Robb Wolf, mental illness, and the bollocks du jour

Just as I was dosing off a few weeks back, my brother mentioned that Robb Wolf (messiah of the paleo diet’s disciples) had tweeted about how vegan diets were linked to mental disorders.1

He read the tweet out to me. At first, I wasn’t particularly concerned about the actual link. I’m very sceptical of the technique used by so many newspapers and link-bait websites whereby a study has arisen about how x gives you cancer, or why you should start drinking more of y because it means you won’t get Alzheimer’s. The reasons for being sceptical are outlined beautifully in the article, broccoli is bad for you.

What primarily bothered me about the tweet was that Robb referred to people with mental illnesses as “crazies”.

I take a great deal of interest in mental illness. It has come under the spotlight quite a lot recently in British politics and much work is currently being carried out by organisations like Mind to fight the stigma that those with mental illness face. The cause also has high-profile champions in the shape of people like Stephen Fry.

As well as this, in my particular industry there is a new annual week-long series of events aimed at creating greater understanding around issues of mental illness, Geek Mental Help Week, which ran for its second year last week.

For a few years, my brother was a big fan of Robb’s and a strict adherent to the paleo diet. He had often extolled to me the virtues of going paleo and would talk about how enlightened Robb was. As above, I am a sceptic, however I assumed that Robb had a basic level of cultural knowledge and social understanding. Apparently not.

In his last episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart’s final rallying cry was for people to call out bullshit when they saw it. Robb’s tweet reminded me of this, so I decided to call out the bullshit:

I sarcastically jibed Robb and quoted his tweet as my “evidence”:

Then I went to sleep.

I figured Robb would probably ignore me, but woke up to discover he hadn’t. He had also decided to publicly reply to my tweets (adding a full stop at the start), presumably so that his pack of loyal sheep would follow him in piling ire on me and on vegan diets generally.

I don’t really know where to start.

We’ll ignore that he’s using the Daily Mail to back up his points, clearly unaware of its track record in terms of accuracy and bias.

What Robb cited is not science. It’s a survey carried out with less than 5,000 people in Germany more than 15 years ago. This doesn’t mean that it’s of no value at all. But anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the scientific method of discovery will know that one survey of a relatively very small group of people across a small geographic area proves pretty much nothing.

His second link is just baffling. So, one woman in France who was vegan, and didn’t believe in medicine, neglected her child who died. What on earth does that have to with this debate? Further, his challenge to me is bizarre. Obviously almost every other story from the Daily Mail that involves children dying from malnutrition because of neglect, has happened with omnivorous people.

Whether or not it was productive for me to link to another Daily Mail article regarding a child who died because of malnutrition with an omnivorous parent, I duly did. Despite doing so, some 40-odd of Wolf’s moronic followers favourited or retweeted his challenge to me (continuing weeks after I had already responded with but one of the many examples I found).

Another problem is, Robb moved the argument away from my actual complaint to him. My complaint to him was that he called people with mental illnesses crazy. Secondarily he is willfully misleading people ­ I don’t believe he actually thinks vegan diets cause mental illness.

Fortunately, some of Robb’s followers sided with me on this:

I then allowed myself to be sucked into a debate with some other nutters in Robb’s cohort…

Fortunately, after a seemingly unending spat with “Raphi”, a more qualified person joined the debate. Garth Davis is a surgeon who in recent years has turned his focus to combating weight loss and, as a result of his interest in evidence, promotes the health benefits of plant-based diets. He has spent a lot of his time trying to put an alternative argument forward against the paleo hysteria that so many seem to have swallowed hook, line and sinker.2

Sadly, it seems Raphi is only interested in studies that back up what he already thinks. A bit like Robb.

The reason I have decided to commit all of this to a blog post is that, as Jon Stewart says, it’s important to call out bullshit. A lot of people trust the things that people like Robb Wolf say and write. Robb uses phrases like, “I cited peer-reviewed literature on the topic”, and this makes people assume he knows what he’s talking about. The point is, there’s a big difference between actual science, and pseudo-science. Thousands of scientific studies are being carried out at any given time. Anyone can cherry-pick studies to meet a certain agenda.

Science is about objectively reaching a conclusion based on all of the evidence available. For something like the paleo diet, non-scientists like Robb cherry-pick from the science to match what they already believe. Or to bash what they don’t believe, e.g. veganism.

If you want to learn more about identifying dodgy pseudo-science, I’d highly recommend reading Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Science. Ben Goldacre is a British NHS doctor and developed a following initially through his website of the same name. The website originally set out to collate all of the contradictory, newspaper-selling, nutritional information spouted by publications like (haha) the Daily Mail and show how facetious it all is.

Here’s Ben talking about bad science:

1: I should point out for anyone wondering that I was visiting my parents along with other family and friends, so my brother and I were sharing a room.

2: For those interested, I would highly recommend listening to Garth Davis’s interview on Rich Roll’s podcast.

One thought on “Robb Wolf, mental illness, and the bollocks du jour

  1. I just stumbled on this article on your blog (OK, so I was cyberstalking you) and… well, as a sort of non compaigning meat dodger myself I’m well aware of how some people go off on one about their food beliefs. And some people with a lot of followers use a range of bullying techniques on Twitter in order to kill off argument and dissent. They can make unqualified statements and get support, but others can’t. Common in all fields, and one of the things that can make Twitter unsuitable for use and why I don’t go there very much any more – the shortness just makes coherent arguments difficult to maintain so it ends up that those you argue against can rely on numbers of arguing tweets to wear you out.

    On the other hand, I’m all up for calling out bullshit when I see it and totally pleased to see I’m not the only one 🙂

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