So, celebrity “southern” chef Paula Deen has diabetes. If this sentence doesn’t mean anything to you, it’ll be hard to pack all the necessary background into a blog post, but to summarize, Paula Deen, host of a food network cooking show, announced that for the last three years, she has had a diagnosis of type II diabetes, and she will now be repping Victoza for Novo Nordisk. Given that Deen’s cuisine is heavy on animal fats, salt, and… well, she suggested using donuts as hamburger buns, the drug endorsement deal can be seen to be in somewhat poor taste- first she sells the problem, then she sells the solution.1 Many commentators on the internet, though, have taken it a step further and expressed a bit of schadenfreude at Deen’s diagnosis. This is where things get interesting.
First of all, lets just be clear: n=1. 10% of people her age have type 2 diabetes. A single case is not proof of anything, otherwise you get the George Burns effect (“George Burns smoked cigars and lived to a hundred, don’t tell me to quit!”) Whoever your personal health guru is/was, be they Bob Atkins, Dean Ornish, Colin Campbell & Caldwell Esseltyn, Mark Sisson, Linus Pauling or Ray Kurzweil, they will eventually die and the manner of their death will neither prove nor disprove the theories they espoused in life. Saying that eating Paula Deen’s food will lead to diabetes based only on her personal diagnosis is like saying that following the Atkins diet will lead to falling on your head. The reason not to eat a diet high in animal fats, salt, and sugar can be found in the NHANES database, the Framingham study, the West of Scotland study, etc. etc. etc. not in the life of any celebrity.
However, there’s something somewhat poignant underlying the nasty remarks on reddit, which is that eating the food Deen cooks is associated with diabetes, and there’s been absolutely no doubt of that for quite some time. Its how you test gene-knockout mice, interestingly- if you can whack a gene, and then feed the mouse Paula Deen food, and it doesn’t get diabetes, congratulations you’ve got yourself a publishable result. The scientific consensus is basically unambiguous… which leads to my actual topic here: the counternarrative to scientific consensus.
To be pithy, Paula Deen is to food what Sarah Palin is to sex-ed. There is a strong belief in twentieth century America that experts, with their walls of math data and impenetrable sesquipedalianisms, are secretly threatened by real people. In other words, science is imbued with social relations out of high school- the nerds are trying to feel smug, to make you feel bad for being less smart than they are, because they know you could whoop their butts in virtually every other aspect of life. Seeing through the fog of scientific information, or having the integrity to disregard it entirely, is a mark of authenticity, of naturalness, of being closer to a well-rounded, whole person. Taking scientific advice is seen in some way as weak, as being (and I bowdlerize) “whipped.”
I grew up in the south, and I can tell you that while my parents did indeed keep a can of drippings grease on the stove, everyone I knew was as panicked about “weight loss” as the rest of America. Southern women are as self-conscious about their bodies, as fond of fad diets, and as ambivalent about convenience food, as everyone else in this food-disordered country. Donuts are not a regional dish, neither are hamburgers. The key to Deen’s success is that Americans project their narratives of pugnacious authenticity onto the south. The south is where we place our recalcitrant neanderthal antiheroes, the last place where nobody needs to listen to those geeks at the CDC. That the CDC is physically located in Atlanta should make the contradiction clear: Paula Deen’s “South” where the anti-scientific holdouts win and the climate isn’t changing and vaccines don’t prevent disease and you can eat donut cheeseburgers without getting chronically ill only exists in pop culture. Cows probably eat grass there too.
I don’t like this narrative, but I don’t like its antithesis either. Some folks, like you see at Reddit-Skeptic indulge in the kind of smug positivism that would make a biochemist blush. In this kind of forum, scientific knowledge is total and perfect, and only idiots would question even a single conclusion. Meanwhile, actual working scientists advance by a process of thorough, scrupulous doubt. No theory can be “proven” until every other possibility has been proven wrong, which means that there are always thousands of works in progress trying to poke holes in, say, evolution, and some of those hole are bound to expose nuances and contradictions nobody expected a year ago. To the Rick Perrys of the world, these contradictions prove that evolution is invalid in toto, but to the positivists, they don’t even exist.2
I firmly believe that both of these narratives can be explained by the high-school dynamic exposed by the crowing over Deen’s diabetes. Underneath the smirking eye-rolling commentary is a truly vicious joy that someone who mocked “truth” and smart people is getting what she deserved. You see this in any number of internet subcultures- truly nasty vengeance fantasies in which people who act “wrong” will pay $20/gal for gasoline, or have birth-deformed babies, or drink fracking water for the rest of their pitiful lives. The anti-scientific narrative is more of a TV-and-country-music kind of thing, but there’s no less fury in it. You don’t believe that pointy-headed global warming crap do you?3
For better or worse, there’s no justice. Remember that a second-rate American life, the kind you end up living if you pile on health problems while young, is still phenomenally rich by global and historical standards. Paula Deen will probably live a long, productive, happy life compared to the lady who screwed the back onto your smartphone. I refuse to have any opinion whatsoever on her diagnosis, and frankly, I feel a little creeped out by the whole situation. If you want to avoid diabetes, go to pubmed and learn what seems to work best. If you want karma… go to church.
1- The question of the morality of using celebrities to sell drugs is a much bigger one than the question of this celebrity and this drug.
2- I don’t actually know whether Paula Deen has an opinion on evolution. My guess is, she doesn’t, at least not publicly. Showbizness, y’know?
3- I’ve written about this in other forums, but I see country music as a collective fantasy of a world in which the negative consequences of late capitalism don’t exist. Brad Paisley and Steve Earle get special points here.