Are the Golden Arches a Golden Ticket?
interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee
Journalist David H. Freedman, a skeptic of the first order, has a lot to say about those he calls “the Pollanites,” by which he means devotees of food writer Michael Pollan. Freedman thinks that an unfounded belief that farm stands and unprocessed food will save us from ourselves is actually getting in the way of progress. Instead, he argues, if we work with human nature and give the public cheap, good-tasting, processed food that’s also healthy—by covertly taking out some of the fat, sugar and calories—we’ll more easily stem America’s obesity epidemic and related health crises.
In your 2013 Atlantic article “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” you declare that “Michael Pollan has no clothes” and attempt to debunk the idea that processed foods are the cause of the obesity epidemic in America.
DF: The idea is: Obesity has been a problem for a long time—before we can actually point to the problem of processed food, specifically, being a huge cause of it. So you run into trouble very quickly when you try to say that processed food is the entire cause of it. The one thing you can truly say for sure about processed food is that it has vastly reduced starvation and the costs of food. Processed food has been an extraordinary boon to survival and access to food.
Here’s where we have to be careful, though: The reason processed food is linked with obesity, is it makes calories freely available. The food becomes cheap, it’s easy to make foods that people love and want to consume more of and can afford to eat, and therefore, for the first time in history, human beings are free to consume too much food and get too many calories. That’s because of processed food. So, yes, in that sense, processed food is to blame. It wiped out starvation—just about—and the side effect is it’s given us obesity.
What I want to be clear about is it’s not the processing of food, per se.
You argue that when it comes to food policy, we can help the most people if we shrink rates of obesity, and that means reaching the masses, maybe even through processed food at McDonald’s. How so?
DF: What the vast majority of the American public really likes is this crappy processed food. It is very, very hard to change their habits. Eating fatty, sugary foods becomes addictive. This, by the way, has been true for tens of millions of years for the human race. Our brain is wired to love that stuff.
In a capitalist system, what do you know, companies do well when they find ways to cheaply get people the food that they naturally like, and that’s how we end up with all this crappy, cheap food. Given that everybody eats it, if we could [make it healthier], that’s how you change hundreds of millions of lives.
When Michael Pollan comes out and says, “Let’s buy food right off the farm stand and stay away from big companies,” that’s great for affluent people and highly motivated people who can access and afford that food. That’s a tiny percentage of the American public. That’s not what most of the American public can afford, it’s not what they have access to, and, most importantly, it’s not what they want.
If you had to say one thing about GMOs, what would it be?
DF: GMOs are absolutely as healthy in principle and probably more so than conventionally raised food. Human beings have been scrambling the genes of our wheat and other produce for thousands and thousands of years through traditional farming techniques. We’ve been raising all kinds of hybrids forever. And those foods are not tested. Any one of them could turn out to create a plague that would wipe out mankind, and it doesn’t because apparently the chances of that happening are very low.
The only difference with GMOs: It’s in a laboratory with only a few genes, instead of scrambling thousands of genes; it’s studied much more carefully; and it’s tested a million times more carefully. There’s just no real scientific basis for thinking that GMOs are inherently less safe. All foods should be tested, we should be careful about all scrambling of genes, including GMOs, but also of conventionally bred foods.
What we do know is: In no way is it going to be healthier unless it lowers the calories per portion, lowers the fat in it or lowers the sugar in it, and that’s not what people are demanding.
If you’re reading an article on a new study that has just come out telling us to do one thing or the other when it comes to food, what should we look for?
DF: Scientists actually end up being wrong most of the time. Most of their statements, most of their claims end up being wrong. Even their study findings; the majority of them end up being wrong. However—anything else you look at ends up being even wronger.
Scientists are the best path we have to the truth. And if you look at what they come to a consensus on over a long period of time, that has a very high rightness rate. So when I say I believe scientists, we have to distinguish the latest study finding you read about in The New York Times from something scientists have been saying among themselves in large-scale agreement for decades.
When I say I listen to scientists who say we have to reduce calories and sugar and fat, that’s decades and decades of nearly unanimous scientific agreement. When The New York Times says, “It’s not diet and exercise, it’s carbs that are causing all the problems,” it’s looking at the 0.005 percent of scientists who have come out with some new study that’s almost certainly, in the long run, not [going to] hold up. That’s an important distinction to make.
In terms of what to look for when we look at a study, in terms of “Is this study likely to be right or not?” here’s a little checklist to go through. The more of these you check off, the more likely the study is to be wrong.
First of all, is it a single study as opposed to the results compiled from many, many studies? Is it something that one scientist is claiming, or is there a consensus of scientists? Is it a novel claim, or is it one that’s been building for a long time? Is it a surprising and interesting-sounding claim, the kind of thing that’s going to get some press in The New York Times? I love to pick on The New York Times because they’re so highly regarded, and they are a fantastic publication, but they get science horribly wrong.
Is it novel and surprising? Then it’s probably wrong. The reason we find things novel and surprising is that we develop pretty good sense over time of what’s likely to be true and what isn’t. And when something surprises us, it’s usually because we didn’t think that was true. And usually, in most cases—with plenty of exceptions, but in most cases—when we think something doesn’t sound like it could be true, it probably isn’t.
So there’s a little checklist. Longstanding consensus of scientists that builds up over time: probably true. Latest amazing, surprising finding from a scientist: probably not true.
What’s your opinion on the scientific consensus of climate change?
DF: We have a really strong, longstanding, ever-stronger consensus there that our climate is being horribly, negatively impacted by human behavior. Whatever voices of disagreement with that consensus, those voices are dying out slowly but surely. This is really starting to look like something you can take to the bank, and we’d better start taking it to the bank and depositing it pretty quickly, because we’re going to get into trouble. I absolutely believe—this one has all the hallmarks of something that science is right about.
What concerns you about the sort of p
ost-truth, post-factual talk that’s going around all over the country?
DF: Everything concerns me about that. I think there’s no bottom here to how much damage this can cause the future of our society in every single possible way.
I want to point out that while many liberals say that—and I am a liberal—I don’t know many liberals who take time to watch Fox or read Breitbart. So let me say to my fellow liberals: Before you start getting all hysterical about the right wing and conservatives only looking at the nonsense on Fox and Breitbart, they ought to start making sure that they’re also looking at other sources of information, too. I don’t think they’ll get a better sense of what the facts are, but I think they will get a better understanding of how the other half is thinking. And I think that’s missing right now and is critical in American politics. So let’s all start broadening our sources of information.
Journalist David H. Freedman is the author of several books, including “Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them.”