The weird science of believing everything you read on the Internet

A few nights ago, I found myself arguing with a friend over Vani Hari (more famously known as “Food Babe”), her intentions, and whether or not she was doing more harm than good. Hari is a blogger and activist known as the “Jenny McCarthy of food,” one who relies on scientific ignorance to spread misinformation on the Internet. She’s well-known for her opposition to microwaves, beer, and vaccinations, despite having less than reputable facts on the subjects.

“She’s using pseudo-scientific language to scare people,” I said. “She is a fearmonger.”

“But if she gets one mom to quit feeding their kids sugary crap, isn’t that a good thing?” he countered.

In short: No, I don’t think it is. While it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that children should be fed a healthy diet of whole, unprocessed foods, using overly-sensationalized, overly-simplistic arguments to achieve that goal does more harm than good. By demonizing “chemicals” and using scientific terms to scare, Hari and others like her are not only creating a culture of chemophobia, they are also promoting scientific illiteracy and dumbing down the population.

One of the problems with the Internet is that, if you try hard enough, you can find someone who agrees with any opinion, no matter how outlandish. You won’t just find rants on Kimye’s parenting style or a dissection of the “Top 100 albums of 2014” but also commentary on complex, scientific topics like autism, GMOs, vaccines, and nutrition. Even fundamental scientific principles such as evolution and the Big Bang are up for debate on the Web (and at the Creation Museum), even though there is no debate to be had in either case.

We live in a culture that prizes fast information and instant gratification. Pithy memes and listicles are the preferred way to communicate. When people do click on a full-length article, they’re probably not reading it, at least not all the way through. (According to an analysis of Slate articles by Chartbeat, most people read about half of any given article.) When competing for a reader’s time on the Internet, flashy headlines and quick, easily read data seem necessary, sometimes taking priority over accuracy and thoroughness.

This isn’t an issue a huge issue when dealing with lighter topics such as entertainment news, but it poses a problem for online science communicators, who have the unenviable task of remaining credible, accurate, and measured, all while trying to make their content “Internet friendly.”

Make no mistake, the Internet is where most Americans go to get their scientific information. According to the NSF’s most recent Science and Engineering Indicators pollSince at least 2001, the Internet has also been the most common resource that respondents say they would use to seek out information about specific scientific issues. In 2012, the highest ever percentage of Americans (63 percent) said they would go online to find information about a specific S&T issue. Another 17 percent said they would turn to television and just 3% said they would use newspapers.”

There are many fantastic scientific resources online, but there are also a lot of special interest sites that use pseudo-scientific garbage to forward a predetermined agenda or sell a product (or mine your data). As of today, if one Googles “GMO” the first entry available (after the GMO Wikipedia page) is a link to The Non-GMO Project’s “GMO Facts” page. This is not a scientifically credible source. Not only does the information rely on sweeping claims, but there are no sources cited and no links to substantiate any of the statements being made. If one clicks on the “GMO Science” tab, they are invited to download a booklet titled “GMO Myths and Truths,” but only after filling out a form with one’s name, email address, and country of residence.

A scientist (or someone who is well-versed in the scientific method) would quickly recognize that this site was very one-sided and conduct further research to see who this book was written by, what their credentials were, and what research had been conducted to substantiate the claims being made. They would also search for opposing views, instead of stopping at one source and considering their question answered.

However, the average American may not think to do that, especially if they haven’t had formal training in the scientific method. In an age where one’s questions are easily answered by a quick search on a phone, we have become accustomed to accepting the first answer we see in Google’s search results, but that doesn’t work for science. Science is (and should be) tedious, thorough, and decidedly not flashy. Science can be boring, and that’s OK, but boring doesn’t do well on the internet.

The good news is that most Americans like science and scientists and are in favor of research that “advances the frontiers of knowledge,” according to a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation of more than 2,200 people. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm doesn’t translate into scientific literacy: 1 in 4 of these same Americans surveyed were unaware that the earth orbited the sun.

With bloggers and special interest sites using scientific-sounding language to manipulate readers, it can be hard to tell the difference between credible material and propaganda. Readers need to think carefully when evaluating online sources, lest they find themselves falling prey to the latest hype (sodas sweetened with Stevia) or dangerous misinformation (the false vaccine/autism connection).

Personal blogs aren’t necessarily unreliable, but they often include a narrow range of resources that selectively reinforce the author’s view. On both blogs and websites, it’s common to see studies simplified and sometimes twisted for attention and clicks, or out of genuine misunderstanding. Many laypeople don’t realize that a site citing “scientists” or “researchers” without giving specific names or study details may not be the most reliable of sources.

Last year, findings from an undergraduate research project suggested that “high fat/sugar foods and drugs of abuse trigger brain addictive processes to the same degree and lend support to the hypothesis that maladaptive eating behaviors contributing to obesity can be compared to drug addiction.” Because Oreos were used during the project, the story was reported with headlines like “Oreos May Be As Addictive As Cocaine” and “Study: Oreos Are More Addictive Than Cocaine.” At first glance this may not seem like too great a stretch, except for the fact that neither of these headlines correctly represent the findings of the study.

And, of course, pseudoscience is often used to sell consumers something, whether it’s badly produced books on GMOs or products with huge distribution manufactured by major companies. Though some bloggers would like you to believe that only big food companies like General Mills employ dishonest language to gain your patronage, smaller, “health-conscious” corporations frequently do the same.

While Kellogg’s attempts to convince consumers that Fruit Loops are a good source of whole grains, Bob’s Red Mill claims that their baking soda is extracted by “a simple water process that uses no chemicals,” a statement that is not only physically impossible, but contradicts itself: Water (like all other matter) is a chemical.

Pepsi and Coke have both released Stevia-sweetened colas in an attempt to appeal to the “all-natural” crowd, which is ironic because, while Stevia is derived from a leaf, the reality is that these beverages are being sweetened by steviol glycosides, those compounds present in the leaf which are responsible for its sweetness. The glycosides are extracted in a lab and purified through a variety of chemical processes, some of which utilize benzene, chloroform, or hexane. 

Both “all-natural” and “chemical free” are meaningless phrases, regulated by no one and employed solely as a marketing tool.

Even if bloggers like Vani Hari have the purest of intentions when it comes to our children, promoting science and chemicals as evil forces under the thumbs of giant food corporations does harm to America’s collective intelligence. Science is not an entity; science is a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or evil, and in Hari’s quest to slay “evil” food giants, she has become an enemy or rational thought and calm, reasonable discussion.

Sure, pumpkin spice lattes aren’t good for you, but we should be able to arrive at that conclusion without falsely claiming the presence of carcinogens or incorrectly presenting the role of ammonia in a chemical process. So while I’m completely on board with feeding children whole foods, I am completely against using science to scare people into making “better choices.”

Twenty-five percent of Americans aren’t aware that the earth orbits the sun. We cannot afford more scientific ignorance.

Photo via Coqui the Chef/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)