Kavin Senapathy is a writer covering science, health, medicine, parenting, and the intersection of these topics. Her work appears in Slate, SELF Magazine, Forbes, Skeptical Inquirer, SciMoms, and other outlets. She’s a proud “Science Mom” to a 7-year-old and 5-year-old. Here we talk about science and pseudoscience.
The conversation focused on science and pseudoscience in food, and in diet and health and, in turn, the common fads that can continually pop up within recent memory. Of course, to set the stage of the conversation with the wonderful Senapathy is to set the ground, the first stage to set is the difference between science and pseudoscience.
“Pseudoscience can be a powerful weapon in the hands of those who know how to exploit it, primarily because it can sound so credible (and because the demarcation between pseudoscience and science isn’t as black and white as some would like to believe). That’s especially true for food, and unfortunately, it’s not always as clear-cut as separating ‘science’ from ‘pseudoscience,'” Senapathy explained, “Take, for example, the concept of ‘clean’ eating. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot — the FDA only talks about ‘clean’ with regard to sanitation and food safety, and neither the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics nor the Dietary Guidelines for Americans define ‘clean’ eating.”
Senapathy continued to discuss those who are proponents of the clean food movement. The notion is the avoidance of foods or diets containing synthetic or artificial food additives. However, their fundamental scientific, medical, and dietary claims are base pseudoscience and filled with numerous misrepresentations of the true nature of science, of medicine, and at the interplay between the two with proper health science seen in normal recommendations for diets.
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people who avoid common clean eating “nonos” (I’m not kidding, major food companies like Panera have “no no lists”) are fundamentally misguided. It turns out that these concepts are often more about values than science. Several nebulous food concepts, like “clean” and “GMO”, have become proxies for perceived and real ills of the food system,” Senapathy stated.
There are common values. There are common circumstances. With similar values and circumstances, communities can come together and form non-science or misinformed and misguided movements. This seems to have happened within the health fad movements. They may talk about corporate control of food, real rises in disease or not, environmentalism, irrational or rational fears about particular chemicals, the health wellness of the young and the general population, and so on.
Senapathy, while remarking she shares some of the values, said, “So, instead of demarcating “science” vs. “pseudoscience,” I’ve come to realize that the most important step we can take is to really define our concerns so that we can truly address them rather than blame dietary scapegoats. For one example, I wrote about the social consequences of the GMO debate with the other SciMoms here.”
On common fads and myths, Senapathy exclaimed that there are several books on the subject. But that the common ones are that somehow non-GMO is better for the environment or those working in the agricultural industry.
Nonetheless, there may be one area in which there could be substantial progress. That is the area of the microbiome and its health, and then its health’s relation to the health of the entire body and the mind. The research appears to be preliminary. But, in fact, some research seems to indicate a relationship between the microbiome and mental health in a materialistic, biological, non-magical and real correlative sense.
On the nature of campaigns and becoming more involved in activism, Senapathy opined:
The proposed solutions to pseudoscience susceptibility are complex, but one of the biggest missing pieces is that far too many people don’t know the basics of evaluating the credibility of information on the internet, which is where these waves proliferate fastest. I’m also a firm believer that the media’s breakneck pace in the internet age is a problem. An example that comes to mind is the recent, widely-covered study concluding that layers of the body that exist between connective tissue and organs are actually a newly discovered “organ,” called the interstitium, described as “a highway of moving fluid.” Several news outlets breathlessly reported that the discovery of this “organ” could explain how acupuncture works because one of the study authors said so. Turns out that this study doesn’t explain acupuncture at all, and that this specific author has long promoted pseudoscientific ideas about health. I covered the whole thing for Slate back in April.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: [email protected]
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Image Credit: Kavin Senapathy/Patricia LaPointe.