On a recent flight I was finally able to digest (ha!) Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. The first part of the book is a historical narrative of the science, policy, and politics of nutritionism in the US. In Part I, Pollan mounts a devastating critique of US nutritional science and policy. The climax is Chapter 5, “The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis”, which is perhaps the most important bit of science writing I’ve read all year. I was left wondering why anyone ever listens to nutritionists. The only (and minor) weak point in Part I is the tendency to make the nutritionists’ blunders and the grain industry’s lobbying seem more like a nefarious, well-coordinated conspiracy.
But in the Part III of the book, now that Pollan has knocked the scientific wisdom of the day off its altar, it’s time for him to offer an alternative. And what he proposes isn’t too convincing. One problem is that Pollan spends so little effort convincing us that there is any sound scientific basis to his recommendations. In Part I of the book, Pollan adeptly compares case-control studies, cohort studies, and intervention trials…but the entire scientific basis for Pollan’s recommendations on how to eat in Part III appears to be this passage (note the classic correlation-is-not-causation mistake):
People eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets. Scientists can argue all they want about the biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon, but whichever it is, the solution to the problem would appear to remain very much the same: Stop eating a Western diet.
Instead of science, Pollan’s recommendations rest on cultural traditions. “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he says on pg. 148. “Cultures have had a great deal to say about what and how and why and when and how much we should eat,” says pg. 133.
This train of thought sounds like some creationists’: Both Pollan and creationists poke holes in the scientific orthodoxy and would have us insert tradition in its place. Similarly, creationists think that atheists plot to discredit their work; Pollan warns us to resist the pernicious myths propagated by the “Nutritionalist Industrial Complex”.
The analogy between creationists and In Defense of Food only goes so far, of course. Most importantly, creationists are not nearly as persuasive in their efforts to poke holes in the scientific orthodoxy. And, even if creationists are wrong, Pollan might still be right. Personally, as weak as I find In Defense of Food’s scientific basis, I think Pollan might be on to something – and I can’t say the same for creationists.