On Pollan

by F.

I’m starting to think Michael Pollan, of The Omnivor’s Dilemma fame, is a charlatan speaking about things of which he knows very, very little. In this, he appears to be a journalist who thinks he is a subject matter expert because he can write well. His latest piece in the New York Times is, as far as I can see, junk. Seth Roberts points out the flaws in Pollan’s article:

Several big important stories contradict Pollan’s conclusions. One is the story of B vitamin supplementation of flour and other processed food, which greatly reduced neural birth defects. I heard a dean of a public health school tell a room full of new students that this one advance, which averted so much suffering, fully justified all the money spent on schools of public health. I agree. Processing food is not always bad. Sometimes it can be very good. When you process food based on a correct theory, that often happens. Food sterilization, refrigeration, and preservation via additives — all based on a correct theory, the germ theory of disease — have had many benefits. It’s when you process food based on a wrong theory — such as the theory that fat causes obesity — that you can easily do more harm than good.

There is no turning back. We can’t avoid processed food. To move forward, we need better theories to guide the processing. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I think ancient foodways are a good source of evidence with which to build theories (e.g., Weston Price) but of course there are many other good sources of evidence

I love this point about ancient foodways being a source of hypothesis generation—but they are still hypotheses that need to be tested. Pollan stops at the hypothesis generation phase. “Premise: Oh, well, 50,000 years ago human ate such-and-such. Conclusion: Therefore, we should, too.” Huh? Where’s the evidentiary link in this inference?

Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer swoons over Pollan’s anti-reductionism. Blech. But there’s an entertaining riposte in the comments, which focuses on Pollan’s apparent hobbyhorse— “reductionist science.” Reductionist science? Is there any other kind? That statement has to qualify as some sort of tautology. Bad science is bad science, but not because it is in principle reductionist. I suppose we should try the alternative to science, which is…uh…uh…uh…what exactly?

[Pollan] is nuts. First, common statistical tests can tell you about the complex interactions between individual variables. So the claim that the real world is potentially more complicated than a purely additive scenario, while true, is boring and presents no trouble in assessing the interaction effects aside from the main effects. If he’s saying we need more research, and more careful research, well, no shit.

Second, you’d think the guy hadn’t studied even the most basic history of nutrition science. If I followed his advice and ate “mostly plants,” let’s assume I really dug corn — natural, not-fooled-around-with corn. Pretty soon, I’d develop dermatitis, red skin lesions, and become dazed and confused. I would have Pellagra, due to a niacin deficiency. If you think this couldn’t balloon into a public health problem — guess again. This is exactly what happened when Spanish commoners began relying solely on maize after it was introduced from the Americas.

In fact, the main storyline throughout our post-agricultural history is how malnourished we became after leaving our hunter-gatherer lifestyle. H-Gs eat a wide variety of foods and have a pretty balanced nutritional intake. Most agriculturalists, especially those below the level of super-rich, depended on a few staples. And again, if they lacked key nutrients, you got an epidemic of Pellagra or Scurvy; and if the crop failed, you got the Irish potato famine.

Earlier in the 20th C in the US, they found out that fortifying table salt with iodine increased IQ by several points — pretty cheap solution, with permanent effects, unlike educational interventions. The developing world is beginning to understand the importance of this nutrient for IQ and has begun fortifying their salt with iodine also. There was an NYT article on this topic 12/16/06 (“In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt”).

All of Pollan’s obfuscation could be accurately predicted just conditioning on reading the phrase “reductionist science.”