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.
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.
You’re riding in an elevator and someone you admire gets on and notices you reading this article on your phone. They say to you: “That looks long and boring, but I’ve been wondering: Is sugar actually dangerous? How would we know one way or the other?” You’ve got about a minute to make a good impression and answer the questions smartly (BASED ON THE ARTICLE). What are you going to say? Needless to say, if you just babble on without showing your knowledge of the article or the history your VIP will be unimpressed and you will lament your missed opportunity forever.
Note: This is all a fanciful way of asking you to boil down a long and dry but highly informative article to the main points that the average person should know about.
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:
Everyone writes on the same question today: Is Philpott’s reply to Freedman effective? Does he really refute Freedman’s argument? Does he characterize it accurately? Are they really talking about the same things? Does Philpott use the history of diet and health effectively (considering what you’ve learned in this course)?
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”?
Show me you’ve done the readings for this week by addressing the following: What are some of the main problems and challenges with studying obesity? Have we really been looking at it all wrong? How does Berreby present a different conception of fat than we’ve seen in previous course readings? As always, USE THE READINGS SPECIFICALLY in your post (which is going to be a larger factor in evaluations going forward; warm-ups are over!).