Armed with a Misinformation Radar: Interview with Kavin Senapathy
August 2, 2016
I regularly scour the Internet for skeptically themed content to share with our community, and lately a particular name has emerged to become a trusted and delightful source of pseudoscience-busting news and information: Kavin Senapathy, one of the amazing speakers coming to CSICon Las Vegas and Women in Secularism 4.
She’s the co-Executive Director of international pro-science, pro-biotech organization March Against Myths, and a regular contributor to Forbes (where I first discovered her work) and Grounded Parents. She’s also a co-author of The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, a book discussing popular food misconceptions and why they proliferate in the face of mountains of evidence against them. Her writing as also appeared outlets such as Gawker, Slate, Genetic Literacy Project, and more.
She was kind enough to chat with me about her work and what it’s like to be a skeptical activist, a woman in secularism, and a mom.
Paul Fidalgo: I personally find your work incredibly useful and insightful, full of solid information that's actually fun to read, as opposed to being, say, too academic or alienating. What drew you to taking on a public role combatting pseudoscience and misinformation, and how did you arrive at your particular style?
Kavin Senapathy: Growing up in a family full of scientists and doctors, I have always been into science, especially biology. As a mom and contributor to evidence-based parenting site Grounded Parents, I realized that fear-based marketing is often targeted at parents, and I wanted to help demystify these issues. My style largely hinges on what I call “The Misinformation Hydra.” We can spend all day debunking and refuting lies from quacks, but the end-goal isn’t to vanquish them (though vanquishing the Food Babes, Deepak Chopras and Doctors-Oz is always a good thing). Each one is like a head on a hydra--cut one off and another grows back. When I write, I always remember that my overarching objective is to arm readers with a misinformation radar, to inoculate them against woo, so they can learn how to spot misleading information from a mile away. And I can’t resist a good joke or pun!
Fidalgo: My wife and I have two small kids ourselves, are we’re exposed to all manner of pseudoscientific parenting and health advice. It can be hard to discuss any of it from a pro-science perspective without seeming pedantic or condescending. How do you deal with that as a parent?
Senapathy: I try to remember that swaying people from unscientific stances, especially when it comes to parenting, is a marathon and not a sprint. These discussions, especially with friends and family, can take many conversations, sometimes spanning months or even years. Most parents have one thing in common-- we worry about the well being of our children. For better or worse, this tends to come from a place of emotion rather than reason, so fear needs to be addressed before facts.
As someone who communicates science from a parenting perspective, I constantly try to find a balance between conveying facts and addressing concerns. As skeptics and critical thinkers, we tend to lean on facts and citations, and technical or scientific explanations, though we know that it’s not always effective.
Fidalgo: So much of the paranoia around GMOs and “chemicals” in our food is focused on one corporation: Monsanto. Now, Monsanto is an incredibly large and powerful corporation, and they have a reputation for being litigious with farmers and for a willingness to throw their weight around. But when you’re defending the reality behind generically modified foods, one finds oneself in the unenviable position of being on the same side as the giant corporation, and skeptics can get accused of being “shills” for Monsanto, “Big Agriculture,” or whichever “Big Something” is in question. How do you navigate being pro-science without becoming a de facto spokesperson for a moneymaking business?
Senapathy: I was once jokingly called a “shill for tiny agro,” and that’s because I’m all about innovation and how technology and science can provide benefits to consumers, farmers, the needy, and to our environment, and I believe we need more competition from small and medium businesses and academia toward these objectives. All I can do is present the truth, and do my best not to take shill accusations to heart. Most people don’t realize that the anti-GMO lobby actually helps large corporations like Monsanto, which has come to symbolize and be a scapegoat for everything hated about our food system. But the current overly stringent, largely unscientific regulatory framework makes it prohibitively expensive and difficult for smaller players to get products from research to market (non-browning Arctic Apples and Innate Potatoes are exceptions).
Don’t get me wrong, I have friends who work for Monsanto and I believe that most of what’s hated about them is based in myths and misinformation perpetrated by parties with financial motives. But technology and innovation is so much bigger than Monsanto. It’s about agriculture, the earth, and social justice.
Fidalgo: You’ve described the campaign to get warning labels on all GMO food as a “ploy to grow the organic industry and eliminate genetically engineered foods.” Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask: Is that a conspiracy theory? If Monsanto and pals aren’t conspiring to serve us all dangerous toxin-filled crypto-food, why should we believe that Whole Foods and Ben & Jerry’s want to take over the food industry?
Senapathy: The timing for this question is perfect, considering anti-GMO leaders’ reactions to President Obama signing S. 764, which will require companies to inform consumers whether ingredients were derived from genetic engineering, but allows QR codes or toll-free numbers instead of explicit labels, which I wrote about here. In the wake of Obama signing the bill, opponents have again admitted that labeling was no more than a tactic to eliminate GMOs from the market.
Other opponents leading the anti-GMO movement have explicitly said that the first step to eliminating these technologies is to label them. In a saturated market, with the safest, most abundant food supply in all of history, the only way for organics and other so-called “natural” food products to grow their industries is to differentiate themselves in trivial ways disguised as meaningful. We know that organic is no safer, healthier, or better for the environment, and we also know that the organic industry has intentionally misinformed the public to achieve growth, as this Academics Review report explains. Labeling is just another tactic in this game.
Fidalgo: Let me take off my tinfoil hat again. What issue most concerns you right now when it comes to pseudoscience and health? Is it the GMO debate, or is there something that worries you more?
Senapathy: It all worries me, especially anything that harms children. Take a peek at any “natural” or “organic” parenting groups and you’ll see everything from parents treating kids with strep throat and ear infections with breast milk, homeopathy or essential oils, to parents trying to cure their kids’ autism with harmful bleach enemas. These are immediate concerns.
Opposition to biotechnology can also impact children who are malnourished and who lack access to the food they need, so I guess the GMO debate always looms too. There are biotech solutions to problems of hunger, disease, drought, and even climate change. Gah! Once you get me talking about what worries me in the pseudoscience world, I may never stop!
Fidalgo: Okay, well let’s talk about the wider skeptic community, in which you’re quickly becoming very well known and respected, thus your coming appearance at CSICon 2016. But I’m happy to say you’ll first be coming to CFI’s other conference this year,Women in Secularism 4, in September. Obviously, we at CFI believe strongly that secularism and skepticism are two sides of the same coin, but it’s also no secret that not all skeptics consider themselves secular, and not all nonbelievers are skeptical about all pseudoscientific claims. So what for you is the connection between secularism and skepticism?
Senapathy: My connection may be unusual, in that I was raised atheist by a scientist dad, in a socially conservative household, with extended family who are mostly Hindu. (I now consider myself agnostic for lack of a better term.) Most of my non-religious peers were raised in religious households, and I was one of the only “out” atheist kids when I was growing up in the Midwest. That’s quickly changing, with so many of my kids’ peers being raised in non-religious homes.
My dad made it clear that religion and critical thinking cannot go hand-in-hand, and I went through the common angry “religion is a blight to humanity” phase so many atheists go through while I was a sullen teenager.
My stance on religion has since softened, which hasn’t always gone over well in the skeptics’ community. I believe that secularism is important, but I also believe that religion isn’t the root of all evil and that good scientists can be religious.
And yes, secularism isn’t the end-all or be-all of critical thinking. After all, so many anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, naturopathy-lovers and essential oil-slatherers aren’t religious! For me, it’s all about opposing injustice, and sometimes that requires targeting religion, and sometimes it requires fighting anti-science interests--they’re all forms of fundamentalism when you peel back a few layers. As long as we fight the use of taxpayer money to push religion, as long as we fight for civil rights and social justice and oppose religious justifications of systematic oppression, I don’t question what people choose to believe in their own minds and places of worship.
Fidalgo: Bonus question! Is there any particular non-GMO food that proudly proclaims its non-GMO credentials, but despite your activism, you can’t help but love? (For me it’s Ben & Jerry’s, when I can afford it.)
Senapathy: My kids loves Pretzel Crisps, so I’ll buy a “Non-GMO Project” emblazoned bag on occasion through gritted teeth. My kids also love Cliff Bars, but the company recently went too far in an incendiary attack on farmers (which I wrote about here) so though I used to hold my nose and buy them, I now refuse. Fortunately, there are some decent generic versions.