Junk Food Science

It wasn’t lost on me that the New York Times published a hit piece on macaroni and cheese on National Mac and Cheese Day. In other news there’s a National Mac and Cheese Day? The blog of the American Council on Science and Health has sharply criticized the piece. Basically, the article had nothing to do with mac and cheese; it was alarmist, exaggerated unscientific criticism of the product’s packaging and the same thing could have been written about kale:

The New York Times really stepped in it yesterday.

An article on the “dangers” of macaroni and cheese was so insanely wrong that it’s hard to believe it was in the paper at all.

But the author was Roni Caryn Rabin, who, although not a scientist, has written about health issues for more than 20 years. And she has done a lot of fine work. But this article was so deeply flawed and filled with scare tactics that it comes across as little more than an anti-chemical screed against a group of ubiquitous chemicals called phthalates.

This incident serves as a point of departure into any number of topics. For example, what the piece makes clear is the harm that hiring J-school grads has done to newspapers. When I was in college before the glaciers descended and dinosaurs ruled the earth, journalism majors were required to take arts and sciences minors. Nearly all took minors in either English or political science. There were no math or science requirements. In fact J-school is where you went if you wanted to avoid not just math and science but anything with even the slightest hint of rigor (like history). Why would you have a J-school grad write about health or science?

I could also jog into technocracy. It’s a bizarre sort of technocracy that avoids actual expertise in favor of faux expertise.

But where I want to land is on why newspapers are losing the confidence of the American people. When every conceivable subject is saturated with propaganda, ideology, and scare tactics, what in the world do you expect?

7 comments… add one
  • Andy

    Epistemology is also noticeably lacking in J-school courses.

  • steve

    This is more pervasive than just with journalism majors. Often, the guest “experts” have no expertise on the topic they are covering. Very few of the articles you will read on climate science, just to pick a topic, are written by climate scientists, or even scientists whom you would expect to have the ability to grasp the issues. On health care, the large majority of people who write on the topic have no special training or experience in health care directly, or with heath care policy or economics. They are largely ignorant of its history or about health care on the international level.

    That said, food issues are special. All science on food should be presumed to be bad until proven otherwise. Once proven otherwise it is still probably wrong.


  • Andy


    I even gave up on reading most climate scientists because so many have become advocates. News articles are also mostly worthless. Whenever I have a question about climate science, I go directly to the IPCC reports.

  • Janis Gore

    Michael Mann recently disputed a “doomsday” article published in the in the New York Magazine:


  • Modulo Myself

    They picked mac and cheese because processed mac and cheese is a dietary staple for young children. According to the Times article:

    Emerging research has also suggested links between early childhood exposure to phthalates and neurodevelopmental and behavior problems in young children, including aggression, hyperactivity and possible cognitive delays, said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, who studies phthalates.

    Not really hard to figure this stuff out here folks.

  • Guarneri

    After the dust settled on ALAR it was announced that move the needle on cancer risk you had to consume 5000 gallons a day. I like apple juice. You probably like apple juice. But not that much.

    How much mac and cheese would you have to let your kid eat for this to be an issue? I suspect that gross obesity hand bowel obstruction come well beforehand.

    As for the “news” media, who ntheir right mind believes them? Ratings, people.

  • Andy

    “Not really hard to figure this stuff out here folks.”

    Looks like the scientists haven’t figured it out either:

    “Emerging research has also suggested links…”

    In other words they don’t know.

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