The best things I’ve read lately (23/04/2015)

This week’s selection covers three kind of nonsense: fad diets, nessie and the writings of Naomi Klein.

The Logical Failures of Food Fads by Alan Levinovitz (Slate)

“Paleolithic, vegan, raw, fruitarian, gluten-free, macrobiotic. Whatever diet it happens to be, the first question I ask is: “For the love of God, what’s going on?” I mean that literally. Because despite a veneer of scientific rhetoric, food fads are ultimately about devotion to dogma; religion, not science. The appeal of modern diet gurus lies in their promise of nutritional redemption—and resisting that appeal depends on our ability to recognize and dismiss the irrational basis of their authority.

It’s true that as a religious studies professor, I’m prone to analyze cultural practices in terms of religion. But with eating habits, the evidence is everywhere. Once, at a farmers market, I asked a juice vendor whether her product counted as “processed”—a vague, unscientific epithet that gets thrown around in discussions of what we should eat. After a moment of shock, she impressed upon me that processing fruit into juice doesn’t result in processed food. Only corporations, she insisted, were capable of making processed food. Not only that, but it wasn’t the processing that made something processed, so much as the presence of chemicals and additives.

Did the optional protein powder she offered count as a chemical additive, I pressed? A tan, gaunt customer, eager to purchase her cleansing smoothie, interrupted us. “It’s easy,” she said, staring at me intensely. “Processed food is evil.”

At least she was honest. Processed food is evil. Natural food is good. Evil foods harm you, but they are sinfully delicious, guilty pleasures. Good foods, on the other hand, are real and clean. These are religious mantras, helpfully dividing up foods according to moralistic dichotomies. Of course, natural and processed, like real and clean, are not scientific terms, and neither is good nor evil. Yet it is precisely such categories, largely unquestioned, that determine most people’s supposedly scientific decisions about what and how to eat.”

How scientists debunked the Loch Ness Monster by Phil Edwards (Vox)

“There’s another, bigger problem. Nessie is usually described as a reptile — like the plesiosaur. But Loch Ness simply isn’t a suitable habitat for such a creature.

“The water is too cold for a reptile,” Prothero says. “There are only a few species of reptiles that live in Scotland, and a cold-blooded animal can’t live there unless it’s adapted. Plesiosaurs are tropical creatures, which we know from their evolution and where fossils are found.”

Of course, fans of Nessie might respond by saying the beast is actually warm-blooded, akin to the dolphins and seals spotted in the Loch. But a gigantic warm-blooded lizard-like creature that looked like Nessie is even more unlikely than a plesiosaur, since it would be different from anything we’ve encountered in the fossil record. And it’s even more unlikely considering that the lake hasn’t been around long enough for such a unique animal to evolve on its own.”

Gernot Wagner on how to deal with climate change by Jonathan Derbyshire (Prospect)

“You distinguish your approach—pricing carbon emissions—from the one recommended by Naomi Klein, who talks about “taxing the rich and the filthy”. Why do you think hers is the wrong approach?

She wants to stick it to the man. I want to stick it to CO2! Do I think capitalism is doing just splendidly, and everyone is benefiting from the rising tide? Of course not, there are plenty of problems. But what I would say is, let’s focus on one thing at a time. When it comes to doing something about climate change, then it is [aiming at] the wrong target to say we ought to revamp capitalism as we know it. We may want to do that too, for all sorts of other reasons. And “solving” climate change in the process may well be a side benefit. But I don’t think that focusing on sticking it to the man is the right approach to solving climate change—for one very important reason: it will take new technologies, their invention and deployment, to make a dent in the problem.

Does that mean that only the market can save us?

Properly guided market forces can save us.”

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