Feeding the Mind—Challenging the Myths—Science Babe
January 16, 2015
2014 could very well be called the Year of the Anti-Food Babe Brigade. One of the forerunners when it comes to challenging the pseudoscientific claims of Vrani Hari is her skeptical antithesis: The Science Babe.
Yvette Guinevere has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in forensic science. She’s been a chemistry professor, explosives chemist, toxicology chemist, analytical chemist—and has recently taken up running the Science Babe site at http://www.scibabe.com full time.
Yvette Guinevere: I don’t remember not being interested in science. I think when I was six and I got asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wanted to either be a singer or a veterinarian. That was only a little thing when I was in the first grade.
When I got to high school and went to see a surgery done on a horse, I remember getting nauseous and thinking, “OK, I can’t be a veterinarian because I would see stuff like that happening all the time!”
Eventually I found chemistry and that was a science that really did well with me. Because no surgeries, just an occasional really bad smell! Then I found analytical chemistry, tiny amounts of things, and organic chemists were the smelly chemists, as we found out when I worked at a pesticide lab.
Then when I went to grad school for forensics; the funny thing with forensics is you get the bodies after they’re dead… I know that’s a horrible thing to say, but there’s no surgery at that point!
Kylie Sturgess: They’re pretty gone by then, you can’t do anything for them!
Guinevere: Yes. There’s no work on them at that point! Even after doing grad school for forensics, my concentration, even with a concentration in biological criminology, the biggest thing you’re learning is evidence analysis. You’re learning to analyze tiny trace bits of things to trace one bit of a crime scene back to another.
We had someone from the Boston Crime Lab come and talk to us when I was in physical chemistry. That was when I was starting to lose interest in chemistry, because P.chem was horrible to me. I hated it.
That was my evolution. I landed at analytical, just because that was where the job market pointed me. It really taught me how precise science had to be, and the level of the onus of proof that you need whenever you’re turning in a report—because I’ve spent three days trying to get my RSD on an instrument from like 2 percent down to 0.3!
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make that sound too, I have no other way to say this, too science-y depending on the level of science that someone’s operating at. Skeptics are always looking for proof, so that’s what led me to the skeptic movement, being a scientist. That and the Penn and Teller series, Bullshit.”
Sturgess: From evidence and analysis, which is clearly part of your job, how did that end up becoming the site that you currently run, becoming the Science Babe? Was it a direct response to Vrani Hari, the Food Babe?
Guinevere: A bit of column A, a bit of column B. Well, there are a few things that went into it. I had a few coworkers that noticed that, how to phrase this, I’m someone who randomly goes off on tangents, and a little bit of my attempt at having a comedy routine!
I actually did a little bit of stand‑up in college. I had three degrees, a BA in theater, a BS in chemistry, and a master’s in forensic science. Who knows why the hell that happened?
Sturgess: Sometimes it just happens; you get interested in stuff.
Guinevere: Let’s not try to explain it—it just happened! I was bored one night and said, “I guess I’ll get a theater degree.” Something needed to collect dust on my shelves, I guess. I kept saying, “What’s going to happen with this degree?!”
A couple of my coworkers were like, “You’re living in LA now,” and I just moved out here for this job from Boston. I’m like, “Maybe I’ll do some auditions, maybe I’ll see if there’s something out here for this.” My friends were like, “If you find your voice with this, you’re going to be really funny, because you go off on tangents with this all the time!”
I was really getting into the skeptic movement; I’d gone to TAM the previous year. I’d seen this other page, it was Chow Babe, and I loved them. They were satirizing the Food Babe. I was starting to post on there a little bit and people were laughing at the type of stuff I was posting.
I thought that I didn’t see a lot of scientists directly posting on there, so I thought, maybe I can post something? I can put together my voice with this topic; and one night, I saw that Vrani Hari was putting together her next, as she calls them, “investigation.”
It was going to be about the pumpkin spice latte and that was when she went too far! I’m from Boston. You do not mess with the Bostonians’ pumpkin spice anything!
That was when I guess Science Babe was born. It was OK, I’m like, I’m going to put together my skeptic thing with my kind of background in theater with my science thing. Science Babe was born from the fires of: don’t screw with my pumpkin spice lattes.
We were armed and ready for when she came up with her investigation on the pumpkin spice lattes. From there, it grew.
Within my friends, because I was posting on Chow Babe quite a bit, I went and said, “Hey, I started a site. Can you guys, I guess, promote me?” Within forty-eight hours, I had 1,000 followers.
Sturgess: Great! Awesome!
Guinevere: It took off really quickly, so that was where—that was my origin story, I guess.
Sturgess: Pumpkin spice lattes, obviously, a key topic for you. Are there other things that you’re keen in investigating? Have you had bad experiences with pseudoscientific claims personally in the past?
Guinevere: I don’t know if I’d say bad experiences. I have, I guess I’d say “dabbled,” I think is a phrase? I think a lot of us, like, no one’s born with a really skeptical mind. I think that’s why we have and we need the skeptic movement. It’s to tell people to start questioning things.
Because people tell you, “This is true,” and because people are good, we accept what we’re told. “This person told me and why would they lie to me?” It’s not because they’re lying, it’s because they have this information and they just pass it on.
What happened to me, and I’ve mentioned this on my site before, when I was twenty-six, I got really, really sick. I got the worst headache of my life on one side of my head and it never went away. This is our heartwarming story of the night, obviously! Just to make everyone feel better about life and the universe and everything in it!
By the way, the headache is completely under control now, because science is a thing. It’s way better. But the first eight months were horrible.
Think of the longest you might have headache? Whenever I ask people this question, they say somewhere between three days and week, or most people say that. Like you’ve had a really bad flu and were coughing a lot. Generally people say, three days, maybe a week.
Try eight months. Being so completely out of control that I was just miserable. It changes who you are as a human being. You’re at the point where you are desperate and you will try anything. I think that’s why a lot of people end up turning to pseudoscience. Because I did. I started saying, “OK, I’ll go vegan, I’ll try paleo, I’ll try organic.” I tried cutting out GMOs.
I didn’t go with acupuncture, because I looked at studies, and it was a nerve headache on one side of my head and we were trying every different medication combo that we could that worked on that type of headache. Eventually I found the right doctor who knew how to treat these types of headaches.
In the meantime, of course, everyone told me, “You need to get energy sessions.” Everyone was throwing those things at me. Of course, I was trying, and now this is why I always say, don’t blame the victim.
When people fall into this, even intelligent people can fall. Because they’re not dumb, they’re at a point in their life where they’re desperate and a lot of times in pain and they’re willing to say, “I will do anything if you will make it stop hurting.”
Eventually I found a doctor who knew exactly what was wrong with my trigeminal nerve and managed to find a medication combo that worked.
I managed to look through all the research on GMOs and organic and all that good stuff and break free of the woo. Now I look at people and say, “No, no, no—here’s the research. You’ve been given a bad bill of goods. You were probably desperate and vulnerable.” I really hope other people don’t fall into that and don’t give their money to people who are practicing pseudoscience.
Sturgess: Yeah, it’s funny how a small window can sometimes give you a bit of understanding into what people might normally sneer at or scoff at in terms of, “Oh yes, people fall for everything. I won’t; I’m skeptical.”
Guinevere: Oh, yes. One day, my headache might feel a little better and it’s like, “Oh, I cut this out of my diet today.” Well, it’s not necessarily that!
I hope people don’t blame the victims for this, because they‘ve been given a bad bill of goods by someone who’s either trying to make a profit, or in some cases, not necessarily trying to make a profit, but maybe trying to help, and thinks what they’re doing is good.
I really think what we should do as skeptics, because we do know better, is try to educate and really hope that we don’t give a message that we’re blaming the victim. I think that, at least in my experience, that’s the best way to approach it. Keep preaching the truth as we see it. I always say, back up what we do with peer review, at least, as a scientist, that’s how I look at it.
Sturgess: What’s been the overall response to your site? Does the “babe” element ever distract from your message? I see it as a response to Food Babe, so for me, it matches. I was wondering if “staying for the dirty jokes” is a very good descriptor of what happens on your site!
Guinevere: Well, it’s been, I’d say, mixed. Overall, it’s been good, because the day before the four month mark, I hit 20,000 followers. It’s been a very fast growth curve.
I like to joke that it’s “scientist as drinking buddy”; because I am trying to humanize the scientist. Every time, like one of the things that you hear that the people who are promoting the natural, non‑GMO organic, now gluten free stuff - whatever they’re trying to promote that they always say - “Do you want your stuff from a scientist?”
I’m like, “Of course you want your stuff from a scientist. Here I am with my really cute dog. See, I’m wonderful!”
Like you said, the babe part was partly a response to Vrani Hari. I’m also trying to remind people that I’m being a scientist, but I’m also a human being. I’m someone who goes to Disneyland and who wakes up in the morning and says, “I want bacon today,” or “I want to make a juice drink.” I’m a human. I try to remind people that the scientist can be your next door neighbor.
I do make dirty jokes on there quite a bit and I swear, I do curse like a sailor. That’s just, it’s not an attempt to have shock value— - it’s just kind of, that’s me. This is what scientists can be like after work. But it really has been an attempt to humanize the scientist.
I know that I did a video on homeopathy a little while ago and I did pull a bit of a James Randi and downed an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills to show that they didn’t work! With shock and awe, they did nothing other than down my bank account of like $12.99.
I swore a lot in the video and I know Dr. Joe Schwartz, who I love, he’s wonderful, he’s a great writer, great for the skeptic movement. He was a little miffed that I swore!
I say, “Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t swear in his act; Louis CK does swear in his act. Some of us swear to get our message across. Some of us don’t.” You have to look at it as a little bit of performance art.
The thing that became a hashtag with the video was #nofuckingmedicine. Now, it’s become a big thing with this site, whenever someone shares anything with homeopathy, they’ll always put #nofuckingmedicine. I know it’s really simple and basic, but I learned from that that people like a simple message to go along with something that really needs to get across, will resonate with people.
We have a lot of very complicated things that we want to talk about. Sometimes, just a simple thing like #nofuckingmedicine, dropping that swear in there, which I guess that it’s part of the babe thing, it helps.
I know like some people, occasionally a guy will come in, and I think it’s more the men than the women. Occasionally a guy will come in and say, “Never take someone who’s a self‑declared babe seriously.”
I could get defensive, and drop a whole feminism thing on him. But instead, I’ll go, “Well, this morning, I did work on a new method for the analysis of a double AI pesticide formulation encapsulated in…” and I’ll go through a whole scientific thing that I did that morning and it shuts them right the hell up!
I try to lead without leading and just out-science people instead of going on a whole feminist rant and it works so well. I just am being me and being a good scientist and letting my writing style work for itself. It’s been working wonderfully. There is a little bit of … there have been some detractors, but the growth has been outpacing the detractors. I think that was a really long‑winded explanation for it!
Sturgess: I was about to say, you’re being yourself, and that’s what’s important.
Guinevere: Yeah. Exactly. I know that some other sites, to not shut up about that, I know sometimes I have had to change a little bit as I’ve grown. Like, some swears I’ve backed off on, but I think that’s to protect me legally.
Sturgess: Oh, I see now. That’s good, that’s wise, as well! We’re at the end of 2014. What do you think 2015 will hold for those who are skeptically minded? What do you think we have to look out for? What’s in store for you in your site?
Guinevere: I’m doing Science Babe full time now. I’m working with a literary agent on Science Babe’s Guide to BS Detection. Over the next two months, I’m trying to get my book proposal wrapped up and launched.
For the skeptic universe, I think… One of the wonderful things I think that happened was that we managed to beat down GMO labeling in two states in the U.S. I’m hoping that the message gets out a little bit further that they’re safe. Apparently, an article just came out that vaccines, that the anti‑vax movement, the tide seems to be turning on that.
We do need to see that skepticism is more of a mindset than anything, so get people thinking of a skeptic mindset more than anything. I think we’re going to be set for a very long time.
Because with the book, Science Babe Guide to BS Detection, I’m going to attack a lot of different subjects in the book, like the natural cancer treatment woo, and anti‑vaccine woo. The biggest thing of it is how to make people’s BS detector a little stronger. Because the number of times people email me in the course of a day and say, “Is this bullshit?” and it’s stuff that to me is very blatantly bullshit!
I think getting people trained to know how to detect it before it pops up, and using the scientific method a little bit, would be a wonderful thing for the skeptic movement to have as a goal. That’s something I see happening in the future.
The Science Babe’s site can be found at http://www.scibabe.com.