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


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