Interview with Gary Taubes (part 2)

INTERVIEWER What do you think about prions?

TAUBES Here’s the problem with prions: the claim is that here’s a radical discovery — an infectious agent that doesn’t have nucleic acid — and it’s based fundamentally on a negative result, which is that when researchers have gone looking for the nucleic acids they failed to find them. Therefore, so the logic goes, they must not be there. The original claim, by Stan Pruisner, another Nobel Prize winner, was premature. He made some claims in his early papers that were definitively wrong. Yet everything he’s done since then supports his initial claim, which suggests he’s was either remarkably lucky to begin with, or he’s only capable of interpreting his results so that they agree with his preconceptions. One of the themes in all of my work is that if you go public on premature data, what happens is that the motivation to do really good science ceases. By “really good science”, what you’re supposed to do, as brutally as you can, is to try to come up with tests that would refute your own hypothesis. The idea is that if your hypothesis survives every rigorous test you can imagine, and all those that everyone else can imagine, then you can start believing itss true. But once you’ve staked a claim based on premature data — once you’ve gone out on a limb without doing any of those rigorous tests — now your motivation becomes to prove that you were right., which you can never do in any case. But the point is that you stop trying to refute your hypothesis, and you start trying to accumulate evidence that supports it and the latter isn’t science. It’s more like what happens in religions.

INTERVIEW That’s what happened with Peter Duesberg. He was a good scientist until he started making claims about HIV.

TAUBES When I wrote this prion article in 1987, the science was so bad that it was a joke. Still, I never said that the prion concept wasn’t correct; I just said there was excruciatingly little evidence to support it, and there were plenty of reasons to believe it was wrong. How do you get strains of an infectious agent without nucleic acids (RNA or DNA) to encode the information in the strains? If you actually look today, even though Prusiner has won the Nobel Prize, if you go to the WHO website or the NIH website and you read up on prions, you’ll see that it’s still considered a hypothesis. There’s still no way to explain how you can get strains without a virus. Prusiner has these ideas, but they’re along the lines of now “a miracle happens”. It’s another long story, but one of the problems (and this is a theme in my book), when you let an untested hypothesis grow and infect the science to the point where people start to believe it’s true, even though it’s never been rigorously tested, the obstacles against ever overturning it get bigger and bigger. It’s like the dietary fat hypothesis: you let it sit around for 40 years, and it evolves to the point that people consider it dogma; it’s virtually impossible to overturn it. The situation with prions isn’t so bad because the public doesn’t care about prions the way that they care about diet, but once the Nobel Prize is awarded, even though it’s still considered a hypothesis, people tend to ignore the studies that suggest it’s wrong. There’s one researcher from Yale who is constantly publishing evidence in major journals that she’s found the nucleic acids, and people just ignore her. They believe the question has already been answered.

INTERVIEWER What’s her name?

TAUBES Laura Manuelidis.

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8 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 2)”

  1. this sounds reminescent of Smolin’s critique of string theory in his book,
    “The Trouble with Physics” Smolin writes that string theory makes no testable predictions..

  2. “INTERVIEW That’s what happened with Peter Duesberg. He was a good scientist until he started making claims about HIV.”

    Unless I misunderstand your position, you are missing the parallels between the Dietary Fat/Obesity hypothesis and the HIV/AIDS hypothesis entirely. The “probable cause” of AIDS was announced in 1984 by press conference, not in a published, peer-reviewed paper. Since then there has always been ample evidence that either HIV does not cause AIDS, or that there are other causal “co-factors” involved. This evidence still exists, and has yet to be adequately explained. Instead most of this evidence is ignored, and the HIV-AIDS causal link is taken as a forgone conclusion – there is simply a opinion that “consensus” that HIV causes AIDS. Which is exactly the flawed misapplication of the scientific method that lead us to the current badly flawed dietary advice to avoid fat and replace it with carbs.

    Based on my reading of Taube’s work, and my own extensive research on HIV/AIDS, I suspect that Taube’s is most likely extremely skeptical of the causal link between HIV and AIDS. Duesberg is in fact an extremely careful and skeptical scientist, exactly the sort of researcher Taubes tends to respect based on my reading of his latest book, and other interviews/presentations.

    The parallels between the terrible science/scientists Taubes discovered in the field of dietary research, and what can be found in HIV/AIDS research are legion. I have not been able to find a public statement of his opinion on these matters, but I realize that for him to “come out” as an HIV/AIDS skeptic would most likely be an act of career interruptus. Note how he didn’t answer the question you asked? He avoided it entirely (I am assuming his answer is unedited).

  3. The comment on Duesberg and HIV certainly was an interruption. It would have been more interesting to compare Taube’s and Duesberg’s almost identical criticisms of prion theory.

  4. “I didn’t ask Taubes what he thought about HIV and AIDS. My comment about Duesberg was an interruption.”

    I realize that, but your quip got it 180 degrees backwards. What Taubes is doing in dietary research is entirely analogous to what AIDS dissidents such as Duesberg, and more recently Culshaw are doing in realm of AIDS research. The parallels are clear, and if anything Taubes is most likely extremely skeptical of the conclusions reached by the last 25 years of HIV/AIDS research. I’d love to hear him comment on the subject.

  5. “…now your motivation becomes to prove that you were right., which you can never do in any case. But the point is that you stop trying to refute your hypothesis, and you start trying to accumulate evidence that supports it and the latter isn’t science. It’s more like what happens in religions.”

    Oh my goodness, the 2,000 pound elephant sitting in the living room, that nobody is remarking on, is named Al Gore. He’s even got his own Nobel Prize, how apt.

    At the same time, Earth Day is replacing Easter, so the comment about religion is true in spades.

    Yet he and the hordes who insist that global warming is “proven” to be caused by man go unremarked upon in all of this discussion. Why? Does it depend on whose ox is being gored?

  6. I’m awfully late getting here, via a search for Taubes critics to see what might turn up. But Bob, two things. One, Gore doesn’t claim to be a scientist. If you even knew the names of actual scientists involved, rather than a guy who funded a movie, your own “skepticism” might seem better justified, rather than merely self-serving. Two, Taubes uses a large number of scientists whose views correspond in different ways to the things he is saying, and also cites many scientific papers whose results suggest different conclusions than those drawn by the high-carb folks. The climate science “skeptics” (as opposed to the genuinely skeptical scientists within the mainstream of climate science) have never been able to do either of those things. The very small number of people disputing that anthropogenic human warming exists (as opposed to the many who dispute exactly how much) are barely able to interact with the scientific papers that are published. They don’t even attempt to explain or to integrate, instead, they’ve spent inordinate amounts of money trying to wish away the data. But the data itself has proven quite robust.

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