This is the age of the pandemic. But it is also the age of the “infodemic,” in which we are relentlessly bombarded by a tsunami of information, the reliability of which is often questionable, especially when the source is social media.
In face of the seriousness of the health and societal problems we have to confront, judging the trustworthiness of the information we use to guide ourselves is becoming more and more critical. However, making such judgments is not an easy matter. Possible vested interests, evaluation of appropriate expertise, sources of published information, extent of peer review, scientific plausibility, the difference between anecdote and evidence, reliance on confirmation bias, distinguishing between correlation and causation, and the reproducibility of cited research all have to be considered before we jump onto one of the many bandwagons that are rolling by.
This year, the 2020 Trottier Public Science Symposium (October 26) will address the question of “in whom do we trust?”
As part of the Symposium, Anthony Warner will be presenting “Ending hunger – The quest to feed the world without destroying it.” After graduating from Manchester University with a degree in biochemistry, Warner became Head Development Chef for the UK’s largest food manufacturer for 11 years. Frustrated by pseudoscience and misinformation in the world of food, Warner began a blog called the Angry Chef in 2016. The blog’s success led Warner writing three award-winning books. His talk will take place on October 26, at 12 pm ET. The talk will be streamed live.
How did your blog The Angry Chef come about?
In about 2016, I became extremely worried about a number of misleading food and health influencers coming to prominence through social media. At the time, this was particularly linked to a trend called ‘clean eating’. On the surface a lot of it was quite sensible, but underneath there was a worrying current of pseudoscience and false belief. As someone who works in food and has a background in science, I used to get extremely annoyed about this, and started to write a blog to share with a few similarly minded friends and colleagues. It seemed however, that a lot of people shared my views and the blog quickly became very popular, leading to writing for newspapers and magazines, and a trilogy of books.
Why are you ‘Angry’?
The Angry Chef is a character that I created in order to help communicate complex subjects in an appealing way. I wanted the blog to be different to some of the other stuff out there, which can either be quite dry, or hugely over simplistic. I thought an Angry Chef character would be a funny, accessible way to discuss often difficult subjects. One of the problems with science communication is that the boring, nuanced reality is often less compelling than the simple falsehood you are trying to counter, so I really needed a gimmick to give back some advantage.
People get that a lot of chefs are angry and foul-mouthed, and even though in real life I’m not one of those chefs, I thought it would work as a vehicle. But having said that, I cover a lot of serious issues that are enough to make anyone angry. False claims about cancer cures. People selling in effective, unproven dietary autism treatments that end up being damaging and abusive. Large food companies lobbying to remove measures that would lessen the environmental impact of their products. People being made to feel inadequate about their bodies, or guilty when they get sick.
Pseudoscience, and particularly dietary pseudoscience, can have a direct impact on health, and people die from that misinformation if it goes unchecked. So if you aren’t angry, you’re probably not paying attention.
How have you incorporated your background in Biochemistry with your career as a chef?
A background in Biochemistry has been useful within my work as a chef, especially as a lot of my work now involves making food products healthier, or finding ways to improve people’s diets. You need to know the basics of nutrition, how food is composed, how the body reacts to it, how that might influence health.
But it is more my general grounding in science, than any specific knowledge of biochemistry that is valuable; the field has transformed in the years since I was studying and if you tested me on the Krebs cycle, I would definitely fail. But understanding what good quality evidence looks like, realizing that science is full of complexity and uncertainty, and being grounded in the scientific method are vital skills that I have retained.
Studying science makes you humble and gives you a realization that you can never know everything and need to learn how to proceed in an uncertain world. Too often we teach science as a list of facts, when in reality it is a method of searching for the truth, and I think you need to study to a certain level to fully appreciate that.
What do you think is the most misleading belief today in the area of nutrition?
The most misleading belief in the area of nutrition is the idea that food is medicine. I think that this does a disservice to both food and medicine. Certainly eating a balanced diet with all the essential nutrients is hugely important, but once we achieve that, other determinants of health become way more important.
If you want to be healthy, the best advice is don’t be poor. Don’t belong to an ethnic minority. Don’t have a disability. Don’t have a disabled child. Live in a nice house in a rich neighbourhood, have a good job, drive an expensive car. For people eating a balanced, adequate diet, these are the most important determinants of health. But things like inequality are hard to address, so people fall back onto things like diet, recommending supplements, fasting, extreme diets, all sorts of nonsense.
I increasingly believe that once we eat adequately, diet is far less important in determining health than we think it is, but we fall back on various lifestyle things that are easier to change, often making people feel needlessly guilty or concerned in the process.