NYT piece may have moved Gawker to ask D’Entremont for an article). D’Entremont’s hilarious rant, however, hit home.

Her dead eye accurate shots from the hip on Gawker’s more popular platform unleashed what promises an avalanche of Food Babe bashing. Goody. Science seems to  have kicked Hari smack in the Hubris.

Food Babe is full of Shit hit a chord. Popular print media began responding in a sort of Let’s Pile on Food Babe rush within twenty four hours of the article. Scores of social media pages and the Internet sites, always looking for something titillating and surely delighted by a chick fight, picked up the thread and ran with it. (Disclaimer: Food Babe is a chick. Science Babe is a whip smart, funny chemist who happens to be one and knows how to use it.)

By a couple of hours ago Cosmopolitan, Elle, Charlotte’s WBTV (Hari is a native daughter), Boing Boing, The Washington Post, Bostinno (D’Entremonte is native daughter), the Times Picayune / Nola , Vox, the NRA (rifles, not restaurant) had run with the story. Expect at least that many pick ups by tomorrow.

Science blogs are eating  it up, but they are mostly preaching to the choir. It’s the general media whose criticism of  the Food Babe enterprise promise to harm or destroy it.

There is a noticeable effect. A growing number of individual blogs like this one are picking up the story as it trickles through to them. Science Babe’s Twitter account looks like a one armed bandit spitting out quarters with several new Tweets every minute.

Score: real science: 1, charlatanry: 0.

You will be hearing a lot more about D’Entremont. She looks to be the next It Girl in the weird on-line nutrition world, there are more dragons to slay, and she waves a wicked sword / pen / keyboard. For one thing, she has a book in the works, “Science Babe’s Guide to BS Detection.

That is, in fact, what I set out to do in the current series of posts, but Science Babe will do it better.

I predict that this is the beginning of the end for Food Babe, whose disciples will support her faithfully until they have an opportunity to laugh at her and take outrage. It’s too early to say “good riddance”, but let’s hope.

As I said, talk about timing. Thanks Science Babe.

Update: Three days after Science Babe’s thrown gauntlet more official sites have reported on the argument and thus on Food Babe, and the list of independent blogs in which the conflict is mentioned has exploded. (To see some of them go to www.duckduckgo.com and type in the search criteria +”science babe” +”Food Babe”.

The most desirable outcome of Science Babe’s blog, besides her book becoming a block buster, would be for Food Babe to be so weakened that she disappears somewhat like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. This could never be achieved by logic. Logic rarely converts. But ridicule works wonders.

Suddenly (as of Today) #Foodbabefacts is trending. The additions appear to be coming at the rate of about six a second. If this is not a blip, Vani Hari, who conned thousands via social media may just have been  hoist by her own petard.

Pile on: https://twitter.com/search?f=realtime&q=%23foodbabefacts&src=typd

 

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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.

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