Pseudoscience and Strawberries
Those who now me know my opinion on ‘Wellness Bloggers’. Especially those that claim miraculous things from diet that isn’t backed up with any Science. The internet is a great place to find some lovely recipes and some great training advice. This though needs to be done with the caveat ‘Don’t believe everything you read’. Just because it’s got a flashy web page or a you tube Video does not mean it’s Science. Anyway I read this great opinion piece in yesterday’s Guardian from Hadley Freeman which I’ll publish here with the link.
Last decade my absolute favourite genre of journalism was: “Here, look at this rich person’s fabulous house.” You know the sort of articles: a journalist trots along to a wealthy person’s ridiculous house in Oxfordshire / the Hamptons / the Caribbean and writes a suitably gushy piece about how this person’s purchase of a £30,000 terracotta pot for their living room proves their moral superiority and, really, why don’t we all cover our bedrooms in customised de Gournay wallpaper ($650 per panel)?
But times change and journalism changes with it, and after the recession £30,000 terracotta pots began to look a bit infra dig. So a new genre of journalism has risen up in response to a growing trend, and it is one I also enjoy immensely, albeit in a slightly different way. Now, the articles I relish most are ones debunking quacky pseudoscience bloggers.
A classic of its kind will be published this week in the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine which has an interview with self-described “wellness guru”, 23-year-old Belle Gibson, who claimed in a blog to have cured her terminal brain cancer by cutting out gluten and sugar. Her blog spawned an app, which was downloaded more than 300,000 times, followed by an inevitable book, The Whole Pantry, featuring photos of brown food photographed in a perfect rustic kitchen.
So far, so zeitgeist. But there was one problem: Gibson had never had cancer. In the magazine interview, Gibson admits “None of it’s true.” As the magazine puts it, unimprovably: “She says she is passionate about avoiding gluten, dairy and coffee, but doesn’t really understand how cancer works.”
Gibson is not the first “wellness blogger” to be caught out by her own ignorance, and she certainly won’t be the last. Wellness bloggers are increasingly numerous, astonishingly popular and embarrassingly feted by the media which never can resist attractive young women (who make up the most prominent members of this demographic) talking about food and being photographed nibbling on a strawberry. They write blogs about healthy living, which invariably means randomly cutting out various food groups and gluten (although how many of them actually know what gluten is remains to be ascertained), even though most of them have no nutritional training beyond feeding themselves. They run stylised Instagram accounts showcasing their food and how attractive they look eating it, and they write in a chummy “just sayin’ it like it is, guys” style so suited to the internet. They usually have a story about how they fell ill and cured themselves through their diet. They often claim that the modern food industry is killing us all and they always suggest that if you follow their instructions to the letter you, too, will be as gorgeous as they are, and maybe even able to nibble a strawberry as sexily to boot.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog Goop, with its promotion of detox diets and juice fasts, is a version of the type. Ella Woodward, the daughter of former Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward, is another example with her blog Deliciously Ella, and she has been profiled adoringly in London’s Evening Standard and photographed with the requisite strawberry. In the US, Vani Hari is better known as the Food Babe and she has garnered a huge following by making claims that non-organic apples can be more fattening than hot fudge sundaes (something to do with the buildup of pesticides in your body) and that bread is made out of yoga mats (it’s not). It may not surprise you to learn that Hari, a former financial consultant, appears to have absolutely no medical or nutritional qualifications.
Gillian McKeith, deliciously debunked by Ben Goldacre in this paper in 2007, is a kind of grandmother to today’s wellness bloggers. The former actress and Playboy model Jenny McCarthy also contributed some DNA to them with her absolute certainty in herself despite her lack of medical training. “The university of Google is where I got my degree from,” McCarthy has said, repeatedly. Since 2007, McCarthy has claimed that her son, Evan, developed autism as a result of vaccinations, and she insists that autism can be cured by healthy eating. McCarthy has been repeatedly cited as a major factor in the anti-vaccination movement in the States, which in 2012 led to a spike in whooping cough cases followed by a measles outbreak in Disneyland in California earlier this year.
McCarthy has harped repeatedly on the idea that the medical establishment is not to be trusted – only outsiders like her speak the truth, and it’s a mentality that appeals to anti-big business liberals and anti-science conservatives. In Orange County in California, some schools have reported that up to 60% of five year olds are not fully vaccinated, while Republicans have seized on the issue as being about the rights of the individual over the greater good. Presidential candidate Rand Paul, a medical school graduate, has said that vaccinations can lead to “mental disorders” and should be “voluntary”.
Wellness bloggers harp on a very similar theme, suggesting that the food industry is not to be trusted and that anyone who questions their dubious claims is probably in the pay of Big Pharma or Big Food. This is a favourite technique of the Food Babe, who has made disproven claims that her detractors have dodgy ties to chemical manufacturers. When the New Yorker’s science correspondent Michael Specter questioned Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva’s spiritual campaign against GM crops, Shiva suggested that Specter is “sponsored by the GMO movement”. The more they are debunked – and the Food Babe, for one, has been so repeatedly and brilliantly – the more they are validated in their belief that they are speaking the truth that an unspecified They doesn’t want us to hear.
To be an inexperienced, uneducated outsider is now to be a trustworthy expert: it’s a trick familiar to anyone who has watched the rise of the Tea Party and Ukip. It’s easy to mock wellness bloggers and their fattening apples, but their uneducated bletherings about food and health are, at best, irresponsible and, at heart, immoral. They’re right: what we eat is important, which is why it’s important people with qualifications beyond an Instagram account educate us about it. Honestly, these bloggers make me sentimental for the days when a £30,000 terracotta pot, not a gluten-free diet, was a lifestyle statement.