Interview with Martin Cohen
This is a repost of my interview with Martin Cohen, author of Thin(k): The Philosopher’s Diet Welcome Martin!
1) To start with, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your current project?
Hi Shona! These days, I’m a writer of popular introductions to philosophy and social science, but in past years I’ve also done a bit of teaching and research – both in schools and universities. Book genre-wise, I'm definitely in the 'self-improvement' area. I live mostly in France with my illustrator wife, and our little boy– but I spend the rest of the year in the UK, near Brighton. I have two projects on the go at the moment: the first you know about is on food and philosophy, with an emphasis on health and nutrition.
Food is actually a complicated matter with lots of special interests claiming expert status. A philosophical overview, indeed. The leading book in the area is by one Michael Pollan, and is overtly 'in praise of real food', and that's pretty much the line I follow. Pollan is NOT a nutritionist but a social scientist and that's been a strength for his book, and I believe would be for mine too. Rather than give a long explanation of the book here though, I’d really recommend everyone to check out the very nice video we made at Unbound?
I am sure that they’d enjoy it and it does show both my style and that of the book. Actually, I'm quite proud of the video!
2) Would you mind sharing an excerpt with us, or a favourite quote?
The book is really a mix of writing styles. There is some story-telling, particularly about the strange food ideas of the philosophers, some up-to-date reporting of the food science, and some practical advice on nutrition and healthy eating, culled from many, many reports. But here’s a little introductory ‘food myth’ with more of a social-science flavour:
“Food Myth: The Battle for Sugar ‘Nibble on a Cookie, Enjoy an Ice Cream or Have a Soft Drink before your main meal.’ These three, unusual, but perfectly serious, diet tips came in the form of newspaper and magazine advertisements from Sugar Information, Inc., which even won an award* for ‘advertising in the public interest.’ ‘Are you getting enough sugar to keep your weight down? Sugar can be the will-power you need to under-eat.’ These days, the talk is all about reducing sugar, but back in the 1950s, when Americans were already worrying about being overweight, it really seemed as if sugar just could me be the secret weapon for dieters having trouble reining in their appetite! Here’s how it works: before a meal have a sugary drink – a coffee with a teaspoon of sugar or a fruit juice - and because it is almost instantly converted by the body into energy, it will immediately reduce your appetite. So you eat less, and hey presto, you get slim! Plus ‘sugary drinks’ have less calories in them than you might think since sugar has only 18 calories per teaspoon) so they’re not themselves fattening. By now you may be becoming a little sceptical – which is exactly what dieters or indeed anyone, need to be about food advice. The ‘award winning’ diet idea comes not, as naive folk might imagine, courtesy of some well-meaning public body but rather via an industry front run by the big sugar manufacturers. ‘Sugar Information’ was – and is - the PR arm of the Sugar Research Foundation, set up in 1943 and ‘dedicated to the scientific study of sugar’s role in food’. Post-war, the sugar industry proved very good at getting its ‘research findings’ not only into the public eye, but into the official views of government agencies like the all-powerful Food and Drug Administration. Here, it was, ultimately, all about politics. The FDA had already chosen its preferred target – dietary fat – and having sugar as an alternative cause of things like heart disease and obesity was undermining that message. Back then, just as they still do today, a handful of influential academics decided public policy - like Frederick Stare, founder and chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Professor Stare and his department had long enjoyed sugar industry support, with funding for some 30 papers in his department from 1952 through 1956 alone. In 1960, the department broke ground on a new $5 million building funded largely by private donations, including a $1 million gift from General Foods (now called Kraft Foods), the maker of sugar-loaded treats like Kellogg’s cereals, Kool-Aid and Tang. By the early 1970s, Stare was one of the industry's star advocates, regularly testifying in Congress from that all-important objective observer position about the wholesomeness of sugar - even as his department gobbled up funding from sugar producers and food and beverage giants such as Carnation, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg’s. Now you may think that public health messages should not be outsourced to food businesses, but, well, they always have been and today they still are. In 2015 too, for example, the White House backed ‘Partnership for a Healthier America’ also unashamedly mixed academic researchers and the big food corporations. Because, as its website explains: ‘In order to solve the childhood obesity crisis, we must harness the resources, expertise and most importantly the free-market creativity that drives this nation.’ The key ‘takeaway’ here is that over the years, the Food Industry has not changed its spots and its advice has not got any less cynical. It’s incredible ingenuity in finding new ways to make money has to be set against public health issues like teeth decay, diabetes and ‘obesity’ which have all got worse. Only philosophy can make it honest – and keep us thin!”
3) What inspired you to write a book about philosophy and diet? What makes this different from other books on health and diet?
I like deconstructing things – from old radios to complex social issue like the economics of ‘BREXIT’ (The UK’s recent plan to leave the European Union). In this case, I wanted to tease apart the strands of diet science, ethics and biochemistry to get to the bottom of one of modern life's inexplicable mysteries: why it seems that everything we eat these days, even 'lo-fat' healthy things - make us fat! As I explain in my book, opinions on diet issues keep see-sawing from side to side - 'all the experts' say one thing one year, and the opposite the next year, or maybe they say one thing consistently - but there's another group who consistently say completely the opposite thing. You could be forgiven for thinking that celebrity chefs have more of a handle on the key food issues than qualified doctors and scientists. Because the worst thing about food science - the elephant in the room - is that it's not just opinions that are changing- the 'facts' themselves shift too. That's why for 30 years, snacking on sugar was supposed to be the way to LOSE weight, and that's why millions of people are even now on low-cholesterol diets that actually raise their risk of heart disease. Yet nothing in the past is as mad as the current orthodoxy which is that natural foods, from beef to cheese, from bread to orange juice can be deconstructed and recreated by food scientists using cheaper chemical substitutes.
4) Do you have any other projects on the sidelines?
Yes indeed, I always have three ideas at once! Hence disorganised. But idea number two at the moment is for a “decidedly off-beat” look at popular culture. It’s a book looking at the philosophy of jokes and humour. It's intended as a fun read, with insights into reasoning, psychology and society too.
Now, there are already books on philosophy and jokes, some of which have been very popular. Yet, so far, they have all taken the standard prose approach, with jokes being regularly inserted as 'examples'. The jokes and the philosophy are not truly intertwined.
With this book, my idea is to be a little more radical in two ways. First, to put the jokes up-front. Secondly, the jokes are not only to be fun, but serious, illustrating, in line with eminences grises such as Wittgenstein and Freud, that humour can reveal important insights into both the workings of the mind and the world around us. Wittgenstein and Freud? The readership should include all those who are a ‘little bit’ curious about big ideas in psychology and language, about hearing a little bit more about iconic philosophers.
The format for this book would be a short, tasty introduction, followed by a series of standard, but carefully selected and redrafted one page jokes, each accompanied by a short but intriguing and insightful philosophical discussion. In addition, more detailed text boxes examine particular issues or providing additional background, boxes which the reader is invited to read separately or skip them as they wish. Finally, the jokes would be grouped into categories, an additional tool for bringing out certain philosophical characteristics of humour. Publishers, please write in now!
5) What draws you to philosophy? Have you always been drawn to it?
What attracts me to philosophy is its promise to provide fresh and radical insights into issues and topics that too often are approached only from a narrow perspective. It’s the ‘question everything’ aspect, I guess. But I’m not exactly a ‘philosopher’, maybe more of a social scientist. My books - like this food one - are research intensive, even if they appear very light. As I say, I have the academic background for this kind of work, being a specialist in both philosophy and social science. Above all, I have a taste for the original kind of philosophy which takes long, complicated, philosophical debates and reduces them to a few lines. Of course, this is frowned upon by many academics in the centres of excellence today.
6) Who/what is your writing inspiration?
I’ve always admired people who can write about imaginary worlds – from thrillers to science fiction. Ironically, these days I rarely read such things.
7) What do you do if inspiration just won't come?
I do something physical – kinaesthetic – like maybe a bit of DIY or gardening, or even better – a swim in the sea.
8) Which part of the writing process is your favourite, and which part do you dread?
I actually quite like editing my work! The first draft is always a huge challenge.
9) What is your number one distraction?
10) Do you research as you go along or do have you have the whole book in note form before you write?
I do a lot of research and then strip it down. Usually my books are modular and I research each bit separately.
11) Tea or coffee?
As above, tea!
12) What are the most important three things you've learned about writing, editing or publishing (or all of the above!) since you started your journey?
I’ve learnt that it is IMPOSSIBLE to write a good book without a lot of rewriting. I was lucky to be able to publish youthful follies that then went to second and even third editions. But really, authors should expect just one bite at the cherry –and that means they need to edit their book very carefully before it ever sees the light of day.
13) What's your favourite quote on writing?
The neurologist, Paul Broks, wrote something very thought-provoking about writing – which I later rephrased in a book called Mind Games. I like my version better than his (which goes off into technicalities), so, with suitable acknowledgements. here it is:
“But already, we’re off to a bad start! These words you are now reading, whose are they? Whose is that voice in your head? Yours or mine? When you hear someone speak, the words remain theirs - to be ignored or disagreed with as you choose. But somehow to read someone’s thoughts is to allow them, however temporarily, to take over the language centres of your brain. For as long as you are caught up in what they say, the writer becomes your inner voice.
Does that mean that, for a moment, the writer becomes the reader? Or does it mean instead that, for a moment, the reader becomes the writer?”
14) What is the best piece of advice you've received?
Don’t expect to make a living being an author.
15) Where else can we connect with you?
Not on Facebook, which I don’t really, like but certainly on Twitter. If anyone tweets direct I will see the notification, and be sure to reply.