Quick: what's the most absurd thing you've ever heard a person say? That vaccines cause autism? That lizard people live under Los Angeles? How about that "there is no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever?"
The last is, in fact, a claim recently made by Vani Hari, who many of you will know (and shudder at the mention of) as the Food Babe. Hari has a profile in The Atlantic as part of promoting her new book, which is called (I swear to God) The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! I didn't make that title up. I didn't exaggerate it for comic effect. That's what she's actually calling her treatise extolling the brain damaged, anything-unnatural-is-bad philosophy of affluent California liberals. Which makes sense, because you should totally trust anyone who offers you the chance to easily attain health, youth, and beauty within three weeks. Those people are always reliable and trustworthy.
I'm not going to try to destroy her idiotic arguments from a scientific perspective, because I am painfully ill-equipped for that discussion (though if you want to see what that looks like, here's a really good example). I'll be the first to admit I am in no way knowledgeable when it comes to science — this is by design, as I find pretty much anything within the entire massive umbrella of scientific discussion to be drier than an audiobook of Tig Notaro reading The Importance of Being Earnest. Don't get me wrong: I absolutely understand the crucial role scientific discovery plays in our lives, and I'm glad scientists are out there doing their scienc-y things. I respect your work, you guys are awesome at it, and please keep doing it! But listening to a scientist excitedly discuss their discoveries is, to me, a lot like listening to a seven-year-old with an unusually polysyllabic vocabulary enthusiastically prattle about their love of Yu-Gi-Oh in painstaking detail.*
But even with my deliberately limited scientific knowledge, I can see the sheer absurdity of a lot of Hari's claims (see? There was a point to that last paragraph other than to piss off any scientists reading it). There's a truly bizarre strain of anti-intellectualism running through both ends of the political spectrum, fostered by people who instinctively distrust anything beyond their immediate comprehension. The world is a strange place when right-wing climate change deniers and left-wing anti-vaxxers wind up on the same side of an argument. I may feel about science the same way I do about nature (I'm glad it's out there, now please never ever ever ever get it near me), but you'd have to be a complete lunatic to make a statement like "there is no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever."
So, fine, what sort of shit is Hari saying here? Let's have a look:
Every bite of food that passes through our lips, and every glass of water we drink, are potential sources of toxic chemicals, including pesticide residue, preservatives, artificial flavors and colorings, addicting sugars and fats, genetically modified organisms, and more. These toxins can travel to, and settle into, all the organs of your body, particularly the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs—and do great damage. Scientists are now blaming chemical-ridden food for the dramatic rise in obesity, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, infertility, dementia, mental illness, and more.
It should go without saying at this point that the use of the word "toxins" should be an immediate red flag for anyone whose brain is fully armed and operational. "Toxins" is basically just a rebranded version of "ill humors," and I'd love it if we could ask people in the Middle Ages how well that understanding of medicine worked out for them (don't look for a wise old elder, though: they were all dead by age 32).
What's really concerning to me is that the majority of the medical establishment, including registered dietitians, have some sort of industry tie," she told me. "It's entrenched. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the corruption. And to talk about it in a way that people understand."
Translation: "I have no idea what I'm talking about when I make far-reaching fear-based claims about the nature of what's in Subway bread,** but you should totally listen to me when I talk because I have no financial interest. Well, I mean, other than the obvious personal financial interests in selling more books and generating more pageviews and public speaking appearances." Also, does this sound a lot like "actually, it's about ethics in dietetics" to anyone else?
"This just isn't stuff that you have to be a doctor or scientist to understand, and the fact that they're telling you that, there's a problem with that. That you have to be a food scientist in order to understand what these chemicals do in your body. Not really."
"And that's the problem that we have: too many moderate people," she said. "We need someone demanding change."
People whose entire philosophy rests on the concept that more extremism is a good thing are always worth listening to. I mean, sure.
"I didn't start the blog to take on the industry," Hari said. "I had no idea that this would start to happen. I had no idea that a blog post, something I wrote, would change a company. But when that started to happen, that's when I knew I had to quit my job, that I had this gift that I need to share with the world."
The same goes for people who claim they "have a gift" that needs to be "shared with the world." That has never ended badly.
At times, even, Hari's suspicions lead her to contradict the basic tenet that natural is good. "Readers of my blog know," she writes in the book, "that the next time you lick vanilla ice cream from a cone, there's a good chance you'll be swirling secretions from a beaver's anal glands around in your mouth." Indeed. "Called castoreum, this secretion is used as a 'natural flavor' not only in vanilla ice cream but also in strawberry oatmeal and raspberry-flavored products."
NO, THERE IS NOT A GOOD CHANCE OF THAT. Most companies don't actually use castoreum any more, because it's too expensive. It took me less than 15 seconds to Google that. Christ.
The last point is an important one, because it's so blatantly inaccurate (even as it's a pervasive urban myth). Ultimately, the experts are the experts for a reason: if the overwhelming scientific consensus is that a particular food additive is safe to ingest, or that vaccines are safe and preferable to dying of easily-preventable diseases, or that my iPod is powered by a collection of electric signals rather than tiny singing hamsters (BUT I WANT TO BELIEVE), then the rest of us should damn well believe the voices of knowledge and reason. These people didn't spend decades studying and working in their respective fields just so they could one day build a sweet island volcano lair and secretly trick their intellectual inferiors into consuming scary-sounding chemical concoctions that might potentially slightly increase their risk of butt cancer over a period of years (although let's be fair: who wouldn't love an island volcano lair?). The fact that most of us don't understand what they're doing doesn't mean their intent is malevolent.
The only difference between what Vani Hari is doing and what the anti-vax movement is doing is that the body count for the former is potentially much lower. Which isn't as bad, I guess, but it doesn't make her any less annoying. Unfortunately, as long as human beings continue to be gullible sad sacks willing to believe any fear-mongering claim made by someone charismatic enough to phrase it enticingly (so, for forever), she'll always have an audience.
* Believe me, I know this cuts both ways. A lot of you don't care about the Russo-Japanese War, while I find it to be a fascinating subject. That's totally fair! Not everyone has to share interests. The difference, though, is that I don't corner you at a party and continually try to explain the far-reaching implications of the Battle of Port Arthur as pertaining to the casualty rates of World War I when all you want is to get to the snack table and acquire more mini-quiches.
** Look, just because Subway bread tastes like a yoga mat doesn't mean it actually was one.
Image via Getty.