There was a great article on Gawker recently about the Food Babe blog, calling out her bad science.

Now I’ve never come across the Food Babe blog, as a scientist working in agriculture I don’t think our circles mix. The article is really interesting though. I do follow It’s Okay To Be Smart, though, and Joe posted a really interesting question in his reblog of the article.

Anyway, I shared the above article on my personal Facebook page yesterday, and one of my friends left a comment that really made me think. By calling her out, by trashing her ideas and shining light on her unscientific fearmongering, are we actually helping her? To paraphrase my friend Scott, by using scientific expertise as a bullying tactic and by spreading this story around in the Name of Science™, could this be the best PR she could ask for? Does this play into her hands, The Food Babe vs. The Establishment?

Misinformation like this needs to be called out. People should not be lied to and made to fear science. But do articles like this help her more than they hurt? How do we continue to battle misinformation without creating martyrs for the misinformed?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have another component of the question I want to ask. Last week, io9, Gawker’s sister site, posted an article titled “Your Pet Rabbit Hates You”. That was the title on the page, the title on Twitter, the key to making people click on the article. It certainly made me click.

The article itself is an interesting piece on tonic immobility, where some species of animals go immobile when placed on their backs. Jones (1986) describes tonic immobility as an unlearned response, e.g. instinctive, where the animal goes catatonic-like state with reduced reaction to external stimuli.  People like to show off tonic immobility, and it does have a place in animal management, but it’s also related to fear, either causing it, or caused by it (Gallup, 1977) – as a side note, I like the fact that one of the more recent studies linking tonic immobility to a personality trait uses Bayesian statistics. Consider my brain melted (Edelaar et al, 2012).

And this is really just the point the io9 article is making – that people who turn their rabbits upside down are subjecting it to unnecessary and unpleasant stress. That’s good for rabbit welfare on the whole, right? It gives people evidence to come to their own conclusions.

But that title, “Your Rabbit Probably Hates You”, immediately pits the article (and ergo the science) against the rabbit caretaker. Against the people whose behaviour your are trying to change for the good of the animal. It’s what I said last week, it’s what I said in the MOOC, it’s what I’ve been saying for ages.

If you want to improve an animal’s welfare, you have to be an ally of their owner. This smug, click-bait style reporting of scientific news innately pits the uninformed audience against the facts. Hungerford and Volk (2005) talk about the importance of empowering people when getting them to change their behaviours regarding the environment. By giving people solutions and tapping into their attention to act, you may find it easier to change their behaviours.

What if, instead of “Your Rabbit Hates You”, people saw “Your Rabbit Will Love You Even More If . . .”

What if, instead of “The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Shit,” people saw: “The Evidence Behind Food Claims”.

Not as clickworthy, possibly, but would it help people change their behaviours?


Sam Hardman · April 8, 2015 at 7:43 pm

I agree with you about the rabbits absolutely. People who keep rabbits as pets will want to do what is best for them and most would probably be horrified to learn that something they were doing was causing their pet stress or fear. Attacking them for it is therefore not helpful since they thought they were doing the right thing.

With the food babe thing I’m not so sure. Even if she didn’t know what she was saying was wrong when she started she surely must do now and yet she continues, probabaly because their is a lot of money in it for her. I’m not sure what else scientists can do about this other than showing point by point why she is wrong. She reminds me a lot of “Dr” Gillian McKeith who made similar claims about food and who was criticised by Ben Goldacre in the Guardian a few years ago.

    jilly · April 8, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    Yes its probably not such a handy comparison, I also think people tend to be more protective over others (partners, kids and pets) than themselves

Kathy · April 8, 2015 at 8:58 pm

May I send this to a friend who is constantly posting anti-Food Babe articles?

Kathy · April 8, 2015 at 9:11 pm

By the way, my friend has a PhD in ag/animal science, too, as I do, but she specializes in dairy products. Maybe we hear more about Food Babe because we’re on the other side of “the pond” from you? 🙂

    jilly · April 8, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Possibly! I might also just be ignorant of foodie type stuff …

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