Interview with Gary Taubes (part 6)

INTERVIEWER When I started your book, I already kind of believed all of your main points. Not all of them, but I was sympathetic. I knew where it was going. I thought “Oh, good. More evidence. This is interesting, and that’s an interesting way to tell that story”.

TAUBES The way I see it is that the establishment has an immune system to protect itself from challenges. Every science needs that kind of immune system to protect itself from quacks and easy-to-swallow but erroneous ideas that might infect the good science in the field. My question is whether I can infect enough people, enough serious scientists, that I can pose a threat to this immune system, that I could compromise the immune system of the establishment and make them take this idea seriously. Because some times these immune systems work against challenges that are legitimate. I honestly don’t know if I can. It’s going to be an interesting year. I hope I don’t become one of those bitter old men who, when I fail to do so, who can’t let it go.

INTERVIEWER How did you end up giving your recent talk at Berkeley? Obviously someone in the establishment was willing to invite you?

TAUBES Yes. It was actually epidemiologists at the School of Public Health who invited me initially to talk about epidemiology after I had a cover story called “Unhealthy Science” in the New York Times. I told them that the subtext of that story was my book. If what I say in the book is correct, then an observational epidemiology has done an enormous amount of damage. One line that was taken out of the New York Times article said that this was a story about the risks and benefits of observational epidemiology. There are certainly some successes in that endeavor, but if we’re living through an obesity and diabetes epidemic because of its failures, then it’s conceivable that more people have died because of observational epidemiology than have been saved. You always have to look at the negatives, the false negatives and the false positives. You can’t just look at the true positives and say that this is a valuable field of science. We’re digressing again, but the game of poker is relevant here. Are you a poker player?

INTERVIEWER I’ve played a lot of poker, yeah.

TAUBES Bad poker players base their methodology, their strategy, only on what happens when they win. They don’t notice that that strategy is making them lose more money when they’re losing than they win when they’re winning. The best strategy, of course, minimizes the losses and maximizes the gains. But they don’t think like that; the wins are so seductive that that’s all they pay attention to. Anyway, getting back to the question, these Berkeley epidemiologists invited me to lecture on epidemiology; I said “let me talk about the book”; it gives me a chance to sit down and try to convince some unbiased observers, I hope, that their beliefs about calories-in/calories-out has to be questioned.

INTERVIEWER What effect do you think your lecture had?
TAUBES I don’t know actually. I don’t know how many of the people I was preaching to are already converted. I thought it went over well. I mean, I couldn’t believe that I had spoken for almost two hours and had 90% of the audience awake. There were a few people I lost (you know, you focus on the girl in the seventh row on the right, who’s asleep). But most people seemed pretty attentive. But when I say I’m trying to infect others with these beliefs, if I convinced even a few of the faculty Berkeley that these ideas have to be taken seriously I’ve made progress. OK, now I’ve got a little infection growing at Berkeley. Indeed, I asked one of the epidemiologists who invited me to e-mail, say, ten of his colleagues and say, “You should get Taubes to come lecture, because it’s fascinating, and you might think his book is a little dubious, but when you hear his lecture…”. So we’ll see if it has any effect or if they’ve found it compelling enough that they went through with it. I hope so.

INTERVIEWER I’m just surprised that they found your book dubious. I think they might disagree with your interpretation of the evidence, but I don’t think they would find the reporting dubious.

TAUBES I’ve got to get to the people who take this knee-jerk response that they know what I think, and they don’t have to read the book. For instance, I had lunch with a Berkeley obesity researcher that I’d interviewed five years ago. We spent a couple of hours together five years ago and I sent him a copy of the book when it came out.

INTERVIEWER Who is this?

TAUBES A guy named Marc Hellerstein. He’s a runner and, of course, he believes that sloth is the cause of overweight. He joined us for lunch on Wednesday, but he didn’t eat, and I had about 35 minutes to try and convince him to read the obesity section of the book. The way he sees it, he’s got a lot to do; he’s a busy man, doing all of these experiments, trying to get funding, what could he possibly learn from reading the book and it’s a big book? So I was basically sparring with him for 35 minutes trying to inflict enough damage that he might conclude that he might actually learn something about his own subject of expertise if he reads it. And he actually said “OK, OK, OK, I’m going to read it, I’m going to read it”. (If he does, I’d be surprised, because after the lecture I e-mailed him a few follow-up notes, and he never bothered to respond.) I believe his initial response is probably common among obesity researchers, and even if they’re tempted, they first have to wade through 200 pages on chronic disease that try to convince them that everything else they believed is wrong. The exceptions are those people like you, who already had reason to agree with me.

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