Useless information

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/06/health/research/06hyper.html?ex=1189828800&en=0ae934b1e68385ed&ei=5070&emc=eta1
(Again, I had hoped that the friend who sent me this article and some comments would post here, but apparently my powers of persuasion require an upgrade. I raise here what I take to be her major points with an extension of my own.)

Like much of the work done in sociology, one needs to proceed with care. One is probably advised, for example, to separate Glassner’s thesis of the “culture of fear” from its connection with the power elite. In so doing, what is left is a useful rubric for understanding the generalized fear (pre-dating 9/11, which probably contributed to the subsequent depolitization of discourse under the Bush administration) disseminated by and through information systems (or what is usually, fairly imprecisely, termed “the media”).

This article is no exception, since only two responses are possible given the information provided; these two responses, however, while practically different, are theoretically equivalent. On the one hand, since the article only names one additive, one can react with a generalized suspicion of food additives and proceed to the nearest Whole Foods to look for organic labels. On the other hand, one can for the same reason ignore the information altogether and eat all the soda, chips, and candy one wants.

In both cases, what is taken for granted is a naïve conception of what “healthy food” is or, better, what the relationship between food and health is. Instead, one doctor (from MGH, no less) is quoted worrying about whether the clinical significance of increased hyperactivity outweighs concerns of social ostracism if children don’t eat the same foods as their peers. Aside from being too stupid for rebuttal, one wonders what this doctor would say to the schools who have already eliminated vending machines and junk food from their buildings in favor of juice, fruit, and vegetables after finding that these latter foods improve students’ energy and focus.

Or, perhaps we need further to separate the “social” aspect of these kinds of questions from the “science”. That this study found that some food additives raise hyperactivity already begs certain questions and, in so doing, masks certain presuppositions in the discourse concerning health. Suppose, as an intelligent skeptic ought, someone faults the method of the study or a particularly belligerent rival performs a counter-study. Nothing in the business of conducting studies provides a measure for theoretical judgment. So much is banal. But what is not as easy to see is the active work of ideology that bloats practical judgment at the expense of theoretical judgment. Taking studies such as this one seriously requires a certain frame of intelligibility according to which the important issues are things like assuming “hyperactivity” is a coherent category, that the relevant focus group is children, and so on.

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