Nov 052011

mad science

Michael Pollen is pissing me off a little. For two reasons, actually. I’ll just talk about one of the reasons for now.

I don’t disagree with the principle message of “In Defense of Food,” which is, very approximately, that it’s better to eat stuff that looks the way it grew, stuff that was made by the earth, rather than stuff that’s been through chemical processes between the earth and your plate. Also it’s better eat while paying attention to yourself and the people around you. That’s self-evident to me.

What pisses me off is (and this is just my reading of it) the condescending attitude toward “reductionist science.” Darn those foolish yet all-powerful reductionist scienists and their belief that they can measure what’s nutritious about food!!

Of course, he’s not condemning it while he’s citing the “reductionist science” that shows that people will eat far more if their bowl automatically refills, or the “reductionist science” that analyses the macro- and micronutrient content of non-western populations. Somehow THOSE scientists are just providing interesting and helpful information, not implying that individual nutritients or specific behaviors are solely responsible for ill health or good health.

It makes no sense, this simultaneous reliance on and contempt for science and the scientific method.

Contempt for science per se is contemptible. Science is the best – indeed the only – system we have for gaining reliable information about the world outside our own individual experience.

Is it perfect? Hell no, because people aren’t perfect, and scientists are people; but the entire structure of scientific endeavor deliberately counteracts the biases and shortcomings of people. It is a PROCESS, not an outcome.

The history of applied health-related sciences is often the history of good ideas, well intentioned, falling short of the mark, or else solving some problems while creating others. The industrialization of the food supply is a perfect example: why did we end up with massive monocultures of a handful of high-yield breeds of a handful of species? Because people were starving during the depression and we needed to find a way to get calories into bodies on a massive scale. The unintended consequences have been chronic diseases and an unprecedented scale of malnourished yet obese humans, but the key word is UNINTENDED. In this particular case, goverment, industry, and science worked together in ignorance, doing their best to FEED PEOPLE.

Nowadays, the food industry proceeds to process and refine our foods in full knowledge of the health consequences, and they may even deliberately manipulate food to their benefit and our detriment.

The medicalization of women’s sexual dysfunction parallels this. (You knew I’d get to sex eventually, right?) Ostensibly the goal of Masters and Johnson’s four phase model was to describe the sexual arousal process of all humans; it turns out it’s different for girls, and they ended up with roughly three sexual “landscapes” for women.

So Helen Singer Kaplan develops the triphasic model of sexual response, which is so important it’s the model on which clinical diagnoses are made. It added “desire” before “excitement,” noting that M and J left out this crucial piece of the sexual arousal puzzle. Now you can have a desire disorder, an arousal disorder, or an orgasm disorder (or a pain disorder).

And then it turned out that actually a lot of women have “responsive” desire, instead of “spontaneous” desire, so that sometimes excitement comes BEFORE desire, and these women might be incorrectly diagnosed as “low desire,” when actually they are just normal and health with “repsonsive” desire.

And it also turns out that women’s physiological response to sexual stimuli doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their mental or emotional response. Do they have “arousal disorders”? No, they’re just WOMEN.

And women’s orgasms vary more from each other than men’s orgasms do – in latency (how long it takes to get there), duration (how long they last), and intensity (how big they are when they get here). Do they have orgasm problems? No, they just have WOMEN’S orgasms.

Now, the pharmaceutical industry, with a massive vested interest in creating a pill that will “fix” these “problems” will inevitably perseverate; why buy into a new model (however accurate) when the old model is more profitable? No, they are sticking with the old model, and they will exert political and commercial pressure to make all of US stick with the old model too. Why don’t we see Leonore Tiefer on TV more? Why, it’s because big pharma is the largest source of TV ad revenue!

But that’s industry. NOT science. Getting these things wrong and then correcting them is the process of science. It’s a GOOD sign when we figure out we were wrong, because now it means we’re (closer to being) right!

I think what I want to say here is that scientists aren’t monsters. Corporations may very well be (though any given individual within a corporation may not be, necessarily), but scientists are curious, hypothesis-orientated adventurers, treasure hunters who love the feeling of finding not gold but ANSWERS.

Hate corporations. Love science.

PS – the other things that caused me to be pissed at Michael Pollen is the classist, privileged standards he sets for healthy eating. Spend more? Eat less? Spend more time preparing food? Tell that to a single mom making minimum wage who needs to feed her kid.