Interview with Gary Taubes – Part Three

JD: Here is a quote from an article you wrote for Discover Magazine in 1997:

“There is a theory that creativity arises when individuals are out of sync with their environment. To put it simply, people who fit in with their communities have insufficient motivation to risk their psyches in creating something truly new, while those who are out of sync are driven by the constant need to prove their worth.” -Beyond the Soapsuds Universe, Discover Magazine

How well does your description of how creativity arises describe you?

GT: It’s an interesting question. That idea comes from a theory by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote a book called Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. You do need someone to come in from outside. One of the theories about why mathematicians do their best work when they’re young is because they’re not yet educated enough to know what seems obviously wrong . So they try new things.

I was thinking today about why crazy people seem to be so creative – is it because they’re not bound to the social structures and mores that the rest of us have lived with? They think outside of the box, and usually 99% of the time it doesn’t work, and they create crap, but the 1% – somebody who is completely disconnected from the way the rest of us think – creates something that resonates and we think that person is a creative genius. Picasso could have been seen as a nutcase, but instead there was something about cubism that resonated and we all say this guy’s a genius. But he’s obviously different. He’s built differently from other people. Picasso is probably one of the examples that was used by Csikszentmihalyi when he was developing his theory.

When Gina Kolata reviewed my book, Good Calories, Bad Calories in the New York Times, she said I was a brave and bold science writer. I guess she meant that I’m brave because I’m putting myself out there. One advantage I have is I don’t have to worry about getting funding from the nutrition community. So being an outsider in that sense works. Another advantage is that I don’t have to spend all my time reading the journals to keep up with what other people are doing because I’m not competing with them. I can spend my time reading the history.

I definitely think differently from the nutritionists in general, because I was trained by very good experimental scientists in the physics community, when I spent all my time writing about high energy physics and cold fusion. These people were teaching me about how they think. When they were telling me what they thought was wrong with experiments, I was seeing how they think about science. So there were a lot of advantages I had there.

But still, I just stumbled into this. I could have spent my whole life being a kind of science journalism equivalent of Philip Marlowe the detective, and gotten these little cases that were interesting. Something where I could kind of get my hands dirty and do some investigations that other science journalists didn’t have the time or the energy or the desire to do. And then I just sort of fell through the looking glass, and suddenly I was in this world where all the science is terrible and there is actually a legitimate hypothesis that you could see had been left behind, that tended the answer all these questions and explain the observations.

I’m also an obsessive researcher. I have a personality that always thinks about what it doesn’t know. Like rich people who don’t care about what they have, but only care about what they haven’t bought yet. It’s a kind of psychological problem. It bugs me when somebody finds something in this field that I don’t know about. Like a paper that I didn’t read that’s important and so I keep looking and I keep reading the literature. There are always things you don’t know. And it just keeps leading you from one path to another.

The other thing is I hate writing – it doesn’t come easy to me. So the research is always a great way to procrastinate. You just keep researching, which is fun.

Most of us don’t have the talent to actually analyze what’s being said. You never know what people are leaving out. Which is something that Gina Kolata said correctly about my book – you don’t know what I’m leaving out. Then somebody comes along and says “oh look at this, he left this out.” Good Calories, Bad Calories is a 500 page book written about 150 years of science – there is an enormous amount left out. There are a lot of decisions being made along the way.

Actually, it’s funny, the original draft of the book was 200,000 words longer and unfinished. I gave it to my editor. I said “I can’t write anymore.” I know it’s 200, 000 words longer than it should be and I’m not done. I was saying in the book “here is the history, here is what happened, here is the data, here is how it was interpreted incorrectly, here is how the establishment took it, and here is how it is wrong. Here is the correct interpretation, and here is how that has been refuted.”

The editor said that I don’t have to give everybody else’s opinion. He said that if I lecture on it, people could ask questions, and then I can explain. That got rid of 180,000 words right there. Then of course what happens is people say what about this, what about that. Taubes cherry-picks because he doesn’t include those things. The same people, like Gina Kolata, who accuse me of going on and on and on and on, will then say but he leaves this out, he leaves that out. And that’s when I really want to pull my hair out.

JD: Tell me three things that you have learned from science about health that you are certain of.

GT: I’m not really sure of anything. I’ll tell you a funny story. A friend of the family is science director of Phoenix House, which are rehab centres all around America. They’re a pretty big deal in New York City. He took Why We Get Fat on vacation with him about five weeks ago and I got an email from him saying that he just found it fantastic. Then I got a call from him about a week ago. He got off the plane after he read the book and hadn’t had any carbs since. Lost 17 lbs in five weeks. He total cholesterol is 140, his blood pressure was 110 over 70, he’s off statins and beta blockers. And all I could think was thank god it didn’t kill him.

JD: So the answer to the question is nothing, right?

GT: Yeah, I’d still worry. I know – and this isn’t science, it’s personal experience – that I can eat as much as I want now. Without the carbohydrates it has no effect on my weight. Is it going to kill me? That I’m not so positive about. But I know that my weight is regulated by the carbohydrates that I consume. The research tells it to me, the science seems clear, but it’s my personal experience indeed that makes me know it for sure.

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