5 Questions with Alan Levinovitz, author of The Gluten Lie
Alan Levinovitz might seem like an unlikely author of a book about nutritional science—especially one that is being called a source of fresh insights on how to communicate the benefits of GE foods. Levinovitz, after all, is a professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University.
But in his new book, The Gluten Lie, the classical Chinese scholar presents a powerful exposé of how pseudo-scientific arguments have been used to promote diets throughout human history, from the grain-free diets of ancient China to the Paleo and gluten-free crazes of today. Levinovitz’s deep dive into the world of nutritional science and 2000-year tour through dietary history also helps answer a burning question for science communicators and policymakers: Why do people — from ancient China to today — keep believing in food fears and fads that aren’t supported by the scientific consensus? In The Gluten Lie, Levinovitz shows that the real problem isn't bad science, but rather powerful myths and superstitions that underlie popular food beliefs and are often disguised under scientific rhetoric.
Last week, we sat down with Levinovitz for a far-ranging conversation about how a religious scholar became interested in nutritional science, why GMOs are the “perfect villain,” and why science allies should start lobbying for high school classes in history and philosophy of science.
1. So how did a scholar of Chinese religions become interested in the world of food nutrition and food myths?
Food taboos and sacred diets are a part of virtually every religious tradition. Most people don’t know it, but 2000 years ago, ancient Chinese monks had their own miracle diet. Going grain-free, claimed these rebellious, free-thinking monks, would result in clear skin, immortality, freedom from disease, and the ability to fly. To make their story more appealing, they pointed to a time in the distant past—before corrupt modern culture!—when everyone was healthy and happy. Sound familiar? I realized that lots of people talk about the science behind certain food fad and fears, but we don’t see much about the recurring myths and superstitions that shape fads like the Paleolithic diet, or eating “all-natural.” So I decided to use philosophy, history, and religious studies to help illuminate the real reasons why people believe what they do about food — and explain why people are so sensitive when those quasi-religious beliefs get challenged.
2. You looked at many food beliefs — from gluten-free, salt-free diets, and low-fat diets, to rice- and banana-only diet, to veganism, and much more. What pattern did you see when you looked at food beliefs throughout history?
Time and time again, superstition and fear of modernity gets wrapped in scientific vocabulary. In ancient Greece, people justified the magical thinking of “you are what you eat” using humoral medicine. In ancient China they rationalized grain-free diets or vegetarian diets with traditional Chinese medical theories. Of course, the real basis of most dietary beliefs is unscientific. That’s why you see “scientific” arguments for veganism right alongside “scientific” arguments for eating lots of lean, grass-fed meat. The truth is that, other than moderation, there is no “scientifically proven” superior diet. There’s just superstitions decorated with studies and jargon. And that means the problem isn’t with nutrition science contradicting itself. The real problem is with people pretending that science has conclusively supported their pet superstitions.
3. You used your perspective as a religious scholar in The Gluten Lie. Tell us how terms like “paradise past,” “noble savages” and the “appeal to the ancients” can help us understand food beliefs such as the Paleo diet?
Here’s a familiar story: Long ago, humans lived in an organic, all-natural, divinely designed garden, free from pesticides and GMOs and processed grains and sugar. But one day an evil advertiser came along and hissed, “Just eat this fruit.” Bam! Suddenly we were cursed with mortality, marital strife, labor pains, and agriculture. This story, or variants on it, is extremely common in rationalizations of food fads. We like to believe in a paradise past, free from disease, to which we can return by eating the way we did in Eden. Since Adam and Eve are not scientific, a more popular secular myth is that of the noble savage. In this version of the story, Adam and Eve are replaced by Native Americans, or indigenous tribespeople, all of whom are lean and healthy and happy. In its most modern incarnation, Paleolithic man is the noble savage, and instead of disobeying God, we modern humans are disobeying the law of evolution. Both of these myths — the noble savage and paradise past — also involve an appeal to the ancients. This intuitive superstition tells us that people in the past, innocent of modern knowledge, were also wiser than we are today. So you’ll see people citing the Bible, or classical Chinese texts, as if these have authority by virtue of their place in the distant past. Sadly, appeal to the ancients, like the myths of paradise past and the noble savage, is nonsense. People practiced exorcism for thousands of years in many cultures — but that doesn’t prove exorcism worked, or that we ought to revisit this ancient long-lost wisdom. The same is true of ancient lifestyles and dietary habits.
4. You didn’t write about the GE debate in your book, but how does some of your work in "The Gluten Lie" shed light on the GE debate?
GMOs are perfect villains in all of the traditional dietary myths and superstitions. Often nature, with a capital “N,” gets substituted for God in narratives of dietary falls from grace. Everything was better when it was natural, and noble savages lived in a paradise of simple living, simple farming, and simple eating. GMOs pose a tremendous threat to that vision, which has a sacred importance to many, many people who wouldn’t recognize their own beliefs about nature and food as religious. This is why scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs will never convince people. Ultimately, the argument isn’t about science, but rather about what sacred narrative is most appealing.
5. At one point in the book, you write that, “for true believers, the myth will always be more sacred than the evidence…” If that’s the case, what can change minds in favor of solid evidence and settled science?
In order for people to accept solid evidence and settled science they have to know what those things look like. Pseudoscience has become extremely sophisticated, so it’s very, very difficult to recognize a bad arguments and flawed science. The solution, as I see it, is to start teaching philosophy of science in middle school and high school. After doing an experiment, students should ask themselves: How many times do I need to do this experiment before I’ve proved something? What does it mean if a single experiment, or a single study, has positive results? Instead of memorizing the Krebs cycle, everyone should learn the real history of scientists like Galileo and Einstein, and understand what their work means for science in general. Diet gurus often hold them up as examples that justify believing in whatever crackpot fad they happen to be selling. Hey, no one believed Galileo either! Before Einstein, physics was in a totally different paradigm, just like nutrition science today! After a high-school level course in philosophy of science, these kinds of argument are laughable, and the flaws in them become clear. But for many people it’s one step from Galileo and Einstein to believing that veganism can cure cancer. People also believe that at one point, tobacco companies were able to buy a scientific consensus on their products. The history, of course, is far more complicated, and should actually strengthen our confidence in the scientific process rather than eroding it.
The Daily Show Examines Activist Jeffrey Smith’s Claims about GMO Potatoes — And Comes Out in Favor of Science
On April 23, Jon Stewart’s popular news satire show took a look at activist Jeffrey Smith’s claims about the health risks of a GMO potato recently approved by the FDA.
The Daily Show has frequently tackled science-related issues such as climate change, evolution, and vaccines, but has shied away from GMOs. In a hugely encouraging sign that the cultural tide is changing in favor of the scientific consensus on GMO, the Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi interviewed Jeffrey Smith about the J.R. Simplot company’s Innate potatoes, and then checks Smith’s claims about the potato’s health risks with a leading scientist, Cornell’s very own Walter De Jong, Associate Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics. Watch the Daily Show’s hilarious “The Return of Simplot Conspiracy.”
India Emerges as Center of GE Research, but Foreign Financed Protests Slow Adoption
India is showing great potential to become a world leader in ag biotech, but a massive, well-funded and growing anti-GM movement is succeeding in blocking adoption, writes Vijay K. Vijayaraghavan in the Genetic Literacy Project.
Beyond countries in the Americas and Northern Europe, India has the largest number of public scientists trained in biotech crop improvement and safety evaluation. And India, a one-time laggard in cotton exports, has become the number one global exporter of cotton since the adoption of Bt cotton. Inspired by the success of Bt cotton, India has developed a robust R&D pipeline with vegetable and grain crops, and the country has become a model of effective public-private partnership. But Vijayaraghavan, a regional coordinator for the Cornell Alliance for Science and Chairman of Sathguru Consulting, writes that anti-technology NGOs in India have attracted millions of dollars of funding from foreign sources. These funds are supporting anti-GMO mobilizations that are slowing the regulatory process and engaging in destructive attacks on the public and private entities that support the technology. “The escalating protests over the last five years, have turned the Indian clock in agriculture research back by more than a decade,” writes Vijayaraghavan. Read the full essay here.
Could New Gene-Editing Technologies Help Spawn Small Biotech Companies?
In recent months, the Monthly Monitor has tracked the mounting coverage of gene-editing techniques like TALENs and CRISPR. We’ve read about their potential to accelerate breeding programs, to avoid the regulations associated with GMOs, and to dispel consumer fears of transgenics. But in last month’s MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado reported on another potential implication of the new generation of gene-editing techniques: they could foster the growth of smaller biotech companies.
The MIT Technology Review story spotlighted the work of University of Minnesota plant geneticist Dan Voytas, who is working with Cellectis Plant Sciences to produce a gene-edited potato that both has a longer shelf life, and produces less acrylamide than conventional varieties. Voytas said the potato took only about a year to create. “If you did it via breeding it would take five to 10 years,” he told Regalado. Luc Mathis, the CEO of Cellectis Plant Sciences, added to MIT Technology Review that developing the gene-edited potato cost “a tenth” of what it does to create and bring to market a transgenic plant like corn or soy.
The implication of this faster, lower-cost method of breeding is that it will level the playing field, enabling smaller companies to compete. “Small companies,” Regalado writes, “think they can very quickly develop new crops for a fraction of the typical cost — even in species so far untouched by biotechnology like avocados, sorghum, and decorative flowers.” For more on gene editing, read “A Potato Made with Gene Editing.”
A Psychological Explanation for GMO Opposition
A new paper in the journal Trends in Plant Science, titled “The Intuitive Appeal of GMO Opposition,” draws on research in the psychological sciences to shed light on the widening gulf between the public’s perception of GMOs and the overwhelming scientific evidence about their safety.
The researchers — a team of Belgian philosophers and biologists — argue that opposition to GMOs stems from deep cognitive biases, and that humans are highly susceptible to emotional appeals put out by environmental organizations and other opponents of GMOs.
“Anti-GMO messages strongly appeal to particular intuitions and emotions,” writes lead author Stefaan Blancke, a philosopher at the University of Ghent. While recognizing that human psychology’s role in the distrust of GMOs isn’t new, psychologist Tania Lombrozo of the University of California Berkeley, writing for NPR, praises the effort to demonstrate the psychological processes at work in “people’s (mis)perceptions of GMOs” in her post, “The Danger of GMOs: Is it All in Your Mind?” The full paper is available here for subscribers.