Before anyone accuses me of cashing shill checks, I should disclose that Kavin Senapathy, co-author of The Fear Babe, is a contributor at Grounded Parents and a friend. I assure you that I received no compensation for this review. My views on the book are entirely my own, and Kavin’s words are hers.
I was excited to learn that Kavin Senapathy, Mark Aslip and Marc Draco were writing a book to counter Vani Hari’s pseudoscience propaganda and fear-mongering empire (if that sounds devious or hyperbolic to you, read the book, you may change your mind). Released today, The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House does so much more. Not only do they debunk her most popular claims, from flu shots to food additives, but they also provide the science behind why her claims are false, discuss the psychology of why we find ourselves believing her and others like her, and share tips on how everyone, even people without a background in science, can evaluate evidence. And they do it in a really approachable and humorous way.
There are few areas of pseudoscience that I hate more than food woo. Possibly because at one time in my life, I bought into this culture completely (literally – because it is fucking expensive to buy organic food 100% of the time). I remember being pregnant with my first child and deciding to eliminate all conventional produce, processed food and artificial sweeteners from my diet. Why? Well, I wanted to have a healthy pregnancy and baby, of course. Who doesn’t want their kids to be healthy? Don’t answer that. Which, of course, is why fear-mongering around food is so effective. Especially when statements seem to be backed by scientific research or evidence and are presented in a logical way. Especially when they are presented by someone who is likeable, and when smart people you know and trust also buy into them.
I am more than a bit embarrassed to admit that I used to follow the Food Babe, along with other wooful food sites like 100 Days of Real Food and Reboot with Joe. Eventually, though, the posts started to all sound the same – shocking clickbait headline, hyperbolic claim, “evidence,” and alternative product pitch – often produced by companies in which they had a direct financial interest. How did I finally break free? I did my research. And by research, I mean reading research published in peer-reviewed journals. I joined woo-free groups on Facebook. I learned how to spot a logical fallacy a mile away.
I wish I had read The Fear Babe when I was pregnant with my first child. I think I probably would have enjoyed more Diet Coke and fresh produce and perhaps worried a bit less (well, probably not that).
The book is more than an attack on Vani Hari and pseudoscience, though. It’s a funny and well-researched primer on topics like the flu vaccine, GMOs, antibiotics in eggs and Celiac’s disease, which makes them approachable for people without a background in science. Yes, it takes down Hari’s claims, often with a point-by-point analysis, but it also includes insightful commentary on issues such as cancer (cancer woo makes me steam) and our culture’s obsession with weight loss and unattainable beauty standards. And for those like me who enjoy engaging in debates and fighting woo, it gives us a handy guide for how to counter these fallacious and false claims, by providing more than just a simple – “Science, bitches.”
I was expecting to laugh when I read the book, but I was not expecting to cry. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image issues, the chapter Love Yourself Fit was touching and empowering. They take on fat shaming and the fabricated insecurities that self-improvement gurus and the diet and fitness industries create and then exploit. As a fitness and science geek, I loved their commentary about the science behind metabolism, weight loss and post-baby bodies. And as someone who appreciates irony, I loved the fact that the authors essentially wrote a chapter about self-improvement through positive affirmations and self-acceptance, while simultaneously, taking down the self-improvement guru industry.
Your existence is remarkable.
It’s OK to be me!
Look in the mirror for a moment. Your worst enemy is staring right back at you. Stop and think for a moment – do you love yourself?
Give yourself permission to be yourself. Do it now, and do it often.
I can honestly say that my only negative critique of the book is related to length. As a busy mom (all of whom should be reading this book), I could only read a few pages at a time, which meant that it took some time to get through. I will, however, keep it around as a handy reference the next time a well-meaning friend or woo-mongering personality shares pseudoscience on the internet.
I was delighted to spend some time with Ms. Senapathy to hear more about why she co-wrote The Fear Babe and her quest to stop pseudoscience.
What prompted you to write Fear Babe?
Vani Hari is symbolic of a larger problem. I think of her as one head on a misinformation hydra. Her popularity and the wide reach of her unscientific messaging is an effective framework for debunking the most ubiquitous food myths of our time, and for examining why they continue to proliferate in the face of mountains of evidence against them. We hope the book arms readers with a misinformation radar!
What’s your background? Do you think one needs to be a scientist to write about or advocate for science?
I am not a scientist. I’m a mom of two young kids, writer, public speaker, and science popularizer/activist. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I believe that only scientists can credibly make extraordinary scientific claims, and they need stellar, reproducible evidence to corroborate them. My claims, and the claims in this book are very ordinary, they are accepted by the vast majority of the scientists in these fields. It’s important for non-scientist advocates and writers to know the difference between cherry-picking of one-off studies and widely accepted scientific consensus, and to have scientists and experts with whom to consult. I speak with scientists on a regular basis in my line of work.
How can self-proclaimed food activists like Vani Hari cause harm?
The book really delves into this, but short answer: Fear can drive people away from beneficial evidence-based practices. One example is the flu vaccine, which Vani Hari advocates against. They can also cause undue financial stress on families, making them believe that they need to spend a premium on organic or “natural” foods. Finally, they help perpetuate a widespread lack of critical thinking skills.
Why do you think fear-mongering has been such an effective strategy to confuse and persuade the masses?
Fear is fueled by strategic misinformation, which drives action. If I believe that a certain additive will make me or my children sick or unhealthy, or if I fall for the “ick” factor of so-called yoga mat chemical in my bread, or beaver butt flavoring in my food, of course I’ll avoid it.
How can busy parents who don’t have a background in science and don’t always have time to read academic journals do a better job of evaluating the claims we read online?
Again, the book really delves into this answer. Look for telltale signs that a claim isn’t evidence based. Is the article or blog post appealing to your emotions or to logic? If it claims that science supports it, does it link to a credible source, or to a seemingly never-ending loop of other iffy websites? If you have a health or food related question, try finding the answer at known legitimate sites like Mayo Clinic, HealthyChildren.org (from American Academy of Pediatrics), USDA, or CDC.
Do you REALLY believe GMOs are safe?
I really believe that all products on the market created with modern molecular genetic engineering are safe and beneficial.
What can we do to spread scientific knowledge to the masses? How can we build our own army of woo fighters?
The wild wild west of the internet has brought a glut of information, and as a society we haven’t yet caught up with it. Fortunately, there are beacons of good scientific information in that mass of woo. Find credible accounts to follow on social media. Make your voice heard when charlatans push bad information. I believe that keyboard warriors do make a difference. Most of all, remember that swaying someone from non evidence-based opinions is a marathon, not a sprint. You cannot simply throw evidence at someone, whether a friend, family member, or stranger on the internet and say “see, science says, so there”. Ask questions, be kind. Ask why this person holds a certain belief and then gently offer “did you know” responses. For example, a person avoids GMOs? Ask why. If it’s because they’re “unnatural”? Explain that most non-GMO foods are also unnatural. If it’s because “it’s wrong to patent life”? Respond with something like, “Did you know that thousands of non-GMO varieties are patented?” Even then, remember this is an ongoing dialogue. It’s taken me up to two years to sway certain family members and friends! It never helps to make a person feel stupid. Save your vitriol for anti-science bigwigs, the Vani Haris, the Doctors Oz, the Mike Adamses, Andrew Wakefields, and Joseph Mercolas.
The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House is available online today.
Image credits: Sela Yair, Senapath Press, Patricia LaPointe