Great Read: Edgy blogger sensation SciBabe takes the lab coat off science
Yvette d’Entremont knows a thing or two about attention-grabbing stunts in the name of science. Like that time she downed 50 homeopathic sleeping pills for a YouTube video (no stomach pumps needed).
But nothing prepared her for taking down the Food Babe.
“It’s just been crazy!” D’Entremont said.
The 31-year-old Anaheim chemist has the air of a twitchy stand-up comic, talking a mile a minute, her speech peppered with obscenities and self-deprecating slights. She seems bewildered by a whirlwind week that has taken her from near-unknown to Internet sensation for a funny, foul-mouthed screed against celebrity “Food Babe” blogger Vani Hari, who promotes organic foods and warns of the dangers of “toxins” in the modern American diet.
Oh, wow, you’re going to print that. Maybe it’ll get me 30,000 new guy fans!
Yvette d’Entremont, SciBabe
D’Entremont, who had been blogging as the “Science Babe,” was about to board a flight home from Memphis when her article for the website Gawker first appeared April 6.
Over airplane Wi-Fi, D’Entremont watched as it went viral. Every minute, a hundred new people clicked “Like” on her Facebook page (“Come for the science, stay for the dirty jokes,” it promises.) Her website, scibabe.com, crashed after a traffic overload.
Within about six hours, D’Entremont’s Gawker rant had gotten a million hits. By Thursday morning, her cellphone was ringing off the hook, with calls from speaking agents and TV producers.
Such is life for a modern-day science celebrity: one of a breed of writers and speakers who take the writings of colleagues in fusty journals and repurpose them into edgy, entertaining Web tidbits — and, they hope, make the general public just a little more science-savvy along the way.
In college, studying theater and chemistry — not your average double major — D’Entremont had always thought it would be fun to become “Yvette the Science Dudette,” an updated, hip-chick version of “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
“It was a joke — I didn’t think it was actually going to happen,” she said, fiddling with her phone as the Facebook and Twitter and email and text alerts poured in. “I’m just a loudmouth with a blog!”
D’Entremont comes from New Hampshire but tells people she’s from nearby Boston, where she attended college. She has a Red Sox tattoo but wouldn’t show it off because, she noted, she wasn’t wearing underwear.
“Oh, wow, you’re going to print that,” she said, wondering aloud how her chemist boyfriend of two months would react. A nanosecond later, she said, “Maybe it’ll get me 30,000 new guy fans!”
D’Entremont first learned about food activist bloggers when stomach and joint problems and excruciating headaches sent her searching the Web — unsuccessfully — for relief.
Hari, the Food Babe, has built the beginnings of an empire, hawking a best-selling book and urging followers to go on the offensive against companies that use scary-sounding food additives.
It was she who got Subway in trouble for using a dough-softening agent in its bread that also happened to be used in the production of yoga mats. She’s also the one who warned readers that their ice cream might contain “beaver butt.”
But scientific evidence indicates that the additives, unappealing as the Food Babe makes them sound, aren’t dangerous when used appropriately.
“She takes innocuous ingredients and makes you afraid of them by pulling them out of context,” D’Entremont complained in one of the tamer passages in her Gawker piece, a litany of the criticisms lobbed at Hari.
D’Entremont said she hoped the runaway popularity of her Food Babe takedown would get Hari to start paying more attention to scientific evidence and to stop harassing food companies.
In an email to The Times, Hari said that if anything, the recent spate of criticism was “a sign we are winning.”
“They can bring up an inadvertent error I wrote 4 years ago until they are blue in the face,” she wrote (in 2011, Hari had complained that the air pumped into aircraft cabins was “mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%.” The atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, D’Entremont snapped back on Gawker), “but it won’t change the fact that millions of people will be healthier and have greater access to safer food as the result of our activism.”
Veteran science communicators said that writers like the Science Babe — outspoken, informal, relatable — play an important role in teaching the public.
In an age when many people seeking answers to health questions are more likely to consult Dr. Google than their own physicians, solid science can get shoved aside, said UC Davis biologist and author Pamela Ronald, who herself has come under fire from activists for her work with genetically modified, flood-tolerant rice.
Ronald said that the science community wants to combat widespread “fear-mongering” about climate change and vaccine safety (another Food Babe focus) but that many older scientists, accustomed to focusing on journal articles, don’t want to engage in the informal conversations.
“There is a hunger for science-based information … [and] scientists have hung back too long,” said Ronald, who applauded D’Entremont’s sense of humor. “I think there’s a huge need for bloggers like Science Babe.”
Others thought that the Science Babes of the world — youth, overblown outrage, dirty jokes and all — might help forge a new relationship between their field and the public, which for so long has viewed scientists as alien beings in lab coats.
“With blogging, the image of who the scientist is has changed a lot,” said USC physicist Clifford Johnson, who blogs at Asymptotia. Writing for the Web “enabled me and others to show the general public that people who look like them do science and are regular people. That’s a major thing.”
By last fall, D’Entremont, who has a master’s degree in forensics, had started ranting publicly about bunk science on Facebook, taking on the name “Science Babe” in a direct swipe at the Food Babe.
When she and a friend made the sleeping pills video to pressure drugstores to stop selling homeopathic remedies next to actual pharmaceuticals, it attracted an audience of hundreds of thousands. She decided she needed to start SciBabe.com.
“People keep saying, ‘Randi did it first,’” she said. “I know! Where do you think I got the idea? I’m not trying to take credit for it.”
D’Entremont readily admits that her attack on the Food Babe is not original. Many have taken Hari to task in recent weeks and months — from science sites to skeptics to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
But D’Entremont, who describes herself as “scientist as drinking buddy” and strikes vampy poses on her website, is happy to take credit for touching a cultural nerve that others haven’t been able to reach.
“This is the first time a mainstream site has let someone go really hard on the Food Babe,” she said. “I knew one of us eventually would crack this. It happened to be this story. I’m not sure if it was the straw that broke the camel’s back or the anvil. It might have been the flaming anvil.”
Gawker features editor Leah Finnegan, who had read about Hari and thought she sounded “crazy,” came across D’Entremont after Googling “Food Babe” and “takedown.”
One story assignment and 41/2 million hits later, Finnegan mused: “I don’t know if it was the ‘babe vs. babe’ thing, or if it was just a really good takedown.”
It was D’Entremont’s first paid writing gig. Within a week of its debut, her Facebook followers exploded from 32,000 to more than 100,000, and her agent closed a book deal for “SciBabe’s Ten Rules for BS Detection.”
Going viral should keep her new career as science dudette afloat, she thinks. Or hopes.
Recently laid off from pesticide manufacturer Amvac Chemical Corp., she had been out of work and almost out of money. Now she was accepting paid speaking engagements and waiting to hear if a television series would be in the offing, too.
Soon she’ll need additional publicity to rebrand herself as “SciBabe.” The name “Science Babe,” it turned out, already belonged to Debbie Berebichez, a physicist in New York who wants to be “the new ‘Oprah’ of science,” according to a website bio.
But big-picture plans would have to wait. D’Entremont, her mother and her Chihuahua-terrier mix Buddy (the “Science Dog” or the “Chittier”) were hunkering down in her modest apartment, on the ground floor of a sprawling stucco-clad complex.
A crew from ABC’s “Nightline” was coming to film, and the SciBabe needed to clean up before the team arrived. Her mind was racing.
Would she look attractive on TV? Would she say something that would get her sued? Had “House” actor Hugh Laurie really followed her on Twitter? Really?
What this babe needed in stressful times, she thought, was a margarita and a nap.
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