Interview with Gary Taubes (part 10)

TAUBES I’m definitely more skeptical; even the science journalists I really respect, some of my friends, sometimes I read their stuff and I say, “They just weren’t skeptical enough”.

INTERVIEWER Yeah, that’s my reaction to at least half of the science journalism I read. One of my next questions is, did writing your book radicalize you? But it sounds like you were already radicalized!

TAUBES What do you mean by “radicalize me”?

INTERVIEWER Did it make you even more skeptical of the establishment? Obviously, you were skeptical to begin with.

TAUBES Again, the obesity stuff, in retrospect, is mind-blowing to me. Until I did the research for the book, I never questioned the idea that obesity wasn’t about calories in/calories out. That it wasn’t about overeating. Then you realize that there’s no arrow of causality in the law of energy conservation. That the correct interpretation is that we overeat because we get fat, we don’t get fat because we overeat. Now that’s a remarkable shift in causality, and yet nobody picked up on that for fifty years. And nobody seems to care even now. There’s one guy I know of — Robert Lustig at UCSF — who has written papers discussing this causality issue and getting it right. And nobody else seems to care. It blows my mind that an entire field of research could get it so wrong.

INTERVIEWER But you’d seen Nobel-Prize-winning physicists get it very wrong.

TAUBES But what they were getting wrong were subtle; yes, they’d believe incorrectly that they’d discovered elementary particles, but what they were doing was a real subtle game. What they were misinterpreting were extraordinarily subtle aspects of the data. This obesity screw-up is fundamental; it’s like a grade school error in the interpretation of the laws of thermodynamics. And I made it as well, up until five years ago. I never thought differently. But what radicalized me is that they don’t care. If they successfully ward off my threat to their beliefs, then I’m in a very dangerous place. Then it’s, like I said, where I end up a bitter demented old man, one of those guys who’s muttering to himself all the time that they, the establishment, didn’t listen to him…

INTERVIEWER I wondered, too, what other books your book resembles. To me, that’s an interesting question. But there’s many possible answers, and one is “Well, there’s been a long list of books that talk about this scam or that scam, and some of them are awful and some of them are pretty good. One of the ones that’s good is that great cholesterol scam, The Great Cholesterol Con. that’s a good book. But your book is different, because unlike the author of that book, you really had something to lose. You were a respected science writer who could expect to receive many more assignments in the course of a lifetime and write many, many more times for the New York Times in science, and so forth, and might write other books. For a writer in that position — this is an incredible book, because…

TAUBES I actually didn’t think — and this may be my own ignorance — I didn’t ever think of it as endangering my career.

INTERVIEWER But you clearly have more at stake…

TAUBES I always knew I could write about other subjects. I could go back to writing about high-energy physics; I like it. There’s a new accelerator turning on; there’ll be something to write about. I would have to compete with the whole new younger generation of whiz kids who may be better prose stylists than I am, but I could do it. What stuns me is that people may not take me seriously enough to refute me, to ruin my credibility. That’s what bothers me, not that they could ruin it. Here’s a book that might be similar, OK? Not in terms of prose style, or beauty of presentation, but like The Best and the Brightest. A book that came out during the Vietnam War and exposed the sort of irrationality of it. When I was writing my cold fusion book, I read A Bright and Shining Lie and I read Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On. I thought we’re all writing about human idiocy. Shilts’s book was particularly important, because it came out at a time when it could still make a difference, when people still had to change their beliefs. So Shilts actually accomplished something. And A Bright and Shining Lie was an extraordinary book. In my fondest dreams, I couldn’t imagine writing such a book. But maybe my book may be akin to book And The Band Played On and The Best and the Brightest. Those are books that revealed the establishment’s erroneous beliefs and how they were misleading us, and they did so at a time and in a way that could actually help set us on the right path. You use the term “We were misled”; we were literally misled. Not deceived; we were just led down the wrong path. Often, when I think about this, I imagine this situation in the 50s and 60s, when there were these dual paths that could be followed; two paths through the woods, and the establishment took us on this low-fat path. What I had to do when I did this research is I had to back up, back up, back up until I got back to the woods, to the point where the two paths diverged, and see the existence of the other path, and see where that one led us. Did that get to a place where we could actually understand what was going on, and maybe prevent and cure these diseases.

INTERVIEWER Well, when I think about precedents for your book, sometimes I think of The Jungle [by Upton Sinclair]. In the sense that there’s this awful thing going on, and it’s in the interests of many people to keep it going on, but it’s really outrageous. It’s very different, in a way, because the meat-packing industry was very obviously horrible, whereas what you’re saying went on isn’t obviously horrible; it’s more complicated than that. But on the other hand, your thing is kind of a bigger issue; it’s everyone’s health. It’s not just everyone’s health, it’s everyone’s mental health; it’s horrible, being fat; it’s awful every day, not just when you die.

TAUBES I have friends and acquaintances who will often say to me at dinner parties, “Well, who really cares about this stuff, because you want to live well, not just eat the healthiest possible meals.” But they’re not overweight, they don’t have cancer running in their family. Their life, rightfully, is a balance between living healthy and living well. But the problem always is that even though those people want to live well, they eventually get to the point where now they’re sick. Inevitably, when you get to that point, you wish maybe you hadn’t lived quite so well. Unless you’re lucky and you have that massive coronary on the golf course, or on your lover, so you don’t have time to think about it. But both my mother and my father died from long, extended, horrible illnesses. There’s a point at which you think, “Maybe if, 30 years ago, I had lived less well and more healthy, I wouldn’t have to go through this,” but I guess we all have to die of something.

INTERVIEWER Well, I think understanding what causes obesity is a big, big issue. For the medical establishment to be misled, or deluded, to get the wrong answer and insist on it, is a tragedy. It’s a gigantic tragedy, because of all of the people who are overweight. Not the people who are 5, 10, or even 20 pounds overweight. The people who are 50 or 100 pounds overweight.

TAUBES We’re drowning in diabetics; we’re drowning in obese patients. Obviously, physicians and obesity researchers and public health authorities haven’t got a clue. By what right does anyone flippantly discard an alternative hypothesis that can explain the evidence? You would think they’d be desperate for such a thing. You know, this guy presents a compelling argument that we got it wrong. Well, Jesus, we obviously got it wrong. We haven’t cured a person in 100 years! Let’s take him seriously!

INTERVIEWER Let’s praise him for raising an idea that hasn’t yet been proved wrong.

TAUBES We’ll see how it goes. Again, I’m obviously impatient. I expected people to read the book immediately and to send me emails; somebody at NIH saying “Come on down here! Talk to us about what experiments we should do.” If the book has any effect over five years, ten years, that probably would be a great accomplishment. In a sense, I wrote the book for graduate students and post-docs, so that when their professors utter nonsensical statements, like the only that matter is calories in/calories out, these kids will challenge them. It could take awhile; it’s only been a few months.

INTERVIEWER When their ideas failed to produce better ways of losing weight, and fifty years had passed, it was understandable, but not for scientific reasons.

TAUBES As I say in the book, they’re not scientists. The funny thing is, they’re not trained as scientists; a lot of the people involved in this field are nutritionists, medical doctors, public health people, and that’s a different way of thinking. I had an apprenticeship in science; I got to spend my ten months at this physics laboratory; I got to delve into cold fusion for three years. In a way, you have to get an apprenticeship in how to think like a scientist. You have to be mentored. It’s not how we naturally think. These people, it’s not part of their training in any way. Not that there aren’t scientists who started as MDs. There are these yellow berets, the guys who went to NIH instead of Vietnam in the late 60s and early 70s, so suddenly, they’re MDs who were working around biologists and PhDs, and they were taught how to do good science. But it’s not how we naturally think; these people just didn’t do it. Then there’s this whole world of nutritionists and epidemiologists who, for whatever reason, far too many of the senior figures in those fields don’t have a clue how to do science. So they passed on this sloppy way of thinking to their students, and the whole field is permeated with less-than-rigorous thinking.

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11 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 10)”

  1. I do think science gets it right in the end, and that good science displaces non-science in the end. And I think Taubes’ book will accelerate this process re carbohydrate metabolism.

    The book has been incredibly useful for me, and has started me down a number of good/interesting paths. Since lowering my blood sugar down another level, to try to keep it close to 83, I’ve lost 10 more pounds and my arithmetic performance tests look better.

  2. This interview continues to amaze me, Seth. Fantastic.

    And there is deafening silence on Taubes from the top obesity authorities — a far cry from the howls of outrage that greeted his NY Times piece. The book is just too authoritative. I think they know he knows their field better than they do…so they’re hiding in their foxholes, waiting for it to blow over.

    The blogs know about the book, though, and Google ain’t forgetting it any time soon. It may be my imagination, but I have seen a skepticism re: the Ancel Keys/low-fat dogma beginning to percolate through the memes out there.

    A work of this quality and range simply cannot be denied.

  3. “but I have seen a skepticism re: the Ancel Keys/low-fat dogma beginning to percolate through the memes out there.

    A work of this quality and range simply cannot be denied.”

    I hope so. I’m a hoper in the percolate theories …

    BTW, went to Washington over Christmas (State, not D.C.) started four people on SLD. Now that I’ve kept the weight off, they are interested. Was an interesting visit. I’m really curious to hear how it goes for them.

  4. Seth, great interview. I’ve been enjoying it, and am looking forward to reading Taubes’ book.

    (These are the typos that I noticed:
    “is that we get overeat because we get fat,”
    “who has written papers discusssing this causality issue and getting it write”
    “But what they were getting wrong were subtle”
    “like the only that matter is”

    Please delete this portion of my comment, after you read it.)

  5. “…the correct interpretation is that we overeat because we get fat, we don’t get fat because we overeat.”

    Whoa. Brilliant. This perception clicks; echoes clear and true somewhere in the unplumbed Depths of Recognoscere.

  6. “…the correct interpretation is that we overeat because we get fat, we don’t get fat because we overeat.”

    Yes. The slightly longer version: When our insuling levels are high (either from eating a lot of carbs or from having metabolic syndrome and hyperinsulinemia) all energy is directed to the fat tissue. All the energy (fatty acids and lipoproteins) get’s sucked up in our fat tissue and our muscles and other organs are deprived of evergy which will make us hungry and causes us to eat again.

    So the above sentence is literally true even if it doesn’t seem to make sense at first.

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