Science Friday’s Carl Flatow: Is Michael Pollan Anti-Science?

Over at The Science Friday Blog, Carl Flatow writes,

Readers of this blog know that I have been inspired by Michael Pollan’s work. I have read all of his books, learned a lot of useful information and cheered him on as he directed the national conversation in a more healthful direction.

About two years ago while listening to Michael speaking on a local radio talk show I cringed as he declared that scientists were to blame our problems. I quickly emailed Michael to protest that the problem wasn’t the scientists. In his brief reply he agreed that I was right.

Last night on national TV, about halfway through his conversation with Stephen Colbert, he did it again. As he began to frame the problem he said, “…we’ve been listening to scientists for too long and they really have misled us….” I beg to differ!

It is unlikely to surprise readers of this blog that I often find Pollan’s treatment of science to be problematic. Indeed, when I watched the Colbert Report interview last week, I initially decided that the line Flatow quotes was far more innocent than the bits of Pollan’s work that I quoted in my Berkeley Science Review piece in September. Until I found Flatow’s piece I wasn’t planning to blog the Colbert Report interview.

Flatow’s title asks, “Is Michael Pollan Anti-Science?” I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Pollan seems perfectly happy to use science, so long as it supports the general thrust of his work. In both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan cites a number of scientific studies, conceding in the latter work that science is “the sharpest experimental and explanatory tool we have.” Scientific studies have been known to appear on Pollan’s Twitter feed, too. But sometimes he’ll use dubious science to make his case; other times he’ll argue against science. It all makes for an argument that is a bit confused, to say the least.

Flatow goes on to explain the work of scientists, whom he contrasts with marketers:

People who are trying to sell us something, on the other hand, often mislead us. In that case (their mission is not to find conclusions on which we can reasonably agree) their mission is to take as much from us as they can before we realize we’ve been cheated.

Michael, PLEASE stop confusing scientists with marketers, you’re stepping on your own great message.

I’m not holding my breath on that one. Moreover, I disagree that Pollan is “stepping on” his message. The vilification of science is a part of Pollan’s message. That’s not to say that a food reform message needs to blame science, but that Pollan does it enough that I have to believe that he very much means it as a part of his message.

Flatow’s point about “people who are trying to sell us something” is an important one, perhaps more so than he intended. Michael Pollan didn’t appear on The Colbert Report just because he couldn’t think of anything else to do that night. He went on the show because he was trying to sell copies of the new edition of Food Rules. The message that science-based dietary advice is responsible for our public health crisis is part of the appeal of Pollan’s books; people like being told that they don’t have to listen to experts.

I can only hope that Flatow’s piece will mark a turning point, and that science-minded people in positions of influence will start pushing back against the anti-science message and scientific misinformation that is all too common in Pollan’s work.

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13 Comments »

  1. Jim in Chicago said

    Saw the Colbert segment and had a “did I just hear that” reaction.

    If not mentioned by another poster previously there are a couple interesting books that begin to explain how and why we’re able to accomodate dubious advocacy. Counterknowledge is one and Why Smart People Believe Weird Things is another.

    I believe (which does not make me smart) that Pollan does some good things such as suggesting that we shouldn’t eat if we’re not hungry and promoting the fact that eating an apple is better for us than eating a cookie. He’s also right that this is the sort of advice we’d get from our grandparents. I received this advice from my mom and so don’t need to buy a book to relearn this.

    Pollan is interested in food and seems to read about it a great deal so I am interested in his perspective. But to suggest that science has misled us is going too far.

    One might posit, if they were cynical like me, that the strategy behind “science has misled us” is laying pipe for a bushel basket full of future products (ideas, speeches, books, etc.).

    When someone pushes back on a new idea (and most likely that person is from industry or doing academic work funded by industry because that’s where considerable knowledge resides) with facts and science, a science-based argument is now unneccessary. I have a clear path to write my book and make my argument with feel good (and feel bad) stories.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Jim, my apologies for not replying to your comment sooner. I thought I had replied already, but apparently not.

      Basically, I agree with everything you write. I think the point about having gotten the good part of Pollan’s advice from your mom raises an interesting question. To what extent are people learning from Pollan’s books? To what extent are they just coming to feel better about the way they already eat?

  2. I think Pollan is trying to tap into the mistrust that a lot of people have of science. I encounter this pretty frequently. A friend of mine, who is overall a pretty smart guy, told me a few weeks ago that he doesn’t really “believe” in science. I told him that science is just a method, just a tool, and if he feels that people are misusing it, he should direct his ire at the misuse of science, not science itself. He agreed, but I have a feeling that it didn’t really stick. It’s just easier to mistrust science in general than it is to examine motives on a case-by-case basis.

    I often hear people say things like “one minute coffee’s good for you, then the next day you read that it’s bad for you, so who knows what to believe?” I sympathize with them, but it definitely doesn’t warrant a general mistrust of scientists. It should just make you take prescriptions based on scientific work with a grain of salt. Politics and industry (so, basically money) can slowly corrupt absolutely everything, and the integrity of scientists is no different.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I think you have it exactly right, and I really hate to see that mistrust of science legitimized by somebody like Pollan.

  3. Neil said

    Something else must be eating at you to devote so much energy to countering Pollan’s work in this way. Oh, I just figured it out, you are offended because you LOVE fast food and soda pop. Ok now it all makes sense to me. But, seriously, Michael Pollan isn’t anti science. Why all the backlash against someone who states the obvious: “That governments and corporations use faulty science to promote their self-interests/agendas”. As you pointed out, Pollan himself endorses science as “our sharpest tool”. Ok, end of story(?). What’s the debate here? Perhaps, you don’t want to believe that our nation is sick because of industrial food.

    • Neil, did you even bother to read a word of this blog before coming to these conclusions? I wouldn’t blame Adam for ignoring your comment since you have clearly neglected to try to understand what this blog is about before impugning his motives.

      Lazy.

    • Adam Merberg said

      speciesistvegan pretty much nailed it already, but I will add a few things.

      Something else must be eating at you to devote so much energy to countering Pollan’s work in this way. Oh, I just figured it out, you are offended because you LOVE fast food and soda pop. Ok now it all makes sense to me.

      Since you’ve decided to make this about me, I’ll tell you a few things about myself. I don’t drink soda or patronize fast food chains, but I sometimes eat at a local veggie burger joint. I’m also an unpaid member of the board of directors of an organization which has a dual mission of educating the local community about food issues and providing local, ecologically sound, fair, and humane foods to the community. I’ve devoted vastly more time and energy to that organization than I have to writing this blog. (Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone, however.) Last year, when UC Berkeley was discussing renewing its beverage contract with Coca-Cola, I spoke out against renewal, arguing that the company’s environmental programs amounted to greenwashing.

      Anyway, enough about me.

      But, seriously, Michael Pollan isn’t anti science.

      I didn’t argue that he’s anti-science. Did you read the post? I have argued that he misrepresents science or blames science unfairly, and I stand behind that point. If you can read my piece at the Berkeley Science Review, I’d be interested to hear any defense you might offer for the passages cited.

      Why all the backlash against someone who states the obvious: “That governments and corporations use faulty science to promote their self-interests/agendas”.

      If that were the point that Pollan made, that would be fantastic. It’s not the point he makes.

      As you pointed out, Pollan himself endorses science as “our sharpest tool”. Ok, end of story(?).

      If Michael Pollan didn’t say anything else about science, then it would be the end of the story. But the fact is, he has a record of misrepresenting science, and calling science “our sharpest tool” doesn’t somehow undo that.

      Perhaps, you don’t want to believe that our nation is sick because of industrial food.

      But haven’t you read In Defense of Food, where Pollan argues that science-based dietary advice “bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us”?

  4. CAW said

    Adam,

    Have you considered this view (I do not know whether others have put it forward in the past): It seems to me that Pollan has created a conception of food that is not always consistent with what we might want to see in food /policy/. There are two conversations that he is always having: (1) what is our relationship with food; and (2) what are the best food policies that we should adopt. Depending on how you conceptualize one or the other, they will at times clash. I think we should, of course, try to create a conception of both that are consistent and mutually reinforcing. But it seems to me that Pollan first asks what food is and then lets everything flow from that first question. The problem arises when that conception of food does not fit well with science for the purposes of food policy or brings us to bizarre places in the policy domain, creating a need to distort the science.

    Thoughts?

    • Adam Merberg said

      There’s definitely some good stuff to think about there, CAW. I’ll want to think about these ideas more carefully, but for now I’ll mention one thing. I’ve previously written about Julie Guthman’s criticisms of Pollan. Much of her criticism is related to the apolitical nature of Pollan’s solution. Anyway, she has recently published a book, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, which offers a convincing challenge to many of the ideas promoted by Pollan and others in the mainstream food movement, most notably the idea that individual behavioral changes will add up to the broader change that is needed.

      Guthman doesn’t address Pollan’s distortions of science aside from suggesting that correlations he cites are spurious, but it seems to me there’s very much a connection insofar as both relate to a focus on the personal.

      I’ll be running a series of posts here featuring parts of the book that are criticisms of Pollan in particular, but I think the whole book is well worth reading.

      • CAW said

        Hi Adam,

        Thanks for the reference to Guthman’s new book. I think that criticism, that we must think carefully about how to achieve change most effectively (through regulation, encouraging behavioral change, or, as is most likely, some combination of the two), is on a slightly different track than the one I’d be curious to hear you talk about sometime in the future. In my mind, conceptually, thinking about food (in the line of Pollan’s books, like Food Rules, In Defense of Food, etc.) is a distinctly different exercise than thinking about food policy (public health, sustainability, food security).

        Right now I am thinking of the FAO’s recent reports on “sustainable intensification” (SOLAW http://www.fao.org/nr/solaw/solaw-home/en/; and “Save and Grow” http://www.fao.org/ag/save-and-grow/). The questions asked in this domain are very different than the ones that Pollan asks. There is overlap, for sure, but the distinction feels a lot like the one between a consumer/individual and a citizen/polity that pops up in lots of other areas. When a person acts as a consumer, those actions might appear inconsistent with their actions as a citizen (such as when voting for things or supporting policies that go against how they act when purchasing goods, like Buffett asking to be taxed more).

        I’m curious to explore where Pollan’s approach to food creates trouble when he tries to make suggestions in the policy domain. For instance, Pollan says that animals are needed to close the nutrient cycle, “Save and Grow” in contrast does not (rather, it suggests only that there are ways to raise livestock more sustainably, but they are by no means necessary). In the SOLAW report, FAO embraces an ecosystem services approach to agriculture production (one that measures natural resource inputs and asks whether they are constrained (and therefore need to have a value associated with them, like erosion prevention or water filtration)), rather than more traditional macro-economic supply-and-demand.

        There are probably other (and better) examples of what I mean to ask.

  5. Eric B. said

    Adam, Have you ever read Wendell Berry’s book Life is a Miracle? Your thoughts on the role of science make me think of that book right away. I would highly recommend it to you if you haven’t read it, and I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.
    I’m also reminded of Einstein quotes I’ve heard about science, particularly how imprecisely it translates to real world use.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I haven’t read the book, but I’ll put it on my (already quite long) reading list.

  6. […] position on Twinkies exemplifies a characteristic of Pollan’s work that was previously explained by commenter CAW: There are two conversations that he is always having: (1) what is our relationship with food; and […]

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