I’ve managed to get through a good few of our physical bookshelf books while Spuggy’s been borrowing my Kindle! This one was personally recommended by him.
It’s getting to the point where my non-fiction reading is starting to noticeably skew towards science – from Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, to Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, to Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. I feel like I’ve especially fallen into a little circle of sensible atheist pseudoscience debunkers – Goldacre and the music of Tim Minchin, for example, and Anthony Warner can definitely be added to that list.
Goldacre’s field is very much quite complex medical science and all of the dodgy stuff that goes on behind the scenes, whereas Warner comes at food and diet from almost a layman’s perspective. I say “almost” because he says himself that it’s been a while since he studied science and he says he’s in the same position as those of us who are not trained in interpreting scientific papers and results. When he talks about the problem of science reportage, he does so from where the rest of us are standing, as very small people in front of a very big, knotty problem. But he’s not just a random person off the street – he’s a chef with a degree in biochemistry, and he’s done his research.
Books like this tend to make it clear just why we do need experts in the society we live in nowadays. We no longer live in a time when one person can contain the accumulation of human knowledge of the sciences. We also live in a time where it’s becoming easier and easier for absolute randoms to obtain a veneer of authority (though perhaps this has always been the case? Perhaps we had a blip of sensibleness that’s ending now? Perhaps I was too young to notice?).
OK, I haven’t really been talking about the book, have I? Warner runs a blog, and I assume that the book contains just a few of the big issues he finds himself debunking regularly. He writes clearly and explains a lot – food is such a huge part of everyone’s lives and our relationship with it can be so messed up that I was glad it was written to be so understandable. I was familiar with a lot of the fads that he mentioned, though I’d never heard of the alkaline ash diet, and I was vaguely aware most of them were nonsense. The one thing that did genuinely surprise me was antioxidants – the science around them is apparently incredibly unclear! Detoxes are based on myth, leaky gut syndrome is bunk, gluten free for those who don’t need it is possibly successful due to a tangle of factors, sugar-free is based on a pretty severe misunderstanding of what sugar is, all this I knew. But antioxidants have become received wisdom. They’re not even reported on anymore, they’re just, like, little reinforcing facts in articles on other things. And yet, no one understands the effect they have on the human body. It’s all unclear! And complicated! And possibly in some circumstances actively negative!
Books like this make me realise how lucky I am to have grown up in a sensible household. I tend to think of myself as someone who doesn’t have much science in her genes, but honestly, that’s not exactly true. My grandma tells the story of the first Christmas she spent alone with her two young sons, because my grandad was off in Germany sitting on a chimney stack, hoping it didn’t explode when they lit the furnace. I have family members who’ve been science teachers, who’ve worked with hydrocarbons, who’ve worked with artificial joints, who’ve welded undersea pipes. Though it’s not something that we ever talked about overtly, I’ve always been surrounded by people whose lives were very much concerned with trusting the scientific method. I was never encouraged into food fads or health fads at an impressionable age. I was lucky.
So why did I read it if I knew it all already?
Well, knowing “gluten isn’t bad unless you’re actively allergic to it or have an anti-immune disorder” is different from seeing all the references and having the whys and wherefores explained. This book provides some fantastic counters to common pro-pseudoscience arguments, and specific proofs of various nonsenses. And there were things I didn’t know – the alkaline ash diet, how coconut oil is apparently the answer to everything, the antioxidant betrayal. Warner is also refreshingly blunt, and there’s just a deep, not entirely wholesome sense of satisfaction in reading his eloquent put-downs of predatory diets and science-illiterate wittering.
Another really great thing about the book is that Warner doesn’t limit himself to talking about specific fad diets, which by their nature (though some of them are surprisingly old) will date and fall out of favour. He uses fads to illustrate how to spot pseudoscience, building a set of red flags and questions to ask to arm ourselves against future bullshit artists. Reading critically is an increasingly valuable skill in our world, and not all of these red flags are unique to nutritional con artists/deluded gurus. One of the most interesting chapters concerns a woman who used to be one of these pseudoscience priestesses, and what she believed and why she went so far.
Warner is a pretty fair-minded, generous writer for all that his persona is the Angry Chef. He never attributes to malice what can be adequately explained by well-meaning stupidity. I particularly appreciated his admission that believing in these diets isn’t harmless – it requires a cognitive dissonance that makes a person gullible, credulous, vulnerable to being taken advantage of. This particular diet might be harmless nonsense, but believing it against all scientific logic, common sense and trustworthy advice means you’ll be more likely to believe the next one that comes along.
Finally, Warner also talks about why these myths and lies take hold, what it is about our brains that so wants to believe. This is legitimately interesting stuff, and also made me think more critically about my own reactions to things, concerning for example politics and even why I enjoyed The Angry Chef so much (is it because it reinforces my existing beliefs? There is absolutely a measure of that!). But not just that, I’ve started to examine what news and information I tend to pass on to others, and why I choose to share a link or keep it to myself. Because we, after all, are the carriers of news. We’re the ones who spread stories and make them viral or starve them. Maybe we could all stand to be a bit more careful about which ones we choose to feed.