Friday, 15 August 2008

Disappointing book

I've just finished reading Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We're Told About Food and Healthwhich promised to 'expose the myths we're told about food and health'. I was drawn to its claims that it had a leading expert in the field give the genuine facts about each issue in a separate essay which would then enable the reader to sort the facts from the opinions of those who may be biased and thus be able to make up our own minds.

That's exactly the sort of book I could do with as I don't trust anyone these days. But sadly, it was very disappointing. Many of the essays were characterised by the kind of hysterical hyperbole that they condemned in those they disagreed with, and a fair amount of them presented no sources for 'facts' they quoted or else apparently presented merely a different opinion to their opponents without any more eveidence than those they condemned as 'zealots', 'health freaks', and even 'witch doctors'.

There were some exceptions - the essays on cholesterol, the sun and skin cancer, and salt were very interesting and presented new evidence with huge consequences for health decisions. The chapter on food additives was well-balanced and written without hysteria by the author of E for Additives and summed up well with a reasonable position of - some are harmless, some are helpful, some are harmless but also pointless, some might be harmful to some people, and some are dubious for most people.

The chapter about pesticides was utterly awful and didn't even mention at least half the issues surrounding pesticides, let alone engage with them. Apparently, pesticides are harmless, end of story. Oh, apart from if you're a poverty-stricken, illiterate third world farmer who has not training or safety equipment, in which case yes you get poisoned, but that's OK for us in the West. That seemed to be the main thrust of the argument. Concerns over disrupting eco-systems by wiping out whole species from a particular locale, salination of the soil, pollution of water-tables were not even mentioned, nor the fact that pesticides allow large-scale monoculture which has its own problems...

The authors seem to have a bit of chip on their shoulders about people being 'anti-science' and attribute every different viewpoint to their own to this allegedly dangerous tendency. NOw, I'm really not anti-science, but they managed to really get my back up anyway by talking of science as if it is infallible and omnipotent and as if anyone who is not a professional scientist has no right to hold an opinion on anything.

I had the idea that science was to do with asking questions and doing research to find answers or to learn more. But this book gave the impression that everything is known and anyone who questions it is being 'ludicrous'. I also felt they were setting out to 'debunk' things in a controversial manner, so they were hardly unbiased to start with, which is not very scientific. They kept saying 'there is no evidence for x or y'. That doesn't actually tell me anything. That could easily mean that no research has been done at all, or that the research which has been done doesn't support it. As my science teachers used to say 'absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.'

So, I am still looking for a book which sets out the actual facts of current hot topics, as far as they are known, with no hidden (or not so hidden) agendas and no axe to grind, which treats me as intelligent enough to understand science but that takes out the most impenetrable jargon. If you are looking for that book too, then this one isn't it.

1 comment:

Becks said...

Thanks for a great review.
I did have the book on my wishlist but will remove it and hope to find something more fitting with what I want to learn.
Hope the 'pox is waning and your boy is well.