Why the Food Babe is wrong (it’s not just because she’s ignorant)

You knew I had to talk about Food Babe this week.

My not-so-secret goal with this blog is to improve public science literacy and to help people become more critical consumers of information. As a consumer activist and critic with enormous influence, one might hope that Food Babe’s goals are similar to mine.  But I’m afraid I have to give her methods a big red F, and for distressing reasons. Before I get into that, however, I want to give readers who aren’t familiar with Food Babe some background.

Like the decision to vaccinate, the choices we make about food have significant consequences to our health.  It’s easy to find advice on how to structure our diet–there is an overwhelming volume of admonitions to eat more protein!, only organic!, less fat!, more fat!, plant-based!, paleo!, non-GMO!, raw!, Mediterranean!, gluten-free! with dire warnings about what will happen if we fail to follow that plan exactly. (I feel particularly sympathetic to parents of young children, who are already stressed out about the incredible day-to-day challenges of raising them in a difficult economy. Shaming them if they’re buying most of their food in bulk once or twice a month at Costco instead of shopping exclusively for their children at Whole Foods is outrageous.  In fact, the very ability to make choices about what we eat is a privilege not shared by a huge proportion of the planet’s population…but that’s a subject for another post).

For the average person untrained in science, nutrition, or medicine, the challenge of wading through this mountain of advice on how one “should” eat, sorting out the good advice from the bad, can be daunting.  With so many options it’s easy to succumb to decision fatigue–or default to way too many meals at fast food joints.

Diet and health gurus are counting on this. They offer people a simple solution: follow my “movement”, follow my advice and you don’t have to think for yourself about this; follow my simple “tricks” and you’re guaranteed “health”, “thinness” and a sense of belonging to a righteous movement.

Enter “Food Babe” (whose real name is Vani Hari).

Actions undertaken without understanding  are always foolish, and often dangerous.
Acting without understanding is always foolish, and often dangerous.

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New paper deals blow to hypothesis that Native Americans have European ancestry

The idea that Native Americans had at least some ancestry from a trans-Atlantic migration has been around since the earliest days of American anthropology. The earliest proponents of this idea looked at the spectacular burial mounds and art from North America and insisted that they could not have been made by the ancestors of the indigenous (or as they put it, “primitive”) peoples they encountered. Obviously, they reasoned, a “Lost Race” of “Moundbuilders” (identified variously as Atlanteans, Europeans, and Israelites) must have been responsible for the great archaeological sites in North America. But systematic excavation of these sites has thoroughly debunked that idea.**

Nevertheless, an idea that there must be a European origin for at least some Native Americans has persisted in various forms. In its modern iteration, this idea is known as the “Solutrean Hypothesis.” The Solutrean hypothesis claims that the Clovis people, the makers of the earliest known stone tools in the Americas, were the cultural and biological descendants of the Solutrean peoples of southwest coastal Europe.

I have written before about why the genetic diversity present in contemporary and ancient Native Americans does not support this hypothesis (“Problematic science journalism: Native American ancestry and the Solutrean hypothesis”). Here, I want to discuss a new challenge to the Solutrean hypothesis that came out in the archaeological literature just today.  Continue reading

Darwin Day!

Think hard. Go deep.

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! Thanks for helping to make the Violent Metaphors community a place where we celebrate intellectual bravery and relentless curiosity, in keeping with Darwin’s legacy.

Here are a few links in honor of today:

  • Did you know that Darwin’s children doodled on his “Origin” manuscript? You can see their sketches here.
  • Creationists tend to raise the same objections to evolution over and over again. Here are Phil Plait’s responses to a number of them (h/t to Washington Post for the last two links ).
  • If I’m being completely honest, I found “On the Origin of Species” to be a rather boring book. World-changing, but not a thrilling read. “The Voyage of the Beagle”, on the other hand, is fantastic and I highly recommend it! You can download the full book for free here.
  • What does it mean to be human? Understanding the history of our species helps us answer this question. If you’re a little rusty on your human paleontology, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has an excellent, easy to read guide for you.
  • Help improve science education in your community by visiting the National Center for Science Education’s webpage. They keep track of legislation that threatens science education in public schools, and have resources for community members who want to help.
  • Finally check out this page to find an event in your town celebrating Darwin today! I’m planning on toasting the great man tonight with a nice bottle of champagne (sent to me by one of my mentors as a congratulatory gift for becoming a professor. It seems fitting!).

Have you got any evolution-related links you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments!

Please don’t politicize vaccine refusal

Given recent measles outbreaks and the ravenous news cycle, it was inevitable that public attention would shift to politicians’ position on vaccination. Some commenters are reacting by politicizing the vaccine debate, painting conservatives or the tea party (or, in response to those messages, liberals) as anti-vaccine. Please don’t let this message take hold. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s counterproductive.

The president set off a small chain reaction by advising parents to vaccinate, but Governor Chris Christie’s comments have drawn the most attention. His statement was almost meaningless; he told reporters that (of course) he vaccinated his own children, and “that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Vaccination is not strictly mandatory in any state, and most states permit exemptions for the few parents who have ideological objections to modern medicine, so as a matter of simple fact the government has already decided and given parents that choice. (He went on with a few more comments, but other than to say that obviously we disagree with them, there’s not much point in dissecting them here.)

Christie is a politician who wants to avoid unnecessary controversy. After the first negative reports of his comments emerged, he distanced himself from anti-vaxers by firmly stating, “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But it was too late. The public picked up on his initial remarks and fed him straight into the gnashing teeth of the news cycle. And once the meal started, other prominent politicians with an eye on 2016 staked out seats at the table. Rand Paul seemed to give credence to some anti-vax myths, although he, too, backed down a bit and clarified that vaccines are “a good thing.” His fellow conservative (and fellow physician) Ben Carson pushed back on those statements, backing vaccination and even comparing anti-vaxers to secondhand smokers. Hillary Clinton, the three conservatives’ bête noir, came out with her own strong, respectable and simple message: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”

Notice something about these statements? Even the most ant-vax statement isn’t all that opposed to vaccination, compared to what you read online. That’s no surprise. The overwhelming majority of parents vaccinate their kids, and politicians who offend overwhelming majorities retire early. But you’re going to read a lot of headlines and tweets about how Rand Paul and Chris Christie are anti-vaxers because they’re pandering to the voters; you may even see people promoting the meme that Republicans (or conservatives or Tea Partiers) are anti-vax now. Don’t buy it.

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Mike Adams of Natural News: As Fine a Lawyer as He Is a Scientist


UPDATE: Looks like Natural News intercepted the “DoNotLink” link and redirected to an old article bragging about their supposed scientific prowess. I’ve replaced it with a direct link to the article.

Mike Adams, who calls himself the “Health Ranger,” has an ugly reputation for incompetence when it comes to scientific questions. That shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s a relentless self-promoter and a talented salesman who has discovered that wearing a lab coat and using four-dollar words moves product. He hawks supplements, housewares, CDs and DVDs, tinctures, powders, lotions and potions that will cure what ails you! People are more likely to buy his wares if they don’t trust their doctor, and if they’re full of fear for their own health. So it’s probably no coincidence that Adams’s Natural News site also pushes frightful misinformation about how awful, terrible, and corrupt those scheming doctors and scientists are.

It’s a very savvy marketing strategy, because people who feel like mainstream doctors and scientists are out to get them will probably identify more strongly with Adams’s Natural News community as a way to feel like they’re fighting back. That would make them more likely to trust him, and more likely to fork over $40 for ten ounces of freeze-dried apples (a little over $25 on Amazon).

If Adams is a world-class salesman, he’s strictly an amateur when it comes to science and, it appears, the law. A few days ago Adams posted an article screaming, “MMR measles vaccine clinical trial results FAKED by Big Pharma – shocking U.S. court documents reveal all”. Meh. The article is beyond misleading. Anyone reading just that, and not digging further, would walk away with a profound misunderstanding of what’s going on in the case. It could be just rank incompetence, but nothing about the article give me the impression that Adams gives a damn whether the contents are true or not, as long as the audience gets good and angry at those evil government scientists and corporate doctors. (And if his description of the case gets you angry enough, you can fight back! Just click on the “Store” button conveniently located right above the article and buy yourself an herbal medicine kit, or some essential oils, or an immunity-boosting candle, or all-natural salt, or even a $100 pack of iodine. Just the sort of thing they don’t want you to buy!)

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Dear parents, let’s talk about measles

Vaccine superhero
Thanks to vaccines, L. is protecting other kids in her community. And by avoiding illnesses, she has more time for important stuff, like being a superhero. Photo by Colin McRoberts

Dear parents,

Livia, with permission of her mother
This is Livia. An unvaccinated child with measles potentially exposed her the disease, so she spent one of her first six months in quarantine. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Simon

You’re probably aware that measles has been in the news a lot lately. We need to talk about it again, even if you feel like it’s old news, because of Livia, Rhett, and Cami.
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The Good Fight Part 1: The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Are Wrong

The good fight is that special argument where you know you’re right, and just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly disagree. But they do, even when the disagreement is about something fundamental and irreconcilable. Did we evolve? Is the climate changing? Are vaccines safe? Do I really have to pay my taxes? The answers matter, but so do the arguments. Let’s try to improve them.

This is Part I in a series about how and why we have those difficult conversations, online and in the real world. We’ll explore ways to make them more persuasive, more fun, and more rewarding. For a practical example of where we’re going with this, see my earlier pieceThe Most Important Playground Conversation: How to Persuade a Friend to Vaccinate.  Going forward we’ll focus particularly on arguments with people who have irrational ideas, like anti-vaxers or creationists, but some topics apply in every conversation. This is one of them, because in every conversation you have to remember: you are talking to a person. They are as real, as smart, and as decent as you are. You’re having a conversation, not a battle. That’s the hardest thing to remember for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.

I was going to start this series by writing about goals and strategies, but then I got bogged down in a conversation on global warming that reminded me of that more fundamental rule. It doesn’t matter what your goal is if you let yourself forget that you’re talking to a real person. Personalizing an argument, making it about the people instead of the issues, poisons conversations. Once you start to think of the conversation as just another blunt object to apply to the other person’s head, you’ve already lost. So what happened, and what can we do about it?

"Alu finds a friend"

Not a friendly conversation.

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A bit of personal news

I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’ve just accepted a position as Assistant Professor-Molecular Genetics of Human Evolution in the Anthropology department at the University of Kansas. KU has a very long tradition of producing top-notch anthropological geneticists, and I’m honored to be joining the department as a teacher and researcher.

I’m deeply grateful to my mentors, particularly Deborah Bolnick, Geoff Hayes, Dennis O’Rourke, Rika Kaestle and Beth and Rudy Raff, who provided so much guidance to me throughout the whole process. I’m also grateful for the wise perspectives and support from my dear friends Lyn Christian, Lisa Twight, Jeff Rabhan, my fabulous labmates, and my family (especially Colin).

Mentoring is everything in science.
Mentoring is everything

And now that the job season is over for me, I’m looking forward to having more time for writing here–we’ve got lots of science to talk about. Onward!

Storytelling vs. science

Things are not always what they seem.
Things are not always what they seem.

Several organizations exploit vulnerable parents by claiming that they can “cure” their children’s autism through various approaches.

As Left Brain, Right Brain observes, these “autism cure” movements persist because of the power of storytelling:

“Nothing sells unproven “treatments” like testimonials. For autism it has been true since the days of chelation and even before that. Tell people that your “treatment” cures autism and you have testimonials to show it and you can just about guarantee sales.”

As we all know, anecdotes aren’t scientific evidence, but they do appeal to us on an emotional level. Unfortunately, one woman’s recent experience has starkly illustrated just how untrustworthy such stories actually are.

Camile Saulnier (a pseudonym) was recently given a book by Kerri Rivera called “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism”, which prescribed a “Treatment” for curing autism:

“I began looking into the background of CD/MMS and I was extremely concerned to find that MMS (Sodium Chlorite + Citric Acid = Chlorine Dioxide) aka. ‘CD’ was and is being hailed and marketed as a cure for almost every ailment and disease known to mankind, this includes Cancer, Malaria, Aids and Ebola.

I found the man behind MMS to be one Jim Humble, the Arch-Bishop of a rather cult like church named the “Genesis II Church”. Suffice to say I was very worried indeed, I searched further and found that Kerri Rivera the author of the book “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism” is a Bishop within this church.

I voiced my concerns with my friend who was following the Protocol, but she seemed to be un-phased by my doubts. She directed me to the facebook group CDAutism, where she said I will find proof of the recovery stories and thousands of parents giving testimony to the marvelous gains achieved by using the CD Protocol.”

Saulnier was justifiably concerned and spent some time reading the group’s posts, learning that the linchpin of the group’s claims was the collection of testimonials of parents of “recovered” autistic children. Saulnier was skeptical about the reliability of these testimonials, as they were all posted by Kerri Rivera, and so devised a little test to see how Rivera determined what “recovery” was and whether it was the CD treatment that caused “recovery.”

“I had an idea to see for myself, I needed to be sure 100% that everything I was seeing and reading was real before I could even consider using this protocol. I am afraid my worst fears were not only imagined, they are real.

I made a recovery story for my child, based on so many others which I had read, I felt bad doing it as I do not like to pretend but it was for the sole purpose of finding a greater truth.”

Saulnier’s false testimonial was immediately and enthusiastically posted by Kerri Rivera on the group’s website, and the banner proclaiming the number of children “cured” of autism was promptly updated to reflect this false cure. You can read the details of Saulnier’s correspondance with Rivera here.

Now, I’m not at all comfortable with Saulnier’s approach. I don’t believe that it’s ethical to lie. But having said that, it is a fascinating glimpse into the credulity of this segment of the alt-med community. Can you imagine how this would have played out in the science-based medical community? What level of scrutiny would such a story have been subjected to by physicians and medical researchers before they accepted it as true?

Several readers of this blog are persons on the autism spectrum and have contributed their perspectives in discussions on vaccination and autism. I’d particularly love to hear their thoughts on this issue.

Closing my browser tabs 12/15/14

Here are some serious and not-so-serious things to read about science as you drink your eggnog this week.


“Vaccines work. Here are the facts” is an awesome cartoon by Maki Naro, refuting the antivaccine arguments and giving a great and accessible overview of why vaccination is important. This deserves to go viral, so please share it with your friends! And while you’re on the treadmill or walking your dog this week, take a listen to “The Most Important Playground Conversation”, a discussion hosted by Voices for Vaccines in which VM writer Colin discusses strategies for discussing vaccination science with other parents.

Science publishing

Retraction Watch just received a $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop a database of retracted papers. This database would mean that scientists could check that the literature they rely upon in writing grants and papers haven’t been retracted. And they’re hiring an editor and database developer! This is outstanding news for those of us concerned about improving the quality of scientific publications.

Women in Science

Women have played a meaningful, but largely unrecognized, role in the history of amateur radio. The Mary Sue has a great article honoring female ham radio operators, which I particularly enjoyed because I’m one of their number! To my fellow YLs, 33 from KF5ZMF!! To everyone else, check it out and consider studying for your ham license! It’s not incredibly difficult, and it’s tremendous fun.

Science literacy and skepticism

I really like “Ask for Evidence”, a guide to evaluating the legitimacy of scientific and medical claims. It’s a simple, straightforward and clear explanation, and a good potential teaching tool. Explore the site–there are a bunch of posts by specific topic as well! You might, for example, use these approaches when evaluating claims made by the “Food Babe” who recently revealed some serious shortcomings in her understanding of chemistry.


Did you know that the human milk microbiome has been characterized? That the flora present within human milk differs between mothers who gave birth vaginally and by caesarian? This post gives a really great explanation of this fascinating research.

Sweet Science

Tommy Toehold is hands-down my favorite combat sports cartoon journalist. (If you’re an MMA fan, then you’re probably nodding your head right now). I’m mentioning him in this post because he recently did an awesome video about the women’s MMA show that my sister is the matchmaker for, “How Invicta Took Over The World”. I’m a bit biased, but the latest Invicta show in Houston last week was pretty incredible, and he really gives a great introduction to the show. However, I still think that Tommy’s funniest video of all time is this one of Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg commentating on the EA UFC game’s glitches. (Warning: language in these videos is safe for neither work nor children.)

Finally, just a reminder that if you want daily links to science stories I find interesting (some of which I included above), “like” the VM page on Facebook!