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.