Ford vs. Roberts

Dr. John Ford, a professor at the UCLA medical school, recently posted a criticism of me. Here is my reply.

An obvious problem with Dr. Ford’s critique is lack of evidence. Dr. Ford seems to be saying that The Shangri-La Diet is dangerous but on its face this is absurd. My book suggests that people consume vegetable oils or sugar water. Billions of people already consume these substances in amounts larger than what I recommend. Compared to the drugs that Dr. Ford prescribes every day, they are extremely safe and well-studied. If Dr. Ford is implying that these foods have dangers that he knows about but the rest of us do not, he should be explicit about it: Say what the hidden dangers are, and provide evidence for his claims.

Other problems are less obvious:

First, Dr. Ford has ignored facts that do not support his conclusions. If you search the Internet for people who are trying my weight-loss ideas, you will find many for whom it is working, often very well, and only a few for whom it has failed (harmlessly). Dr. Ford says nothing about this.

Second, factual mistakes. (1) “If Roberts were truly interested in investigating his approach, he should have subjected it to . . . peer review” – implying that I did not. In fact, my Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, which contained my weight-loss theory and support for my weight-loss methods, was peer-reviewed. So was a related article in Chance, which I told Dr. Ford about by email while he was writing his critique. Two is not zero. (2) He says I “present[ed] a highly speculative idea as proven science.” I did not. If he reads my book, he will see that I present a theory, a weight-loss method based on that theory, and promising early results. (3) He says my Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper is “not about validating his hypothesis or conclusions [but] a speculative commentary on the use of self-experimentation.” Actually, it is a long empirical article with a great deal of data – to call it “commentary” is misleading. The evidence in that article supports the theory of weight control on which my diet is based because the theory helped me discover new and surprising ways of losing weight. (4) He claims that self-experimentation is not “accepted methodology.” In fact, the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for work on ulcers in which self-experimentation played a key role. Awarding someone a Nobel Prize constitutes acceptance of their methodology. As does publication in an oft-cited peer-reviewed journal. 

Finally, Dr. Ford is a medical school professor. For a long time, medical school researchers have contributed no useful ideas to our understanding of how the average person can lose weight. At best, they have tested ideas that others have come up with. Could Dr. Ford’s rigid methodological beliefs have a downside? At UC San Francisco, my local medical school, the last time I looked at their online curriculum, about five years ago, medical students were being told to tell patients that weight loss is a matter of calories in versus calories out, therefore eat less, exercise more. Such advice was popular among doctors in the 1950s. It was no better advice then than it is today; it is based on a seriously-incomplete understanding of weight control. If that were my track record — failure for more than 50 years — I would be more open to new approaches.

I agree with Dr. Ford that my weight-loss ideas are not “proven science” and that “seasoned experts” (including medical school professors) may help the rest of us, including me, evaluate them. But I also believe strongly that non-experts can help the rest of us evaluate them. This is why I consider the Shangri-La Diet forums at sethroberts.net – full of non-expert views and observations — to be very important. Dr. Ford and I probably differ here. I suspect he considers these forums useless, or nearly so, for what he calls “scientific” or “clinical” purposes. Time will tell which of us is correct.

13 Replies to “Ford vs. Roberts”

  1. As a skeptic, but one who is doing Shangri-La nonetheless, I’d be a lot more comfortable if perhaps you could list out what scientific research is currently going on — either directly into, or inspired by, the Shangri-La diet.

    At the moment, I’m “tracking my own progress(Following Shangri-La)”:http://following-shangri-la.com/, but of course, this data is purely anecdotal. If I were an outsider, I’d be claiming the Hawthorne effect was the primary explanation for any weightloss.

    Thanks.

  2. Can you imagine this doctor talking to a cancer patient: “Well, chemotherapy works, and if it doesn’t cure you, that’s your fault.”

    I am really disappointed to see that the medical educational establishment reacts this way to anyone with a new idea in the area of weight reduction. This area really is one of their most obvious, disappointing failures: it’s one of the most critical issues they are facing today, but they don’t have any ideas, and, apparently, they aren’t looking for any, either.

  3. I think you misrepresent Dr. Marshall’s Nobel Prize. He drank the bacteria culture in the process of formulating a hypothesis. The Nobel Prize was awarded in light of his later proof of the hypothesis via extensive lab work that isolated the bacteria in large numbers of ulcer sufferers, and failed to find the bacteria in those without ulcers.

  4. If Ford had said that self-experimentation is “not completely accepted” or “controversial,” that would have been accurate. To say it “not accepted” is overstating it — it is to say that nobody who matters takes it seriously. And that isn’t true because a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine obviously matters. Self-experimentation was not the reason Marshall got a Nobel Prize, as you say — he got it because he was right.

  5. This is really an issue of what George Lakoff calls ‘frames’. To the scientific establishment, self-experimentation is unthinkable, threatening, even heretical. Seth, you’ve just got to let it run off you — they are never going to ‘get it’. Because of the Internet, self-experimentation’s time has finally come, and it will be up to the next generation of scientists to appreciate its superiority as a method of achieving useful results. About 85% of the comments I’ve received on my self-experimentation articles (e.g. http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2006/05/23.html#a1535 ) have been positive — it’s very empowering for people to overcome the learned helplessness that says they are too stupid to know how to manage their own bodies. About 15% have been almost hysterically negative. These are from very conservative people who believe fiercely in authority — it gives them comfort, something to follow, something to believe in. Anything that would seem to undermine authority is seen as subversive. There is a famous saying: You can accomplish anything as long as you don’t care who gets credit for it. You’re too far ahead of the curve to get credit from those in authority, but what you are accomplishing is unstoppable. Thanks for being a pioneer.

  6. Dr. Ford’s criticism sounded to me a bit arrogant, I read the Shangri la diet and understood it for what it was. A new idea, there were no promises and it was not the least bit misleading. I felt insulted by Dr. Ford’s attitude that average (Non-Doctors) people like me couldn’t think for themselves or interpret new ideas. I don’t need years of expensive studies I have tried the diets based on the careful academic studies and years of trials and guess what, none of them worked. After reading the booking and carefully considering all the facts I see no risk in the diet and a possibility of a payoff. If the diet doesn’t work I am out 20.00 for a book and I will go on to try other diets and exercise regimens until I find one that works (I guess that would be self experimentation. I am starting it today and am looking for a place in the blogosphere to record the results if you have any suggestions let me know.

  7. I’m a little taken aback by Dr. Ford’s essay.

    First of all, the book is quite clear that the diet is based in a hypothesis or theory, not a fact or even a “finding.”

    The evidence for the diet is also clearly stated:

    1. Seth Roberts’ successful weight loss experience

    2. the successful weight loss experiences of 2 or 3 of Seth Roberts’ friends and family members

    3. converging lines of evidence in the form of peer-reviewed animal and weight-loss research consistent with the sugar-water regimen

    Second, many or perhaps most physicians treat individual patients, not categories or classes of patients who can be studied in large double-blind trials. Expert physicians conduct “medication trials” – that is the term of art – with individual patients, trying drugs alone or in combination and evaluating the results based on patient report. One of our family doctors tells us that prescribing medication is “an art, not a science.” She doesn’t say this to denigrate her profession; she’s describing a core truth about treating patients whose conditions science does not yet understand.

    Obesity is certainly a condition science does not yet understand. Treating physicians and overweight individuals must conduct “medication trials” like Seth Roberts’ sugar water regimen until such time that science does understand it and has effective treatments to offer.

  8. I came across Seth Roberts paper “What Makes Food Fattening? A Pavlovian Theory of Weight Control” long before the Shangri-La book came out. I wasn’t actively looking to lose weight but his theories seemed plausible. I began consuming fructose water at work. (I sit at a computer all day.) I lost 50 pounds and like Roberts himself had to put some back on as people started asking me if I was sick! I am completely confident that I could effortlessly “dial up” any weight I care to. Regardless of what Mr. Ford thinks, it works and it doesn’t get any easier than this. Dropping the extra weight lowered my cholesterol and blood pressure probably adding years to my life. Thank you Dr. Roberts!

  9. Nobody caught Ford’s denigration of the rat obesity studies by calling them “old”. A study which has not been disproven is not made worse by age, but instead better. Nice try, Ford! Go back to making cars.

  10. Nobody caught Ford’s denigration of the rat obesity studies by calling them “old”. A study which has not been disproven is not made worse by age, but instead better. Nice try, Ford! Go back to making cars.

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