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Nov. 03, 2011

Is Michael Pollan Anti-Science?

by Carl Flatow

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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!

Looking at his posture on the whole issue, I could break down his thesis as, We’re too focused on specific nutrients, the industrial food-like substance producers have seized upon the science of nutrition and used it to sell us stuff that is making us unhealthy. Let’s go back to basics, he’s saying. Don’t eat anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

I’m with you, Michael…. until you start to demonize science.

Science is a method, not an institution. Science, and scientists, don’t mislead us. Good science is about looking at the world and assembling evidence that there are reliable conclusions that can be drawn, and that anyone who would repeat the experiment we’ve done can reasonably expect to come to the same conclusion we have. The thing that scientists are selling is the proposition that they’ve followed the method conscientiously and therefore their results are sound. Essential to this process is the expectation that others repeat the experiment. The more data we have, the more reliable we find the conclusions, but, in the end, sometimes they’re proven right, sometimes they’re proven wrong, and often we don’t have enough data, yet, to be confident in the conclusion. It’s all part of the ongoing process.

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.

About Carl Flatow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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