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How to Engage with Popular Messengers who Exploit Fears?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 8, 2015 5:41 PM


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If you are late to the Food Babe phenomenon, by which I mean the rise of a food activist named Vani Hari, there are no shortage of recent media articles exploring her fame. The Atlantic profileis among the best, because it is not judgmental and it gives voice to the science-based critics who are exasperated by her influence. The journalistic fascination with Hari is reflected in The Atlantic's subhead:

How one woman mobilized an army against food additives, GMOs, and all else not "natural"

What we have not seen--to my knowledge--is a story explaining why that "army," consisting of a very large number of people, was already primed for action. There are hints of it in The Atlantic piece, such as this quote from University of Florida horticulturist Kevin Folta:

Vani is very good at marketing herself and telling people what they want to hear.

And this from a former nurse practitioner writing for Elle magazine is also spot-on:

Hari is charismatic and likable, so when she states something as a fact to a reader who is worried, has no science background, and just wants to feed their babies or their own body the right things, she hooks them.

The opening to an NPRprofile on Hari is another hint:

In an age when consumers have become increasingly suspicious of processed food, the Internet has become a powerful platform for activists who want to hold Big Food accountable.

Actually, we live in an age where lots of people have become suspicious of many things tagged by activists--and the media--as harmful. It could be WiFi, cellphones, ATM receipts, fluoridated water, GMOs, your couch. Pick your poison, mobilize your army--against Monsanto, against fluoridated water, against the ingredients found in just about every product. New parents are especially susceptible to the "toxins all around us," as Scientific American (!) termed the "hidden health threat" from "chemicals in everyday objects." How is that many of us have become convinced of the toxicity of modern day life? That is a topic for another day. For now, I want to point out that the media has played an essential role in priming our chemophobia. That's the background context for the "yoga mat chemical" frenzy and other public health scares set off by the Food Babe & company. Vani Hari doesn't exist in a vacuum. She's just come along at the right time. So I have mixed feelings about the withering Gawker evisceration that has many Food Babe critics chortling. She may be "the worst assault on science on the internet," as Gawker alleges, but then again, the pseudoscience runs thick on the internet, which thankfully has prompted an army of science bloggers dedicated to countering it. I am conflicted about the Food Babe takedown because 1) she is deserving of it and 2) she is merely a popular symbol of something much larger than herself. That would be a creeping dread of "common chemicals" that On Earth magazine identified several years ago as poisoning a generation of kids. As a parent of two young boys, I can relate to this outsized fear without giving into it. The tricky part is addressing it in a way that doesn't alienate the people who are most gripped by it. In short, how to be respectful of sincere concerns while also taking the air out of them? So I get the misgivings about the Gawker piece expressed by one science communicator.

@mem_somerville attacking her is not going to make her stop or change minds. Article feeds confirmation bias @sciencequiche — Keegan Sawyer (@drkeegansawyer) April 7, 2015

This is the same problem public health communicators are faced with when addressing vaccine fears. The problem for many of us who write about these concerns--whether they are of GMOs, pesticides, or the chemicals in your couch-- is that we end up taking on the most forceful, and yes, exploitative, messengers of these concerns. Some of these messengers are not just overnight sensations or web populists, like the Food Babe. They are highly regarded NGOs or thought leaders who are invested with a moral authority and have the respectful ear of many, including the media. I discussed their role in a recent talk at Cornell, which I'll elaborate on in a follow-up post tomorrow. Meanwhile, a question to ponder: How do you communicate to a popular and deeply flawed messenger of health concerns, such as a Dr. Oz or a Vani Hari, who has a large, built-in audience and who seems immune to facts?

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