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Friday, April 10, 2015

Misinterpreting facts to promote fear

Did you know that turkeys are actually native to Mexico and the Americas? 
At least five people forwarded me an article on Gawker, penned by Yvette d'Entremont (aka ScienceBabe), dressing down the profiteering fear mongering by Vani Hari (self promoted "Food Babe" - no, I will not send her any additional traffic). At least two have plainly asked me if I helped write it. I assure you, I had nothing to do with it, though I sympathize with the sentiment. Hari has since posted a response chock full of ad hominem and evasion, and the media blogosphere as taken to reporting this as a type of blogger vs blogger fight. Just portraying it as any sort of "debate" lends false equivalence to to both authors, when in fact science is squarely represented by d'Entremont.

In Orac's blog, Respectful Insolence, he alludes to the entertaining nature of the virtual dressing down Vani Hari is getting straight in the title. Aside from recapping Hari's numerous historical demonstrations of scientific ignorance, and accompanying arrogance against being educated, he did point out a small tactic she uses: citing a scientific study based on peripheral relevance, and overinterpreting this proof of validity. In this case, she pulls out some preliminary cell culture papers to imbue kale with exaggerated cancer protective properties. This underhanded tactic cloaks an outlandish claim with unearned veracity, but Hari isn't alone in doing so.

Over interpreting science articles are common stock in "scienciness" articles in mainstream media.  Extrapolating from a few observations, one can paint up speculations of miracle cures or doomsday scenarios, even as the actual scientists publishing responsibly note restraint in interpretation. Last November, I noted that respected science journalist Maryn McKenna used such tenuous justification in linking "antibiotic-free" turkeys (if they even exist) to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. Hari is certainly a relatively easy fraud to spot given her loud and obvious trumpeting, but we should hold our other popular communicators responsible, particularly if they potentially profit from creating fear.

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