With a grain of salt (or GMO corn) ….

MichaelPollen_OmnivoreBookCover

Thanks to James Byrne’s (RiAus) discussion yesterday of his blogging regarding use of antibiotics in the US meat and livestock industry, I have been prompted to discuss the bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press, New York, 2006) by US celebrity food writer and Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the Berkeley Graduate School of Jornalism, Michael Pollan. You may have come across the book if you consider yourself a ‘foodie’, organic agriculture supporter, agro-scientist, sustainability student, or government/big business conspiracy-theorist. I think it is also quite pertinent to the subject matter of this blog – negotiating science literacy through the intersection of science, domestic life and cultural ‘norms’.

The reason I want to talk about this work is because I read and reviewed it while undertaking another course and looked at it from the perspective of global food systems (I will attempt to post and link to my book review later). However, after a talk from Dr Paul Willis at RiAUS yesterday morning about science literacy and science equity, I went back to my original book review and realised I hadn’t addressed or even clearly acknowledged the strong science theme running through it. In fact I ignored it almost entirely.  As per usual my interest was focussed more squarely upon the cultural dynamics at play. But upon reflection, Pollan comments a great deal upon science, both directly and indirectly to frame his debate on the politics of food.  These comments are usually in the context of highlighting evidence and mainly about the ‘evil’ of science (muwha-ha-ha) or rather the evil of the industrial food system which has been driven forward based upon scientific breakthroughs. It does this, however, in a very dramatically engaging and entertaining style – incessantly firing selective scientific facts and figures at the reader to shock and awe. It is through the ‘unbelievable-ness’ that one believes what is claimed on the page. What does that say about how our brains process information?

          The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a borrowed phrase from research psychologist Paul Rozin (1976) referring to how people’s biological ability to ingest just about anything nature offers creates anxiety when it comes to deciding what we should eat. Being generalist eaters has advantages and disadvantages, allowing us to sustain ourselves across different environments but it also means we can be faced with too much choice. Our cultural traditions which codify, ‘the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions’ (2006, p.4) are no longer reliable guides as our food chain becomes longer and more anonymous through an industrialised process.

Contributing to the omnivore’s dilemma is a modern food industry offering us cheaper variety than ever before in ever diverging processed food forms. This complicates our ability to identify what is ‘good’ food and what is ‘bad’ when contemplating health, ethical and moral questions.  If eating represents our fundamental engagement with the natural world as suggested by Pollan, then our consumption of highly processed food pumped out of the industrial food chain is a rather dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship.

Pollan Quote

Pollan directs particular criticism towards the growth of the commercial GMO agriculture sector and the industrialised livestock model including the use antibiotics to enable ruminants to digest corn (because it is cheap and produces high-yielding harvests thanks to genetic modification) which hardly sounds like scintillating reading. He is, however, an undeniably great storyteller but he has also been accused of failing to tell the full story and reliably represent the science-based facts he uses. Adam Merberg[i] who is well-known online for critiquing Michael Pollan provided an opinion piece for the Berkeley Science Review which criticizes Pollan’s work for a lack of accuracy in representing the historical scientific record and failing to understand the scientific method. There is also a good discussion to found in the article’s attached comments from readers.

I guess there is a dilemma about a literary genre which is not aimed at science professionals but at the public and to be successful it therefore needs to be entertaining and compelling; hence the drama underpinned by a selective interpretation of history. I have no doubt Pollan believes passionately in what he says as do many of his readers who are likely to take a dim view of scientific endeavour after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma  as it fails to sufficiently differentiate the underlying science from what the science was used for (which is also up for debate).  Pollan is criticising scientific reductionism suggesting throughout his book society is sometimes too quick to employ new discoveries without fully understanding them. This is a point I am inclined to agree with to some degree.  Does this suggest there are limitations to the scientific method? Perhaps – with our somewhat fallible decision-making. I look forward to your opinions in response to that particular query.

Pollan is a very successful and plausible communicator who knows his audience. Whether or not you agree with his opinions, his work is bringing application of science up for debate by popular audience through demonstrating its significant place in their lives; albeit not always in a good light. But isn’t this important too? I don’t think anyone would suggest it is good for science should be isolated from challenge. And all too often, science is presented as fact while failing to provide contextual meaning for society as a whole. I believe science communicators need to take this into account, recognise that this (science communication) is contested territory and attempt to better understand how science is (and can be) accessible and meaningful to the populace. It seems to me (as a non-scientist) this is particularly hard for scientists to appreciate properly without understanding what fundamentally motivates people is not always black and white.

I leave you with the loaded question, how do authors like Pollan contribute to or detract from science literacy and/or equity? Happy reading.

from the domestic scientist


[i] At the time of writing the article in 2011, Adam Merberg was a Ph.D candidate in Mathematics at UC Berkeley.

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