In late January, a group of students pursuing graduate degrees in food science published an open letter to Vani Hari, aka The Food Babe, an Internet activist who has amassed a huge following by attacking what she perceives as threats to people’s health from the foods they eat. Hari is not a scientist. Not everyone has to be a scientist to have a legitimate opinion about the role of science in society, but what scientists (and many citizen scientists) do know is that if you are going to make scientific claims, especially claims that are often frightening, you should make sure that you get the science right; moreover, you should be prepared to provide evidence for your claims and to answer your critics, whether they are scientists or not. The only way that will happen is if those interested in evidence “stand up for science.” This is what Sense About Science USA is all about: Asking for evidence and standing up for science. So, we asked the students—all but one pursuing PhDs in food science—to talk about why wrote their letter, what they thought about Hari’s response, and for their thoughts on the way food is covered in the media. They responded jointly.
SAS USA: What was the motivation and the process behind your letter to Hari?
It is rather frustrating for us, as students of food science, to see misinformation about food get so much attention. We were motivated to reach out to Ms. Hari because the public deserves balanced, non-sensationalized information on the science of food. It became impossible for us to sit and watch her attack our profession, especially since it is clear she does not really know what it is all about.
When writing the letter, we did not want to belittle Hari because her work echoes concerns about food that consumers legitimately have. We want to try and help change the tone of the food dialogue from one that encourages fear to one that strives for understanding.
What struck you about her response?
We are very pleased that Ms. Hari read our letter and chose to respond. It is unfortunate that she did not allow for comments on her response, as this contradicts the open dialogue we are trying to start. While her response lacked a scientific foundation, it has opened the doors for others to join the conversation.
Your letter could be read as a criticism of the news media for not doing a great job of holding up Hari’s claims to scrutiny, or for not delving deeply enough into the science of food science. Thoughts?
Our letter was definitely not intended as a criticism of the news media. We simply wanted to advocate for good scientific communication. It is important that new discoveries are made public, but they need to be viewed as a snapshot in time, meaning we need to look at each study in the context of the greater body of research that is already in existence. One study is not the be all, end all.
Your letter could also read as a recognition that food science has done a woeful job of explaining itself to the public. Thoughts?
In short, yes. The landscape of the food dialogue is incredibly complex because there are so many different people contributing to it: chefs, foodies, health enthusiasts, and the like. Unfortunately, the number of scientists joining in the conversation has been proportionally low, and it is time for that to change.
Our food system is not static; it changes constantly as scientific knowledge is advanced. Additionally, the public’s interest in food will forever follow trends making it hard for anyone to see the bigger picture. These aspects of food present a unique challenge to scientific communication. Joining in the conversation is likely unappealing to many researchers for this reason, but that truly is a problem. The public is asking valid questions, yet they are mostly receiving answers from individuals who disregard the scientific process.
In light of the media often failing to ask for evidence on behalf of its audience, do you see a growing opportunity and need for scientists, especially grad students and early career scientists, to stand up for science by engaging in journalistic communication?
There is definitely a need for scientists at all points in their career to effectively engage with the public. People see value in science when it is communicated effectively. It is interesting how some media outlets forgo actual food experts for individuals like the Food Babe when commentary is needed. This sentiment has been touched on by some recent blog posts on Science Meets Food. We have noticed growing interest among our peers to participate in scientific outreach, and we hope that it comes to fruition.
Would you say that young scientists like yourselves have a different attitude to science communication than older generations?
There are some established food scientists that are especially keen on science communication. It is our hope that this number continues to increase as the next generation of scientists begin their careers. We have grown up in an era where we are saturated with social media making it extremely easy to have a far-reaching voice, so it is hard to say whether we have a different attitude towards science communication or just more effective channels for it. The fear of putting one’s credibility on the line, especially as a graduate student or new professional, will likely persist, but hopefully more scientists will become open to engaging with the public as new ways to do so emerge.
Finally, what would you say to a non-scientist when they see claims like those made by Hari?
Take it with a grain of salt. Hari, and those like her, get no benefit from presenting a balanced argument. Many of them are just trying to sell books. Since the science of food involves multiple disciplines, we encourage people to research all sides of an argument and seek out credible sources of information to better inform their own choices.