Chobani’s Science Lesson: A controversial message on yogurt lids has people talking about anti-science sentiment in America, and the power of social media to change it.

Chobani’s Science Lesson

By ANNA NORTH

JUNE 10, 2014 11:37 AM 4 Comments

The Greek yogurt company Chobani raised hackles last week with a message under some of its lids that read, “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #howmatters.” The company has apologized, but some scientists say the controversy suggests something bigger about anti-science sentiment in America.

Early last week, scientists and their supporters began using the#howmatters hashtag to register their disapproval with the message. And Derek Lowe, a chemist, wrote on his blog In The Pipeline: “The slogan itself is annoying, but what gets me more are the attitudes behind it. First, of course, is the ‘Science = icky’ assumption, which seems to be just taken for granted by whoever wrote this thing.”

Mr. Lowe told Op-Talk that the Chobani message was just one symptom of a widespread notion that what is natural is automatically good. The idea, he said, is “pervasive, especially among consumers who are looking for healthy food or alternative medical treatments. The problem is, cobra venom is all-natural. Strychnine is all-natural. Radioactive uranium is all-natural, it’s found in the earth’s crust. The more you look at it, the more the idea that natural equals good just falls apart.”

David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist whose tweets on the issue were picked up by ABC, told Op-Talk the lids bothered him in part because he was already concerned about what he sees as polarization in the way Americans think about science — kneejerk opposition to technologies like G.M.O.s or nuclear power provoke kneejerk defenses of those technologies, and “you end up with these two sides, and both are avoiding the true subtleties of the issues.” And he believes this polarization is getting worse: “Unfortunately some of these very high-profile culture wars that have scientific issues embedded in them,” like climate change and evolution, “have made it so that people are thinking of science more in political terms, that scientific issues are things to be framed to win an argument, not just aspects of our world.”

Anti-science sentiment may be related to changes in food culture, too. Danielle Lee, a biologist who also tweeted about the issue, told Op-Talk that anti-science attitudes are common among people she knows, especially those who are making an effort to eat a healthy diet. She adds that it wasn’t always thus: Boxed, manufactured foods were once status symbols, she says, but now “the status foods or premium foods are foods that are very perishable, that have very short shelf lives. Now the status is how much time you spent in the kitchen.” And, she says, “science is now a bad word.”

For some, though, what stood out of the Chobani message was the word “scientists.” Piper Klemm, a chemist who tweeted an image of the lid message last week, told Op-Talk she thought it got so much attention because it went beyond the science itself to reference the human beings involved: “They were attacking scientists, which is a whole class of people. I don’t think there would’ve been the uproar if the slogan had been, ‘Nature made us 100 calories, not science.’”

Chobani apologized on Wednesday, tweeting from its official account, “We were too clever for our own good — didn’t intend to put down science or scientists with our recent lid. We discontinued it.#WordsMatter.” Peter McGuinness, the chief marketing and brand officer of Chobani, told Op-Talk that the message was just one of many under-lid messages and that production of the lids in question had actually stopped before the controversy. He added: “It was not at all intended to be anti-science. It was a celebration of nature.” However, he said, “we could’ve chosen some better language.” Chobani, he said, is “not always perfect, and when we’re not, we’re not afraid to admit it.”

Ms. Lee was satisfied with Chobani’s apology. “I think they saw what they did,” she said. “I appreciate them recognizing that and shifting their message.” She also sees the whole episode as reminder that scientists care about how science is portrayed, and they’re ready and willing to speak up about it: “Many of us are getting a feeling that science is under attack, as if people don’t comprehend what we do, why we do it, and who does it. And those of us on the ground, with our mobile devices at the ready, are really concerned about making sure people understand that there’s good information out there about what science is and what science is not.” She added, “I hope companies recognize that we can be a mobilized force at times.”

She also saw the incident as an example of the power of social media: “It can be very effective, particularly when it comes to campaigns of sharing quick little messages or getting ideas out.”

For Mr. Grinspoon, too, “there was something a little bit empowering about the whole episode.” He noted that so-calledhashtag activism has come in for criticism lately, but that he was gratified to be able to send a tweet, see it picked up in a news story, and ultimately have the company apologize. “It made me feel good,” he said, “that you can have a voice in these things.”

He, too, was satisfied with Chobani’s apology, and said he would likely continue to buy the company’s yogurt. But, he noted, Chobani might be able to learn something from their own marketing copy. “The irony is that their hashtag was #howmatters. And one of the lessons is that how we say things matters.”

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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