Reporting on quacks and pseudoscience: The problem for journalists

“Food Babe” Vani Hari in a recent appearance on CBS News. (CBS)

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

Categories: Climate change, Climate science, Media reviews, Nutrition, Opinion/Editorial, Political commentary, Science, US News

Tags: , , ,

7 replies

  1. ”full of charlatans just waiting for a chance to loose their fear-mongering theories” and there it is. There are a lot of twisted people in the world looking for the next sucker to buy into their theories or actions.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent post, Ecantados. There will always be a market for telling gullible people what they want to hear. The same holds true for popular politics and social thinking. Why does The Discovery Channel market “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”? The same reason that A&E markets “Duck Dynasty.” Glamorizing stupidity is profitable–because stupid people like to believe that their stupidity is glamorous and popular. Guilty as charged. Lol.

    Liked by 2 people

    • News Journalists that titillate the intellect of the audience are few and far between. I think that journalist education is leaning more towards teaching controversially, contentious and dumber than dumb subjects and so are the owners of the media outlets

      Thanks and thanks for prettying up my contribution 🙂 I’m such a klutz when it comes to techie stuff sighhh

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t think that our journalism schools are failing society as much as the “free press.” Corporate media is profit driven. So, if the public clamors for stories about hillbilly entrepeneurs intead of the history of the Roman Empire or of Jim Crow laws in America, then, unfortunately, that’s what the media delivers. There will always be a big market for telling people what they want to hear.

        Liked by 2 people

        • True, corporate interests are looking for profits. Yet the quality of the writing leaves a lot to be desire too. Sometimes, the whole article is so convoluted that they almost negate their original theory. Definitely, the headlines are provocative and in many the accuracy is questionable with the writing that follows.

          The comments I’m seeing on some articles, there are more than one reader catching it. It may not be the writer of the article doing the headline but perhaps the editors. They also could be cutting the article into oblivion also.

          There are times, I’ve been able to demolish the whole article with a single sentence. Not really hard when you read the whole thing. I’m not the only one. Some commenters expound at length, Paragraphs in length, making whole articles in dispute of the article’s theory. haha.

          Sometimes, I’m beginning to believe the political articles are written by the politician’s staff. lol

          The ethics/theories/proposals…. though aren’t being missed when a KY politician decides to submit an article. One local KY newspaper is regaled on occasion by either state or Federal politicians. LOL …they inevitably get demolished by the commenters that are obviously a lot smarter than they are. I suppose they forget that KY also is the home of the University of Kentucky curriculum as opposed vis a vis to a local community colleges curriculum…../snicker

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I do not know how I missed this article but it is excellent work.


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