The Risk-Monger

 

The rise of NITS is a growing problem today and regulators do not know how to control their viral spread across the European Union and the US. Their ravaging of the landscape is threatening areas where economic affluence was once taken for granted. Scientists have tried many measures to control NITS, but this has only accelerated their proliferation. The tools we have to protect society against NITS are inadequate and they are able to adapt, breed, mutate and feed on their surroundings like locusts.

NITS is an acronym for an emerging breed of social activism on food and environmental health issues – it stands for: “Nobody Is That Stupid”. NITS find themselves making ridiculous and highly emotional statements about saving the planet or one’s health and diet not because they are idiots, but rather because they are very clever in using shock statements with the emerging communications tools to manipulate public opinion, raise “fear-funds”, sell their books, diet plans or YouTube views and win policy campaigns. They know that facts don’t matter and so they can say what they want – if scientists call them stupid, that doesn’t make a difference given that scientists do not have the communications tools or the terrifiable audience ready to march for them.

I used to think NITS were very stupid people and ignored them (or at most, laughed about them). Seeing the damage they have done in the last few years by successfully pushing their twisted beliefs into policy and public perception, the consequential loss of life and environmental degradation, I now feel that something needs to be done to deal with them and their trolls who proliferate such ridiculous ideas. But that is the hard part – NITS are not stupid (don’t confuse them with nitwits); they know how to manipulate, raise fear and create misperception while resisting expert scrutiny or criticism.

Some examples of NITS:

  • March Against Monsanto: This last weekend saw the third global MAM and its turnout, while dismal (a few hundred on the streets in most cities), showed how clueless many of the protesters were (see the “off their meds” Washington protest video – the stupidometer hit overload around the 35 minute mark). More and more of the MAM supporters were hiding behind Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks – is this the future of the movement: a group of young anarchist wannabes?
  • On food fears, activist bloggers try to be outrageous to sell more books. The Food Babe, Vani Hari, has profited from the growing distrust of industry and government, creating a #foodbabearmy to fight anything non-natural in food, question vaccines and attack the food industry. Blissfully proud of her non-scientific “common sense” approach, her highly publicised campaigns have succeeded in getting brands like Kraft, Subway, Panera and Starbucks to give in to the collective voice of “her people”.
    Then there is my favourite NITS: Nutritarian Nancy, Nancy S Mure, who has argued that natural food is better than a vaccine for your children and that we do not need to drink water (part of her campaign against the bottled water industry although someone should tell her about tap water). Nancy has a PhD in holistic nutrition from the University of Natural Health so I guess she is a scientist (although they award PhDs online when you submit a 3000 word dissertation … this blog is around 1800 words).
  • The Save-the-bees movement had been arguing that without honeybees, our grocery stores would lose up to 80% of the food we eat (so we must immediately ban all pesticides to save humanity). After many studies showed that in realistic field studies the honeybees were not affected by pesticides, they just seamlessly switched over to wild bees (knowing that it would take decades for the evidence to catch up with their campaign). Farmers meanwhile have suffered and have changed over to other, less pollen-rich crops which will likely weaken the bees.
  • Greenpeace’s campaign against Vitamin A enriched Golden Rice is perhaps one of the best NITS case studies. In order to keep their anti-GMO campaign kosher, Greenpeace had to argue that the best means to protect the poorest children in developing countries from going blind and dying from Vitamin A deficiency (about 500,000 children a year) is to give them vitamin supplements or introducing ecologically farmed community gardens … in the slums of Dhakar (but absolutely no rice, their staple food, with beta-carotene added!).

NITS suffer from a fatal flaw of “bipolarity” – that natural is, at all times, good, and that anything synthetic, or man-made, is to be rejected. Hence they aggressively seek alternatives to vaccines, chemicals and agri-sciences no matter how unrealistic. As quasi-religious zealots, they are unable to recognise when their countenancing natural over man-made passes over to the absurd – to the point of explaining away half a million needless child deaths a year. They cannot admit that anything they had campaigned on might be wrong, or that those supporting industry and science might have done something positive. Greenpeace will never admit when they were wrong, whether it is on chlorine or GMOs or bees … they will just up the stupidometer and campaign on.

Social media as an “evidence” tool

NITS know that a little knowledge is an unnecessary thing. They are benefitting from the dust of a communications revolution, using the gap between social media tools and evidence fact-checking. Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter or blogs provide an easy access to personalised broadcast tools cementing networks of likeminded thinkers around confirmation bias silos. Couple this with a weakening of the profession of journalism and responsible reporting, and thin evidence well-communicated, and you have the ingredients for an effective (and profitable) campaign.

If their clever campaign rhetoric is repeated regularly from different angles, it creates a confirmation bias that reinforces one’s thinking. How can I be wrong if I have found so many who agree with me? And those who disagree with me? Paid up industry shills no doubt (remember how poor Dr Oz suffered from those “scientists”). In any case, they can either be shouted down or blocked from sites – watch the March Against Monsanto videos and consider their willingness to listen to other ideas.

A simple Google search will not necessarily give me the best evidence first. Social media is redefining evidence: a tweet can serve as evidence; an anecdote can serve as evidence; Nutritarian Nancy’s online PhD in holistic nutrition can serve as evidence; a couple million signatures on the activist rent-a-campaign site, AVAAZ, can serve as evidence. NITS are not stupid – they have noticed a hole in the system (that there is no legitimate fact-checking on social media). This evidence is then thrown publicly at brands and retailers with the threat of shutting them down if they don’t comply with their demands.

There is no denying that the NITS have had success. The Food Babe has not only made herself rich from referral fees to organic food websites and book sales, but she can also claim success in getting big corporations to change their ingredients (not on scientific grounds, but on public pressure via social media campaigns).

But we must not confuse winning with being right.

When the US DIY chain, Lowe’s, gave in to pressure from anti-pesticides campaigners and removed neonicotinoids from their shelves, it was not on any evidence or performance issues, rather it was to stop the NITS from campaigning in front of Lowe’s shops and destabilising their PR efforts. They also had the opportunity to take the lead in promoting neonic-free products thus furthering the misperception. See an interesting article in the National Review where Jeff Stier and Henry Miller show that when “activists can’t get their way via science, regulation, or litigation, they resort to propagandistic tactics” like retail pressure campaigns.
That Lowe’s pretended that their decision to remove neonic herbicides was based on good stewardship and CSR is lamentable – it was based on cowardice and a cynical view towards facts. By emboldening the NITS’ strategy of pressure-cooking their policies one retailer at a time, they continue the spiral towards stupidity which will hurt consumers, the environment and the economy.

How do you deal with NITS?

As their success and social media strength continues to grow, their fear campaigns raise more interest and money, the question remains: What can be done to restore some sanity to personal and public policy decisions?

There was an interesting piece by Christopher Graves published recently in the Harvard Business Review that showed how debunking the myths only makes them more popular. We have known since the time of Goebbels that the more outrageous the lie, the more it is repeated, will lead to communications success. Goebbels never had the efficient propaganda tool of social media. Repeating the myth, even in debunking it, makes it more popular.

So what is my advice in dealing with this parade of stupid:

  • Don’t get caught in the trust game. Most NITS present themselves as “just like you” and their lack of expertise and professional “know-it-all” status can be reassuring in a fear-directed situation. Regulators and scientists can easily be portrayed as pro-industry and not trustworthy. So bringing out the experts in white coats to dispel the NITS myths would likely backfire. Instead, scientists, industry and regulators should ignore the NITS campaigns and just tell positive stories – about vaccines, GMOs like golden rice, farmers who need to protect crops … I have argued for this many times.
  • Go to their financial sources – who is funding these NITS? If there is interest in spreading myths, who will benefit from them? That the organic industry is beginning to finance large lobbying campaigns and activist bloggers should be as scrutinised as chemical industry lobbying funding. See my last blog.
  • Draw attention to the companies who give in to the NITS’ campaigns and brand them as cowards and irresponsible opportunists. Refuse to accept their PR lines about their CSR commitments and call them out for their own stupidity. The scientific community may not be able to organise an effective boycott, but they can publicly shame the brands for their folly.
  • Take the NITS to court – fund the victims of their NITSisms (eg, those who have lost children to their advice). The Food Babe, Nutritarian Nancy or Mamavation will find other things to do if they ever have to go into a court of law and try to defend their arguments against a scientist or a class action suit from victims of their advice. Advice is cheap, but consequences can be fatal.
  • Learn their communications tricks and avoid falling into the traps the NITS have set up. Find a way to bring their stupidity to a boil. For me, the best approach is to encourage ridicule. Nobody likes to be called stupid and as sites like SciBabe or Insufferable Intolerance bring together communities who make fun of them, there is a hope that others will see through the NITS’ clever communications campaign rhetoric. While government employees or industry actors need to behave responsibly, individuals have the right to call an idiot out on their ridiculous remarks. If NITS are not that stupid, they may try to find citations, references or facts before just saying what they want to think is true.

The Risk-Monger remains confident that NITS will not continue to dumb down society’s understanding of health and environment issues. After all, nobody is that stupid!

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