Interview with Gary Taubes – Part One

Gary Taubes is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation independent investigator in health policy at UC Berkeley and a correspondent for Science Magazine. Heis the author of Nobel Dreams (1987), Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion (1993), and Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007). His book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It was released in December 2010.

Born in Rochester, New York, Taubes studied applied physics at Harvard and aerospace engineering at Stanford (MS, 1978). He received a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in 1981. He has written about science for Discover Magazine, Science Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, the New York Times, and many other publications.

JD: What is the central thesis of your books, Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat? How did you come to it?

GT: The central thesis is that it’s not dietary fat that is the cause of nutritional diseases, but the quantity and quality of the carbohydrates that we consume. Along with misconceptions about dietary fat, the nutrition and obesity research community went completely off the rails on the subject of obesity itself and why we get fat. The issue is not one of caloric or energy balance, but of how fat tissue is regulated. It has to do with how the nutrients we eat affect the regulation of hormones that then in turn regulate fat accumulation.

I came to this thesis purely by luck. I was obsessed with this question of how hard it is to do science right and how easy it is to get the wrong answer. When I was researching my first book, Nobel Dreams, I lived in a physics lab in CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research] outside Geneva for nine months. There, I watched some very intelligent physicists discover non-existent elementary particles. While I was watching them screw up, I was being tutored on how to do science right by the more pragmatic, better experimental physicists at CERN. I fascinated by this issue. When Nobel Dreams, which was about the mistaken discovery of “super-symmetric” particles, came out in 1986, I thought I would never be able to work in physics again. On page six of the New York Post, the gossip page, Carlo Rubbia, the physicist who was the head of the lab was quoted, calling me an asshole. I assumed this was the end of my science writing career, but instead, when I would interview someone for a story, they would know about my book and tell me “if you think that guy was bad, you should write about so and so.”

So I started doing stories about people discovering non-existent things, who managed to bolster their careers quite a bit as a result. People like Stan Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering prions, which Prusiner says are a new form of life that does not require nucleic acid in order to reproduce. To this day, I will never be able to believe that prions are real, and that there is no nucleic acid there.

JD: Prusiner’s work on prions has led to treatments that slow down Creutzfeld Jacob disease. It seems that it was a useful discovery, but it wasn’t the whole story.

GT: That’s the thing. The fundamental claim, that the prion is a protein that doesn’t require nucleic acid to spread and manifest different strains – it’s a remarkable claim that was made about remarkable data, but without the evidence. Science gets screwed up in myriad different ways, and probably always did. Anyway, that was my obsession. When cold fusion happened in 1989, and my editor asked me if I wanted to write a book about it, I was actually living in LA and trying to write screen plays.

JD: You’re not the first one to do that.

GT: No, I know! I had been living in Paris – I wrote Nobel Dreams in Paris, and I wanted to get back there. I lived there off and on for about 18 months. I was very happy in Paris. I did the research for the book in Geneva. I rented an apartment in Paris and wrote it there. I was 29 at the time, and every young writer wants to write a book in Paris. I had an apartment on Île Saint-Louis, overlooking the west bank behind Notre Dame, five stories up over the water. I would write and take a break, sit on the window ledge and smoke cigarettes.

JD: You had the ghosts of Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus in your ear. Not that they would be very helpful for what you were writing about!

GT: Actually I read Hemingway and Solzhenitsyn – The Gulag Archipelago. I kept reading it over and over again because he has a wonderful voice, at least in the translation. So I was writing screenplays and trying to get back to Paris. I was broke, and my publisher asked if I wanted to do a book on cold fusion. I thought it would take nine months, and that I could bank enough money to write screenplays for two years. Instead, I got obsessed with how the scientists could claim to have observed cold fusion, which turned out to be a non-existent phenomenon. I interviewed something like 350 scientists, administrators, and graduate students – anyone even remotely involved with it. I was fascinated at how this could happen.

The underlying rule of journalism that I had been taught is that you want to understand the motivation of all the characters – even those you think misbehaved. You’re done reporting when you feel that you know why what they did seemed to be the only thing they could do. Cold fusion was a fascinating story about science going off the rails. I saw it as a kind of case study that every graduate student should read. Anyway, by the time I was done writing the book, I was $45,000 in debt, and had married a New Yorker. I had moved back to New York. That was the end of my screen writing career and I had to go back to science writing full time.

JD: You did the retirement early. When you were 29 you retired to Paris.

GT: I wrote in Paris. I wouldn’t call it a retirement. I worked constantly. My friends in the physics community said to me one day, “if you think the science of cold fusion is bad, you should look at some of the stuff in public health.” One example is the idea that electromagnetic fields cause cancer. The claim was based entirely on observational epidemiology, which I was fascinated with, because everything I had learned in physics about how to do science right didn’t hold for epidemiology. In physics, negative data is more important than positive data. Data that refutes your hypothesis is what you put more weight on. In epidemiology, if you have negative data, you throw it out. The supposedly seminal paper on electromagnetic fields was a Swedish study that measured electromagnetic field exposures in three different ways. Two of these measurement methods got no effect, so the researchers just left them out of the paper. Then they did their statistical analyses based on the third way of measuring, which is completely bogus. You have to do the statistical analyses based on all three measurements. You can’t just throw out the two that didn’t see an effect and say those weren’t the correct way to measure electromagnetic fields, which is what the Swedes did. What was weird about it is that the epidemiologists didn’t care. Nobody I showed the paper to pointed this out. And I’m just a journalist, remember.

JD: It sounds like the sort of thing that any person who wasn’t a part of the field would have remarked on.

GT: You would think so. So then I did this piece for Science Magazine on epidemiology. At that point, I was becoming kind of a public health writer. One thing led to another and I ended up doing a story on salt and high blood pressure, looking at the data underlying the idea that salt causes high blood pressure. When you’re freelancing, occasionally you just need a paycheque. I called my editor and asked if there was a story that I could turn over quickly because I needed to pay my rent that month. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) study had just come out and someone had given Science Magazine a pre-publication version of the paper. I didn’t know anything about salt or blood pressure, but my editor asked if I could do a one-page story on it. The way you do those stories is you interview the researchers and they give you the names of a few people to talk to who agree with what they’ve done and you talk to those people and you write it up. It’s meaningless journalism. But in this case, somebody had given the paper to Science and that guy had also given some names of people to talk to.

So I interviewed both the people whom the researchers themselves suggested and the people this other guy had suggested. One of those people was the former president of the American Heart Association at the University of Alabama. She told me that she couldn’t talk about the study because she’d lose her funding. At the same time the researchers had recommended that I talk to a preventive medicine expert at Northwestern University. I got the guy on the line and he started yelling at me, saying that there is no controversy over salt; that this was a made-up controversy; that the evidence is clear and concise and definitive. I said – but I’m not calling about salt. I’m calling about the DASH study, which was a dietary way to lower blood pressure that didn’t involve salt restriction. After that, I called my editor and said that there was obviously a controversy over salt and that I was going to report it. So I spent the next year researching and reporting on salt. I published the article, “The (Political) Science of Salt” in Science Magazine. There is virtually no meaningful evidence that salt is the driver of high blood pressure.

JD: I took a course here in Ottawa on social marketing from a very smart communications expert. He has put together a really great campaign here in Ontario called First Words, which is aimed at getting parents to take their children in for speech and language testing at a young age. He managed to get the message about First Words to some very hard-to-reach communities through his campaign. He was talking about other campaigns he might consider taking on, and one them was salt, which he is sure is a dietary evil.

GT: Well, everyone is sure of it, but there is no evidence.

JD: I put my hand up and said that one of the problems is that sometimes you think by doing certain campaigns you’re going to be contributing to the greater good, but you might not be.

GT: That’s what happens. So many people get involved and it becomes a case of people not being able to imagine that the claim is not true. When I was working on the epidemiology story, one of the epidemiologists I interviewed said, it’s not that these problems don’t exist in every science. High energy physics has them and molecular biology has them. But if you do something stupid and misinterpret a paper on recombinant DNA, nobody cares. Nobody changes their life because of it. And nobody else gets involved. But in health fields, everybody gets involved. A lot of very nice, well-meaning people get involved, and get on these bandwagons and then they can’t believe that they’ve been doing more harm than good.

JD: I think it’s because there is a gap between what a person outside of the field can understand and what scientists are supposed to be able to understand. The assumption is that the experts have thoroughly tested their claims and they’re right. A person outside of the field would have a hard time determining whether scientific claims are true or not.

GT: I’ve lectured on the central ideas in my books Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat three different times at the National Institute of Health, to three different audiences. The second audience was the Nutrition Coordinating Committee that really had me begrudgingly. I was foisted on them. They could care less and they sat there so they could say that they heard me out. After I gave the lecture, a young guy who ran a childhood obesity program came up to me and said his major concern was keeping kids off saturated fat because they would be at risk for heart disease when they got older. He said there were thousands of studies confirming that saturated fat causes heart disease.

I said, you know the difference between you and I is that I’ve actually gone back and looked at all that data, and as of 1984 there were no more than nine studies. I could go through each one of them and tell you what they found. And since then, there have been another ten studies and I could tell you what they found and how ambiguous they are. There aren’t thousands of studies, but that is what many nutrition experts believe – it has to be true. Sometimes they are the most vehement – the ones who know the least about the underlying data.

When I wrote the salt story, I encountered the preventive medicine expert at Northwestern that I told you about. That guy is one of the five worst scientists I have ever interviewed in my life. He tells you there is absolutely no doubt, there is no evidence against this, we’ve proven it. He doesn’t understand that there is always evidence for and against hypotheses. If there is a controversy there is obviously evidence against it. In science, you don’t prove things true; you just basically fail to refute them. This expert at Northwestern took credit for getting Americans to eat less fat and eggs, as well as less salt. He and Ancel Keys were primarily responsible for the fat hypothesis—the idea that fat causes heart disease. It was Keys’ hypothesis and this expert at Northwestern embraced it before anyone else did. I told my editor that this was one of the worst scientists that I had ever interviewed in my life, and although I had no idea if there was a story there, I figured if he was involved in any way, there had to be one. I said “when I’m done with the salt story, with your permission I’m going to research the claims about dietary fat and see what I find.”

The science turned out to be terrible and the data was completely ambiguous. The decision to put the entire nation and the world on low fat, high carb diets was politics and wishful thinking more than anything. I did a big piece on dietary fat for Science, and then the famous New York Times Magazine cover story “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” The Times Magazine cover story led to a book deal for Why We Get Fat. The more you look in this field the worse the science is and the more there is to write about. If you go and actually look at the data yourself, it’s stunning how bad the evidence is that’s pushed us toward what stands today as the conventional wisdom on diet and disease.

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