Interview with Gary Taubes (part 1)

I interviewed Gary Taubes shortly after he gave a talk about the main ideas of his new book — Good Calories, Bad Calories — at UC Berkeley. The interview lasted 2 hours.

INTERVIEWER I just spoke to someone who reduced the carbohydrate in his diet, for various reasons, including your book. He found that his performance on mental problems started improving again. It had stopped improving; it had been constant for a long time, and then it started getting better. So it may be that when you reduce the carbohydrate in your diet, your brain starts working better.

TAUBES Well, there is evidence that your brain works more efficiently on ketones, as does your heart. So if he reduced his carbohydrate consumption sufficiently, he probably increased the level of ketones in his blood. But I’m just speculating here.

INTERVIEWER: The book seems to have had an unusual beginning. You’d been writing about salt, and you learned that a scientist you didn’t trust about salt was also talking about obesity?

TAUBES Well, I’ve spent over 20 years now writing about controversial science. In the mid-1980s, I lived at CERN for ten months, the big physics lab outside Geneva, watching physicists discover non-existent elementary particles. Then I wrote a somewhat infamous story about prions, the supposed causative agents of Mad Cow Disease. I wrote a book about cold fusion: I got obsessed with this question of how it happened, because it was so obviously wrong. After all that, I developed what I believe is a very good feel for who’s a good scientist, and who’s a bad scientist, just by talking to them. There are certain ways that good scientists describe their data, describe the caveats, and describe the conditions by which they may or may not be right. I had also, obviously, with cold fusion, interviewed some of the worst scientists in the world. I used to joke with my friends in the physics community that if you want to cleanse your discipline of the worst scientists in it, every three or four years, you should have someone publish a bogus paper claiming to make some remarkable new discovery — infinite free energy or ESP, or something suitably cosmic like that. Then you have it published in a legitimate journal ; it shows up on the front page of the New York Times, and within two months, every bad scientist in the field will be working on it. Then you just take the ones who publish papers claiming to replicate the effect, and you throw them out of the field. A way of cleaning out the bottom of the barrel.

INTERVIEWER I thought your NY Times article, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie,” sort of did that. The people who came out against it, they were the bad journalists. Just throw them out!

TAUBES Well, how I got onto that: I was doing this story for Science on salt and blood pressure, looking into the controversy about whether salt consumption plays any role at all in raising blood pressure and causing hypertension. One of the prime players in this salt/blood pressure controversy was obviously one of the worst scientists I’d ever met — one of the five worst”¦you can’t say, in that five, who is the very worst, but they’re all pretty bad. This is a group that includes guys like Stan Pons and Martin Fleischman who claimed to have discovered cold fusion. While I’m on the phone with this guy, interviewing him, he takes credit for getting Americans to eat less fat and fewer eggs. I literally finished the interview, called my editor at Science, and I said “You know, one of the worst scientists I’ve ever interviewed just took credit for getting Americans to eat less fat and fewer eggs, and I don’t know what the story is, but when I’m done with this salt story, I’m going to look into fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat.” I had a great relationship with Science. My editors had faith in me. If I said there was a story there, they’d give me the support I needed to pursue it. A year later, I ended up with that first story in Science, saying that there’s no evidence that reducing the total fat in the diet makes a damned bit of difference in our health. The evidence that saturated fat and monounsaturated fats are players is, at best, marginal. And that led to the N.Y. Times article.

INTERVIEWER What did that scientist say that made you rank him so low?

TAUBES There are all kinds of signs. He told me there was no controversy, when there was obviously a controversy. His side might have been right, but to deny there as a controversy was ludicrous. He talked about the legitimacy of throwing out negative data. You measure salt consumption one way; you don’t see any effect on blood pressure, and so you decide that’s obviously the wrong way to measure it. The implication of everything he told me was that he knew what the answer was before he did his experiments, and then he adjusted his experimental techniques and methodology until he got the answer that he wanted. And he believed this was legitimate science. There are other signs. I’m a stickler about the use of words like “evidence” and “proof”. So if someone tells you there’s no evidence for some controversial belief, you can be fairly confident that they’re a bad scientist. There’s always evidence, or there wouldn’t be a controversy. If somebody says that “we proved that this was true” or “we set out to prove that this was true” that’s another bad sign. The point here, as Popper noted, among others, is that you can never prove anything is true; you can only refute it. So researchers who talk about proving a hypothesis is true rather than testing it make me worried.

INTERVIEWER Yeah, I see what you’re saying. They overstate; they twist things around to make it come out the way they want. They are way too sure of what they”¦

TAUBES Yes, and the really good scientists are the ones, almost by definition, who are most skeptical of evidence that seems to support their beliefs. They’re most aware of how they could have been fooled, how they could have screwed up, or how they might have missed artifacts in their experiment that could have explained what they observed. They’re very careful about what they say. If you ask them to do play devil’s advocate, and tell you how they could have screwed up, then at the very least, they’ll say “Well, if I knew how I could have done it, I would have checked it before I made the claim”. So when I’m talking about discerning the difference between a good scientist and a bad scientist, I’m talking about how they speak about their research, the evidence itself, it’s presence or absence. My friends in journalism would often ask me this question: by what right do I think make decisions about who’s a good scientist and who’s not. I’d say “Well, when you’re an English major, you can be confident that Norman Mailer was a better writer than John Grisham, even though John Grisham makes 10 to 100 times more money”. It’s just a feel for what you do; I don’t know how else to describe it. I know a good scientist when I talk with one. I might be fooled, on occasion, but….

INTERVIEWER It’s not particularly well-correlated with how famous they are, or how many Nobel Prizes they’ve won.

TAUBES My first book was about a Nobel Prize winner who discovered non-existent elementary particles.

INTERVIEWER Who was that?

TAUBES An Italian physicist named Carlo Rubbia.

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12 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 1)”

  1. Funny juxtaposition:

    There are all kinds of signs. He told me there was no controversy, when there was obviously a controversy. His side might have been right, but to deny there as a controversy was ludicrous… I’m a stickler about the use of words like “evidence” and “proof”. So if someone tells you there’s no evidence for some controversial belief, you can be fairly confident that they’re a bad scientist. There’s always evidence, or there wouldn’t be a controversy.

    My first book was about a Nobel Prize winner who discovered non-existent elementary particles

    Rubbia won the Nobel Prize for discovering the W and Z bosons. Their existence is fairly well established in the Standard Model, to the degree that we can observe particles that minute. To call them ‘non-existent’ would be a profoundly hubristic scientific claim. Taubes might be referring to the Higgs boson, which is predicted within a fairly narrow range of parameters, but unobserved. This is again substantially different from ‘non-existent’. I haven’t read Taubes’ book of course, so it’s entirely possible he’s referring to some other particles, but it certainly seems as if Taubes is failing to hold himself to the standard he requires of the scientists he interacts with.

  2. With apologies for coming off like an egomaniac and writing in the third person, Taubes was indeed referring to some other particles. He was there when Rubbia won the Nobel Prize. He even accompanied him to Stockholm (something Rubbia probably regrets to this day) and had a great time. The first half of his book, Nobel Dreams, chronicles the work leading up to the observation of the W and Z bosons at Rubbia’s experiment. The second half of Nobel Dreams chronicles the “discovery” of the non-existent elementary particles and the subsequent realization that it was, indeed, a royal screw-up. The book is a good read. I recommend it. (My advice to sidereal, which I try to follow as an investigative journalist, is always to begin from the assumption that someone is no more nor less idiotic than you might be, until proven otherwise.)

  3. Indeed. sidereal simply read the exchange about Rubbia, in the context of the impeachability of Nobel Prize winners, as being about the work for which he won the Prize. sidereal apologizes for the assumption and will, as a fan of scientific controversies, read the book if he gets a chance. Regarding idiocy, he’s surprised Taubes though it was implied. Lack of scientific rigor in approaching claims is unfortunately the human condition, and hardly qualifies as idiocy.

  4. Taubes’ response to the question, “What did that scientist say that made you rank him so low?”, was, in my humble opinion, excellent. (I thought the asking of that question was also on target.) I especially liked, and agree with, his discussion about “proof.” I was curious to see if Taubes would respond with an emotional argument. He didn’t. In my eyes, this elevates his credibility.

    Just for a moment I’d like to come to the defense of scientists. I’ve worked with some, and I see that when someone becomes very excited about a finding, they, as if it was human nature, start to erect blinders to the alternative hypothesis. I think that’s ok, as long as they can be reigned back in. Excitement is ok. But there are others who become progressively cemented to their idea. It’s difficult to work with someone who has stopped listening, who can’t see beyond their selected path.

    That’s all! Nice job on the interview!

  5. I would have to agree, having been involved in various “hard” science projects over the years. When a new idea or discovery is thought up by the scientists, they often do put on blinders to any conflicting data or confounding hypotheses. This is what peer review is supposed to solve, but sadly since most of the peer reviewers also have their own set of blinders, things don’t work out as they should.

    Paradigms change offly slow…

  6. I recently read Gary Taube’s new book and believe he got a lot of things right (e.g., overstated role of salt and fat to health) However, I’m less convinced that the obesity epidemic has been caused by a decrease in fat consumption and that a low-carbohydrate diet is the best way to lose weight for everyone.

    Instead, I think there is equally strong evidence (if not stronger) that the increased incidence of obesity is due to an increase in dieting (one indicator — $11 billion was spent on dieting in the early 1980s and over $60 billion is spent today). In fact, there is a strong argument that the global obesity epidemic is due to the broader issue of an increase in food insecurity (for which dieting is just one example).

    To read a paper on this topic, you can download a PDF at this URL:

    Allen Oelschlaeger
    Author of Finally, the Straight Scoop About Weight, Nutrition, and Fitness (learn more at

  7. “may be that when you reduce the carbohydrate in your diet, your brain starts working better.”

    I gotta dollar that says that all mental effects of low-carb diets are the result of increased serotonin getting into the brain. I have (ahem) self-experimented on this extensively because I was experiencing circadian dizzyness (falling-down dizzy if I got up at 4am to go to the bathroom) and mental fogginess that seemed to correlate with sugar intake. After the doctor ruled out the good stuff (tumor, diabetes, etc.) I realized that a) when you get circadian symptoms, you look at circadian hormones and b) dizziness and mental fogginess are well-known symptoms for people using drugs that try to tinker with serotonin levels in the brain. They are often circadian symptoms, but for some reason doctors are real likely to ignore the fact that symptoms occur only at a certain time of day.

    A good scan of the literature helped me form the hypothesis: eat too much sugar, get sugar malabsorption, excess sugar binds with tryptophan, increased carbs in blood competes with tryptophan at brain-blood barrier, and you get seriously lowered ability to make serotonin in the brain. If you have any interest, ya gotta read this grotesque experiment they did on athletes where they put a catheter in the jugular so they can directly measure how much tryptophan is getting sucked in to the brain when athletes do endurance exercise with or without drinking carbs. I swear, you can do experiments on athletes that prisoners would never sign up for.

    The experiment to test the hypothesis on myself was easy: pop a tryptophan pill and do extended aerobic exercise on an empty stomach at peak serum tryptophan time (say, 6-8pm). The result was stunning. Boom — the mental fogginess I had had for unknown months or years disappeared. It was like the feeling you get when you get new prescription glasses and you suddenly realize that you had been unable to see clearly for who-knows-how-long. I can reproduce the symptoms at will and make them disappear at will.

    When you cut those carbs drastically or eliminate them, yer gonna get more tryptophan in the brain, so more serotonin can be produced from it. More serotonin in the brain may also help decrease cravings and increase satiety.

    I believe it’s impossible really understand the Atkins diet without understanding how carbs can compete with tryptophan, and without understanding the Harvard work on using protein to help raise brain serotonin levels. The Atkins diet tinkers with brain serotonin, but since it does so unconsciously, it doesn’t always produce the desired result (and certainly isn’t the only way to elevate brain serotonin).

  8. So Ron,

    Very interesting, where can I find this information? I’ve been reducing my carb intake but it still seems like I fluctuate between good days and foggy days. I’d love to have a better understanding of what to do to reduce the brain fog.

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