One of the many reasons I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan’s work, including his latest manifesto, is that he’s one of the few science journalists who emphasizes what science doesn’t know. Here’s an interview from Gourmet:
CH: When your piece first came out in the Times Magazine urging people to ignore all the nutritional claims and eat only things their great-grandmothers would have recognized as food, some readers accused you of being anti-science. But you do actually reference a lot of scientific studies in this book–particularly agricultural and environmental science, and quite a few nutritional studies as well. What role do you think science should play in our diets?
Pollan: Well, science has a legitimate role to play, there’s no question, and biology is an important way to understand both ends of the food chain–what’s happening in the plant and the animal and the soil, and also what happens when we ingest foods in our bodies. But I think science is playing altogether too large a role right now, because it turns out on close inspection to be a really primitive science. We still don’t know that much about the soil, about digestion, or about the precise chemical compounds people need from food.
The way I see it, the science of nutrition is kind of where surgery was in 1650. It’s promising, it’s on its way to a deep understanding of what’s going on, but it’s not quite time to put yourself in their hands for elective surgery. We might do well to look for other sources of knowledge about food until they’ve got it all figured out. I’m not saying we should reject it, I just think we have to be very humble, and the scientists need to be more humble. Scientists are very bad at telling you what they don’t understand.
Is nutritional science really equivalent to surgery in the 17th century? I’d put it closer to 19th century medicine. Nobody benefited from being cut open in 1650. And while I think the ideology of nutritionism is often misguided, the fact of the matter is that it has helped solve many different diseases, from scurvy to beriberi.