Every now and then I'll check my link tracker and see that someone has found this blog by searching for something along the lines of "peanut allergy hoax." As an unapologetic sufferer of peanut allergy, this, of course, saddens me. The food allergy skeptics may not be as plentiful or influential as those who deny the existence of things like global warming or geometry, but they're out there, and they're given aid and comfort by the likes of Meredith Broussard, whose charlatanry graces the front page of Slate today. A similar rant appeared in Harper's in January 2008, but her ramblings have been polished off in an apparent attempt to publicize an upcoming book.
Broussard's article presents the idea that the risk and incidence of food allergy have both been exaggerated by various nefarious actors, including "excellent clinicians and biomedical researchers" and "influential parent-advocates," who have seized control of Congress and the media in order to get people to spend money protecting themselves from allergens. It's all part of a very dastardly scheme, you see. Unfortunately Broussard doesn't bother to back up her claims with any credible evidence.
Amazingly, Broussard compares the likelihood of dying from food allergy to the likelihood of dying in a car crash, ignoring the fact that the likelihood of dying of food allergy for a person with food allergy is much higher than it is for the general population. This comparison is absolutely meaningless.
Broussard's additional attempts to make her case fare no better. Her complaints about the researchers and advocates who have presented data on food allergy consists of various convoluted shards of data showing that these people were -- *gasp* -- compensated for their work, and she somehow builds this into a full-blown conflict of interest akin to letting cigarette companies study lung cancer. She makes vague gripes about the subjectivity of survey questions and from there leaps to the insinuation that nobody ever tells the truth ever, even when they want to. And, she breathlessly blames the media for running with various press releases, because it's always good to throw that in there. She even manages to slam the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act be identifying a single example of excess labelling, ignoring the notion that, hey, it might be useful to know that something contains peanuts if it's not otherwise apparent from the packaging.
At the end of an article full of juicy terms like "financial ties," "food allergy paranoia," and "media coup," she wraps up with this rant against the sinister food allergy forces:
A small group of people is manipulating the scientific perspective on food allergies, exaggerating the perception of risk, and profiting from the flood of sympathetic private and government money. It's time to re-examine the statistics and question the media spin on food allergies. This time, we need to be hyperaware of potential bias and exaggeration. Food allergies deserve respect and awareness, sure -- but we make unwise decisions when we're guided by fear. We should avoid telling one another horror stories about worst-case scenarios, or devising elaborate food bans. We should stop scaring ourselves based on manufactured evidence and remind ourselves that the vast majority of food-related allergic episodes are treatable. And when we look at proposed legislation like the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act of 2009, we should look at the fine print -- which allocates tens of millions of dollars to food allergy education -- and wonder exactly whose pockets will be lined with that money.
A few things here. First, why do we need to be "hyperaware" of potentail bias and exaggeration? Isn't regular awareness enough? Second, why should we avoid "devising elaborate food bans" when neither Broussard nor anyone else has shown that the food bans aren't necessary or worthwhile? At best, Broussard casts doubt on the utility of such precautions, but she really doesn't even get that far. And she certainly hasn't proven that any evidence has been "manufactured." Finally, what does she mean when she says "the vast majority of food-related allergic episodes are treatable"? Is injecting a child with an EpiPen as his throat swells shut and rushing him to the hospital "treatment"? And does the availability of this "treatment" mean we shouldn't take precautions to avoid exposure in the first place?
Apart from Broussard's anemic assault on existing evidence and complete failure to offer any contrary evidence, she has shown herself to be affirmatively ignorant on the subject of food allergies. In an NPR interview back in January 2008 she made the absurd statement that "You have to eat something to have an allergic reaction to it." This is simply wrong, as anyone (including myself) who has had a reaction based on airborne or skin exposure can tell you. This is common knowledge among anyone with even passing familiarity with food allergies. The fact that someone with such a lack of basic understanding about food allergies is being given a voice in major media outlets to criticize allergy precautions is very disturbing.
So Meredith Broussard is not a medical professional or a statistician, doesn't know anything about food allergies, and can't grasp the basic principles of effectively criticizing data. What exactly are her qualifications for calling on readers to ignore highly respected researchers and resist attempts to implement allergy precautions?
Broussard's first Google appearance is a softball Phillyist interview about her two shining works of scholarly excellence, The Dictionary of Failed Relationships: 26 Stories of Love Gone Wrong and Encyclopedia of the Exes: 26 Stories by Men of Love Gone Wrong. No library is complete without either of these books, and in fact my two copies have gotten so dog-eared from repeated perusal that I find myself in need of replacements.
She also maintains a "sporadically" updated blog which, not surprisingly, contains occasional digs against food allergies. Bizarrely, Broussard apparently suffers from food allergies, and her irrational campaign against food allergy precautions is perhaps a result of long-felt resentment of the restrictive diet imposed by her mother when she was a child so that she would not die.
Her only other accomplishment of note appears to be a groundbreaking article for the Huffington Post titled Why I'm Not On Facebook, a subject that I believe was already covered approximately one jillion times before her article was published in January 2009.
Why this person has chosen to pursue a crusade against food allergy precautions is a mystery. Why any legitimate media outlet would publish her uninformed and counterfactual polemics is simply baffling.