Reductionism

October 26, 2014

One of the things that I had to learn in order to become a certified Doctor of Philosophy in the discipline of epismetology was how to use the word “reductionism” in utterly confounding and totally obscure ways. Like, “Reductionism is a program of research dating back to the 17th century where the goal was to ultimately explain all human behavior in terms of brain processes and physiology, to explain such biological activity in terms of chemical reactions and finally to explain chemistry in terms of physical laws.” E.g. and for example, making everything (including aspects of our own lives that we think of as totally voluntary or a result of “free will”) totally deterministic causal regularities. This is a fair enough characterization of what the word “reductionism” means in some contexts but neither regular reader of the Thornapple blog will be particularly surprised to learn that it really doesn’t have too much to do with what I sat down to write about this morning.

Some academic types and a few ordinary people will say that something is “reductionistic” when key value judgments are either omitted or deliberately obscured. Like when some people in medical science will say that “health” is a purely objective term, as if nature really cared whether an organism was alive or dead, and it was possible to derive an account of “health” without placing a positive value on certain biophysical states we think of as “good functioning” or disvaluing other states we think of as diseased. What this mainly goes to show is that you can expect pretty long sentences whenever some fool steps forward and declares that they will tell you what reductionism is.

But some time ago (or maybe it was just last week) we were blogging about the reductionist turn in nutrition science. In this context, reductionism means the scientific practice of assuming that all questions in nutrition can be answered by research that isolates particular components of food and that uses the methods of statistical correlation to verify causal relationships between the consumption of these components and states of bodily health. Reductionist nutrition scientists might also commit the aforementioned fallacy of presuming that they can define health apart from making some value judgments, but this particular kind of nutritional reductionism doesn’t necessarily imply that. We might derive our accounts of “health” by making some pretty non-controversial value judgments (e.g. it’s better to be alive than dead), and then go forward from there to quantify nutrition by researching how consumption of this nutrient or that one contributes being alive, rather than dead.

Of course, if we are going to use a word like “reductionism” we very likely don’t approve of this practice. I’ve run into more than a couple of scientists who were proud to say that they were being reductionistic in their work, but more often than not, reductionism implies some kind of mistake. In the case of nutrition, the mistake would not be in thinking that certain components—nutrients—can cause good or ill health. I mean the discovery that certain states of disease—rickets and scurvy come to mind—are the result of vitamin deficiencies would pretty much refute that hypothesis. No, it’s the broader claim that everything worth knowing about nutrition can be discovered by research on the presence, absence or appropriate amounts of “nutrients” that Gyorgy Scrinis had in mind when he coined the term “nutritionism.”

It’s not clear that any nutritionists ever endorse a claim quite this broad, so let’s just call that an extreme view that we introduce just to make a point. A more realistic discussion of reductionism in nutritional science might take a step back from the precipice. We could say that reductionism is or at least was evident in the research programs that dominated nutrition for five or six decades. Whatever nutrition scientists might have wanted to say about whether foods in combination or whether the quality of foods played any role in health, the only thing they were really looking at in their research was specific single components. And if Scrinis is right in his history of nutrition science, that might be a fair indictment.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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Connectedness

October 19, 2014

I met Gyorgy Scrinis in Melbourne a couple of years ago. He was complaining more than a little bit about Michael Pollan’s appropriation of the word “nutritionism” and with it some of Scrinis’s key ideas in Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. At the time I met him, all I knew of Scrinis’s work was a chapter that he had contributed to David Kaplan’s book Food and Philosophy. There Scrinis was using tools from the philosophy of science to notice a few interesting things about trends in nutritional science and its applications in dietary advice.

And there are oh so many directions we can go from here! There’s the straight up message that Scrinis wanted to get across: Nutritional science took a classically reductionist turn relatively early in the 20th century from which it has never recovered. We could talk about what that means, or we could just assume that both of my regular readers already know that and go straight for the way it has encouraged a series of narrow and fallacious messages about healthy eating habits. Or entirely different from that, but very much in line with some of Scrinis’s other messages, we could talk about how the food industry has been able to surf deftly along the intersecting waves of this advice. That’s a line that would connect a bit too neatly with the last two blogs, and “neat connections” being something that we imbibe in moderation here at the Thornapple blog, I suppose that one has already been effectively ruled out by tradition, if not policy.

Another rather different direction would be to unpack Scrinis’s complaints about Michael Pollan. This came up in a conversation I was having with Don Thompson earlier this week. Of course, there’s no way either reader of the blog would have any way of knowing who Don Thompson is, so here I go introducing yet another tangent. Let me just cut this one off at the knees by saying that Don is not related to me (identical last names notwithstanding) and that he has a longstanding and well-informed interest in the ethics of nutrition and nutrition policy. Of course I can’t really expect that this phrase “nutrition policy” is particularly meaningful either, so here we go on yet another tangent. Which I will cut off by saying that governments have long been involved in making official dietary recommendations (such as the fondly recalled “food pyramid”) and being rather “hands on” in terms of structuring what kids will eat in public school lunchrooms. Nuff’ said.

As I recall, one of Scrinis’ complaints about In Defense of Food is that Pollan both “borrowed” some Scrinis’ ideas about reductionist nutrition science, but basically ignored Scrinis’ main point, which is to see how it was implicated in misbegotten government policies. But then, Pollan his own self goes on to fill up a large percentage of In Defense of Food by offering dietary advice that was based pretty much on the same science that the “nutritionism” critique was intended to expose! It was a little hard to tell whether he (Scrinis) was more peeved that Pollan had twisted his message or that he (Pollan, now) had failed to give him (Scrinis) adequate credit for coming up with the ideas in the first place. This could, of course, be the basis for a pretty good 600 word Thornapple blog in its own right (or write, as the case may be), but at this point we are already approaching 590 words this week, so it’s probably too late to make yet another turn in direction.

So I’ll just wrap up by saying that it all goes to show how food is able to connect and tie together so many different ethical themes. And we didn’t’ even say a word about farming this week. It’s amazing, and it promises to keep self-appointed food ethicists in business for a long time.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Why Make Exploitation Easy?

October 12, 2014

Whenever either of my regular readers sees that I end the Thornapple blog with a question like I did last week, they halfway expect me to come back and answer the question in the next blog. Or maybe that’s going a little far. It’s not like we ever answer very many questions here. But maybe it signals that there’s more to come.

So of course my lefty friends are steaming about the flippancy with which we dismissed the food industry’s ability to turn resistance to its advantage last week. And when I say, “Am I missing something?” they are right there with “Of course, you dolt! You’re missing the systemic nature of this distortion and it’s grounding in the power relationships that structure a capitalist food system.”

Now I must confess that I’m strongly inclined to go off on a tangent on how pleasing it is to write a blog where you get to use the word “dolt”, or perhaps riffing on its 16th century origins. That would take me back to the bread riots in England, where villagers were protesting what they took to be exorbitant increases in the price of grain. They were missing something, too. The usual reason for a good old fashioned peasant riot owed to an unexpected and unjustified exertion of manorial power. Like the landlord showing up with a giant-size basket to collect his share of the crop, and then showing up with peasant sized baskets when it was time to dispense alms for the poor. It reminds me of my daughter Dory’s outsized Christmas stocking, save for the fact that Santa was wise to this trick, and not vulnerable to the power exerted by 16th century landlords.

But unlike the usual outrage perpetrated by landlords, the bread riots were due to what we today would blithely call a “market-based” rise in the cost of grain. It seems that there were some key elements of trade even in the manorial system, and what the peasants did with their own share of a crop after filling the landlord’s basket was one of them. In the old days, they had been confined pretty much to the local village marketplace—often a single miller and baker. This was mainly because the roads were so bad that they simply couldn’t take a heavy load of grain someplace else. But better roads and canals coming along in the 16th century made it possible to haul grain to the next village in search of a better price. And with that kind of flexibility, prices might go up. Sometimes by a lot.

It took a while, but it gradually began to dawn on people that their outrage needed to be diverted from their landlords (who were, it must be admitted, quite capable of exploiting the new system to their advantage, even if there was some plausible story suggesting that they weren’t responsible for the soaring price of food) and toward “the system,” “the marketplace” “the merchants” and hence toward capitalism as a vague generic Dark Tower that needed to be overthrown on moral grounds. So I guess this isn’t as much of a tangent as I thought.

I guess I should confess that as a college professor I don’t necessarily define my role in life as one of creating a general consciousness of system abuses among my undergraduates. Nor do I presume that I should be encouraging them to define their role as one of resistance to the injustice inherent in the system. It’s not because I don’t see the injustice in the system, mind you. I just expect that a goodly portion of the smiling faces out there are anxious to take their place in that system. So teaching them how any form of resistance can be turned to benefit the powers-that-be is just making it too easy for them. If that makes me a dolt, so be it.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Hedgehogs

October 5, 2014

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin popularized this aphorism from Archilochus in his discussion of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. I’m going to borrow from Berlin, but if you want to follow that tangent, you’ll have to fire up Google, because this is the Thornapple blog, where allusions to BIG THEMES are conscientiously left obscure. We’re here to talk about food.

But I do have some friends who teach about food who are hedgehogs.

And not to be entirely obscure, this means that no matter what the subject matter of “today’s lecture” there is always one take-home message. You want to talk about “going local,” or “eating organic” or “fair trade” or “gluten-free” or “sustainable” or “food safety” or “humane” or “anti-GMO” or whatever-hyphenated-anti/free-food-flavor-de jour? Well take your pick because for hedgehogs, the point of having this conversation is always the same. Now to be sure, the message that is the same may vary a bit from one hedgehog to another. Thank God for that little bit of novelty in the food movement. But if pressed I bet I could name at least a half dozen hedgehogs for whom the central message is remarkably similar.

So here’s one variety of that message: All of these adjectives that get introduced for discriminating between the good foods that we should be growing, purchasing and eating can be re-interpreted, twisted and re-deployed in support of powerful economic interests. No matter what scheme you come up with for sticking it to The Man, resisting oppression and saving the environment, the big boys of the industrial food system will find some way to profit from it. Are you pledging to buy only those “alternative” brands that are committed to healthy diets and fair treatment of their workforce? Well not so fast, Chucko, because Coca-Cola or General Mills will just find a way to buy them out. You can’t resist it. The power of the industrial food system is so pervasive that they will always find a way to pervert and control every strategy that arises to combat their domination.

Now lest I be misunderstood, my hedgehog friends are not endorsing this, much less trying to play Darth Vader: “Give up, Luke. Your anger only brings you closer to the Dark Side!” No, they believe that they are telling our impressionable undergraduates something that they did not already know. Heck, they think that they are telling me something that I don’t already know. I have to confess that I may not get it. My reaction to this kind of message is, “Well, duh! Doesn’t everyone who lives in an advertising rich social environment already know that?”

But au contraire, being informed of the pervasive nature of capital in our current milieu or its ability to shapeshift in response to every superficial trend in popular culture is supposed to be news. What I am compelled to take from this is that one of the following things must be true. It’s possible that my hedgehog friends have so little faith in their fellow human beings that they suppose them to be spectacularly stupid. And I must confess that there is depressing confirmatory evidence to be found for such a hypothesis, so how can I blame them? The alternative is that the hedgehogs themselves have had some transformational experience in which they were awakened from a prior state of naiveté, and they want to share that with all of us. I can relate to that, too, being awakened from a prior state of naiveté almost daily after my third cup of (industrially controlled and morally compromised) coffee.

But after I’m awake, I tend to be foxy. Did I miss something?

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University