Kenneth Roberts the Man: On So-Called Experts

(This post is similar to a  post from 3 years ago, though here I hope to point out something I didn’t then.  The quote below also appears in that post in a much shorter form.)

As one reads through Kenneth Roberts’ essays, she will notice his disgust with the so-called experts of his day on issues such as planting, fishing, and diets.  The way in which he directs his disgust towards them, though, is quite humorous as he makes himself the ignorant, hapless soul (regarding whatever topic he is discussing) while mentioning the experts and their views in rather glowing, hyperbolic language.    The result is akin to the philosopher’s tool of reductio ad absurdum: the picture Roberts’ paints in reality makes the “expert” look rather silly and ignorant while Roberts emerges from the essay unscathed by the fad of the day.

Perhaps the best illustration of Roberts’ method is presented in a quote from his essay “An Inquiry Into Diets” found in his For Authors Only and The Kenneth Roberts Reader:

One of the foremost diet books says that if a person follows the proper diet, he becomes tranquil, thoughtful, and philosophic; overwork is impossible; business worries are unknown; irritation vanishes.  It was all too clear to me that I was in a bad way; for whenever my eye struck a newspaper report of the activities of the House of Representatives, I became irritated.  Almost everything that was done in the House of Representatives seemed irritating…

When I read about such things, I not only become irritated: I become profane – so profane that my language sometimes shocks even myself.

This, of course, is another sure indication of acidosis.  If I were on a proper diet, nothing could imitate me.  I would remain tranquil and philosophic while reading about the House of Representatives.  I would continue  to be tranquil and philosophic, event though the House of Representatives should be successful in its efforts to bring the nation to insolvency and ruin.

I may as well be frank.  The diet books had me, to put it crudely, scared (In The Kenneth Roberts Reader, 88-89).

And such is Roberts’ attitude toward dieticians in this particular example, and to so-called experts on the whole.    In a day when it seems we’re inundated with a cacophony of voices telling us what to do, it is somewhat refreshing to know that this is nothing new, but has gone on for quite some time.  And in the midst of the noise of self-proclaimed experts, Kenneth Roberts added his voice among those voices calling people back to common sense and reason.

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Kenneth Roberts on Diets: A Satire Against “Experts” and Their Gullible Followers

It is well documented that Kenneth Roberts was a very opinionated man, whether he was railing against politics, historians, or the current culture.  Perhaps not as well know, though, was his love for food and his never-ending quest for food cooked like his grandma’s (see his essay “A Maine Kitchen” in Trending into Maine, or “Grandma’s Kitchen” in The Kenneth Roberts Reader).

In his essay titled “An Inquiry into Diets,” Roberts tells of his foray into the crowded forest of diet books (it seems that even in his time, Americans were vainly obsessed with their figure).  Roberts gives the account of an acquaintance approaching him with the request to procure for her the best diet books available at that time (I am unsure if this actually occurred or not).  What ensues is a humorous, satirical story of Roberts’ dizzying journey amongst the leading diet “experts” and their contradictory, nebulous, unfounded advice.

Roberts provides much material worthy of being quoted here; however, due to the lack of space, time and the concern of breaking copyright, here are only a few:

…every diet, in the opinion of one or more diet experts, is either based on the erroneous ideas of a faddist, or is downright dangerous.

Hitherto, in consulting references on any given subject, I have usually been able to discard the majority as inaccurate, biased, unreliable, or untruthful … Diet books are different.  Most of them are written by medical experts who have studied for years to find out exactly what happens to seven cents’ worth of liver when it meets a Welch’s bacillus in the upper colon of a sedentary worker aged forty-five.

I further discovered that although a person may consider himself in perfect health, and may feel comfortable and happy, he is – unless he is eating foods that the diet books say he ought to eat – as effectively poisoned as though nurtured for years on poison-ivy salads with bichloride of mercury dressing.

 Lastly, Roberts tells of his discovery from the dietitians that starches, sugars and proteins, if mixed in a meal, causes intestinal fermentation, which leads to acidosis, which, according to Roberts

…is too large a subject for me to handle, in these few notes, except in the sketchiest manner.  Not even the authors of the diet books are able to handle it satisfactorily.  However, all of us are suffering from acidosis; and so far as i can tell, everybody has suffered from acidosis since the beginning of the world – unless he has been so happy as to stuble upon the proper diet.

However, if one were to just follow the proper diet,

he becomes tranquil, thoughtful, and philosophic; overwork is impossible; business worries are unknown; irritation vanishes.  It was all to clear to me that I was in a bad way; for whenever my eye struck a newspaper report of the activities of the House of Representatives, I became irritated.  Almost everything that was done in the House of Representatives seemed irritating; but the most frequent and explosive irritation was caused by that body’s eagerness to wreck the finances of the nation; its delight in wasting more and more of the people’s money; its inability to balance the budget in any sensible manner…

When I read about such things, I not only become irritated: I become profane – so profane that my language sometimes shocks even myself.

This, of course, is another sure indication of acidosis.  If I were on a proper diet, nothing could irritate me.  I would remain tranquil and philosophic while reading about the House of Representatives.  I would continue to be tranquil and philosophic, even though the House of Representatives should be successful in its efforts to bring the nation to insolvency and ruin.

(Note: this last quote gives a little glimpse into his politics as well.)

Not even the dietitians – and by implication their gullible, too-accepting followers – escaped Roberts’ searing gaze upon the culture of his time.  A great glimpse into Kenneth Roberts the man, and even a timely word for us today, as we are still flooded by advice from many “experts” that conflict with each other and even themselves.

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