Michael Schulson notes the inconsistency of the community of fashion’s supposed commitment to Science as demonstrated by the ability of Whole Foods, every fashionista’s preferred market, to vend an endless array of products promising better health on the basis of one form or other of pseudo-science.
Americans get riled up about creationists and climate change deniers, but lap up the quasi-religious snake oil at Whole Foods. It’s all pseudoscience—so why are some kinds of pseudoscience more equal than others?
If you want to write about spiritually-motivated pseudoscience in America, you head to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. It’s like a Law of Journalism. The museum has inspired hundreds of book chapters and articles (some of them, admittedly, mine) since it opened up in 2007. The place is like media magnet. And our nation’s liberal, coastal journalists are so many piles of iron fillings.
But you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.
I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.
My own local Whole Foods is just a block away from the campus of Duke University. Like almost everything else near downtown Durham, N.C., it’s visited by a predominantly liberal clientele that skews academic, with more science PhDs per capita than a Mensa convention.
Still, there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.
You can buy chocolate with “a meld of rich goji berries and ashwagandha root to strengthen your immune system,” and bottles of ChlorOxygen chlorophyll concentrate, which “builds better blood.” There’s cereal with the kind of ingredients that are “made in a kitchen—not in a lab,” and tea designed to heal the human heart.
Nearby are eight full shelves of probiotics—live bacteria intended to improve general health. I invited a biologist friend who studies human gut bacteria to come take a look with me. She read the healing claims printed on a handful of bottles and frowned. “This is bullshit,” she said, and went off to buy some vegetables. Later, while purchasing a bag of chickpeas, I browsed among the magazine racks. There was Paleo Living, and, not far away, the latest issue of What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Pseudoscience bubbles over into anti-science. A sample headline: “Stay sharp till the end: the secret cause of Alzheimer’s.” A sample opening sentence: “We like to think that medicine works.”
At times, the Whole Foods selection slips from the pseudoscientific into the quasi-religious. It’s not just the Ezekiel 4:9 bread (its recipe drawn from the eponymous Bible verse), or Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, or Vitamineral Earth’s “Sacred Healing Food.” It’s also, at least for Jewish shoppers, the taboos that have grown up around the company’s Organic Integrity effort, all of which sound eerily like kosher law. There’s a sign in the Durham store suggesting that shoppers bag their organic and conventional fruit separately—lest one rub off on the other—and grind their organic coffees at home—because the Whole Foods grinders process conventional coffee, too, and so might transfer some non-organic dust. “This slicer used for cutting both CONVENTIONAL and ORGANIC breads” warns a sign above the Durham location’s bread slicer. Synagogue kitchens are the only other places in which I’ve seen signs implying that level of food-separation purity.
Look, if homeopathic remedies make you feel better, take them. If the Paleo diet helps you eat fewer TV dinners, that’s great—even if the Paleo diet is probably premised more on The Flintstones than it is on any actual evidence about human evolutionary history. If non-organic crumbs bother you, avoid them. And there’s much to praise in Whole Foods’ commitment to sustainability and healthful foods.
Still: a significant portion of what Whole Foods sells is based on simple pseudoscience. And sometimes that can spill over into outright anti-science (think What Doctors Don’t Tell You, or Whole Foods’ overblown GMO campaign, which could merit its own article). If scientific accuracy in the public sphere is your jam, is there really that much of a difference between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, who seems to have made a career marketing pseudoscience about the origins of the world, and John Mackey, a founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, who seems to have made a career, in part, out of marketing pseudoscience about health?
But there really is no inconsistency. The truth of the matter is that the national elite is credentialed, but ill-educated and typically scientifically illiterate. It is demonstrably perfectly possible to get a graduate degree in a scientific field and to fail to understand that an unfalsifiable theory like Global Warming is not science, precisely because it is unfalsifiable.
Their beliefs about the supposed health benefits of various products are perfectly akin to their choices of belief in all other areas.
“Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad Company.”
—From a set of maxims which Washington copied out in his own hand as a boy: “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”
“’Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?’
—Brideshead Revisited, (1945) Book 2, Chapter 1.
The Brisbane Times was one of many international newspapers chuckling over an Italian cleaning woman’s natural mistake.
A cleaner at an Italian art gallery has thrown away contemporary artworks valued at $15,000, after mistaking them for a pile of rubbish.
The unnamed cleaner swept up the paper, cardboard and pieces of broken biscuit that had been scattered on the floor of the gallery in the southern town of Bari.
The boss of the cleaning firm said the woman was “just doing her job” and that the company’s insurers would pick up the bill for the damage to the works, which included pieces by Italian artist Nicola Gobbetto and David Jablonowski from Germany. ...
“It is clear the cleaning person did not realise she has thrown away two artworks and their value,” he told local press.
The cleaner’s mistake is just the latest in a series of incidents in which museum staff have confused modern art with rubbish.
In 2001, a cleaner at a west London gallery binned a pile of used ashtrays, newspapers and dirty beer bottles, not realising it was a work by notorious British artist Damien Hirst.
Hirst had arranged the junk the previous night at a launch party in a spontaneous installation.
“I didn’t think for a second that it was a work of art – it didn’t look much like art to me,” cleaner Emmanuel Asare reportedly said at the time. “So I cleared it all into bin bags and dumped it.”
In 1999 an installation by Tracey Emin composed of an unmade bed, used condoms and underwear was ruined after museum attendants tidied it up, believing it to have been vandalised.
And a similarly over-zealous cleaner wrecked an installation called Untitled (Bathtub) by German artist Josef Beuys in 1986. The piece, displayed in Dusseldorf, consisted of a dirty bathtub, which the museum worker scrubbed clean.
Sandra Y.L. Korn, no liberal she, (who is already contributing to the Nation, as an undergraduate at Harvard) editorialized recently in the Harvard Crimson against academic freedom.
[T]he liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever “free” from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?
Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.
The power to enforce academic justice comes from students, faculty, and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to do.
Robert George ‘77 and Cornel West’s [appearance] on Monday, hosted by the Institute for the Liberal Arts, culminated a campus-wide discussion on the meaning of discourse at Swarthmore. The Princeton professors, known for their friendship despite of their strongly opposing viewpoints, intended to build community and discuss questions like “What does it mean to communicate across differences regarding what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong?’”
The event was expected by many to be controversial, with rumors of student-led protest in the form of a boycott of the event or a rally after the collection, but no such protest occurred during the collection. Prior to the event, many students voiced concerns with the College’s choice of speaker in George, who is known for his strong opposition to abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage. Some queer students attended the event wearing shirts that read “Beneath Human Dignity,” a reference to a George quote in National Review magazine about the New York gay marriage decision in June 2011. Students also created a zine which opposed tolerance of George’s viewpoints, stating that by doing so, we would be “condoning homophobia.”
After the talk, many students expressed dissatisfaction with the event, saying it did not accomplish any meaningful community-building or address substantive issues.
“What really bothered me is, the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion. I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative views because that dominant culture embeds these deep inequalities in our society. We should not be conceding to the dominant culture by saying that the so-called “progressive left” is marginalizing the conservative,” Erin Ching ‘16 said.
Really old people like myself can remember the radical left’s adroit use of the so-called Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the early 1960s. Allowing outside agitators representing the extreme left to recruit, propagandize, and proselytize on campus was, way back then, a vital issue of “free speech.”
Now, fifty years and a Gramscian long march later, the radical left effectively controls all our elite universities and the discussion of whether there is any real value in free speech, academic freedom, or diversity of opinion is now on the table.
Illustration for a book or magazine story by Dean Cornwell (1892-1960), known in his day as the “Dean of Illustrators.” Cornwell’s work appeared in Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, and Good Housekeeping magazines, illustrating the work of authors including Pearl S. Buck, Lloyd Douglas, Edna Ferber, Ernest Hemingway, W. Somerset Maugham, and Owen Wister.
I wish I could identify the title this one comes from. I’d like to read it.
“If an ancient Athenian had to choose between an M12 and an M17-37, he would no doubt have chosen the sexier looking of the two, the Winchester. On the other hand, an ancient Spartan would have grabbed the Remington or Ithaca and shot the Athenian while he oogled the M12. Then the Spartan would have walked off with both guns.”
—Gil Stacy (a commenter of Steve Bodio’s)
Oppressed peasant and champion of the laboring man (despite being himself a highly paid journalist and graduate of Brown) Kevin Roose gate-crashed a financial industry’s private club party at the St. Regis, and was shocked, shocked to find joking about the financial crisis (and cross dressing) going on.
Roose indiscreetly waved his cell phone around, recording songs and monologues, and taking snapshots, until they finally recognized him as an interloper and threw him out.
As I walked through the streets of midtown in my ill-fitting tuxedo, I thought about the implications of what I’d just seen.
The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. No self-aware and socially conscious Wall Street executive would have agreed to be part of a group whose tacit mission is to make light of the financial sector’s foibles. Not when those foibles had resulted in real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis.
The second thing I realized was that Kappa Beta Phi was, in large part, a fear-based organization. Here were executives who had strong ideas about politics, society, and the work of their colleagues, but who would never have the courage to voice those opinions in a public setting. Their cowardice had reduced them to sniping at their perceived enemies in the form of satirical songs and sketches, among only those people who had been handpicked to share their view of the world. And the idea of a reporter making those views public had caused them to throw a mass temper tantrum.
The last thought I had, and the saddest, was that many of these self-righteous Kappa Beta Phi members had surely been first-year bankers once. And in the 20, 30, or 40 years since, something fundamental about them had changed. Their pursuit of money and power had removed them from the larger world to the sad extent that, now, in the primes of their careers, the only people with whom they could be truly themselves were a handful of other prominent financiers.
Perhaps, I realized, this social isolation is why despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, one-percenters like Ross keep saying how badly persecuted they are. When you’re a member of the fraternity of money, it can be hard to see past the foie gras to the real world.
Traditional WASP culture, any Ivy League graduate should know perfectly well, is not utterly and completely built around hard work, steady habits, and the Protestant Ethic. It occasionally lapses into self-mockery and carnival.
WASP culture has a recognizable penchant for creating extremely socially exclusive, but purely farcical, tongue-in-cheek “secret” societies devoted to holding occasional banquets featuring abundant alcohol, comedy sketches, and cross dressing.
The Financial Industry’s Kappa Beta Phi is clearly an institution created on the basis of the same impulses, and operating the same way, as San Francisco’s Bohemian Club. Membership in this sort of club is a rare honor, awarded only to persons famous and eminent, but it is also entirely a joke.
You clearly couldn’t have a mock secret society of progressive journalists with its own annual comedy dinner. They take themselves too seriously, and are too poorly informed to be capable of accurately identifying the causes of current events like the great recession. Kevin Roose thinks it was the financial industry’s “foibles,” rather than federal meddling in real estate finance followed by Obamacare, which produced “real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis.” He would never get the point of a comedy routine, mocking the failure of the News Industry to properly vet a radical democrat candidate for the presidency.