Archive for September, 2011

How Michael Pollan misrepresents science

A couple of months ago, I was invited to write a piece on Michael Pollan’s treatment of science for the blog of The Berkeley Science Review,  a UC Berkeley graduate student publication dedicated to writing about science for scientists and non-scientists alike. As it happened, it took me a while to find the time to write anything, but my piece addressing both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food just been published.

The first half, addressing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, won’t be anything new for readers who are familiar with my post on Pollan’s reading of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament. Parts of the new post are borrowed directly from that post’s argument that Pollan misrepresents Howard’s work and misunderstands what science is.

The second half of the piece addresses In Defense of Food, and is brand new.  The focus, naturally, is on Pollan’s treatment of nutritionism. Here’s an excerpt:

Pollan quotes a 2001 critical review stating that “the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence.” Without bothering to explain how nutritionism might be discredited by the failure of a public health campaign that wasn’t supported by science, Pollan presents an alternative theory and its implications for the low-fat advice:

The theory is that refined carbohydrates interfere with insulin metabolism in ways that increase hunger and promote overeating and fat storage in the body…If this is true, then there is no escaping the conclusion that the dietary advice enshrined not only in the McGovern “Goals” but also in the National Academy of Sciences report, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us.

This passage implies that the various dietary guidelines that supported the low-fat movement encouraged Americans to compensate for the reduction in calories from fat by eating more white flour and high-fructose corn syrup. However, McGovern’s Goals called for a substantial reduction in sugar consumption and an increase in consumption of carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and grains. Americans increased their sugar consumption and disregarded a recommended decrease in daily energy intake. Incredibly, on the basis of their having followed the recommendation to decrease the percentage of calories consumed in the form of fat, Pollan has declared the Goals not merely unhelpful but directly responsible for the current public health crisis. (This is, to say the least, a surprising departure from Pollan’s explanation of the same crisis in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.”)

(This quote has been updated to reflect a correction.)

I’ll admit that the first time I read In Defense of Food, I mostly enjoyed it, but the second time through, I attempted a closer read and found myself thoroughly disappointed. In the Berkeley Science Review piece, I really only scratched the surface of what’s wrong with its treatment of science. While I’ve come to believe that the work needs a more thorough critique like the one I gave to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ll have to weigh it against various other time-consuming projects (including a number of other writing projects).

If Pollan’s science writings are highly regarded, I can only think that this situation speaks to a need for people with strong scientific backgrounds to communicate effectively with the broader public about science. In that respect, The Berkeley Science Review is a great publication. I encourage you to take a look around their site and subscribe to their RSS feed. Most of their posts are a lot more fun than mine, I promise.

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