Ep 3: Gary Taubes – How Broken Science Led to an Obesity Epidemic
In his studies of nutritional science, Gary Taubes emphasizes the value of open discussions, constructive criticism, and a rigorous reevaluation of research before it is published. He likens this process to the scientific method and highlights its use in places like Ariadne Labs, where researchers submit their studies for intense scrutiny and have the chance to improve their work based on feedback. However, Taubes laments the absence of this practice in his field, observing that his colleagues rarely seek his input and often dismiss his controversial views as incorrect or irrelevant. He urges researchers to value different perspectives and criticism as an opportunity to further examine their findings and methodology, a standard practice in the physics community.
Taubes is a firm believer in the principle of actively attempting to refute hypotheses and only accepting them if these attempts repeatedly fail. He argues that a researcher's role is not to verify their initial hypothesis but to actively challenge it and remain open to the possibility of being wrong. In his investigations into the association between salt intake and high blood pressure, and the influence of individual biases on dietary recommendations, he found that hypotheses that upheld widely accepted beliefs, like low-salt and low-fat diets being healthier, were often inadequately scrutinized or challenged, resulting in potentially flawed conclusions.
Despite facing resistance, Taubes remains committed to investigative journalism in nutritional science, questioning prevalent assumptions and seeking objective truths, regardless of how they may contradict established beliefs. He views his career as a reminder of the need for skepticism and integrity in scientific research, pointing out the long-lasting impacts of a lack of critical analysis in nutritional science, and the influence of biases and assumptions on research. He calls for a more open and critique-friendly community among scientific researchers. In summary, Taubes' experience stresses the necessity for open, critique-friendly scientific practices that embody the scientific method, and the importance of rigorous scrutiny of all research irrespective of its alignment with prevailing beliefs.
Gary Taubes is a journalist who specializes in research nutrition, the study of food and what it does to our bodies. He reminds us that it's really important to always ask questions and check if the things we learn are actually true.
At Gary and host Emily Kaplan discuss a lab where scientists present their findings and opening ask for criticism in hopes of making sure they're correct and that they haven't miss any important information. Gary is upset because he doesn't see this happening much in nutrition research. He wishes more scientists would talk to each otherabout their work, to make sure they did it right.
Unfortunately, many scientists may agree withGary but in their work they do not follow this advice. Gary thinks that scientists should pay attention to all kinds of ideas, even ones that don't agree with what they believe. This helps them understand their work better.
Gary likes how people do this in physics - a subject he knows a lot about. He explains that in physics, scientists often share their new discoveries, even if they might be wrong. Then, a group of experts checks the discoveries to find any errors.
Gary wishes all scientists were this open and focused on finding the truth. He also says that scientists shouldn't be trying to prove their ideas are right. Instead, they should try consider what they may be missing, It is important scientists are always curious about their work and understand nothing is for sure. . This is like when he was studying the connection between eating salt and high blood pressure. He found out that sometimes, common ideas about “healthy food” aren't questioned enough and can lead to wrong results.
Gary is very determined to find the truth about food and health. Even though some people don't agree with his different ideas, he keeps asking difficult questions and looking for the truth. He wants all scientists to ask more questions and find mistakes, because this will help everyone be healthier.
In conclusion, Gary believes it's super important for all scientific work to be open to questions and needs to be checked and validated by other people, no matter what. He tells us that scientists must always stay focused on asking questions and searching for more answers, even if it means proving their own ideas wrong.
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Gary Taubes is a journalist who studies nutrition. He thinks it's really important to always question and test scientific results before we accept them. He likes places like Ariadne Labs, where researchers share their studies and other people ask tough questions to make sure the studies are done correctly. But Gary is disappointed, because he doesn't see this happening in nutrition science.
He wishes more researchers would call him to discuss and critique their studies. But instead, many scientists tend to ignore his findings without thoughtful consideration because they're different and controversial. Gary believes that scientists should listen to and think about all kinds of ideas, even ones that don't match their own beliefs. This helps them understand their studies better.
Gary talks about how this works well in physics, another field he has studied . He says that in physics, scientists often share their new findings, even if they might be wrong. Then, a group of experts criticize the findings to find possible mistakes. Gary thinks all scientists should be this open and focused on finding the truth.
He also says that scientists shouldn't be focused exclusively on proving their ideas are right. Instead, they should be thinking about why they may be wrong or incomplete, so they can make sure their work has merit . When researching links between eating salt and high blood pressure Gary learned that sometimes, popular ideas about healthy diets don't get questioned enough, which can lead to wrong conclusions–like salt is bad for you when research shows otherwise.
Gary is committed to finding out the truth in nutrition science. Even though some people don't like his ideas, he keeps asking hard questions and searching for the truth. He wants all scientists to be questioned more, because this leads to better outcomes that are more likely to be correct Gary thinks it's crucial for all research to be open to criticism. He reminds us that scientists should always stay focused on finding the truth, even if it means proving their own ideas wrong.
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Emily: Welcome to the Broken Science Podcast where we consider what happens when predictive value is replaced by consensus in science.
This week on the Broken Science Podcast, we’re revisiting an episode that I did for a podcast that I had called Empowered Health. In this episode, I interview Gary Taubes, the author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, Why We Get Fat, The Case Against Sugar, among other books. In this two part interview, we discuss how bad science, or what we would refer to now as broken science, led to the obesity epidemic.
And we get into a lot of interesting nuance to this, including some of the history of nutrition science, as well as talking about what Gary refers to as pathological science. Which is when scientists believe a desired result rather than what the results actually indicate. Which is a huge phenomenon within the scientific community, seen very clearly in nutrition science.
Gary’s also somebody who has had more New York Times Magazine cover stories than any other journalist. And yet, since he has exposed so much… of the broken science in the nutrition field. He’s now being considered somebody who’s opinionated, which is preventing him from publishing in some of these major outlets where he has been a contributing force of nature.
This is something that greatly troubles me and bothers him. Obviously, and we get into why this is problematic and how somebody who has exposed so much about problems that directly impact people that’s of huge public interest is now being prevented from sharing this information in a widespread way because they’re being considered or they’re considered to be too opinionated on the subject.
We’ll compare this to other areas of reporting, and I find this episode Really important for people interested in broken science because it starts to get into the link between science that is broken and journalism, which is broken and how these two forces play off of each other in an incredibly dangerous way.
Gary Taubes: My name is Gary Taubes. I’m an investigative science journalist, turned author, turned nutrition zealot. Spent the last 40 years of my life studying controversial science, good science and bad science, in the last 20 years focusing on nutrition. And trying to write, what appeared very clearly to me anyway, to be some serious screw ups in the science that’s been done and the conclusions that the authorities came to.
Emily: So I feel like a good place to start is this idea of sort of the connection between journalism and science. And the idea of sort of like critically looking at something and trying to poke holes in, you know, your piece or your experiment or you know, designing kind of like a hypothesis and then going in and doing actual reporting or investigating and figuring out what it is. You have been converted into more of like activists. And I would imagine that makes it hard to go back to the sort of reporting. I mean, it’s not even talking about bias so much like the analogy that I made, like if you looked at the Spotlight team that broke the stories on the Catholic church sex scandal and you basically told those journalists like, okay, great job, but now you can no longer report on sex abuse, on children, on religion. Like that would be insane. So what has happened? You have approached this with great rigor and yet you have been pigeonholed into a beat basically. I mean like this isn’t the only thing you’ve ever covered, but it seems like this is now what you are known for.
Gary Taubes: Yes. And there are a lot of issues that you raise. So on one yeah, science and investigative journalism are very similar in that you are trying to explain phenomena that you’re seeing and come up with knowledge about the universe and nobody has. In that sense, so when I think about the ultimate kind of definition of the scientific process, there was a quote by the philosopher of science, Robert Merton, who said that everybody wants to know what’s really so. Scientists want to know that what they think is so, is really so. So another way to, a line that I’ve quoted in virtually all of my books from the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, is a first principle science is you must not pull yourself and you’re the easiest person of fool. So what time does the trying to do, you’re trying to establish something reliable about the universe or about the human body or about diet and health. And the key word is reliable. So you don’t want to be fooling yourself. You don’t want to be fooling other people. You want to know that what you know is really so. And when you’re an investigative journalist, that’s the same goal. So when I set out to understand this relationship between diet and health, and when Nina did we, yeah, you talked to the people involved, but you don’t necessarily take their word for it because they may be fooling themselves or they may be fooling you, but most likely they’re fooling both of you. So you have to go and do your research. If somebody says, this is true, do I believe it or do I go to the papers to see if it’s true? And if the papers cites earlier papers, do I go into the earlier papers to see if they were cited correctly? So you end up basically having to re-report the entire history of the field and both Nina and I did this. So that we could then understand that what we think is true really is or not. You know, if we’re basing our knowledge on assumptions, one knowledge or those assumptions based on, and is that knowledge correct or not? Then so you end up, you have to understand the whole history of the field, a line I have in my new book where I say, isn’t it almost literally to know what you’re talking about, doesn’t that require that you understand the basis of your beliefs and the basis means when they arose, why they arose, what evidence supported them, what evidence didn’t and how that evidence evolved. Like a lawyer would have to understand, you know, the precedence to a legal argument they’re making. That’s effectively what Nina and I did. The problem is we came to the conclusion, both of us, that the conventional wisdom is not just misguided, but dangerously so. That the research that was done was unacceptably poor, that researchers didn’t even believe, they effectively didn’t believe they could fool themselves. So they got a result they just said, hey look, I got a result. This must be true. It confirms what I believed all along. I’m such a smart guy. Let’s assume it’s true and move on. And you still see the same kind of sort of very dangerous thinking today in the scientific enterprise. So, by concluding that the conventional wisdom is wrong and the authorities who were wrong, we then had the decision, do we just write our books and move on? Or do we, is there an injustice here being perpetrated like the spotlight team, do they expose the Catholic Church and move on? If the Catholic Church continued to do the wrong thing on the sexual abuse issues and insisted that the Spotlight crew had aired, that they had gotten it wrong, that they were in fact doing their job poorly. Then you have a different situation because of the societal forces in the church move towards accepting that what they wrote was correct and because it was in the context of a major American newspaper. So for instance, if either Nina and I or I were to staff members in the New York Times and did our research in the context of the New York Times, we would have had more effective at the time and we would be treated differently.
Emily: But I feel like you guys have both published in the best, you know, outlets out there.
Gary Taubes: Oh we have, but as freelancers. As freelancers, that’s a different, we don’t have, I remember a friend of mine used to refer and say that working for the New York Times was like having a magic suit, a magic jacket. You put it on people suddenly respect you.
Emily: How many New York Times magazine cover stories have you had? Three?
Gary Taubes: Three. But I’m still not a New York Times reporter. Either way, I’ve had opportunities to be a New York Times reporter and turned them down. I’m just saying from what happens to you as a, so for instance, let’s say after writing, “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?“, The cover story in the New York Times that kind of set this off, this infamous cover story. I then got hired by the Times instead of taking a book advance and spending five years writing a book, I then got hired by the Times the editor said, boy, this is fascinating. This guy is good at what he does. Let’s bring them on board and assign him to continue investigating this story. So I could have done what I did for my first book is a series of articles and investigations in New York Times and it would have been in many ways a lot easier because they give their investigative journalists a lot of time and leeway, or at least it appears to be the case that you could spend a year or two years at three years if necessary as long as it takes to make sure you get the story right. And then instead of coming out in the book, which published by Knopf, which is one of the two or three most well-respected publishers out there, it came out as a series of investigations in the New York Times. Even better if I have multiple investigators working with me and we could be the New York Times spotlight team instead of just Gary Taubes. We’d have changed the world. I mean the world would have changed far more quickly than it is currently changing, but that’s not what happened. In order for me to understand this, I had to, it turned out I had to take a historical approach to the literature. So I found myself going further and further back in time to understand, to try and understand this relationship between diet and weight and chronic disease. And what I had no idea when I started this is that prior to World War II there was a alternative hypothesis why we get fat. So since the post World War II years, the idea has just been, look, we eat too much. I mean you could, the medical community, the researchers like to talk about this in complex. Make it seem as complex as they can, but the reality is the basic hypothesis is we take in more calories than we expend and that’s why we get fat. And then in the 1960s on top of this, they said, hey, fat calories are really dense. You know, there’s nine calories to a gram of fat compared to only four to a gram of carbohydrates and proteins. So you’re probably going to be fooled into eating more fat than carbs or protein. And in that way, that makes fat fattening as well. But it’s all about eating too much. Gluttoney and slaw would be the biblical terms. It turns out that prior to World War II, when all the major scientific advances in the world basically came out of Europe, the science was a European invention, medical science in the US was virtually nonexistent until the early 20th century, and even then it was pretty piss poor. If I were to name the leading scientists in any endeavor pre-World War II, they would almost, 95% of them would be Europeans, Germans, Austrian, Danes, Frenchmen, Italians, Englishmen. Mostly Germans and Austrians and a high percentage of Jews and for whatever reason they hone the scientific method, this idea about not being able to fool yourself to a fine edge. And by the 1920s-1930s the German-Austrian clinical investigators and even physicians who ran clinics who also did research, had concluded that obesity had to be a hormonal regulatory defect. That there are all these questions about fat accumulation that you could not answer just by saying people eat too much. So if I want to, for instance, why do men get fat above the waist and women tend to get fat below the waist? You know, men get beer bellies, women it’s the hips and butt. What, clearly hormones are involved, they would ask questions like, you know, boys go through puberty, they lose fat and gain muscle. Girls go through puberty, they gain fat in very specific places. So by the time they come out of puberty, the girls have 50% more fat than the boys. That’s all hormonal phenomena. Sex hormones are involved. So these German-Austrian clinicians had concluded that people don’t get fat because they eat too much. They get fat because there’s some hormonal dysregulation. They couldn’t figure it out. And then World War II comes along, and this is what I realized during my research. And this German and Austrian school evaporates, postwar nobody cares about obesity in Europe. They have serious other problems to deal with. And obesity research is kind of recreated with its score in the US all these young doctors and physicians and psychologists and psychiatrists are convinced obesity is an eating disorder. Fat people just have something, some neurotic problem that makes them eat too much and you get this sort of misguided eating-too-much thinking ever since. Again, when I started my research, I had no idea about this. But it’s sort of like you could imagine a world in which, you know when we talk about cancer and when people study cancer and tumor growth or they’re studying all the mechanisms that drive a tumor cell to grow. They don’t care how much the person eats or exercises. What they’re worried about is what are the mechanisms that tumor suppressor genes and the oncogenes that are dysregulated such that this tumor is being driven by the body to grow and reproduce and metastasize. And the way the Germans and Austrians thought about obesity and fat accumulation was fat cells are driven to take up excess fat in some people but not others. And in some places on the human body but not other places. And if they understood those hormones, and enzymes, and receptors, and all those molecules that drove a fat cell to take up fat, they would understand obesity. And then postwar we just threw all that out.
Emily: So do we throw it out because we were like anti-German? I mean is that the reason?
Gary Taubes: Part of it was that. Part of it was to really understand the science, you had to be able to read the German language. So the lingua franca of science, Pre World War II, was German. If you were a serious scientist in effectively any field, you had to be able to read the German language literature. Post World War II we didn’t like the Germans that much and we didn’t like the Austrians that much and nobody wanted anything to do and in fact, some of these leading researchers like Jean Mayer at Harvard had fought in the war and one of his colleagues said he hated the Germans, killed a few of them.
Emily: In other fields don’t a lot of German scientists come to the United States?
Gary Taubes: Yeah. In physics, we embrace these people. We have bombs to build. I mean there was programs where scientists to bring German and Austrian, particularly Jews, to the US to give them into England and to get them settled. Get them academic positions, rebuild their careers. But then not so much in medicine and public health.
Emily: I mean I feel like America’s pretty good at like appropriating ideas of other places that are good ideas and then just calling them their own. So it’s interesting that we didn’t do that.
Gary Taubes: Well in part, and this would make an interesting book on its own, but the Ivy League universities had protocols in place to keep from being overrun by Jewish students and academics from Europe. In fact, one of the stories– I live on the border of Berkeley in Oakland in California and one of the stories about why the University of California system is so excellent and why Berkeley in particular is so excellent. It’s these Jewish researchers basically just kept moving west. Nobody really wanted them in many fields. And then they got to California and the California universities embraced them and had world class science as a result. You can look at the Manhattan Project physics. It was full of Europeans and European Jews who were basically creating the atomic bomb to stop Hitler or to beat Hitler to an atomic bomb, but in medicine and public health that they just didn’t really want these people. Some of them got established like Hans Krebs, of famous Krebs psych bain of high school biology. But many of them, the leading authority on obesity was a fellow. He fled Austria. He was at the University of Vienna. He’s a very famous scientist, Austrian research medical researchers today still know his name, fellow named Julius Bauer and he flees Austria in ’38 when the Nazis, the Germans invade and he ends up working in Baton Rouge for a year at LSU in Louisiana. And then he drifts out to Los Angeles and he gets a job working for the Hospital of Medical Evangelists, which is a seventh day Adventist hospital would write his papers were just signed, Julius Bauer, Hollywood, California, which I guess is where he lived. And this was a world in which one UC San Francisco researcher, when I asked him about why his work on the insulin wasn’t well-accepted was he said well back in the sixties, seventies, and eighties we used to say out here the Mississippi River ran wide and deep. So basically, this world was dominated by this east coast corridor of researchers. And obesity was a half a dozen white men who were all buddies and literally they were friends. They knew each other, they hired each other, they published each other’s papers and they went from Tufts on the north end down to Penn in Philadelphia. You know and what they said was gospel in the obesity field. And if somebody wasn’t part of that club, they weren’t taken seriously. It’s hard to imagine it was a very small field.
Emily: But what I find so fascinating is that it’s like, it seems to me like there is some sort of turn of events that happens and I associate it with Ancel Keys where it’s like the idea of scientific rigor no longer seems so important. And that I don’t, I just don’t really understand. I mean I don’t, you know, it goes from being pretty critical thinking in other disciplines, right? And then this sort of field of nutrition comes about. There’s a real, like the realization that we need to have, you know, like the Harvard School of Nutrition is born and like with that, why is all sort of scientific rigor thrown out?
Gary Taubes: I’m going to wing this.
Emily: Go for it.
Gary Taubes: So you think about until through the World War II most of nutrition was deficiency diseases and calorimetry measuring energy in and energy out. But basically it was studying deficiency disease. So an animal or human lacks a particular vitamin and mineral, they get a disease like pellagra or beriberi or scurvy and then you replace, you feed them back, the missing vitamin and it goes away. So you could actually do experiments. The scientific method is hypothesis and tests have a hypothesis that you get scurvy with an a relative absence of vitamin C in the diet. If I add back vitamin C or fruits with vitamin C and at the scurvy goes away, I can test the hypothesis by experiment beginning in the 1950s with Ancel Keys and this dietary fat hypothesis cause of heart disease. You get a different type of hypothesis. Now not aimed at a deficiency disease. It’s aimed at a chronic disease that develops over years and decades. So now we’re saying, we get heart disease because of fat in our diet are the saturated fat in our diet, total cholesterol or LDL, the bad cholesterol, and that cholesterol then builds up in the bloodstream and over the course of 10 or 20 years did manifest itself as atherosclerosis and heart disease. But now we can no longer test it. We can’t just add takeaway saturated fat and expect over the course of a year or two or six months, however long you can do a well controlled experiment that you will see a change in heart disease because you’re looking at a process that takes 20 years and may not reverse quickly just because you remove the cause. And just once you’ve got the Atherosclerosis, there’s no reason to think that removing saturated fat is going to make it go away. You suddenly have hypotheses that can’t be tested.
Emily: But you’re also making a huge assumption there, right? Because the assumption is that cholesterol is the driver. Well, you haven’t identified what the root causes.
Gary Taubes: Yeah, but that’s the assumption ideally you would be able to test. In a functioning science you would come up with a series of experiments. The more, the cheaper those experiments are and the more quickly they can be done, the more functional the science. So ideally it might do 50, you know, I talked to physicists about this, where they talk about back in the fifties getting an idea on a Friday night, arguing about it over the weekend and then going into the lab on Monday morning and putting together the apparatus to test it. You know, that’s wonderful science when you can do that. Cause you can do hypothesis and test and then you could replicate the test as many times as possible to know that needed to test correctly and keep probing this question of whether you’re fooling yourself. But if you now have a hypothesis that can’t be tested, you’ve got a problem. And you’ve got a hypothesis that you convince yourself as vitally important, right?
Gary Taubes: It’s, you know, people are dying out there. I used to think of this as a Jurassic Park factor and remember the first Jurassic Park about a half a dozen times, somebody says, people are dying out there. We have to act. But now we have a hypothesis of how to keep them alive that we can’t test. Or if we do test it takes $1 billion in 10 years and we won’t be sure that we get the test right so it’s going to be at least 2 billion in 20 years and maybe more like 3 billion in 30 years. So one way to deal with this is to have been very tentative and said, look, we got this idea that dietary fat causes heart disease and we’re not sure about it and we can’t test it. This is good scientists you could do, part of good science is being tentative with your conclusions cause you know you’ve probably fooling yourself. So you want to give yourself room to be able to back out when somebody else demonstrates that you are fooling yourself. So you give these very tentative pronouncements and you say, we’re going to try and test it but it’s going to take like 30 years. But in the meantime, a few people never want to eat butter and bacon again. I think you’d be going to live longer. And the problem with that is if you give that kind of advice, nobody’s going to follow it. People are gonna say wait, you’re telling us that we should never eat butter or bacon again and we may live a little longer? How much longer can we expect to live? And then they’d run the numbers and say, well, a couple months according to our data, and you’d say, you’re out of your mind and then you don’t get any public health effect, and people continue to die out there. So what happened over the course of 20 years is the research community kind of agreed by Osmosis to lower their standards and to pretend something was true and to ignore all the times they didn’t live up to rigorous science. So they started saying, well, let’s do observations and we observe what we expect to see, maybe we can then conclude that somehow there was a causal fact that we were right all along. Or we’ll do these lousy experiments and if we can find in those experiments what we expect to find, we’ll forget that they were lousy experiments.
Emily: And I feel like there should be some sort of like an awareness at that stage that no matter what you find, you’re not going to be able to conclusively say that that was the right thing that you found. Right?
Gary Taubes: Right but remember, in order to get people to change their behavior, to have the public health effect, that will stop people from dying out there. There’s two vitally important factors. One is, your advice has to be right, and second people have to follow that advice and for the people to follow with, you have to make sure that they know the advice is right. That you make very definitive statements and maybe that you make a team even more important than them than it really is, so they can never know that the advice was right, but they knew that they had to make the advice firm and definitive. I say they knew it because it’s, it’s in their writing. You can see it then the discussions,
Emily: But this is like politics versus science, right? I mean like this is not the same thing. Yeah.
Gary Taubes: They ceased to become, they ceased to function as scientists. They accept something on faith: dietary fat causes heart disease, it raises LDL cholesterol and we should all eat low fat diets. And then they become, and I say this in the epilogue to “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and I never use the word scientist to describe these researchers because I didn’t believe they functioned as scientists once they started into this chronic disease business, rather than realizing that they couldn’t know the truth, they pretended that they could, they convince themselves that they could or that they already did, which is worse. And then they proceeded to try and get us in. What they succeeded at was getting us to change how we eat.
Emily: And so if we’re going to put this in that kind of context, I think it’s probably important to add in the sort of the influence of money and funding research and how that has like sort of furthered these individual or egotistical agendas in a way that maybe wasn’t so much of an issue before.
Gary Taubes: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. And Nina and I have, we’ve had many arguments over this over the years. And to me it’s the scientists failed. The researchers failed to do their job and their job is to establish reliable knowledge and when they should have realized that they can’t do it they should have admitted that and made sure that we then didn’t proceed the fool ourselves and everybody else. So to me it was a failure of the science. On top of that is layered some funding influences and how this research is funded. So if you think about high energy physics, the field I grew up writing about, the physicists decide that there’s, you know, a few questions that are vitally important for them. Or what’s, you know, is there a theory of everything or grand unified theory? Are there particles out there that are not predicted by the well accepted, well tested standard motto and what do we have to do to answer those questions. And the answer is we need an accelerator so powerful that we can’t even afford two of them. We’re going to build it outside of Geneva, Switzerland, everybody’s going to pull their money. It’s going to cause can billion dollars. Then we’re going to build four different experimental detectors on the accelerator so they can make sure if you see it in one experiment, you can replicate it in others it’s going to cost a couple billion dollars a year to run. But this is what we have to do to answer the questions and that’s what they did and we trust their answers. In nutrition and medicine, you’ve got basically the NIH saying, we are going to spread the money as widely as possible. We don’t know what we want to know, so we’re going to look at proposals from thousands of different researchers or we’re going to sift out the proposals we think are the best and we’re going to give them all, you know, $500,000 a year to [?] their research and that’s the maximum. There’s no real mechanism to answer the big questions. You hope that out of all these little questions– on one level, the research establishment is set up in such a way that it generates noise, thousands of little results, none of which can be trusted and never addresses the big questions and never generates a signal. A meaningful answer that can be trusted. When they’ve actually did spend a lot of money to do big studies, half a billion dollars to do what was called the Women’s Health
Gary Taubes: Initiative, thank you. WHI. And they didn’t get the answer they expected, they decided they did the study wrong. And again, that’s a catch, they might’ve done this study wrong. That’s why you have to replicate the experiment. They should have spent another half billion. Let’s go back to the 1960s one of the famous studies and was cited as evidence that eating less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat was reduce heart disease, at least in men, was done in a VA hospital in outside of Los Angeles. I think it’s the one in Westwood right next to UCLA. And they fed these various veterans at the hospital. They’d come in and they’d get food that were either, you know, use butter and dairy or polyunsaturated margarine. And lo and behold, after a year they had that little less heart disease and the group getting polyunsaturated fats, they also had more cancer.
Emily: This is like the Minnesota study, right?
Gary Taubes: Yeah. Kind of. So in a world they had done that study, gotten a result, and then said people would have argued about the interpretation, the study. Well, how do you know that the reduction in heart disease that you saw wasn’t caused because the foods made with the polyunsaturated fat margarine tastes so bad that these people just stayed last, particularly the food like dessert that they made in the 60s out of this margarine might not have been as good as the food deserts made from butter. So not only might they have eaten less poly less saturated fat, they might’ve been less sugar. This is the kind of discussion that scientists have because you want to make sure that you’re not fooling yourself. So what they’ve done in an ideal world, instead of that experiment taking, you know, a year to prepare and then a year to carry on six months in an ideal world that would have taken a week. And then they’d have argued about this and they said, well, let’s do it differently. Let’s come up with this and we’ll make better desserts and we’ll make sure we’ll test the desserts first and we’ll make sure that people can’t even tell the difference between the different types of desserts. And when we have desserts, you can’t tell the difference. We’ll do the experiment again. And yet it just kept doing and iterating towards something reliable. But you know, we’ve had people arguing about the interpretation: well, but what about this? What about that? And every time somebody said, what about this? They’d have to come up with the new version of the experiment to account for that. So they knew whether or not that really mattered or whether they could ignore it. You couldn’t do that in nutrition. So instead you get this, oh hey, look at the result. Less hard to do. Let’s believe that’s true. And for the rest of eternity we’ll tell people eat low fat diets and replace it with corn oil caused it’s got polyunsaturated fat and It’s not science,
Emily: But there is something about that that is that’s troubling. Right? I mean it’s troubling for a number of reasons, but it’s really troubling by just the idea that somebody is so wedded to their hypothesis that they’re, it’s almost like why bother doing the experiment? Right. You know that I interviewed Mark Hegsted a million years ago and I feel like one of the things that he said to me that was so upsetting, although magical that he said it on camera was the, he was talking about the women’s or the Nurses’ Health Study and he was sort of saying, you know, it was something like that when you get the result that you thought you were going to get, you can trust him, but if you get a result that doesn’t look like what you thought you were going to get, then you have to question your data
Gary Taubes: And that’s exactly, yeah. It’s amazing that he was honest enough to say that, but no, you can trust it. And you go back all the way to Francis Bacon in 1620, the British lawyer who sort of inaugurated the scientific method. His very point then was you can particularly not trust the stuff that you expected to get and you can almost trust the stuff that you didn’t. So it’s exact opposite of the way good scientists thing. And yet this is the kind of thinking that the driven this field and that we’re still fighting against. Today, you see it all the time. Particularly in epidemiology, in particularly epidemiology out of the Harvard School of Public Health. If you get what you expect to get and there’s a worse a version of this, it’s even worse, which is if you don’t get what you expect to get and you don’t publish it cause you assumed you made a mistake.
Emily: Right or in that Minnesota study where they publish it 17 years later and then tell you when you asked that question, right? I mean,
Gary Taubes: Yeah. So the Minnesota study, they use various rehabilitation homes in Minnesota. They feed them the inpatients in these homes, various, either a polyunsaturated fat or saturated fat rich diet. And they look at who gets more heart disease and who lives longer. And lo and behold they get quote unquote the wrong result, which is that the people getting the, what they thought of as a healthy diet had more heart disease and a higher mortality rate than the people getting the unhealthy saturated fat rich American diet that everybody else was eating. And so yeah, they don’t publish it. And when– so 17 years later they did. Ivan France Jr. Who was the principal investigator, published the results of the study the year after he retired from the University of Minnesota. But by that time, this low fat dogma had been inaugurated, this institutionalized various government reports had come out and telling us all to eat low fat. So he felt an obligation to publish this data. And when I asked him, I interviewed him 15 years after that. And I asked him why they didn’t publish originally and he said, because one of the coauthors who was Ancel Keys, he didn’t name Ancel Keys, but he said we didn’t like the way it turned out. So they just didn’t publish it. They assumed that they made, they got the wrong answer. All of the scientific method, all of this critical thinking and skepticism and rigor is, and everything Bacon was saying in 1620 was how to fight that tendency, how to minimize this very human tendency to believe what we want to believe and see what we want to see. The medical nutrition community, and again, part of my feeling is they just, they got of no real mentoring in good science. So one of the lessons you learn when you talk to good scientists and you read the memoirs of good scientists, which I’ve been doing is they, you’re not born a good scientist. I mean there are people are born brilliant, but there are very few people who are born understanding how easy it is to fool yourself.
Emily: Well, and I think this idea of like the cognitive dissidence is sort of what you’re alluding to and I think that is fascinating in the sense of like, this feels very fraudulent, right? Like it feels like somebody has a doubly blind clinical trial and it shows something different than what they thought that is worth sharing with people, especially if it’s going against what everybody’s being told to eat on a regular basis. Right. And so to bury that for 17 years, but you know, Malcolm Gladwell did a really interesting podcast on that too. I don’t know if you heard that he talked to the guy’s son who like found the records of whatever. And I mean that was like an emotional episode, which was sort of interesting.
Gary Taubes: That was Ivan France the third.
Emily: But you know, he talked about how like he thought his dad really believed that. Like that’s what they were all fed. And so that for me is another layer of this because if it was fraudulent, right, then he would be saying to his family like, don’t eat that shit. Right? Like stay away from it.
Gary Taubes: It’s not fraud, it’s not fraud. It’s back in the– the term, the correct term I prefer is pathological science and pathological science, a term coined by a Nobel laureate in chemistry named Irving Langmuir, and it’s a definition of what he called the science of things that aren’t so. And so the thing with pathological science, it’s not fraud. Nobody’s trying to deceive you because they know the truth. They’re trying to deceive you because they’ve already fooled themselves. They have a lack of understanding about how hard it is to get the right answer and how easy it is to get the wrong one. And so they’re not following the strict scientific methods that are required to minimize the possibility that you’ll fool yourself not to get rid of it cause you can never get rid of it. Just to minimize it. So people like Ivan France Jr– the fact is these experiments are really hard to do and they really easy to misinterpret. That’s why you have to replicate part of the scientific method is this independent replication. So it is quite possible that you screwed up the experiment. So what you should do is just do it again.
Emily: Well, and so then you add in a character like Ancel Keys and like will you talk a little bit about how influential he was in sort of creating this dogma.
Gary Taubes: He’s was, it’s funny, that phrase used to define Keys when I was doing my reporting was he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. That’s usually a kind way of saying he was, I don’t know what kind of words can I use on your podcast?
Emily: Whatever you want.
Gary Taubes: He was an asshole and he was convinced he was smarter than everyone else. So this is the problem. Really smart people. Remember anyone can be born brilliant. That the hard problem is being born a good scientist. That the fatal flaw of really smart people is they tend to think– there’s so often, they’re the smartest person in the room. They tend to think they always are. The rest of us are used to being confronted with the inadequacies of our intellects. They’re not. So Keys was the kind of the guy who convinced himself and he knew the right answer and then methodically, unconsciously rejected any study that disagreed with him and any researcher that disagreed with him. Although occasionally along the way he would realize that he had been pushing the wrong answer and then he would embrace the right answer and kind of act like he had always been right. By the 1960s he started pushing this hypothesis around 1952, ’53. by the 1960s he had started this hugely influential Seven Country Study that was ongoing in Europe and he had convinced the American researchers to do these experiments like this Los Angeles VA hospital study, all to test this hypothesis. And what happened was the existence of the hypothesis was perceived by this community as evidence that it was right. Again, exactly the wrong way to think if you’re a good scientist, but just the existence of the studies and you could see it when people would write about it. Even the journalists would talk about the hypothesis hasn’t been proven yet and whenever I see that word yet I’d think but may never be proven and may be wrong. So it hasn’t been proven wrong yet either. The most likely, the most likely– the odds are always good that your hypothesis is wrong or is in the infinite number of wrong hypotheses for every right one. So anyway, because of Keys and his motivation, and then the Seven Country Study, which Keys interpreted to support his beliefs on, there were multiple ways it could be interpreted. It wasn’t an experiment in any sense in one way or the other. It can only generate a further hypothesis, but because of Keys and his refusal to accept criticism of his thinking as valid and the strength of his personality, he convinced us that dietary fat was a problem. The research was the ambiguous. Keys force of character more than anything that drove this hypothesis and then the sort of societal acceptance set in. But the other thing that I found more interesting which really wasn’t Keys at all were the obesity stories. But the 1960s we should’ve had a pretty firm awareness that the carbohydrate content of the diet effectively regulates how fat you get. Okay? So the more carbs easier they are to digest, the more sugar, the higher your insulin levels, the more calories you store as fat. But the problem was we were pushing dietary fat as the cause of heart disease. That was Keys’ work. And if fat caused heart disease, you couldn’t tell people to eat less fat and less carbohydrates because you were replacing the fat with carbohydrates. So an indirect consequence of the dietary fat hypothesis was a refusal to accept the data implicating carbohydrates and fat accumulation and obesity. And as a result, the conventional wisdom on why we get fat went from by the early 1960s it was still, you know, carbohydrates make you fat. And one of my favorite lines from a first sentence of a British Journal of Nutrition article in 1963 written by one of the leading British dieticians was every woman knows that carbohydrates are fattening, which is what every woman used to know. And then because of Keys and the dietary fat heart disease hypothesis, by the 1980s carbs had been transformed into heart healthy diet foods and people like Jane Brody, the personal health reporter for the New York Times is writing her good food book bestseller in 1985 is living the high carb life and she’s pushing pasta as a diet food. And then I wanted to say, Jane, go to Italy, look at the older woman, tell me if you think pasta was good for their weight. And in fact even Ancel Keys had pointed out that all the older women in Naples where he lived were fat. I’m going to get in trouble for this. So I don’t mean this to be sexist.
Emily: But I also think that that sort of gets into this idea of metabolic derangement right or that like over time, this idea of like, oh no, my kids can eat tons of sugar. They don’t get fat. And it’s like, well over time you’re damaging your system. The under regulatory system is the definition or the defining force in your health, not what you’re eating today or how many calories you’re taking in, but the content of them. Can you talk a little bit about that and like the role that we have placed sugar or the sort of altar of love and affection and celebration. You have that great chapter in “The Case Against Sugar” about like sugar kind of in the context of any other drug where it’s like having this effect and we’re using it for these moments in life.
Gary Taubes: It’s funny cause that was a thought experiment that I once had where I was thinking there’s just no way I could ever use this in my book because it would just play the hand immediately. Like I want this book to be a dispassionate discussion of the evidence against sugar and I can say this. And then I wrote this out and had the person in the field who I think is the best scientist and who’s always willing to tell me when he thinks I’m full of crap. I had him read it and he said, Oh man, you got to use this in the book.
Emily: Wait, can you say who that was?
Gary Taubes: Mark Friedman, who is one of the few really good scientists in this field in part because he wasn’t in nutrition or obesity research. So wasn’t infected by that culture. But anyway, the idea is just imagine, imagine you have a, um, a drug that mothers can give to their infants. It’s a pain killer to begin with, but also makes them high. For instance is a rush. It’s like a drug to adults. And so you can, whenever your kids are unhappy, you can give this them this drug and it will cheer them up and make them smile. And if they hurt themselves, you can give them this drug and it’ll kill the pain. And how long would it take before you started using this drug to sort of reward achievements or to demonstrate love. So it’s like, I love my child. I want to prove to my child that I love them. I want to give them this drug. So we’re gonna go out or I’m taking my child shopping with me and it’s a boring experience. But if I drug him or her, they will be perfectly happy and I can, you know, do my rounds at the mall or you know, and then it’s going to be, whenever there was a celebration and we get the family together, maybe this is a drug we should give them to keep the kids happy, to make them glad to be stuck with their aunts and uncles. When I dropped my little Janie off at grandma’s, what can grandma give Janie to make Janie want to be there? Well they give them this drug and how, you know, this drug would pretty quickly become sort of a symbol for love. The currency of love, the currency of celebration. And every, how long would it be before every major national holiday or even created holidays have the use of this drug as candy. And you can just imagine how all you would need is something that made your child happy and we don’t think of it as a drug. It’s a food. That was the thing with sugar is that it was both a food and the drug. It was unique in this sense. Or seems to be a drug. It certainly has psychoactive properties. Like we know it’s a pain killer at the very least.
Emily: But you know what’s interesting. I was actually talking to a friend of mine at a kid’s birthday party recently about how everybody serves cake at the very end of the party. And it’s because the kids are all super happy and then they’re all crying. It’s like time to go home. And it’s like nobody takes that out of context to say like, is there something in the cake that’s making the kids cry instead? We all focus on the positive of like cake time. Everybody come get your cake on.
Gary Taubes: Yeah. Yeah. And I do the same thing. I remember the first time we led my youngest have Halloween candy. He was three and we let them have like four pieces of candy after Halloween and that night. And he ran around the house for like 20 minutes screaming with joy. And then I said, it’s time, time to go to bed. And he threw himself down on the stairs and started crying hysterically. And I turn to my wife to deal with, if we had given him cocaine, I don’t believe his behavior would have been any more extreme or bizarre. It was absolutely fascinating. And yet we just write this off cause we’ve been so in inculcated with this stuff. This just is the way it is.
Emily: The cultural aspect of it is like such a big one too because like when we had our son, we kept him off of sugar for the first year. Like pretty absolutely. He had berries. But I think that was pretty much it. And at his first birthday we had one grandparent, who will go nameless, who like sort of insisted that he should have cake. And we were like, no, the cake is for everybody else. He’s never had sugar. Like he doesn’t need it. He doesn’t care. He’s one, he’s not noticing that he’s missing anything. And she was apoplectic that we were depriving the birthday boy of a piece of cake. And I thought this is so, like, this is so much about you, right? Like this has nothing to do with the child’s needs.
Gary Taubes: It is. And imagine if you were, if you grew up in a world where everybody was a drug addict and you knew what joy it brought them, short term joy, and there might be long term problems but in the short term this drug tasted like just made you happy. How could you possibly keep your children from that or your grandchildren or your great niece or whatever it is. And it’s just and maybe it is harmless. I don’t think so, but maybe it is, you know, if it is, and Jesus, you know, this isn’t just about living as long as we can. It’s supposed to be about living well too.
Emily: So you were going to say something about coke and pepsi too. I feel like the introduction of soda is–
Gary Taubes: Oh, they get to advertise themselves. I mean, you’re looking at the pause that refreshes. It’s not just about quenching thirst, it’s about making you feel good. It’s a rush. It’s a exhilarating experience. Drinking in an ice cold coke.
Emily: Well, it’s patriotic too, right? I mean, I feel like there was a lot of work done around.
Gary Taubes: Yeah. I mean, it became, well at one point. It’s probably still true. Coca-Cola was the second most recognized word in the world after “okay.” And I say that without any understanding whatsoever of how they calculate that. But let’s assume that somebody out there figured that out with, you know, knew what they were doing. The, yeah, and the coke people, you read the histories of Coca-Cola, which I did do in my research. I mean, these people just believed in their product. They didn’t think, like, I don’t know what the cigarette people believed. I’ve tried to read those books and they’re so relentlessly negative that it’s almost hard to believe that they were as bad as they’re portrayed. But clearly the coke people just say their product was joy and that’s what they were selling. And it’s a great mixture. Sugar, caffeine,
Emily: Well and it started as a medicinal thing too. I mean, that’s interesting.
Gary Taubes: Yes and also with cocaine and then the coke hence the Coca-Cola and the coke was taken out in the early 20th century when the FDA took offense. But, yeah, it was a medicinal thing. It was, the guy who founded it had civil war wounds that were chronic pain and this was a way of reducing the chronic pain. Tying back up to the dietary fat story. Ancel Keys– so back in the 60s, there was a competing hypothesis– Keys was saying dietary fat causes heart disease because it raises LDL cholesterol or cholesterol and you should measure this one number of cholesterol. And if that’s high, we know people are eating too much fat. Everything we believe today in the medical community sort of springs from that nugget of thought. That’s the root of that tree. There was a competing hypothesis which is that heart disease is a metabolic derangement. Dozens, everything’s wrong in the human body. It’s not just LDL cholesterol is elevated, there are a measure virtually anything and it’s abnormal numbers and people with heart disease and whatever’s happening is very closely related to obesity and very closely related to type two diabetes, very closely related to hypertension. And all these disorders sort of co-exist in people and populations. So if you’re overweight, if you’re fat and you’re more likely to be type two diabetic and more likely to have atherosclerosis, you’re more likely to have hypertension. And so it’s this metabolic disruption that happens to be caused primarily by sugar, because we can add sugar to any diet. We then– clinical trials, you know, experiments are done in the 60s demonstrating that virtually all of these facets of this metabolic disruption could be caused either in animals or college students subjects by feeding them sugar. And the guy who was pushing the sugar hypothesis a brilliant British nutritionist named John Yudkin and Keys didn’t like each other because Yudkin had criticized Keys and Keys didn’t tolerate fools gladly or anyone who criticized. So Keys went after Yudkin and basically wrote a long screed explaining why he was a quack. And why this theory shouldn’t be taken seriously. And then the sugar industry, which was being attacked because of Yudkin’s sugar theory, put together a paper, 120 page journal supplement with about seven or eight different articles in it explaining why sugar didn’t cause heart disease and didn’t cause obesity. And everyone in it was part of the sort of anti-fat movement. All the authors believe fat was the problem, not sugar. And several of the authors worked with Keys at the University of Minnesota. And so by the mid to late seventies a fat hypothesis with being accepted. And the sugar hypothesis was being considered quackery. So the worst you can say about sugar is it’s empty calories and you shouldn’t need too much of it. And anyone who said anything else was considered a quack. And again, this was largely Key’s work because he didn’t– you know the problem was the fat in our diet, by this thinking, not the sugar. So from the eighties to the early two thousands, virtually no studies were done on sugar. And certainly not these like half billion dollar studies, like the Women’s Health Initiative. I like to joke that if today, if you tried to get a women’s health initiative done with sugar, you couldn’t get it funded because the answer would be obvious. The NIH would say, let me get this straight. You want us to spend a half billion dollars taking 50,000 women and getting 25,000 of them to give up sugar because you think they’ll be healthier if they do? Well, of course I’ll be healthier. We’re not going to spend that money.
Emily: I feel like that’s probably a good place to pause and we’re going to pick it up again and we’re going to talk to Gary a lot more about how we’ve gotten this wrong, but also we’re going to ask him a little bit about the Nutrition Science Initiative project that he co-founded to try and do the kinds of experimentation that he thought would be the right kind of experimentation to figure this out and, and what went wrong.
I hope you enjoy. Here’s Gary.
So when you look at the landscape of all of where we are today and there’s like obviously all these people who are doing the Ketogenic Diet and getting great results and social media is sort of everybody in their silos yelling at each other. But there are these sort of small steps. I mean when we interviewed Sarah Hallberg from Virta, it was like astounding to me that they haven’t gotten any press or very little press.
Gary Taubes: They’re not as much as Kevin Hall.
Emily: Not as much as Kevin Hall. So is that because the, I hate to say like the media has been co-opted, but like this sort of eastern corridor that you mentioned before is still in full effect. I mean the Harvard just published in the BMJ, the story about red meat, which is based on food frequency. I mean like some of the stuff is still happening even though there seems to be like grassroots efforts and certainly I mean your books have been bestsellers. You maybe aren’t a staffer at the New York Times, but you’ve published major pieces in the New York Times that have generated a lot of interest read by a lot of people. And yet there is still this sort of entrenched, dogmatic approach to the old way of thinking of calories in, calories out, let’s move all this kind of stuff that doesn’t seem to be based on anything. So is that just ignorance or is there some other sort of, I mean, not conspiracy theory because I guess it could be not a conspiracy theory, but something that’s actually true at play because
Gary Taubes: I think it’s, again, it’s sort of, it’s a kind of emergence phenomenon in journalists society. If you think about sort of other fields, sports, politics, crime, people have their beats and they stay with those beats for decades. So sports writer, the guy who’s been writing about football and basketball for the New York Times has been writing about him for 20-30 years. It’s what he does. He understands the world. You can’t bullshit him. And he thinks he knows. In nutrition, you’ve got people who’ve been covering the field for 20 or 30 years, but they’ve been believing the conventional wisdom that whole time. So they’re locked into one perspective. And so for instance, if I’m right, Gina Kolata is wrong at the New York Times and if I’m right, Jane Brody is wrong at the New York Times. And it’s hard for them to accept that they can do their work for 20 or 30 years and just be bad at it. So their assumption is that they’re right and I’m wrong. If I was in their shoes, I would feel the same way. It’s very hard to accept that you might have spent your whole year, your whole professional career, promulgating nonsense.
Emily: But that’s just a direct echo of what you’re saying is happening in the scientific community.
Gary Taubes: Yes, yes. So you’ve got people who’ve been covering this field for a long time who faithfully reported the conventional thinking and that’s what they believe and they have understandable difficulty in accepting that they’re just wrong and that they are wrong and have done harm. So they tend to still want to report studies that suggest that they were right. Remember then you’ve got the nutrition research communities generating this random noise all the time. So you could always find a study that supports you. And then one of the tendencies in a newspaper world is to think that this stuff’s relatively simple than media in general and that anyone can cover it. So I’m often hearing, I heard from a writer a few months ago, I just responded to my email today, who’s doing a piece, he’s written for newspapers like Vanity Fair and Esquire and he’s now doing a piece on the Keto Diet, but he’s never covered this before. So now you walk into a field where you’ve never covered. It’s all new to you. And if you’re a journalist you think, well I’ve got to, I’m going to talk to a dozen experts. That would be a lot for a magazine article. I promote journalists and I’m going to get 10 of them are going to reiterate the conventional wisdom and then maybe I’ll talk to, I can’t talk to Teicholz and Taubes because they’re journalists. So I’ll try to find a few academics who maybe pushed this ketogenic diet thing, but they may not even understand as well as Teicholz and Taubes because they’re newer to it and they haven’t done the work we did. So you end up recapitulating the conventional wisdom because that’s what the community believes and you’re just doing your job and it’s very hard to say, okay, well, Geez, I did interview Taubes or Teicholz and what they said was so compelling that I’m going to decide that the academics were wrong. That research is impossible do. And even if you do it, your editor’s going to say, no, no, no, no, no. You can’t do that because your editor hasn’t talked to Taubes and Teicholz. So you end up with a situation where you put in their perspective, but it’s still counterbalanced by the much greater weight of academics who believe that conventional thinking. It’s what makes this so tricky.
Emily: Well, yeah, the counterbalance part is I think that that’s a really important point to make. I feel like there was a story that I was working on about Seyfried’s work, that cancer research article that was killed because I basically couldn’t find anybody to explain to me why he was wrong. And the editor I was working with was like, no, you need somebody to say something beyond, no, that just doesn’t make any sense. And nobody could get into it with me. I remember thinking this is ridiculous and it’s like taking so much of my time to talk to all these people who are sort of like, oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t looked at their transfer experiments. So like I don’t really know and I will do you want to look at them? Just like what? And that’s interesting.
Gary Taubes: That’s what’s even interesting because these people get funded if they’re good, they get funded to do something that they already think is interesting and is fascinating and they’re not getting enough money to do it. So they’re working their asses off making ends meet to study what they are already thinking. And now you come along and you say, what about this stuff? And they say, that’s interesting. And it might be interesting to them, but they can’t actually just turn around and start studying it because they’d have to get funding to study it and they’d have to stop studying what they’d been doing all along. Or at least put some time. People get locked into what they’re doing and what they believe, so that even if they find something else that’s interesting, and this is even more true for diet because it’s virtually, the diet trials takes so long and take so much money, but you can’t just say, hey, that’s interesting. I’m going to do that instead because our funding doesn’t really allow for that. And if you try to put together a proposal to study what Tom Seyfried is studying, and then you put the proposal into the NIH, the other people on the grand committee are going to look at it and say, well, we think Seyfried’s wrong, so we’re not going to fund your proposal. Unless they’re a really informed good scientist in which they might say, well, we really need somebody. If John at Harvard thinks this stuff’s interesting, maybe there is something to it, so let’s fund him to replicate it. But for the most part, that doesn’t happen.
Emily: What is different in the environment today than it used to be that people aren’t following up?
Gary Taubes: It’s not that they’re not following up. It’s in these fields there are so many different avenues of study. There’s so many different things you can study that can sort of, you’ve got these disciplines and sub disciplines, and sub sub sub sub sub disciplines and you get slotted into one early and that’s what you build your career on and that’s what you get your funding on and that’s what your postdocs are studying and that’s what your graduate students are studying. So you get locked in and maybe, in a field like physics, they’re lucky. There’s only a few. They all pretty much except that there are very important problems they want answers to. But in medicine and public health and nutrition, there are a gazillion interesting questions you could ask. Ideally someone would be saying, well, we have obesity and diabetes epidemics so these are the most important questions and let’s focus our attention on those. But I think you need a layer of administration above that which currently exists or outside that which currently exists to make those, come to those conclusions. One of the lessons here, my second book was on cold fusion. This was this scientific fiasco, a way that basically you could generate nuclear fusion in a glass of water with a palladium electrode plugged into a wall socket. So it’s sort of infinite cheap energy. And it exploded on the scene in 1989 announced by these terrible scientists at the University of Utah and backed by the university. And what’s interesting is because it was so big and it was the front page of all the papers, and suddenly there was this promise of an enormous amount of funding to study it. Oh wow, if cold fusion is real, this is the future. So all of these incredibly mediocre to poor scientists who are wasting away their careers doing fourth rate work and barely getting funding can look at this and say, if I can replicate that, I could be at the forefront of science getting a lot of funding. I can be back in the game. And so the idea was even when you do have something that’s really interesting, the really good people are already doing stuff that’s got them busy. They don’t have the time or the bandwidth or the funding to move into this field. It’s the people you attract are the bottom of the barrel of science. So even if, and again I have no solution to these problems, I’m just saying that even if it’s interesting, you’re going to get as many bad scientists working on it as good scientists. This is one of the things that worries me even now with stuff like what Tom is doing and Luke Hanley at Harvard, well now and Cornell, what they’ve been doing is fascinating, but the really good people in their field are doing other things and are busy doing other things and are doing other things that fascinate them and that they’ve got a huge investment in. So the people who are likely to, and for young people come along, a very smart young person who comes along or a very talented young scientist who is really risking his or her career to do something that’s so out of the box.
Emily: Well, and I feel like there’s also the impact of all the publishing
Gary Taubes: Well and the publishing is much, much harder. I mean you could get almost any crap published in a decent journal that supports the conventional thinking. If it’s fashionable.
Emily: Well, but also replicating studies is no one ever wants to pick that up in one of the top journals. So that just doesn’t happen I don’t think very often.
Gary Taubes: One of my favorite quotes from science is back from my physics days, a Nobel laureate at MIT named Sam Ting and I hope I can get this right. He said to be first and right in science is very good. To be first and wrong is not so good. To be second and right is meaningless. And so what he meant was it’s like you always want to be first, you don’t want to like, you end up replicating experiments because you want to go beyond the work that somebody else did. And you had to confirm that what they did was right to base your work on an incorrect assumption. But other than that, just replicating for the sake of replicating, it’s like why bother? You don’t go into science because you want to prove that your buddy at MIT should deserve the Nobel Prize you’re going because you won’t think you deserve it. So there are a lot of fundamental problems with science when it gets to this kind of industrial scientific establishment that we’re looking at this science as a career and a business and a rather than science as an obsession where there’s 20 sort of people being supported by their family money and trying to answer questions in their basement building apparatus, which is what it used to be. And even then they got the wrong answer more often than not.
Emily: So let’s talk about your sort of career switch going from journalism to cofounding running NuSI. The idea behind NuSI had been the nutrition science initiative.
Gary Taubes: It’s a virtual organization. I run it. Mark Freedman is the science advisor. We have an accountant who files her taxes and gets paid, markets paid. I do it as a hobby. We’re not very effective these days. We have to be more effective. Still have studies we would like to get funded, but it requires raising a lot of money to do it.
Emily: Okay. So let’s talk a little bit about, my understanding was you did an interview and the Arnold’s heard the interview and wanted to fund a study based on your sort of approach to the problem. Is that accurate?
Gary Taubes: Yeah. I did a podcast, an economics podcast, EconTalk with Russ Roberts. And John Arnold was a listener back when there were only 20 podcasts. And so yeah, I got an email from John saying that I had talked about this study that I thought needed to be done in obesity research that can help resolve this controversy that I’ve done my best to create. And he wanted to know if we had a proposal and a budget and we didn’t. So with Dr. Peter Attia we started talking to the Arnold Foundation, Peter and I had met up and we’re in the process of founding NuSI to raise money to do this experiment, thinking that this would be a nights and weekends type of thing and we would do crowdsourcing and the experiment would cost about $2 million and that that money could be raised. We were naive about the costs and the experiment. And probably naive about whether we could have raised the money. Anyway, so the Arnold, John Arnold, was a a hedge fund billionaire, very young, 39 years old at the time, net worth of about $4 billion, had a foundation with his wife, Laura, The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, LJAF. And was interested in the problems with modern science. And what I was talking about is what we’ve been talking about, which is all these problems in modern science, particularly in this case, how they manifest themselves in nutrition and obesity research. So they decided to back NuSI and to support us in supporting four studies that we thought should be done. And those studies have been done and the results are ambiguous, as the results of studies typically are. And after our initial five years of funding ran out, I think they were a little frustrated with the amateur nature of our organization. And what we tried to do was pretty much unprecedented, which is create a research foundation from scratch. So even though we had good support, we were making it up as we go along. I describe it as kind of the hardy boys decide to start a nonprofit and we did some things right and some things wrong and it was a learning experience. The entire operation was a learning experience. We funded some interesting studies and it would have been great if we could have kept building at that level because there’s an enormous amount of research that still needs to be done and the existing nutrition, obesity research community seems to be either incapable or uninterested in doing these experiments and certainly doing them correctly. So
Emily: So when you decided to do the experiments and using the criticism that you have of the industry, you were going to have these experiments be designed differently so that they could actually test something and have some sort of outcome. And then it seemed like, then again, you should correct the record if any of this isn’t quite right, but my understanding is that then it’s almost like you had to work with people who were in the industry. You couldn’t hire physicists to run nutrition experiments. You had to find the best of the crop of people who maybe by your own account hadn’t been trained to be scientists in such a rigorous way as you might like to perform the experiments. But with your oversight, the hope was that these would be designed in a way that would be better or that would sort of start to raise the bar a little bit in terms of the expectations, but then there was a turn of events where the power of your sort of ability to design or critique or make sure the methods were proper or even the idea of voicing criticism about the methods was usurped by the people who were conducting the experiment. Saying that in order for the experiments to have any integrity, you needed to not be involved. And I remember on a sort of personal level when I heard that I thought, well, isn’t the whole point of this that it should have Gary’s stink all over it because you were maybe not the principal investigator or whatever the title would be of the scientist who’s doing it, but it was based on your hypothesis that things hadn’t been done properly and that there would be a better way to do it. Can you talk a little bit about what happened at that stage?
Gary Taubes: Yeah, so the way you described it is pretty good. First of all, the experiments, so what I’ve been arguing since my first book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, is again this idea that obesity is a hormonal regulatory disorder. It’s not a medical community, we’ll call it an energy balance sorters, not about how much calories you weed versus calories expended. It’s not eating too much. It’s a hormonal disorder that’s triggered by the carbohydrate content of the diet and the carbohydrates raise insulin, which basically puts your body into a mode where your fat cells are taking up fat and holding on to them and you get fatter. And this is a very different idea. Scientists would say it’s a different paradigm, a word that’s overused to death these days, but it is very much in the different paradigm from this energy balance idea.
Emily: And the energy balance idea, just for our people who don’t know is the idea that like I eat a thousand calories a day, but if I only burn off 900 then my body’s storing a hundred and that’s what over time is making me fat.
Gary Taubes: Yeah. So the reason you get fat is because you are either not expending enough or you are taking in too many calories. So these two, they’re both high. They’re paradigms are both hypotheses and they make predictions and the way science works, the more predictions a hypothesis can make the better it is, and the more useful. And so what do you want to do is find an experiment in which the different hypotheses make different predictions about what would happen. So in this case, and this is the experiment we wanted to fund, that one lab where you have your subjects and you fix how many calories they’re consuming and you change the macronutrient content of the diet dramatically. People get fat over the course of decades. You can’t do the experiments for decades, you can only do it for a few months if you’re going to fix exactly how many calories you’re going to allow them to eat. And so you kind of make it a more extreme version of the experiment of what might actually happen in real life so that you can see an effect in a couple of months. So you fix how many calories they’re consuming at a level at which they maintain a stable weight. And then you ideally randomize to one of two diets. One of them gets a ketogenic diet. So this hormonal hypothesis says, carbs are the problems. So if you remove all the carbs and replace them with fat, you keep insulin levels low, they don’t gain fat. So in one diet, ketogenic diet, is just that. You get rid of the carbs, you replace with fat, but you keep their calories high.
Emily: And you let them eat as much as they want.
Gary Taubes: Well, no, you’re fixing how much they’re allowed to eat. So let’s they can eat 3000 calories. So I’m a subject, let’s say I can eat 3000 calories without gaining weight and the 3000 calories is on a standard American diet with 50% carbs. So now I get rid of the 50% I replaced them with fat, but I still have to eat 3000 calories. And if you believe that obesity is all about intake and expenditure and how much we eat and how much we exercise, if I’m staying with 3000 calories, my weight isn’t going to change because the only way my diet influences my weight is by how many calories I can eat. Simplistically, there’s issues about how much you absorb and stuff and how much protein. And then this other hypotheses, this carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis says if I get rid of the carbs and replace with fat, I’m going to keep insulin low. And if I keep insulin low, I’m going to mobilize fat from my fat tissue and I’m going to burn that for fuel. And there’s no law of physics that says I can’t increase how much energy I burn, expend. So I’m going to fix calories and my expenditures going to go up and I’m going to lose weight simultaneously. I’m going to lose weight and my expenditure is going to go up. So I can measure that. I can measure weight and I can measure energy expenditure. And my two hypotheses make different predictions. So this is a simple part of the experiment. It turns out one of my learning experiences is, was that these things may sound simple, but they’re incredibly complex and incredibly challenging, and you don’t learn about how you might screw up until you’re doing the experiment. This is why in an ideal world, the experiment takes you three days to do and only costs $50 because it’s guaranteed in those three days you’re going to learn how you screwed up and it’s going to take you another three days and another $50 for a year before you decided you’ve done the experiment in a way that you haven’t screwed it up.
Emily: Where you’re refining constantly and improving.
Gary Taubes: Refining and going back to the beginning constantly. Anyway so this was what we did. And yet if we had recruited researchers who believed what we believed, the results wouldn’t be believed by the rest of the community because they’d be considered biased going in. So that was one reason to recruit conventional scientists who believe that conventional wisdom and actually helped generate the conventional wisdom. And in the course of my research, I interviewed, I think 600 people for “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” I mean virtually anyone, everyone who had ever done meaningful work on any aspect of diet, nutrition, obesity, chronic disease. And so in the course of that research, I had met researchers who I thought were open minded and sounded like good scientists and whom I thought would follow the data so they wouldn’t let their preconceptions and their belief system get in the way and would do good science. Now I made a critical mistake, I think, they disagree. But the fact that they had been able to survive for 40 years in this polluted culture of nutrition, obesity research, should have told me that they can’t do this job, that their standards were not high enough because they never would have been able to survive if they had. But anyway, these are the people I recruited, we recruited, they were happy to do the work. They brought in some colleagues and then there was this young researcher at NIH who I had been introduced to me along the way and also thought that the calorie balance thing was wrong, although he had a different hypothesis about how this all worked, a kind of fat balance hypothesis. And so we started doing the experiment. We had a lot of interactions while we were designing the experiment. We trusted them to kind of know how to do these experiments right, which was both correct and that they certainly knew better than we did, but incorrect in that, again, their standards weren’t high enough. Once they started generating data and started interpreting the evidence, that’s when we really stepped in to present a counter interpretation of more critical, or we thought was a more critical interpretation that was informed by our awareness of this hormonal regulatory hypothesis and its consequences, how you would expect it to manifest itself in these studies. And now we were directly challenging them and they didn’t like that. And they thought that because we funded the experiment or the money went through us, and because we had a bias, we had a result that we wanted to see they, and they being one individual in particular, if he’d listened to our advice, he would be basically conflicted by our bias, so he felt he had an ethical obligation to shut us out.
Emily: And you felt that it was genuine? I mean, he’s coming at it from his own bias so
Gary Taubes: I believe he believed what he said and I believe that he saw this as an ethical conflict and he felt challenged by it. I never questioned that. I thought it was naive. I thought it was a little crazy because basically it was saying even though you people may be the very best people in the world to critique this experiment, I can’t listen to you because you fund it. And so I have to, we agreed it was a crazy, crazy.
Emily: I mean that’s ridiculous too because I sort of feel like isn’t criticism just criticism?
Gary Taubes: Well that’s what I said. This is science. First of all, let’s put ethics aside. This is science. The idea is to make sure we’re not fooling ourselves. So you want the very best people and as many as possible to critique the data, to critique the interpretation, to explain to you why they think you might be fooling yourself because you probably are.
Emily: It gives you a chance to respond.
Gary Taubes: But that’s not how they saw it. So the collaboration pretty much broke down over that. I mean it got very heated. There was some just crazy meetings we took alone with the collaboration, the Arnolds got involved and one of our meetings was in Houston. Finally, there’s this one researcher, had resigned from the collaboration said he just couldn’t go forward without being ethically conflicted by working with us. He couldn’t trust us to keep our thoughts to ourselves. They always had, our contracts, always had a situation in which we have absolutely no say in what these researchers chose to write in the paper and what they reported. Other than that, we got an opportunity to read it in advance and present thoughtful criticism and our scientific advisory board, which was made up of a half a dozen of the best scientists in the field. Very, very thoughtful men and women who also got the present criticism and they decided that we, not they, this one scientist and the other members of this collaboration sort of felt they owed it to this man to support him even if they didn’t personally believe, take his position that they were a team and they owed it to him to act as a team and supportive him so
Emily: So it became very divisive. It’s so hard to understand because it’s like you all start out at this place of trying to genuinely explore these questions and then it sort of falls apart in this really tragic way because the takeaway is, well, where are we now? And so we still need to do these experiments I would think.
Gary Taubes: Well, but again, so you have this interesting situation. The great majority of the research community and obesity and its relationship to diets simply doesn’t care. They either think that we know the truth already it’s all about some level, it’s eating too much and it’s complex and that we use these phrases. It’s a complex, multifactorial disorder and there are societal factors and behavioral factors and nutritional factors and it’s just so complex you can understand and why we have so completely failed in our job to understand that or predict it. And so they don’t really care and they don’t get funded to care. Remember we talked about the role of funding. Then there’s a small, tiny part of the community that seems to be mostly the blogosphere. They’re mostly people like you and I and the Twittersphere that argue about this stuff, but even they don’t really see it as all that important. I mean they do, but the rest of the community just doesn’t. We haven’t been able to get across this idea. Normally when people like me and the academics who come in, a few of them do say, look, the entire community is wrong. Normally we’re quacks. Like the cold fusion thing. A couple of chemists at the University of Utah say they’ve created that all of our understanding of nuclear fusion is wrong and you create nuclear fusion in a test tube, a glass of water with an electrode made out of palladium. If I had $1 million and I could bet $1 million that they were wrong I would have done it in a second because those people are almost invariably quacks. So it’s very easy for the community to think that people like me are quacks. That even though they don’t get this argument that it’s important whether or not obesity is an energy balance disorder or a hormonal regulatory disorder, whether the determining factor in what we eat is the calorie content and the density of energy or the carbohydrate content and its effect on circulating insulin levels. They assume that people stay burdened with obesity stay that way because nobody can stay on a diet. It’s just too hard to do, so it doesn’t matter.
Emily: What I still don’t understand and I feel like I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with various different people, I get the motivation of researchers who are at institutions where their funding is coming from pharmaceutical companies. The generic drugs that have all these off-label benefits that people don’t maybe know about because no one’s going to be incentivized to study it or to figure it out. But the government, where so much funding is coming from, they should have an investment or interest in sort of preventative medicine, which I feel like is just generally lacking in terms of funding.
Gary Taubes: It’s not that it’s generally lacking. They think that they’ve got the right answer.
Emily: But it’s not working. No one can say that this isn’t an epic failure.
Gary Taubes: This is what at NuSI we used to call this the Dude Hypothesis. This is from one of our scientific advisory board members, a very smart odd metabolism researcher here at UC Berkeley. The idea is why are people still fat? Why do they keep getting fatter? Because they do, they just can’t stay on diets. It’s like, nobody wants to be on a diet, so that’s the answer. So let’s create drugs. We can’t expect people to stick with diets. We can’t. It’s too restrictive or whatever. Pick your excuse. A diet that works, like a Keto Diet, and by work I mean it allows people to lose weight without hunger and improve or solve this metabolic derangement problem. He’s considered an extreme diet that’s going to kill them because of the saturated fat content. So that’s out of the question. So it’s just, we’ve created a, as we’ve pursued what I believe, are sort of the wrong answers in this field, that dietary fat causes heart disease and eating too much makes you fat. The field has sort of created rationalizations to explain all its failures. So the fact that we, this obesity and diabetes epidemics, keep getting worse is because the industry is too good at tricking people into eating too much and people just don’t have the willpower to do what’s necessary, which is eat less and exercise more. And you’ve got, so who cares? People like pounds, nobody’s going to stay on a diet or whatever the right answer is. And then you have, like I said, the funding has kind of moved past all these things. So if you look at, if you want to study the gut biome these days, you can get money to study the gut biome. It’s fashionable. Okay. If you want to study whether or not a carb restricted diet works better for obesity in a way that’s independent of calories, you can’t get money because it’s not fashionable. We’ve been arguing about for 40 years. Who cares? So you have this whole, again, this kind of emergent societal phenomenon, combines groupthink, cognitive dissonance and all these rationalizations for failure. It’s understandable we haven’t solved the obesity epidemic. Obesity is a multifactorial complex condition. I mean there are people who believe that one hundred percent and don’t even understand what they mean when they say that. Maybe to believe anything 100% you have to not understand what you mean when you said.
Emily: Yeah, I mean I guess, for me I just sort of keep going back to the overall costs that this is diabetes. Let’s say cancer. Throw that in there. Alzheimer’s, heart disease, like these are things that seem like if the root cause is potentially the same thing, that seems pretty compelling for somebody to try to figure it out. So it’s like if you can get money for the gut microbiome, isn’t the gut microbiome compromised on a high carb diet? These are all tangential to the problem.
Gary Taubes: You would think so, but they don’t. Remember, they think they live in a different universe. That’s the paradigm issue. They, being the funding that people work in the funding agencies, and you have to understand that, think about the people you respect in life. There are people who think like you do, right? This is the essence of groupthink. So if you’re at the NIH and you need to hire a new program manager for the nutrition and you interview a lot of people, the people who you’re going to like are going to be the people who think like you do, not the people who think you’re an idiot because you think like you do like I would, but the people who think like you do. So you end up with the administrator, the institutions collect, they create groupthink just by the very nature of how humans interact with each other. So you have these just world, the research world, institutional funding worlds where everybody thinks the same way and it’s not like we think. They don’t read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and say, oh, this is revelatory. They read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and they say, I don’t believe it. I don’t, what’s he leaving out? This can’t possibly be true. He must be making it up. And then if they read it and it’s revelatory, now they’re in this position where they have to talk to their colleagues about it, right? Have you read Taubes’ book? Like you don’t want to do that because then you start exposing yourself as maybe you’re not a member of the orthodox. Maybe you’re one of those.
Emily: But it’s like death of intellectual curiosity then.
Gary Taubes: Yeah. Yeah, Dude.
Emily: I mean that’s pretty depressing, I think.
Gary Taubes: Well, it’s only depressing if you let it depress you. He said sounding like a Buddha.
Emily: Yeah, right. So I was going to say sounding depressed and resolved to be so I guess.
Gary Taubes: Let’s talk about the good news.
Emily: Okay. Tell me good news.
Gary Taubes: The good news. So what we’ve been talking about are hypotheses of obesity and heart disease and mortality and morbidity and how diet relates to chronic disease and your weight over the course of 20 years. You do not need a hypothesis to test a diet for yourself. So if you think about when people like Nina Teicholz and I did over the past decade is we managed with the help of all these wonderful physicians and a few academics who had the intellectual curiosity and the guts to step outside of the mainstream and study what interested them. We’ve been able to convince people that these Keto diets, very low carb diets will not kill them. We’ve even managed to convince enough physicians to try it for themselves, that the physicians became convinced and they convinced other physicians. And now you’ve got thousands to tens of thousands of doctors, it’s hard to quantify. I’d say at least a few tens of thousands who have converted, who believed that the single healthiest thing, best thing they can do for their patients who are suffering from obesity or type two diabetes or hypertension or any of these metabolic derangements is get them to restrict their carbohydrates and replace them with naturally occurring fat. And they see fairly remarkable things that happen. This isn’t a hypothesis. So if you go to the doctor and doc says eat a low fat diet because I’m afraid of your heart disease risk. He’s saying, if you eat this diet, you may live longer and have a heart attack later than you would otherwise or maybe not have this heart attack at all and there’s no way to tell if that’s true. So if you die 10 years later or 40 years later, you have no idea what role the diet played in that and no information that you or the doctor has. This is the wonderful thing about making predictions like that is that you can never be proven wrong. Even if you die a week later, the doctor will just say, well, obviously you didn’t start the low fat diet soon enough. But if you’re going to low carb, high fat Ketogenic Diet, you’ll see changes with Sarah Hallberg seeing and discussing. You’ll see changes, dramatic changes pretty quickly. Within a few months, you may have lost 10-20 pounds. Your blood pressure’s coming down, your blood sugar is under control, your doctor is, hopefully your doctor is helping you with this, he or she is getting you off your blood pressure meds and your blood sugar medications. People are actually, so you’ve got this sort of position where physicians have been told to prescribe by hypothesis, eat this diet, I hypothesize that you will live longer and the alternative is now they can prescribe by observation. If you eat this diet, get rid of the carbs, replace it with fat, you’ll get healthier and then they can watch that happen and you can experience it yourself and then you have to decide if you do get healthier, do you want to stay that way? Do you want to take the risk that healthier in the short term translates to healthier in the long term when you have no other information to help you assess that gamble?
Emily: Yeah. I feel like one of the things that Dr. Hallberg said to us that I thought was so interesting was when she went to talk to people in Washington about the results they were getting at Virta and that people were like, we can’t really tell people to just get rid of a whole food group that’s not realistic. And she’s like, well actually that’s exactly what you did. And people did do it, but you just told them to get rid of the wrong food group when you told them to get rid of fat.
Gary Taubes: Sarah’s terrific. Yes, that’s exactly it. So it’s sort of, and I discussed this in the book, I’m just finishing up now. The problem is for decades we’ve defined a fad diet and one of the defining characteristics of a fad diet is it tells you to get rid of a food group. But if a food group is harming you, if the idea with dietary fats giving you heart disease, you eat as little fat as you can, that’s what they were telling us. That was fine. But when you eat fat, they’re actually fat isn’t a food group, so carbs, you’re getting rid of grains, starches, sugars, and you’re getting rid of the bulk of what the food industry provides, which is one reason why the industry isn’t wild about this message. Dietary fad, you can tell people to eat less fat and the dairy industry produces low fat dairy and the meat industry producing low fat cuts of meat and breeds cattle to have a better quote unquote healthier fat content so they can still sell their products. You’re not saying don’t ever eat a French fry again or don’t eat a potato chip again, which is what this message is. But the problem is if eating the potato chip makes you fat and worse than that, fat and hungry, then maybe some of us just can’t do it and shouldn’t do it. And if we want to be healthy, we have to abstain from carbohydrates, carb rich foods and sugars and that message is going to, even though the organizations in Washington is having trouble accepting it because they’ll have to admit that they made mistakes, doctors are embracing it because they’re seeing their patients get healthier. And that’s why they went into medicine, most of them.
Emily: Is there any difference in terms of the carbohydrates or the body’s response to carbs in Europe versus in the United States? I have a friend who has the serious glucose intolerance and she was saying to me that she can eat all kinds of carbs or foods that have gluten. So anyways, she basically has been saying that she can eat foods that have gluten, that she could not eat in the United States. She can eat them there without her stomach upset.
Gary Taubes: Well, it’s interesting and it depends on the, I’d want to talk to her about the foods. I had that experience in the mid eighties I lived in Geneva while I was doing the research on my first book and then lived in Paris for a year and a half, which was wonderful. And I could eat foods in Paris that I could not eat. Foods that would give me gastrointestinal distress in the U.S. did not do that in Paris. I cannot 40 years later tell you why. So anything is possible. One possibility, even with gluten, is I wondered how much the gluten issue is triggered initially by the sugar content of the diet, in which case a lower sugar content, even in those same processed foods could perhaps have, cause a different response. So again we focus on very simple kind of one variable problems and there may not be one variable it might be multiple variables at work. One that sort of primes the pump and then the other that does the damage. The argument I make in “The Case Against Sugar” is that sugar is necessary to sort of cause population wide insulin resistance to begin with and then once you’ve got an insulin resistant population and all the other you over secrete insulin, to all the other carbs and the diet. So we kind of have two factors working at once and working differently on a population wide basis. In an ideal world, these are the kinds of questions, the issue that your friend raises and the kind of questions that researchers would study.
Emily: Yeah because we thought maybe it was like the genetically modified stuff that we eat here. Maybe that’s like in the grains or like somehow has infiltrated the food supply.
Gary Taubes: Possible. That would not be my first hypothesis. That’s why I would like to know which specific foods.
Emily: I think it was pasta.
Gary Taubes: But again is it a baguette in Europe versus a baguette here? Or a baguette in Europe verses Wonderbread here? Yeah. So again it’s easy to kind of be it would be interesting. And you could start asking questions and we might be able to figure it out with the help of a good laboratory and might have. First let’s figure out which foods it is. And then let’s look at what we’re dealing with, the two different foods. Maybe it is GMO’s. I doubt it, but that would be one hypothesis eventually. But then step one would be to identify specifically those foods like this pasta in the U.S. I can eat, this similar pasta in Europe I can’t eat what’s the difference?
Emily: Okay. My last question for you is, I know you have this great story about you called up a researcher, so you had done all this work at cern and you had sort of realized that scientists were lying to you but also bullying themselves and that this was really exciting and interesting. And then you were on an assignment or, but anyway, so you call up this researcher and you basically talk to him about salt and you get off the phone and you realize there is a bombshell of a story behind this. Can you just tell that story and then my question really is how did you know based on the fact that you had just been covering bad science that was sort of your beat, but that this was like the worst scientist ever. What made him the worst?
Gary Taubes: Okay. Good scientists have a way of talking about the evidence that’s very precise, very cautious and tentative. And this idea again, you know, they’re always aware that you might be fooling yourself. So you always talk about the science with a certain degree of skepticism. Like I said, precision in language. You want people to understand exactly what you mean. So, and this is part of what had come across, I mean scientists make mistakes all the time and the best scientists might make the most mistakes because they’re going to work on the hardest problems. But they’re aware that they’re likely to be making mistakes. So the way they discuss their data and their evidence is such that you just get a really good feel for somebody who’s aware of this. And the way I’d used to describe it to my friends is if you’re a English major at a book review or an English professor, you’re allowed to say that Norman Mailer is a better writer than John Grisham. Even though you know that John Grisham outsold Norman Mailer by a factor of a hundred. I mean it seems John Grisham does good, but he’s not the wordsmith that Norman Mailer or pick your favorite writer is. You just know that. And you can read a page of each of them and come to that conclusion and nobody would disagree with you. So, and I had in the course of my second book on cold fusion was called “Bad Science,” and I had thought, I had interviewed clearly some of the worst scientists in the world. And I get into public health and I needed a paycheck. One day I was living in LA, I was a correspondent for Science, which is a glorified word for freelancer and I had to pay my rent and I call him my editor at Science and I say, could you give me a story I could turn over quickly so I can get a paycheck and pay my rent? And there’s an article that’s coming out in the Journal, in the New England Journal of Medicine, on the Dash Diet, the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension, which is exactly what it says it is. And this article is coming out in a week and what I didn’t know was that it had been leaked to Science in advance. And so the way you normally do these articles as a correspondent is you, so it’s not out yet, it’s embargoed, your article’s gotta be embargoed until the article comes out in the New England Journal. So you call up the principal investigator and you say, I’m doing this article for Science on your research. And you interview him promising that you respect the embargo and then you ask him or her for the names of two or three other people you could interview who know about the research and are, can comment on it even though it hadn’t been published yet. And if you can get three sources, interview three people, you can quote three people, which is enough for one page in the magazine and you can file the story and I can get my paycheck. But what he didn’t know is this article had been leaked to Science in advance with a list of people to talk to. So the first person I talked to is from the list, the leak list. And that’s a former president of the American Heart Association who tells me she can’t speak about this study because she’ll lose her funding if she does. And I say this isn’t the Lysenko Era Soviet Union, nobody loses their funding because they speak about a diet study to be published in the New England Journal. And I’m just going to respect the embargo. You’re not going to be. She won’t do it. I say, look, can we go off the record not for attribution, you know, pretend we’re in a parking garage in Washington. If you don’t tell me what’s wrong with this study, I will never know and I’m going to write what everyone else writes. And she still won’t tell me. She just refuses to speak about it. So then I interviewed the principal investigator. I ask him for some names of people to talk to, and one of them, he suggested is this fellow whose name will go unmentioned who I call up and he sounds exactly like Walter Matthau and he starts yelling at me that there’s no controversy over salt and high blood pressure. And so this is a diet that lowered blood pressure. I’m not calling, I said I’m not calling about salt and my blood pressure professor, I’m calling about the Dash Diet. And he just keeps yelling at me, no controversy, absolutely no evidence, that salt doesn’t cause high blood pressure. That’s insane. And Blah, blah blah. So I get off the phone with him, I file my story. I get another interview, so I get my three interviews. I tell my editor at Science, look I had a former president of the American Heart Association refuse to talk to me on or off the record about this study because she said she would lose her funding. And then I had this Walter Matthau character yelling at me that there was no controversy over salt and high blood pressure when I wasn’t calling about salt and high blood pressure. There must be a controversy about salt and high blood pressure that I know nothing about and I think we should look into it. Then they had faith in my work. So he said, yeah. And I spent the next nine months of my life doing nothing but salt and high blood pressure. Turns out it was an incredibly vitriolic controversy. It’s still going on today. The evidence suggesting that our salt consumption causes hypertension was terrible. And that was the very first investigation I did in this field. And while I was doing the research, I went back to the Walter Matthau character to interview him more and remembered he was yelling at me saying there is absolutely no evidence that salt isn’t the cause of hypertension. When somebody says absolutely no evidence they’re, first of all, they’re not speaking tentatively and cautiously. And second of all, they’re clearly incorrect. There’s always evidence for something. If anyone believes something, there’s some evidence of questions, whether the evidence is sufficiently compelling that we should all believe it. So this guy was clearly one of the worst scientists I had ever interviewed, just by the way he talked about the data. You could tell. And while I was interviewing him in the followup, he took credit not just for getting Americans on the low salt diet that we’d been eating since the, around 1990, but on the low fat diet as well. Turns out he was the sort of, Ancel Keys redox. And I got off the phone with him and I called my editor at Science and I said, when I’m done writing about salt, I’m going to write about fat and say one of the five worst scientists I’ve ever interviewed in my life. They’re all so bad I wouldn’t want to rate which one was somehow worse than the other, but it’s the one of the five words scientists I ever interviewed. He just took credit for getting us all on this low fat diet we’ve been eating. And one of the lessons of all my research in science and bad science just never get the right answers. So if this guy was involved in any substantive way, there’s gotta a story there. And that was it. I didn’t know what the story was. I had no idea. I was eating a low, very low fat diet at the time and getting fatter by the way. And I just launched into it based solely on the fact that this clearly terrible scientist had taken credit for this idea and for the diet we were all eating. And then it just sets the next 20 years of my life
Emily: And that set you up perfectly.
Gary Taubes: It did.
Emily: And I guess the only other thing I was curious about was I have had the privilege, the opportunity to be invited to Ariadne a couple of times, which is Atul Gawande’s lab. Atul, and then Neel Shah, who’s the c-section researcher who I featured in that New York Times piece I did on maternal mortality. They have this sort of community where people go before they write up a paper, people from the community, from the industry, from the whatever the topic is go and they critique it. So whoever’s writing the paper presents and then it’s basically like everybody in the audience is supposed to say like, well what about? Have you? You know, this study contradicts what you’re saying in this way. Which seems very much in line with what we would all say is the scientific method, right? Or like this idea of being open to criticism. I mean like they’re inviting you, those become lively because people are vocal and people are definitely trying to poke holes. And it’s an opportunity for them to refine their work before it’s published, right. So that sort of allows them to go back and think again about the problems or how they’re presenting it. Do you ever have scientists call you? I mean I guess we’re not calling them scientists, but epidemiologists or people in the nutrition field call you and say like, hey, we’re working on this experiment. We’d love for you to tell us what you think of it.
Gary Taubes: No.
Emily: That’s kind of crazy, right? Because I feel like you’d be so good at that.
Gary Taubes: The assumption in the nutrition world is that I’m just wrong. If not wrong, then sort of just silly. You know, you’ve got someone who’s clearly, they’re not concerned, they don’t sit around and talk about how sharp Taubes is or Teicholz or maybe even not the researchers like David Ludwig who are in academia who think like we think. So in an ideal world, that’s when you would want. And then those are the people who you want to listen to or the people who disagree with you, who, and in an ideal world, these experiments would be done like the people on the different sides instead writing papers explaining why they other ones are wrong, they would work together to try and figure out what’s going on. They would, and you would get this kind of critique. The world I grew up in, the physics world, that’s how they worked. If you got a result that was interesting, which means probably wrong, you would present your interpretation, the evidence in your interpretation first in a laboratory symposium and the job of everybody in the audience is to explain to you how you might’ve screwed up and to do it pretty harshly. They shouldn’t really care about your, you know your feelings. It’s like their job is just to tell you because you almost assuredly are wrong. If the result is interesting. Their job is to help you figure out how you fooled yourself. And then if you, if they can’t do it, if you still got this interesting result, then you go to neighboring labs or neighboring institutions and present a symposium and then you keep trying to figure out how you fooled yourself. And you keep asking people. Basically it’s, you know, discovery of a new particle question mark. And then the idea is these people are gonna tell you what you missed. And you should be grateful. That’s their only job. And then finally, if nobody can help you figure it out, then you publish a paper that says discovery of a new particle with a question mark at the end. And the basic gist of the paper is here’s what we’ve seen. This is how we’ve tried to explain it and we haven’t been able to get rid of this interesting phenomena. How did we screw up? You know, it’s always and eventually, this is the idea. It’s like you’re trying to refute the hypothesis. Eventually you’ve failed to refute it and you failed to figure out new ways to refute it and you accept that maybe it’s right. So you’re kind of backing into it. Now in reality, yeah, that’s the ideal. People get carried away in every field. But and then Atul would describe that. Atul does, that’s exactly what you want. And if this went on with the researchers, we hired at NuSI I never saw. This is, like I said, one of the things that amazes me is that to this day we have two of the studies we funded the one with this principal investigator at NIH and one with Harvard. They came at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital and they came to different conclusions. The researcher who believed that obesity was a hormonal regulatory disorder found, concluded that, their data supported that. And the researcher who believed that obesity wasn’t, yeah, so Ludwig worsens. So you end up with a situation where they’re writing letters, they keep criticizing Hall, we’ll criticize Ludwig’s interpretation of the data and then Ludwig will have to respond to Hall and explain why he didn’t misinterpret it. And why Hall’s letter was misinterpreted. And then they’ll publish further papers and none of this is going to solve anything. The only thing that solves anything is doing further experiments. So those experiments have to be done. They could argue again, I guess maybe people will get bored of it or they’ll move on or they’ll get funding to do gut biome research instead, and that’s what they’ll do. But if the issue is important, what they should be doing, and at least David Ludwig is in his creakeeps he’s gotten funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation independently to do what will be the best, hopefully the best, study ever done on this subject. Does it mean that they’ll get the right answer? No, but they’ll get closer.
Emily: Chipping away. That’s the most optimistic way to end this I think I don’t know.
Gary, thank you.
Gary Taubes: Thanks, Emily. This was great.
Emily: Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to check out the show notes on brokenscience.org if you’re looking for references or further reading materials. Also, if you found this episode helpful, we’d greatly appreciate you leaving a review. It tremendously helps us grow our audience and let other people know about the Broken science initiative.