Recently, we raised the question of how political journalists should deal with candidates for president who mouth the quackery of climate change denial. But the problem of how to write about pseudoscience goes much broader.
In part that’s because quack science has penetrated so deeply into public discourse — witness the huge audience tuning in to the egregious Dr. Oz. There’s also the impulse of journalists at major news organizations to give all sides of a question equal play, regardless of their credibility.
But last week Keith Kloor of Discover Magazine and Julia Belluz of Vox, in similar articles, examined yet another ethical issue: How to report on popular purveyors of scientific nonsense without ended up giving them even more exposure — that is, spreading the disease of misinformation in the process of trying to wipe it out.
The immediate topic of both pieces is the work of a spectacularly successful new dispenser of pseudoscientific hogwash. She’s Vani Hari, who blogs writes, and makes public appearances under the moniker “The Food Babe.” Hari has parlayed her photogenic appeal and earnest personality into a great, and presumably very profitable, business even though, as Kloor writes, “she seems immune to facts.”
She’s worse than that, actually: Under the guise of offering a “common sense” approach to food choices, she actively distributes misinformation. She attacks food additives because they’re “chemicals.” She told the Atlantic, “there is just no acceptable level of chemical to ingest, ever,” but seemingly fails to understand that pretty much everything we ingest is a chemical, including dihydrogen monoxide (water).
”Belluz argues, sagely, that we should “avoid giving equal weight to both sides of an argument that aren’t actually equal according to science.” Case in point: climate change, which is accepted by the vast majority of scientific experts. Nor should journalists elevate every ginned-up scientific “controversy” into one warranting intensive debunking — that’s a prime means by which fringe claims gain a foothold in popular consciousness. The media should reserve its fire for pseudoscience promoted by public figures and government institutions.
That’s good advice, for the woods are full of charlatans just waiting for a chance to loose their fear-mongering theories upon a willing public, and the press shouldn’t be providing them with a springboard.
Read more in the Los Angeles Times