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.

13 Comments »

  1. beforewisdom said

    Thanks for writing this. So many people write so much BS about nutrition, with the lot of BS having great potential for harm as there always people who will believe it.

    On the upside, I believe that despite denialists continuing to assert bogus beliefs after a piece of writing that has been debunked, that many people do read and take to heart a good “debunking”.

    I wrote a review on Amazon for a bogus nutrition book that was little more than an advertisement for an overpriced supplement. A background in science wasn’t need to call out the BS in this book,just someone bother to read it closely and write about it closely. My review got a number of loud angry comments ( what I call “denialists” ) claiming conspiracy, but the number of votes my review got for being helpful far outweighed those comments.

    Bottom line, people do listen to debunkings. It isn’t a thankless job, though it may feel like one. Thanks much for taking the time to write all of this.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks for making it a less thankless job!

  2. Hi Adam,

    (Apologies in advance for the length.)

    Long time no see. I recall you mentioning your critiques of Pollan while I was part of the BSFC start-up effort. However, I didn’t stumble upon this blog until now. I’ve now read this post, the Berkeley Science Review piece, and your main review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (among other posts). Interesting stuff. I’m glad that someone is taking figures in the food movement to task for the unscientific and sometimes anti-scientific rhetoric that sometimes comes out of the movement.

    I agree with you that one of the biggest problems is a tendency to conflate science with reductionism. One complication here is that many of the movers and shakers behind the rise of modern science (e.g. Descartes and Newton) *were* reductionists: they dreamed of reducing scientific explanations to a small set of universal laws, and their progress in that direction is responsible for some early scientific discoveries. Reductionism continues to color popular perceptions of what science is about. For example, whenever I hear someone talking about “holism” or about things being “more than the sum of their parts”, I feel a strong inclination to dismiss what I’m hearing as “unscientific”. This is partly because those sorts of claims frequently come from individuals whose thinking is unscientific. But it is also because I mentally associate science with reductionism.

    I’m curious to know your opinion about how often this conflation of science with reductionism results from a real misunderstanding of science and how often it simply results from sloppy thinking and speaking/writing.

    Do you remember that talk I gave about to the BSFC about the transition from medieval philosophy and modern philosophy? During that talk, I pretty much described “science” in reductionist terms: I said that science seeks to explain a thing’s properties in terms of the properties of its parts. This was an unfortunate misstatement. I should have said that this was what certain early-modern philosophers and scientists sought to do. Anyway, I say all of this just to point out the ease with which the conflation of science with reductionism can occur.

    I suspect you would say that Pollan’s conflation of science with reductionism results from a misunderstanding science. But what about other authors in the food movement, since you apparently follow a number of them?

    Of course, another relevant question is whether reductionism is really such a bad thing. Reductionism is the attempt to explain the properties of a whole in terms of the properties of its parts. This doesn’t mean that a reductionist must refuse to recognize the *existence* of the whole’s properties until they can be explained in terms of lower-level properties. For example, it’s not just that scientists can recognize the benefits of fruits and vegetables without being able to isolate the beneficial compounds—reductionists can too. If nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium alone produce less-nutritious crops than does biologically-rich humus, then even the stauchest reductionist need not reject his reductionism in order to see the benefit of using biologically-rich humus.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Hi Joseph,

      Thanks for your comment. You bring an interesting philosophical perspective to the discussion.

      To be honest, I do my best not to speculate publicly on why Pollan gets science wrong. I can’t really see any good coming out of putting that on the record.

      I don’t really follow that many food movement figures, but certainly Pollan isn’t the only one who misrepresents science. I find his work particularly unfortunate because he also misrepresents his sources in doing so. He also has a bigger audience than most food movement figures, and is a professor at Berkeley. (Incidentally, here’s one food reformer arguing that organic agriculture is rooted in science.)

      Your last paragraph raises the point that there are really multiple kinds of reductionism. There is reducing a complex system to its constituent parts, and you offer a strong argument that that isn’t necessarily so bad. Then there is reducing a complex question to a simple one, as Howard accused conventional agriculture of doing. I wonder if there is an effective way to classify good and bad reductionism?

  3. No. 534 said

    I was poking around Michael Pollan’s site when I stumbled across this blatant example of his misrepresentation of science, perhaps better stated as some sort of fear or hatred of science. He’s adding new food rules to a release of the similarly titled book, and has a preview of some new additions (emphasis mine):

    Michael Pollan Counts Down His Favorite New Rules

    #7. Enjoy Drinks That Have Been Caffeinated by Nature, Not Food Science

    Coffee and tea can make us happy, alert, and more energetic, which might help explain why scientists have worked so hard to find something wrong with them. At one time or another, these traditional caffeinated beverages have been linked to heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and bone loss, but so far coffee and tea have been exonerated on every count. And in fact the antioxidants in coffee and tea (as well as in chocolate, which also contains caffeine) may do us some good. Too much caffeine can make people jittery and anxious, however, and the jury is still out on the new generation of caffeinated energy drinks. So at least for now, you’re probably better off getting your caffeine, in moderation, from a plant rather than a factory.

    Say what?!

    “Scientists have worked so hard to find something wrong” with coffee and tea? That’s a grand accusation. I don’t doubt that scientists have focused on potential health risks of coffee and tea, but this is likely from a similar cultural inquiry that many health conscious people have due to the stimulating, addictive qualities of these beverages. People from your general health food consumers to religious groups like Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons tend to eschew coffee and (black) tea since the long term effects of caffeine are suspect.

    So while I’m sure that at least a few studies may have found some correlations with caffeine consumption and negative health outcomes, Pollan sites this as science’s bad influence on food, as if all scientists had an agenda to discredit these beverages. But then he goes right ahead and lauds how coffee and tea have been exonerated, but failed to mention by whom. Food scientists maybe? He wouldn’t even have this language of beneficial antioxidants if it weren’t for food scientists. What “jury” is he talking about when contemplating whether caffeinated energy drinks are harmful or not? Food scientists!

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks for this comment, No. 534, and my apologies for the slow reply.

      The bit you object to–”Scientists have worked so hard to find something wrong” with coffee and tea–seems like it’s probably at least a bit tongue-in-cheek. I do think, however, that it’s pretty unhelpful with the public’s existing distrust and misunderstanding of science. It’s probably more helpful with selling books, though.

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. Eric B. said

    I see a lot of philosophical points about science in this discussion, and as usual the voices of scientism seem to want to claim scientific authority for what is not science but philosophy. I think that’s one of the best overall aspects of In Defense of Food. And in any case, taking the reductionist studies that science deals in and applying those to real life diets and real world problems is no longer science but the work of journalists and health officials and marketing professionals and politicians and public policy advocates… Isn’t Pollan’s point that we’d be fools to trust our food choices to that fray (and all it’s money-corrupting influences) a point worth taking? As he said, “the most important thing to know about the campaign to professionalize dietary advice is that it has not made us any healthier.”
    I want to throw some Wendell Berry comments into this discussion. They won’t stand on their own very well, but they’re much better than nothing.
    “But let us…abandon our superstitious beliefs about knowledge: that it is ever sufficient; that it can of itself solve problems; that it is intrinsically good; that it can be used objectively or disinterestedly. Let us acknowledge that the objective or disinterested researcher is always on the side that pays best.”
    “The human definition of the natural world is always going to be too small, because the world’s more diverse and complex than we can ever know. We’re not going to comprehend it; it comprehends us. The question is whether we can use it with respect. Some people in the past who knew very little biology were able to use the land without destroying it. We, who know a great deal of biology, are destroying our land in order to use it.” I’d rephrase that last point and say that we’re living in the most scientifically enlightened age ever and yet we’re exercising poorer stewardship of creation than we ever have, both in terms of mountaintop removal, suburban sprawl, and massive oil spills in the ocean, and certainly in terms of our own physical health, as Pollan says.

    • Adam Merberg said

      What I think is disturbing about Pollan’s treatment of science is that in which science takes the blame for the problems of the political atmosphere. In his denunciation of nutritionism, Pollan tells us of the cattle ranchers’ role in having the advice to reduce meat consumption stricken from the Dietary Goals, of the food industry’s funding of research to prove the healthfulness of their products, and of the food processors’ rush to provide us with “low-fat pork, low-fat Snackwell’s, and all the low-fat pasta and high-fructose (yet low-fat!) corn syrup we could consume.” If, however, the problem lies with listening to science, the message is that all of these things are inescapable consequences of paying attention to scientists, and that there is no point in working for a government that listens to scientists instead of lobbyists, for science untainted by corporate interests, or for the repeal of the agricultural subsidies that make cheap high-fructose corn syrup possible.

      Anyway, I’m curious what you think of Albert Howard, who, as I wrote, was pro-science.

      • Eric B. said

        I’ve never read much of Howard. I know that he’s considered kind of an intellectual grandfather to the modern local-organic agriculture movement, and I definitely support the holistic factions of that movement, but that’s about all I can say.

        As to Pollan’s treatment of science, I think a lot of the fault has to be laid on the scientism-ists that have oversold science so far that the popular understanding of science has become synonymous with scientism. I wouldn’t fault Pollan for accepting the popular usage.

        If you’re saying the problems of our political atmosphere aren’t the fault of science, I’d say scientism-ists have already sold everyone on the idea that science is able to answer political, social, economic, and even moral problems. If “science” had been content to limit its pronouncements to a purely scientific realm, then it might be fair to say that political problems weren’t the fault of science, but I think “science” can fairly be judged according to where it speaks, and the broadly accepted understanding of “science” encompasses more than enough public policy, historical interpretation, moral assumptions, economic assumptions, etc., etc. that I think Pollan is quite right to take it to task.

        Along those very same lines, are you saying that we ought to be working for a government that listens to scientists instead of lobbyists? Can you give any example of what science could tell government? Are you suggesting that science should be able to guide government policy independent of value judgments? (Maybe I misunderstood your point.)

        On a completely different subject, have you ever thought about going WWOOF’ing? Pollan went to Salatin’s farm presumably because it seemed to him like a particularly good representation of how we ought to be farming. If you were to pick out a farm that you thought was a particularly good representation of how we ought to be farming, I’d love to hear what conclusions a few weeks on such a farm would lead you to. I suspect you might be able to offer better insights than Pollan did after going to Salatin’s. (I thought that section was the weakest part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

      • Adam Merberg said

        As to Pollan’s treatment of science, I think a lot of the fault has to be laid on the scientism-ists that have oversold science so far that the popular understanding of science has become synonymous with scientism. I wouldn’t fault Pollan for accepting the popular usage.

        I might have let it pass if not for the fact that he made it seem like Albert Howard’s work supported his position. It didn’t.

        If you’re saying the problems of our political atmosphere aren’t the fault of science, I’d say scientism-ists have already sold everyone on the idea that science is able to answer political, social, economic, and even moral problems.

        Really? Which “scientism-ists” are you talking about?

        Along those very same lines, are you saying that we ought to be working for a government that listens to scientists instead of lobbyists? Can you give any example of what science could tell government? Are you suggesting that science should be able to guide government policy independent of value judgments? (Maybe I misunderstood your point.)

        I certainly don’t mean to suggest that. However, I think that insofar as governments are making policies pertaining to scientific knowledge, they should listen to scientists. I was specifically referring to lobbyist influence in the dietary guidelines. That’s not the best example because one can have a discussion about whether the government should issue dietary guidelines, but if they’re going to exist, I’d rather the government base them on science than lobbyists. And I do think scientists can have important things to say about policies relating to eradication of diseases, for example.

  6. Eric B. said

    I think I’m missing your point about Albert Howard. What did Howard say that contradicts Pollan? And how does that relate to Pollan’s criticisms of scientism?

    When I “say scientism-ists have already sold everyone on the idea that science is able to answer political, social, economic, and even moral problems” what comes to mind first is something that passed the Georgia legislature that called for science-based answers to food safety questions. That, I think, is clearly a case of people looking to science to answer questions that clearly extend beyond what science can answer. Can science really tell us the best way to eat? Can science scientifically speak to hugely complicated systemic differences like the difference between a more agrarian society and a highly industrialized society? What’s the safety of a food that travels more miles when there’s a 1 in 85 chance of dying on the road? Can science speak scientifically once questions of safety reach that level of complexity? Science only answers the narrower questions because each broadening of the question compounds margins of error and leads to inconclusive results — scientifically inconclusive is often much more scientific than our common scientism. What’s the risk of fecal contamination of three free range chickens foraging across 15 acres? What can science say about what’s statistically insignificant? And what question has any government ever dealt with that’s uncomplicated enough for science to be able to give statistically significant answers?

    To follow up on your example, what kind of thing might be scientifically said about government policies on disease eradication?

  7. […] well also mention that I’ve previously blogged Julie Guthman’s criticisms, as well as a few of my own. Share this:MoreLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this […]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: