The Food Babe As Rhetorician


The babe has responded to the recent NPR piece that I mentioned in my previous post. The response is fascinating, to say the least, so much so that it’s worth a deeper look. It’s a classic example of rhetorical bait-and-switch, of  obfuscation, and of what psychologists call “projection.”

 The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

First, however, let me say this: Hari notes, and includes page shots of, icky, ugly, sexist and violent rhetorical attacks on her. I’m female and I neither support, nor condone, nor engage in attacks based on gender or ones that rely on threats of rape, death, or other violence. 

Yes, in my previous post, I mentioned her obvious use of makeup. But I did so in a specific context: she was invited to participate in a NYT “debate” over the meaning of the word “natural” as it’s used in food labeling here in the United States. It struck me as comical that a woman who cares so much about what goes in her stomach has no problem slathering crap on her face. But hey, that’s just me and my weird sense of logic at work.

On to the heart of the matter. Hari’s “defense” is long but the gist is that she and her “army” have brought the food industry to heel. Big companies have stopped using various apparently dangerous ingredients because of her work. And now those companies and their lackeys are running scared and retaliating by attacking Hari and her work.

But . . . let’s take a closer look. 

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Hari opens by applauding changes in the nation’s diet and food system, noting that 

smart organic companies are now on the general public’s radar and the organic food movement is continuing to grow. They do the right thing and they deserve our business.
 The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

What, precisely, is a “smart” organic company, as opposed to a “dumb” organic company? Does she mean the ones owned by General Mills or General Foods? Does she mean the ones that throw around words like “natural”? Does she mean ones that are independently owned? 

I’m not sure. I doubt that she knows either. In any case, from there matters move downhill. She writes:

There’s a group of aggressive scientists, biased doctors, skeptics, agribusiness publicists, lobbyists (and their anonymous webpages and social media sites), along with in some cases, well intended but misinformed people (influenced by propaganda) attacking our work, other consumer advocacy groups, my partners, my friends and me, personally.

Where should I start? Yes, many reputable, trained scientists have called her out for her obvious ignorance of science in general and chemistry in particular. She has no training in either. As a result, many of her claims are simply wrong. So: Are the scientists who’ve challenged and corrected her mistakes “aggressive”? I don’t know. What’s “aggressive” in the eyes of Vani Hari? Seems to me that the scientists who challenge her are no more and no less aggressive than Hari herself.

Then there are the “biased doctors.” Biased? I’d ask “What the hell does she mean?” but I’m smart enough to know that what she means is: they don’t agree with her. 

 The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

Okay. Fine. But I doubt those doctors are any more “biased” than ones she cites in her essay, including Dr. Joseph Mercola, another snake-oil salesman who has received three, count ‘em three, warnings from the FDA about the false/misleading claims he makes. But apparently he’s not “biased” against Hari and therefore he’s more credible than those who are “biased” against her.

Next on her list: Skeptics. Again: Hmmm. Vani Hari is a professional skeptic, right? She questions what’s in her food. She’s skeptical about the food supply. But maybe there are different categories of skeptics? Those who agree with her and those that don’t? I dunno.

“Agribusiness publicists, lobbyists (and their anonymous webpages and social media sites).” Lobbyists? That’s what Hari is, right? She earns money by lobbying for legislation to support her ideas. As for the “anonymous” webpages and social media sites . . . . Well, nuthin’ to be said about that. She provides no links to said sites, and if they’re anonymous, then I don’t know what they are and Hari offer no enlightenment on them.

And then there are the “well intended but misinformed people (influenced by propaganda)” who attack Hari’s work and her army, an army composed, of course, entirely of “well intended but misinformed people (influenced by propaganda)”.

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 The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

See what she’s done so far? In a single sentence, she’s relied on loaded words (“attacking”; “aggressive”; “propaganda”) to distract the reader, hoping, presumably, that the reader won’t notice that she’s said nothing of value, avoided any facts, and, worse, charged others with doing precisely what she herself does on a daily basis. Linguistic prestidigitation.

Further along in the essay, she writes: 

These bullies have begun to band together to attack and terrorize media publications that feature our hard work and they’ve even started an unethical ruthless campaign to write “one star” reviews about my book that isn’t even released yet attempting to silence new investigations and research into the food industry. They even try to intimidate and outright lie in order to advance their message – taking games right from the Tobacco industry playbook creating a smear campaign against me. 

Whoa! People are terrorizing media publications? Wow. That’s awful. Too bad there’s no further information about this terrorist activity. I’d like to know more. But I’ll have to take her [inflammatory] word for it. 

An “unethical ruthless campaign” to encourage people to write one-star reviews of her forthcoming book? Again: Wow. Maybe those folks took lessons from Hari’s own campaigns to “terrorize” companies like Anheuser-Busch and Subway into doing her bidding. You know? Those campaigns based on bad science, misinformation, and bullying. Personally, I think her campaigns are “unethical” and “ruthless,” but hey — that’s me. 

 The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

And can you imagine someone trying to “intimidate and outright lie in order to advance their message”? My god, that’s awful! But again, I’m guessing Hari’s opponents learned from her. Because that’s what she does every day on her website.

From there, Hari moves to this:

Part of the reason I am responding now is because their messages have started to infiltrate the mainstream media. Seemingly reputable news organizations like NPR (in a blog post titled “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out”) even linked to the hate groups – quoting one of their spokespeople and repeated their ridiculous and biased messages as if they have any merit. 

“Infiltrate.” Really? How does one “infiltrate” mainstream media? And isn’t the job of media to present more than one point of view? Or . . . was NPR’s report an example of  “infiltration” simply because NPR chose to question her influence? 

Oh, but wait! NPR is only a “seemingly reputable news organization.” While Hari’s website is, well, apparently a TRULY reputable site. I gather, based on Hari’s comments, that the evidence for NPR’s lack of credibility is that the piece in question included links to “hate groups” and quoted someone from one of those groups. 

But it’s not clear what these “hate groups” are. Yes, the NPR piece includes links to sites and essays that debunk  Hari’s work. NPR also links to a trio of Food Babe parodies: Science Babe, Chow Babe, and Food Hunk. And they’re parodies. With, of course, a point.

Again, it’s not clear who/what the hate groups are.

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See what's going on here? Loaded language. No links to evidence. Accusing others of the kinds of dubious, unethical, fear-mongering actions in which she herself engages. 

Hari continues in this vein at length, and I don’t want to run through her entire “defense.” Presumably you get the point. 

But if you can stand just a little more from me:

She claims to have “inspired” Chick-fil-A to stop using antibiotic-fed poultry. But . . . dozens of groups have been tackling antibiotics for decades. Decades, people, decades. Hari is a late entrant in that crusade (she only launched her "career" in 2012), and it’s not clear that she, and she alone, inspired Chick-fil-A to act. 

She names three more physicians who support her work, but includes a link to just one of them, Mark Hyman. (And yeah, I’m too lazy to look up the other two.) So I visited Hyman’s site, where my bullshit detector went ballistic, and from there I headed to Wikipedia where I learned, surprise!, that Hyman is regarded as a quack by reputable MDs. 

Elsewhere in her post, Hari writes: 

Now, the CDC estimates that trans fats are linked to 7,000 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks per year! 

Hari’s text linked to the CDC report. I clicked and read and . . . you guessed it: The report says nothing about trans fats being “linked to 7,000 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks per year.” The report does state that:

Further reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fat could prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the U.S.

There are two crucial contextual words in that sentence: “artificial” and “could.” Nowhere does the report indicate that trans fats are “linked” to or even causally connected to heart attacks and death. 

 The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

As to her claims that she relies on scientific expertise, consider this. In one paragraph, she notes that “a recent study out of Purdue University stated that children are exposed to up to 15 times more artificial food dyes than the dose approved by the FDA.” She links to said study. 

So I followed the link to the academic journal that published the study and read the abstract. And by god, immediately below that abstract is the title of a piece published in the same journal. Title of that second piece?  “Stevens et al Article on Food Color Additives Analysis Is Invalid and Misleading.” (There was no abstract for the second piece. It was likely a comment essay. I’d have to pay to read the piece and Hari isn’t worth that much trouble.)

There’s more in Hari’s essay. Much more, dressed up in dodgy, sketchy, inaccurate detail. As an Orwellian rhetorician, Hari is good. Very good. That much I will give her. 

Some of her critics challenge her science and facts but concede that she sincerely wants to help people. 

I’m not that generous. UPDATE: But . . . I probably should be.