Over the past week, something truly amazing has happened on the internet. The skeptic community has risen up and unanimously decried the quackery and fear mongering that constantly spews from Vani Hari’s mouth (and website). Vani Hari, better known as the, “Food Babe” has been scrutinized by scientists and skeptics since her initial internet debut, and, truth be told, it’s not hard to find fault with her arguments. Her entire world-view centers on the notion that chemicals with long scary sounding names must be bad for you, and she at least claims to live by the credos that if you can’t pronounce something you shouldn’t eat it and, “there’s just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.” The reality is, of course, that such statements ignore high school level chemistry and are nothing more than appeal to nature/appeal to emotion fallacies. All matter is made of chemicals, and the length of a chemical’s name has nothing to do with whether or not it’s toxic. For example, everyone should regularly consume retinal, ascorbic acid, cyanocobalamin, and cholecalciferol. Those names are hard to pronounce and sound frightening (after all one of them is an acid, it must be toxic!), but those of us with scientific knowledge (or Google) know that those are simply the chemical names for vitamins A, B, C, and D.
Nevertheless, skeptics have devoted a considerable amount of effort to debunking her nonsense. Blogs like Science Based Medicine, Neurologicablog, and many others have done a phenomenal job of thoroughly shredding her claims that there’s antifreeze in beer, microwaves destroy the nutritional value of food, Subway is feeding you yoga mats, etc. Meanwhile, the blog Bad Science Debunked has been busy pointing out the fact that she sells numerous products that contain the very same chemicals that she decries!
The problem is, that despite the obvious absurdity of her claims (let’s not forget that she was concerned by the fact that airplanes don’t contain 100% oxygen even though the air you normally breathe is mostly nitrogen), people have flocked to her message of scientific illiteracy. She has amassed a “Food Babe Army” which wages war against any chemical which she finds unappealing. This would all be laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that her army actually accomplishes many of its goals! Most famously, they succeed in getting both Craft and Subway to remove chemicals that the Food Babe, armed with her degree from the University of Google, had decided were toxic.
This has concerned me for some time now. Despite the fact that a high schooler could defeat her “science,” her army was growing, and the rational voices of the skeptic community seemed to be falling on deaf ears. All of that may have changed, however, on April 7, 2015. That is the day which, I hope, will be remembered as the turning point in the war with the Food Babe Army, because that is the day when the “Science Babe” took down the “Food Babe” in arguably the most epic rant to date. I am, of course, referring to the Gawker article which quickly went viral. There was a lot of build up to that article (such as the New York Times article which was less than kind to Hari), but (at least in my observations) the Gawker article seems to have been a tipping point. In the few days since that article, I have seen numerous skeptic blogs writing additional takedowns, which have been heaping wood onto the growing fire that is decimating her position. In addition to posts about her scientific illiteracy, others have taken issue with her debate tactics, such as the fact that she dismisses many critics by simply accusing them of being sexist. Other people have been resurrecting some of Hari’s old Twitter posts, such as the patently absurd claim the flu vaccine was used to carry out genocides.
The Food Babe has, of course, responded to this new wave of criticism, but in many ways her response only weakens her position. Rather than actually deal with the fact that her views aren’t grounded in science, she has resorted to her normal brand of ad hominem name calling and shill accusations. To any unbiased observer, it’s pretty obvious that the Science Babe won this round.
With all of these new posts appearing in my newsfeed, I wondered just how much of an impact all of this was actually having. So, I turned to Google Trends and searched for “Food Babe.” The result was the figure below. That massive spike at the end is entirely from the first 10 days of April. The internet is lighting up with searches about Vani Hari.
It has been said that “any press is good press,” but I tend to disagree. I think (or at least hope) that this massive push against Food Babe’s nonsense will have a positive impact. Encouragingly, her Facebook following has actually decreased this week! Granted, it has only been a decrease of 0.2%, but still a decrease is a decrease, and it’s an encouraging early sign. Nevertheless, I have accepted that we will probably never convince most people to defect from the Food Babe Army. Most of those poor souls have been trapped by Hari’s spell; however, I have great hope for those who have not yet converted to her pseudoscience, and I think that this massive assault on her arguments may go a long way towards stopping the growth of her empire. Her army is never going to go away, and her nonsense will always clutter the internet, but just maybe, we can stop her following from growing, or at the very least, slow it down. To quote one of my heroes (Captain Jean Luc-Picard), “The line must be drawn here. This far, no further!”
To be clear, I am not encouraging anyone to use ad hominem assaults against Vani Hari. Sexist comments and personal attacks against her are unnecessary and inappropriate. Rather, I am simply trying to express my undying gratitude to the blogging warriors who have done battle with the Food Babe Army for the past several years. Thanks to their efforts, we have finally arrived at a point where I am optimistic that we might actually have a legitimate chance of stopping the spread of her quackery. So, I encourage anyone reading this not to let up. We need to keep pointing out her many errors until everyone comes to the realization that her arguments are based on fear not facts. This is not a war about what’s in our food, its a war about whether we are going to accept science or fall prey to fear mongering.
Addendum (April 12, 2015): Based on comments that people have been making in various places on the internet, I think I should clarify the point that I am trying to make. I am not suggesting that the war has been won or even that we are definitely winning the war at the moment. Rather, I am saying that we have a chance to make this the turning point. Right now, there is widespread interest in Vani Hari, which means that it is more important to point out here errors now than it ever has been before. As I said, we are never going to get all of Hari’s current followers to abandon ship, but I think that we have a reasonable chance of stopping a lot of people from joining her cause. We will never make her go away, but we can stop her influence from spreading beyond her current following.