Food Babe, Experience Life Mag, and Their Ilk: Do We Have to Join Em To Beat Em?

Posted on 25 Sep 2014 19:19

In one of the threads on Facebook posted about the Food Babe and Experience Life Mag controversy, where people were complaining about the BS, someone started saying that, basically, the people commenting were all wasting their time complaining and that we need to pay more attention to how she, and others like her, frame their messages in order to reach and influence so many people.

Let me recount what happened real quick, even though this article is about the statements I described above, and not really about this Food Babe thing in general. So, Experience Life Magazine put Food Babe in their October issue, and made her the cover subject. As a result, they got a lot of negative feedback on Facebook. This was their response:

Over the weekend, we received an unusually large influx of negative Facebook comments regarding our October cover subject, Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe). As a whole, these comments bear the earmarks of an industry-coordinated response — one designed to appear as though it is coming from individual consumers, but that is motivated and subsidized by a behind-the-scenes special interest.

Some people think that this response was quite purposeful and that it was a masterful stroke to gain even more followers by creating an "us" versus "them" atmosphere. And, at least one other, as I mentioned, thought we should all shut up and learn from the masters so we too, can sell our ideas just as masterfully. When I say sell, I mean, basically, how they sell their bullshit, which is the same thing as saying how they bullshit. So, hey, if you can't reach just as many people by emulating the techniques that charlatans use, through clever packaging of ideas, and be a highly influential person, then all the science in the world won't matter, because people don't care about science, or evidence, or any of that.

This is based on something called the "myth of influentials" and tends to come from people who believe everything from authors like Malcolm Gladwell. It is the myth that all ideas that find huge traction and are accepted by loads of people do so because they have their origin with highly influential people or "pass across the desk" of highly influential people.


Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, glorified
“The Power of the Few.” He claimed that there were a few almost
Godlike people with amazing ability to spread information.
Turns out, its bullshit.

Do people like Food Babe influence more people than most of us science geeks? Yes. Do folks like Mercola or Dr. Oz hold even more power? Of course. Is it true, then, that the only way to beat them is to join them? In other words, do a bunch of us just talking about this stuff with each other and then with others, who then talk with others, make no difference because we are not packaging our ideas "just so?"

Well, we underestimate the power of groups of friends on the internet. Many of us think that if there is not one highly influential or highly connected person involved in that group or that discussion, we are just wasting time complaining about things that will never make a difference. As I began to mention, Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize this myth of "influentials" in his best-selling book "The Tipping Point." The basic idea is that a small number of highly influential people, or even just one, can influence great change. It's all about connectedness. Well, this is mostly erroneous, and connectedness does not seem to be as important as it appears to be at first glance.

You may have heard of the "Six Degree Study" or "Small World Study" by Stanley Milgram, and you probably have heard of the idea that we are only six degrees of separation from some highly famous, influential, and connected person, like Kevin Bacon. If an idea really spreads quickly it is because Kevin Bacon got a hold of it. The myth is that people hear of some message and then right off the bat they share it with one very influential person and bang, it's out there.

Even in every day life, many of us believe this "small world" phenomenon to be real. We come upon circumstances that make us say, "Wow, it's a small world," all the time. Or, so it seems. You may be sitting in a Starbucks and strike up a conversation with some stranger, who, it just so happens, knows your father, even though your father lives in a different state across the country. The world is so small, and there is such interconnectedness. As part of that interconnectedness, comes the startling revelation that there is only a handful of people between us and some extremely famous person. No wonder ideas can spread over-night and take over the world! You tell anyone anything, and its gonna get to one of those information mavens about which Gladwell wrote. But, as it turns out, the small world myth is bullshit!

Of course there is more to this than nutrition conversations and Food Babe. Great barriers still exist between people, such as race and social class. And, the Milgram evidence was scanty from the start.

Actually, Duncan Watts repeated that experiment by Stanley Milgram, but he used a LOT more people. 60,000 people in 166 countries — and he found no influentials involved in how the messages got spread. And, while Milgram used letter chains, trying to get a letter to one particular person by passing it through other people, Watts used electronic messaging. The actual results were way more complicated and difficult to track. It seemed to be more the power of social networks. What he found is that people don't pass on ideas to influential people who then are primarily responsible for its spread. They pass it on to someone they have things in common with, or to someone they think will share it with others. Yes, fitness has become a lot about "us" the skeptics and them the irrational others. Or us the evidence based people and them the science haters and huxters. It IS about in-groups and out-groups.

However, it is possible to debunk Milgram's work without recreating it. According to B.J. Mendelson in "Social Media is Bullshit," University of Alaska-Fairbanks professor Judith Kleinfeld looked through Milgram's notes and found that he didn't bother to report that most of the letters didn't even get through!

I used to make fun of strength coaches who thought they owed their success to being buddied up with a few well-chosen influential people, and then they would go around dismissing the opinions of the typical forum-goer (or now someone on Facebook or unknown person on the internet) and making fun of them. Yet, it was these thousands of others, in little social networks, spreading outwards to others that was truly responsible for their success!

The POWER really IS IN OUR HANDS. We, as individuals, can do a lot to model the type of behavior we'd like to see happen in the fitness, nutrition, and health world. Don't think what you say doesn't make a difference unless you're famous. Keep on fighting the good fight!

This page created 25 Sep 2014 19:19
Last updated 06 Aug 2016 19:25

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