HIST 410: Week 10

Obesity science, politics, and ethics

Continuing with our obsession with calories and fat, this week we evaluate some pieces on the so-called obesity epidemic in America. This week is less about historical constructions of diet as we’ve been focused on; instead we’re looking at contemporary rhetoric of diet and health in terms of obesity. These articles are a bit dated, but they still perfectly exemplify the kind of dietary philosophies and speculation that we see everyday. Our job is to critically evaluate these according to how we’ve learned to think historically about diet, health, and expertise. Here are some BIG POINTS to focus on especially.

Questions to keep in mind for each reading

  • What’s the general trend or trends the authors are presenting?
  • What are key examples to take that illustrate the authors’ points?
  • What topics aren’t addressed that should be?
  • Is the narrative effective?

Mon 10/19

This article is quite rich in detail and at times like drinking from a fire hose, so it takes some effort to not let your eyes glaze over as you read through it. Don’t give up! We’re reading this to practice understanding history of nutrition narratives and to evaluate the relationship between science and industry. We DO NOT need to (and absolutely should not under any circumstances) absorb all the names and events and studies the article references. Sometimes you read for specific information; sometimes you read for the argument in general. FOCUS ON THE ARGUMENT (and the evidence to support it).

Pay particular attention to how “science” is used in determining how dangerous (or not) sugar is. While the history of nutrition narrative that we’ve been following has generally shown how “science” is creating more knowledge about nutrition (even if it might be used for a particular social agenda), this article shows how the inherent uncertainties of “science” can be used (usually by facets of the food industry) to undermine confidence in that same nutrition research. I feel a little bad for putting “science” in quotes all the time, but I want you to think about how many different things it can mean. They are all on display in the readings for this week.

Wed 10/21

These readings are both straightforward enough that they don’t need much of an introduction. Yet I want to be clear they are BOTH deeply flawed and that’s why it’s fun for us to dissect them as a pair. Pay close attention to the RHETORIC of these articles—the way they are trying to persuade you.

Some (at this point in the course, hopefully familiar) questions that will help to evaluate the rhetoric:

  • What assumptions about people/society/health are each making?
  • How do the authors use “science” to argue their point?
  • How does each NOT address issues or concerns that they should?

Fri 10/23

You probably noticed that this article is referenced in the Philpott article from Wednesday, so you might think it’s really making the same point—but NO! The main reason I think this article is so useful in the context of this course is that no matter what you think of Wednesday’s readings, this one kind of dumps them on their heads. It just gives you a new way of thinking about science, health, knowledge, the world—everything. Good writing does that. Enjoy.

Notice that the point of the article is to get us to rethink the basic thermodynamic approach to calories that has been at the heart of American thinking about the calorie since Atwater, through Peters, Davis, and so on. So not only is the author making a scientific argument, but also a cultural / historical one—in the sense of challenging a belief so deeply engrained in our culture that takes on a level of “truth” because it’s been around so long. How much “science” does it take to override “history”?