Saturday, April 18, 2015

Food Babe & Dr Oz: The Absence of Critical Thinking

The absence of critical thinking.

It was a bad week for Dr. Oz and The Food Babe.

Dr. Oz had some colleagues publish that he should be fired from his faculty position at Columbia University. Why? because he's not promoting science, and often found to be promoting untested products on his popular television show.

Food Babe also had a rough week because some unknown person who named herself Science Babe took her to task, mocking Food Babe's lack of science (not original mocking but nom de plum allowed objectification).

What do we believe? How can we determine truth in a murky world where everyone is trying to sell us something? Who's side are we on?

Two ingredients are needed:

(a) Critical thinking - the scientific method
(b) Fundamentals of basic science, especially biology

Those ingredients may be partially lacking with Food Babe and Dr Oz, but what's worse is these ingredients are lacking with their audience, the people who are their platform.

Academic Freedom and Dr. Oz
Dr Oz 

Dr Oz is a tenured professor. Tenure is an earned position, a job for life and that entitles the person to express themselves freely. The ability to follow ideas, however fruitless, is earned - after a career proving that you have the chops to be in the world of academia.  No reasonable person knowledgeable about tenured faculty positions wants tenure breeched because some (especially those in the established world of science) don't like that the tenured professor advances. Great science is made by people who push boundaries, and many nonsensical ideas have to be pushed, sometimes they even strike gold. Dr. Oz earned his position, he gets to explore, that is what we want professors to do.

Do you know what is a real problem in academic America? When someone in an academic field publishes falsehood, or nonsense, in a peer reviewed journal, and that nonsense is about a drug that is about to be marketed to thousands of unsuspecting people. Take Vyox, or some of the psychoactive medications - all put forward in peer-reviewed journals, all pushed out by drug companies, and later withdrawn because they were harmful. That's worse.

Consider these two papers that were published, and later retracted from,  peer reviewed  science journals:

Wakefield's paper about MMR vaccine and autism. By publishing nonsense in an academic journal he gave a forum of legitimacy to the anti-vaccination movement - resulting in deaths of infants from pertussis, and an emergence of measles. The paper was retracted, and Wakefield lost his medical license. Wakefield not only published rubbish, but he was doing it to advance a company he was consulting that was making vaccine additives.

Seralini's paper about GMO causing tumors in rats, whose poor data caused a wave of fears about genetically modified organisms. The paper was retracted, but again, this paper is cited by those who are anti-GMO because it is in a peer reviewed publication. It doesn't matter that the conclusions do not fit the data, or that the paper was retracted. The fact that it was published, in a peer reviewed journal, provided a legitimacy to a movement that has no real basis in science - so it claims this one. Then on top of it all, the movement claims there's a cover-up by the company Monsanto (they are easy pickings).

Yet Congress will worry that Dr. Oz is pushing green coffee bean extract for weight loss? Why isn't Congress instead raising the bar for science and critical thinking? Why are they not funding innovative ways to teach children to think critically?

So if you want to waste your bullet on Dr. Oz, it's an easy shot. You will find some of the things he says are nonsense- but all in all he is generally advancing and advocating living a healthier lifestyle, eating better, and exercise. But, to his credit, often on shows he has some leading experts talking about diets - like Dr. John LaPuma, probably my favorite chef doctors in the world.

Dr. Oz isn't the issue. Perhaps the issue is that people are taking some things at face value. If Dr. Oz were to retire suddenly, that doesn't solve the issue of critical thinking among his fan base.

Food Babe 

It's pretty easy to pick on her isn't it? She's written some downright batty things. Some of which she has taken down from her internet sites, but the internet doesn't forget (which means most of us are in trouble). I hope some of the things I've taken down from internet sites doesn't show up - but it will.

Recently she was taken on by someone that can objectify her without seeming like it. Science babe - yes, a name that objectifies and no new criticism. The ability to objectify by saying "she" said it, so it's not bad.

But lets look at what Food Babe has done:  she's made millions aware that food additives that were Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) may not be. She also got people to read labels. Sure some of her ideas are not sound- but did science get us to read labels?

How many people in science have begun a discussion that we should re-evaluate GRAS food additives ? Anyone? Anyone ever think that those additives in food that we've allowed to be there might not be as safe as we thought they were? Did anyone question that there is a dose response curve to all things (including water) and that too much of an item that is GRAS might be an issue? And yet food companies continue to add more of those additives, without testing, freely doing so right under our noses.

Did any of my science buddies ever use their weight in the community to challenge and ask we test the additives that are "GRAS?"

So perhaps we ought to stop with the smugness of trying to take down two people who are in the entertainment business, and work on educating our friends and family. Hell- I can't even convince my brother that climate change is because of human activity.

We have our own backyard to clean up first. Instead of fighting them, and getting in the cheap "below the belt" shots, let's recognize what they are doing, and work to gently correct their views rather than being mean.

We need to make the peer review process open and more transparent.  But when we make pretentious pickings - it is just that: smug, arrogant, and not helpful.

The public wants to know what's real. While we can be dismissive of irrational thinking, what we have to embrace and foster is more critical thinking, more testing, more freedom to push the boundaries.

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