Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” — our campuswide Go Big Read book on which the author spoke last night at the Kohl Center — is being heralded as “wide ranging” and “multidisciplinary.” It’s been incorporated into the curricula of over 60 courses to generate conversation, discussion, debate and a “shared intellectual experience.”
The irony is that “In Defense of Food” is decidedly anti-intellectual both in method and explicit advocacy.
While purporting to be a reasoned critique of nutritional science, the book’s actual theme is smuggled in by stealth. This theme is environmentalism, the doctrine that nature has intrinsic value and that anything which tampers with nature — i.e., science, industry and production — is evil.
Pollan presents an “Environmentalist’s Manifesto” masquerading as an “Eater’s Manifesto.” How is he able to do this?
First, he condemns all science as being “reductionist,” narrow, biased and no better than religion. He claims “bias is built into the way science is done” and since it studies things like nutrients that can’t be seen, it is “quasi-religious” and “implies the need for a priesthood.” He assures his readers that “there’s a lot more religion in science than you might expect.”
Forget about competing theories and schools of thought; he says, “In the end, they are only theories, scientific explanations for empirical phenomena…” Pollan, however, with “the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers” on his side, has managed to escape the trappings of science. “I speak mainly on the authority of tradition and common sense,” he tells us.
With science conveniently relegated to a myopic, mystical endeavor, he promptly reverses course, dragging out a barrage of allegedly scientific claims to support his case. Pollan acknowledges the double standard he is employing yet sees no problem with it: “It’s one thing to entertain such [scientific] explanations and quite another to mistake them for the whole truth.”
And there you have Pollan’s gimmick in a nutshell. He feels free to “entertain” science when it suits his purposes and to disregard it when it doesn’t. He conveniently writes off nutritional science as being useless and then presents his own litany of nutritional claims. He dismisses “any and all theories” as self-serving tools of the (gasp!) profit-making food and medical industries, and then proceeds to trot out his own slew of theories on the superiority of the Aboriginal diet (among other things).
Having demoted science in favor of tradition while exempting himself from the same standard, he is free to make his case with impunity. If challenged on scientific grounds, he points to the superiority of tradition; if, however, grandma’s wisdom is questioned, he refers to allegedly scientific studies. With this method at his disposal, Pollan is free to promote his environmentalist agenda.
Among the many claims presented throughout the book, the one Pollan holds as unquestionable is: “the Western diet, however you define it” is the problem. Such is the true nature of his message. The actual agenda of Pollan’s message is not to opine on the quality or benefits that Western foods may or may not have. For Pollan the Western diet is bad because it is Western.
It is not food he’s concerned with. It’s Western culture — i.e., science, industry, production and rational thought. These are the real targets of his environmentalist message. The dark side, according to Pollan, is when food has “crossed over from foods to food products.” It’s production that his definition of food will not permit.
“The advent of agriculture,” he says, “devastated our health.” Moreover, “the health care industry, being an industry, stands to profit more handsomely from new drugs and procedures to treat chronic diseases than it does from a wholesale change in the way people eat” (emphasis added). Not even life-saving drugs and cutting-edge medical procedures can redeem Western culture from environmentalists like Pollan, who regard industry and profit as evil by nature.
It’s important to emphasize that Pollan’s book is not a critique of any particular food processing technique, chemical or industry. It’s an abstract attack on industry as such.
Pollan repeatedly urges the reader to abandon science and “expert advice” in favor of the “authority of tradition,” and to avoid food that is “more the product of industry than of nature,” contains ingredients that are “unfamiliar,” “unpronounceable” or “more than five in number.” In other words: nature good, industry bad; familiarity good, innovation bad; ignorance good, knowledge bad.
According to him, it is not the objective merits of a particular product that matter but whether it resembles what our ancestors ate. Even industry’s ability to produce food at lower costs is to be shunned because … wait for it … “we’re likely to eat more of it … than our ancestors ever would have.”
Together Pollan’s ideas supplant intellectual discussion with emotional nostalgia for the pre-rational, pre-industrial past. And while the book does raise a number of important issues, Pollan’s environmentalism prevents an objective treatment of these issues.
Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in the biological sciences.