walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

The Trouble With Debunkery

This time, it's someone named Yvette d'Entremont over on Gawker taking down "The Food Babe" Vani Hari.

Here is a paragraph:

"This is how Hari demonized the harmless yet hard-to-pronounce azodicarbonamide, or as she deemed it, the "yoga mat chemical," which is yes, found in yoga mats and also in bread, specifically Subway sandwich bread, a discovery Hari bombastically trumpeted on her website. However, as the science-minded among us understand, a substance can be used for more than one thing perfectly safely, and it doesn't mean that your bread is made of a yoga mat if it happens to contain azodicarbonamide, which is FDA-approved as a dough-softening agent. It simply means your bread is composed of chemicals, much like everything else you eat."

This is contextualized with vinegar (look, you can clean with it! also put it in salad dressing) and examples of chemicals I cannot pronounce and therefore are scary. At no point does d'Entremont explain why countries like Australia and organizations like WHO have warnings about azodicarbonamide, with explanations like, "might cause asthma".

If you are going to debunk somebody debunking something, try to make sure that before you pronounce something safe -- even something GRAS -- you aren't going to trip over respectable organizations like WHO coming down on the Maybe Not Safe side. You can either pick less controversial examples, or you can provide an explanation for why WHO is also full of shit on the subject of azodicarbonamide, which is, honestly, going to be a much tougher lift than someone who uses the tag "The Food Babe".

Look, I get there are some nutty claims out there. I do. But I _also_ know that this kind of debunkery approach has been used for evil before, and it's important to actually get it right.

ETA: Further poking around in d'Entremont's post shows her to be wildly misrepresenting Hari's arguments in numerous ways that are utterly characteristic of dishonest commentators (Hari has pointed out funding for some people who have attempted to discredit her, and has pointed out sexist and derogatory remarks they have made about her personally; d'Entremont characterizes Hari's complaints about these people as "because they use facts").

I have no idea whether either of these people on balance is useful to listen to. They both sound like they have honed their positions to appeal to an audience that prefers partisanship.

ETAYA: Still further poking suggests that the biggest concern with azo is probably the occupational hazard side of it -- that is, if we're going to deprecate it, it's not the ingestion of it at the consumer food level that's the problem, it's the workers stuck breathing it in the factory part of the problem. Not unlike whatever the hell that stuff is in microwave popcorn that messes with people's lungs, but is probably not that big of a deal at the consumer end.
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