Questioning the so-called experts


A skeptic delves into statistics and choices on issues that surround our lives.

Nathanael Johnson was born without a doctor on hand and later toddled around his Northern California yard without diapers, free to ingest whatever germy creatures he got his hands on, but no sugar allowed. With parents like his, it’s little wonder he grew up wondering about the miracles of modern science.

What’s really welcome about his deeply reported book, All Natural, is that his upbringing makes the investigation of nature vs. technology fun as well as thought-provoking. He questions mainstream wisdom, “expert” advice and the all-natural solutions for childbirth, germs, raw milk, sugar, factory farming of animals and more.

Most of us who pay any attention to the world around us can’t help but be anxious about many of our everyday choices: Is the microwave oven really safe? Should I vaccinate my child, or will that cause untold harm? How was the pig raised that became the supermarket pork chop, and should I care?

Johnson, a widely published journalist, is no different, and the subtitle of his book makes that clear: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier.

For Johnson, the prospect of parenthood was a precipitous launch for his quest. How would this precious human be born? The details of Johnson’s own conception — apparently during an acid-fueled romp — make a funny counterpoint to the level of attention 21st century parents-to-be lavish on every detail of labor and delivery.

When he digs deep into the statistics and options, it’s not so clear what to choose. Natural childbirth, at home where it’s peaceful but far from medical intervention if needed? Or a Caesarean birth, which, after all, is surgery so has its own potential complications?

Johnson frequently finds that an old-fashioned point still matters: “(W)omen who had the support of another person throughout their entire labor were 21 percent less likely to need Caesareans than women laboring in places where companions were not permitted.” Which doesn’t mean surgical birth doesn’t save lives when necessary; it does.

While the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other nature of his findings can be frustrating, All Natural brings the arguments to life through a cast of wonderful farmers, neighbors, doctors, midwives and Johnson’s own parents.

Mary MacVean reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.

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