Funny how things work out sometimes. Here I am talking about food additives this week, and who should show up in town? My old friend Michael Pollan. I don’t know how I missed all the promotion surrounding his lecture last night, but I did. Once I finally realized he’d be speaking a mere six blocks from Joe Pastry World Headquarters, I dropped everything to get work done and find a sitter for the girls (which is the reason posting was so light yesterday).
My expectation was that the event was going to be on par with my other “live” experiences of him: a hundred or so people sitting in a lecture hall. Imagine my surprise then, when I arrived at Bellarmine University, to discover the event was being held in a basketball auditorium with some 3,000 people in attendance.
All I can say is that the fellow was on. Not so much a lecture as an information-heavy standup comedy performance, Pollan’s speech made for a terrific show. He was funny, he was smart, he was self-effacing and charming. Agree with him or not, it cannot be denied that he has an unusual amount of personal charisma for a bookish journalist. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: on a personal level I really like Michael Pollan. Fortunately, liking people and agreeing with them are two very different things, which frees me up to offer some pretty harsh criticism.
Because the thing is, if you listened to Michael Pollan — really listened — you could discern that he was saying some very disquieting things. The thrust of last night’s talk, appropriately enough for my topic this week, was largely anti-scientific. Pollan lamented that people today know what gluten, beta carotene and antioxidants are. Indeed he regards such knowledge as an example of a broad social pathology, one he’s dubbed “orthorexia”, an unhealthy obsession with healthy food — specifically individual nutrients.
“We need a priesthood of experts to mediate our relationships to food,” Pollan said. “We’re way too focused on ‘good’ nutrients and ‘evil’ nutrients.” I’ll say I was in broad agreement with that latter statement. Yet the very next moment he was pounding the table about ingredients that we know “for certain” are evil. Those of course being his pet bugaboos: trans fats, high fructose corn syrup and concentrated carbohydrates.
It was the old familiar Michael Pollan double-bind that I’ve written about in the past. Nutritional science is junk unless it supports my argument. However this time, maybe it was because of the astonishing crowd, the message seemed to take on a more sinister dimension. You don’t need to know anything about food science beyond what I’m telling you. I could be imagining things, of course. However what’s clear is that there is little science out there to justify Pollan’s ever-more-dire proclamations about our food system, our agricultural system and our society in general. In fact the more science you apply to his claims, the more their substance seems to disappear through your fingers like so much organic felafel mix.
The conclusion I came to walking away from the event last night was that there’s a heck of a lot more to Michael Pollan than I once thought. He’s not only a writer of effective screeds, he’s a heck of a delivery man — an entertainer, even. His arguments may be gripey and circular, built on unsound science and anecdotal data, but he delivers them in such a way that there’s an appearance of real meat there. And that’s a dangerous thing, in my opinion, because he’s got the ear of a heck of a lot of people. Some of them quite influential.
I remember I predicted some time ago that Pollan’s next move, bookwise, would be away from the inconveniences of science and nutrition and toward psychology and cultural criticism. Based on clues I gleaned from the content of last night’s speech, I have a feeling that my intuition will shortly be validated, and that in the coming months he’ll be unveiling a Pollanite grand unification theory, in which he will put forward his vision for restructuring not only our food system, but our food culture as well. Woe unto us on that day.
“It’s crazy to reorganize your life according to nutrition science,” he said in his summation. What’s even crazier is to reorganize a colossal segment of our economy and/or society according to the whims of a man who cares little for the rigors of research, the scientific method or the economics of agriculture. Yet I fear, based on what I saw last night, that there are at least 3,000 people here in Louisville who would be willing to do just that.