The Happy Pear twins – the cartwheeling, hummus-peddling, preternaturally self-confident duo from Greystones – have been under fire for suggesting that eating mushrooms and soy products can stop you getting breast cancer. In a since-deleted video, brothers Stephen and David Flynn tout context-free statistics about supposedly higher breast cancer rates in the West, before claiming that “some of the possible factors are excessive saturated fat intake, excessive dairy product intake and excessive animal products intake”.
This is, to give it the technical term, excessive nutribollocks. The video was debunked by several experts, including physicist and cancer scientist Dr David Robert Grimes and breast cancer surgeon Dr Liz O'Riordan. Grimes pointed out there was no clear evidence that avoiding dairy would impact your cancer risk. Perhaps the pair's biggest issue, he said, was to suggest that "you're responsible for your cancer… Cancer is not a moral failing. It is a disease."
The solution the twins offered – aim to reduce your body weight, stop drinking alcohol, eat eight to 13 portions of fruit and veg a day, avoid smoking, mainline those mushrooms and soy products – was a cocktail of sound good sense and unfounded nonsense, all delivered with a confidence that would make Tony Robbins look like an intern on his first day at the office.
The brothers posted an apology last week, but whatever hope it had of reclaiming the narrative was tempered by the fact that they failed to actually apologise. Instead, they smirked their way through a classic “nonpology”.
“We’re really sorry for upsetting anyone,” they beamed. (To be fair, I don’t think the gurning was intentional. Grinning in the manner of a stock photo of a car salesman appears to be their regular resting face.)
The Flynn brothers – who have been dubbed Hummus Jedward on Twitter – seem like likeable fellows. Their advice was presumably well-intentioned, as is their enthusiasm for the idea that they can help people to be healthier. But the fact they have 40 million views on YouTube, 600,000 followers on Instagram and are buddies with Russell Brand does not make them experts in anything other than marketing themselves.
According to his LinkedIn, David Flynn has a certificate in plant-based nutrition he got via a six-week online course from Cornell University in 2011. This course was co-designed by Dr T Colin Campbell, who was most recently in the news for his claim that switching to a whole food, plant-based diet should "lessen the severity of disease symptoms" of Covid-19.
Armed with this qualification, input from a range of medical experts and their incomparable levels of self-belief, the Flynn brothers themselves now offer a suite of online courses which have “helped over 60,000 people in over 120 countries feel healthier, happier, lose weight, lower cholesterol, improve their gut microbiome and digestion, gain more energy and overall feel fantastic”.
Of course, they’re entitled to follow whatever diet they like. What they’re not entitled to do is promise that there are evidence-free or simplistic answers to complex problems. No one is entitled to pick and choose their own “facts”, or to imply that if you get cancer, it’s because of your personal shortcomings.
Facts don't count for a whole heap of mung beans in the profitable world of online wellness though. Much of the attention around how online platforms monetise misinformation has focused on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and the threats to democracy they present. But there's something almost as insidious going on in the touchy-feely, think-yourself-well, nutribollocks-riddled corners of Instagram.
During the pandemic, Instagram became a hub for vaccine-related misinformation. A term originally coined in 2011 –conspirituality – gained traction, as it seemed to capture a growing overlap between people peddling vitamin C infusions and those who believe “the truth” is being hidden by big corporations with top secret agendas.
There are all kinds of reasons this particular brand of quackery is so successful. One of them is to do with the charisma of the wellness influencers themselves. In real life, if you go to an expert for help with a medical issue, you’re probably not interested in whether they have charm, a lovely sofa, great abs or bouncy hair. You’re more likely to want to know if they have a science degree or if they have ever been struck off the medical register.
In the world of online wellness, serious academic qualifications are practically irrelevant, compared to factors like relatability, authenticity, whether your interiors are Insta-friendly and – mostly – how you make your followers feel about themselves.
Influencers exist only because humans place more trust in our feelings than our thoughts. Meta, the Facebook and Instagram parent company, has built an entire empire out of this fundamental character flaw. So has Gwyneth Paltrow. Here, the success of the Happy Pears depends on how good they are at selling their lifestyle.
We need tighter regulation of wellness influencers. But we need to develop new ways of thinking for ourselves too. Two of the clarion calls of the nutribollocks movement are “critical thinking” and “do your own research”. They’re entirely right about this, although not in the way that they mean. We can’t rely only on global tech giants to counter misinformation; we need to become much better at debunking it for ourselves. That starts with teaching critical thinking to children in primary school.
By all means, go to a wellness influencer for advice on what to do with a butternut squash or how to get washboard abs. But if you want to know about the lifestyle changes that may reduce the likelihood of you getting cancer – bearing in mind that no matter what the influencers promise you, 70 per cent of the risk is still going to be beyond your control – talk to an actual doctor.