FILE UNDER 'THINGS I DON'T GET': The obsession with Michael Pollan. I read In Defense of Food a few weeks ago, because the professor I was housesitting for happened to own a copy. Now, the first thing they teach you in grad school is how to rip apart someone else's argument, especially when it has methodological problems, so I am likely to be over-critical. On the other hand, I am tired of evangelicals being painted with the anti-science book, and the part of In Defense of Food that is not common sense masked as daring truth-telling is almost a parody of the anti-science mentality. To wit:
1. Repeated mentions that scientists only study nutrients, and you can't even see nutrients! There's a fair point to be made about a. the complexity of the systems most scientists work with and b. the difficulty of isolating variables, especially when humans are involved (as any social scientist will happily tell you), but the fair point is rarely made. Scientists are portrayed as mandarins who keep esoteric knowledge to themselves. Argument by anecdote: I know a lot of scientists and engineers, and barely understand what any of them do. That some area of research is inscrutable to outsiders is not a reflection on the enterprise undertaken.
2. Studies in nutrition science are disreputable unless they confirm my thesis, in which case they're flawed, but the best we can do.
3. The replacement of one thesis with another over time is evidence that scientists either a. don't know what they're doing or b. deliberately trying to hide their past mistakes. Pollan likes to begin his historical narratives in the 19th century, and put scientists from all periods on the hook for mistakes that were made back then, as though these all constituted one narrative and not the work of disparate figures working under disparate conditions. The one explanation never considered is that as general scientific knowledge increases, paradigms change, and once a paradigm is discarded, it's redundant to go back and explain why: people are giving the best explanation we have.
As I say, maybe this is too harsh, but I really don't get it.