‘Fads’ and expertise

I’m coming to the end of a first full draft of my PhD, and in the introduction I attempted to situate my work within the wider context, my work being about expertise, and the wider context being debates around ‘post-truth’ and the denigration of experts. I mention it briefly in my introduction but if I expand on it there it doesn’t make sense, so I will do so here because I think it points to some further research which could be done in the future (and not necessarily by me).

First, the rise of populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. This is discussed by Hadley Freeman in her article about “bullshitting culture”.  She points out that the denigration of expertise is a component of this bullshitting culture, “because expertise provides a bulwark against nonsense”. This nonsense includes whatever comes out certain politician’s mouths, and the “figurehead of the clean eating movement” Ella Mills. Freeman takes aim at both, claiming that both the U.S. President and Ella Mills come under “the umbrella of bullshit”. Ella in particular is  heavily criticised for claiming in an interview that she is “shocked that some of her followers have ‘taken healthy eating to extremes’ and insists she ‘can’t take responsibility’. Then, in the next breath, she talks enthusiastically about how, for Christmas dinner, she ate just carrots and brussels sprouts.” Freeman argues that:

“We live in a blog culture where it’s pitched as a triumph of democracy that everyone can claim authority, which means anyone who says that, actually, there is an objective truth is condemned. Feelings rather than facts are what matter, these purveyors of bullshit claim”

Freeman’s critique demonstrates how on social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish expertise. When experts do offer insight and facts, they are dismissed by politicians. While the author is right to point this out and be critical, she is assuming that experts are always right.

In the same newspaper 11 days later, another article emerged about the ‘clean eating’ fad and once again Ella Mills was the target of criticism for trying to distance herself from the movement. The author of this article, Ruby Tandoh, shows how some of the ‘clean eating’ pioneers are desperately trying to distance themselves from the fad after a recent BBC documentary Clean Eating – the dirty truth. Tandoh describes how some of the most popular advocates of clean eating based their approaches on the findings of doctors who were later widely discredited or even facing jail time for practicing medicine without a licence. Tandoh calls out the advocates themselves for peddling misinformation, and the book publishers which sell and help to legitimise such fads which are not underpinned by robust medical evidence. Tandoh also points out a gendered issue:

“Behind the pretty public face of wellness is a far bigger beast. With the exception of fitness guru Joe Wicks, the overwhelming majority of wellness personalities are young women, and it is these women who rise to and eventually fall from grace in the public eye. And yet the machinery of these fads is constructed largely by a small group of men. These are the doctors – self-styled or otherwise – who spin questionable academic studies, patchworks of data and sometimes little more than fanciful anecdotes into best-selling diet industry manifestos.”

These two articles demonstrate how complicated expertise can be. I believe here there is opportunity for further important research which looks at expertise, social media and contemporary aspects of popular culture which rely on ‘expert’ input – from nutrition, to fitness, wellness, mindfulness and other forms of self-help. It’s January and everywhere I go I see books, magazines and videos on these subjects, and their very popularity and the ‘expertise’ behind them could do with further critical engagement.

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.

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