Credibility of Authorities

A rant, if you will :)

One need not delve very deeply into the LC blogosphere, websites and discussion forums to find an enormous contempt for "mainstream" nutritional advice, etc.  Several darlings championing LC alternatives have emerged and their writings are taken as indisputed "truth" spurring almost cult-like followings.  Anyone who dares to challenge these *authorities* risk the wrath of these followers.

I didn't discover this LC world until almost 2 years into my most recent lifestyle change to low carb.  This was my third major try at this after discovering Atkins more than a decade ago.  I mostly just did the key components of Atkins from memory.

My rhetorical question here is this.  How many times does an authority of the LC "Movement" need to be wrong for their credibility to be questioned?   I agree that FAR too often mainstream thought has been flat out wrong about one thing or another in terms of dietary advice, blood lipids and disease risk.  However they are not wrong about everything.  

I find that quite often, excellent well-controlled studies conducted by reputable scientists are often instantly discounted based on a boilerplate line in the introduction or abstract along the lines of "high fat diets are associated with obesity ...".   Laypeople and those with relevant backgrounds alike will then go on mini rants against the researchers calling them names, disparaging their work, etc.  Occasionally this is fair (that study about a year ago comparing various diets comes to mind because that was an extremely poorly designed study that did not include a truly low carb diet in the mix).  But more often than not, the study supported conclusions that the LC'er just don't want to hear.  Fall back position is basically they can't be trusted because they may buy into some mainstream nutritional/medical dogma. 

But all too often this approach is like the information equivalent to reactive hypoglycemia (where insulin response is exaggerated leading to hypoglycemia following acute hyperglycemia from a carby meal).  Eyes and ears are covered to see and hear no "evil".

So back to LC "Authorities".  Let's start out with Dr. Atkins, the first of the modern LC gurus.  So many see GCBC and the research of those like the authors of The New Atkins (Westman, Volek & Phinney) as vindicating the long suffering Dr.  He was right all along.  But was he?  Actually, on the central concept of caloric balance, Dr. Atkins was WRONG.  He proposed that LC'ers lost more weight eating more calories than standard reducing diets because below some carb intake level, the LC'ers essentially urinated out large unused calories in the form of ketones.  This is acknowledged to not be a considerable amount by even some of the staunch defenders of Metabolic Advantage such as Dr. Mike Eades.   In the initial book there was talk of some mysterious fat mobilizing substance.  I can only surmise that this was disproven in advance of DANDR because it wasn't in that book.  Indeed Atkins' ketone loss theory is notably absent in TNA.

Does this mean LC is dangerous as some of Atkins' critics contended?  No.  Does this mean Atkins doesn't work for weight loss?  No.  But it does mean that not everything Atkins contended turns out to have been correct.  What is it about LC that renders so many championing the research or succeeding through its implementation unable to acknowledge when underlying theories are wrong?  I don't see anything shameful or derogatory to point out that new  research shows that Atkins was wrong about points A, B, & C.  It doesn't mean he was wrong about other aspects or the overall utility of LC nutrition for weight loss, diabetes management, etc.

I contend that when LC Gurus make scientifically unsubstantiated claims this will ultimately thwart progress and maybe even set it back.  Why offer up easy fodder to the "LC diets kill" contingency?  Shouting them down with cries of "you just don't understand blah blah blah" may work to silence the opposition on a discussion forum, but it will not impress scientists.  I find it  ESPECIALLY off-putting (can you tell by my recent Taubes posts? LOL) and counterproductive when said LC "expert" refuses to acknowledge when they are wrong about something and/or continues to preach known falsehoods.

To wit I will call out the dynamic duo of LC fauxscience:  Gary Taubes and Dr. Mike Eades.  I haven't mentioned Eades much (if at all) here yet, but I've caught him in a number of embarrassingly incorrect statements in the past year or so.  Most of which are comments and blog posts where he has denigrated other professionals (and laypeople too) while making himself a laughing stock in the process.  He has been challenged on one of the more egregious examples (I'll blog on that one soon) but promptly dropped the subject.  Then we'll sprinkle in a duo of emerging primal nutrition "experts" Mark Sisson and Nora Gedgaudas.  The former is mostly not on my radar for his informative and generally sound advice, but for the core of his theoretical basis that it is excess carbs  turned to fat that causes obesity, and over 150g carb/day invariably leads to catastrophic weight gain.  Gedgaudas, OTOH, has made such absurdly ridiculous statements as "all body fat comes from glucose" (a contention she made on her blog and defended in an email reponse to me) that I can't take her seriously about anything.  

So I leave you with food for thought.  Nobody is 100% correct 100% of the time, least of which scientists.  The major thrust of my MS thesis was that certain environmental factors did not result in the implicated mechanism of degradation proposed.  It happens more often than not, but, such things generally do not make good fodder for peer review journals.  If I have a major criticism of the science research publishing field it would be that more of the "this didn't show any difference" sort doesn't reach the journals.  It would save a lot of scientists time, money and frustration were this the case.  I'm sure many a negative has been re-established many times over in fruitless efforts we'll never know about.  After all, when you propose a study, the first thing you do is a literature search to see if it's been looked at before.  But I'm rambling a bit ...

Mostly, scientists and "interpreters of science" can and will be wrong from time to time.  The important thing is the response.  Just as I would love to see the mainstream come clean about margarine, saturated fats, fat intake per se and cholesterol, I too would love to see the leaders of the LC movement come a bit more clean when they're proven wrong.

Taubes says we shouldn't trust him.   Trust is a fragile thing.  Often times it only takes once to destroy one's credibility.


"How many times does an authority ... need to be wrong for their credibility to be questioned?"

It depends what they are talking about, and how their statements will be used by others. In the case of diets, anybody going on a diet should be able to figure out whether it is working for them. If it's not working, just ignore the diet guru.

One of my favorite diet authors is Seth Roberts, who developed his Shangri-La diet through self-experimentation, independent of the self-proclaimed experts.

Just develop your own diet, and don't worry too much about the diet experts.

Jim Purdy
The 50 Best Health Blogs
CarbSane said…
Hi Jim! Thanks for reading and commenting :)

I've mostly launched into this journey to alleviate my own concerns over the healthfulness of this WOE. But also, after losing considerable weight, I've become pretty much stuck at my current weight no matter what I try.

The amount of misinformation out there is astounding to me, all across the spectrum of viewpoints regarding obesity, weight loss and diabetes. There's a lot of noise in the low carb arena that, sadly IMO, distracts from the general benefits of this WOE.

I would like to actually be able to trust the advice of "authorities" -- especially when they put themselves in such positions. Unfortunately, the more I learn independently, the less I trust any of the luminaries in LC circles. LC experts are as prone to mistakes and human nature of falling prey to bias clouding thinking. A mea culpa or two would go further, IMO, in gaining widespread acceptance and/or adoption of this WOE than sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug.

It's almost like dedicated LC'ers start with the conclusion that this is the way we should eat and any evidence to the contrary is dismissed. Anyone who doesn't buy into various theories 100% is accused of working against the "cause".
LynMarie Daye said…
"Gedgaudas, OTOH, has made such absurdly ridiculous statements as "all body fat comes from glucose" (a contention she made on her blog and defended in an email reponse to me) that I can't take her seriously about anything."

Do you feel comfortable posting that email response? I would love to see how she defends that position considering all the contrary evidence (the work of Marc Hellerstein comes immediately to mind).
CarbSane said…
Here's the email exchange

My email to Nora:
I am very confused by the following statement you make in your blog that is attributed to the Textbook of Medical Physiology: "All body fat is made from glucose". I have the 11th Ed. of this text and don't see anything of the sort. Could you point me to the page or at least chapter where this is stated?

Her reply:
I am out of town right now and away from my reference materials. I wrote that sentence based on what I said came from the Textbook of Medical Physiology many years ago...not sure right now which edition but that should be listed in my book's bibliography. It IS there. I did not make it up.

Sorry I cannot be more helpful.

I presume the textbook she's talking about is the "bible" authored by Guyton. That was my A&P text in college (80's) and I just can't imagine such a glaring error being published in that text. I have a recent edition in pdf form and searched the file profusely just to see if I could find any such statement and I came up empty (as expected.)

It's one thing to claim that DNL of excess carbs is a major contributor to body fat (Hellerstein, as you mention, has several articles that say otherwise, but ... I have to add some of those to the blog at some point), it's another to ignore the basics of physiology and fat digestion!! I was hoping it was an out of context quotation, but I don't even see how that could be.
LynMarie Daye said…
Thanks! So she didn't really defend the statement per se so much as she defended recalling the statement accurately from the textbook. Not that she doesn't believe the statement to be true but I was hoping for more. But even if the statement were in that particular book, simply being well-read in the area of human metabolism would reveal that something is wrong. I'm assuming she claims to read published studies; surely at some point she read a paper (or two or three) that would have made her question the "all body fat comes from glucose" idea since it's pretty implicit in many nutritional biochemistry studies that it does not.
CarbSane said…
"surely at some point she read a paper (or two or three) that would have made her question the "all body fat comes from glucose" idea since it's pretty implicit in many nutritional biochemistry studies that it does not."

This is why I re-read that comment on her blog several times (I have not read her book, and unless I get a library card I'm not inclined to buy it) because it seemed so very wrong on its face.

Here's the blog post FWIW: and the exact quote:
"Let’s take a trip down memory lane to the Textbook of Medical Physiology, which states: “All body fat is made from glucose”. (–Not dietary fat, mind you, but G-L-U-C-O-S-E: i.e., sugar)"


Here's another example of what I've come to call in my mind Good-Gawd-help-us moments from Nora:

Lipoprotein (a) is generated only in the presence of insulin (read: high carbohydrate diets). When you lose the carbs, lipoprotein (a) goes away.

Even the highest fat version of a zero carb diet does not eliminate insulin. As she opened her comments, *Oh sheesh!*

It's sad really. Lower insulin levels (basal and AUC) are associated with low carb diets and correlate with reductions in various lipids and lipoproteins. Lp(a) generally is reduced on LC diets. Why the need to hyper-inflate something with clearly false absolutes??
LynMarie Daye said…
"Why the need to hyper-inflate something with clearly false absolutes??"

Could it be a marketing technique? It seems like a lot of people fall for this kind of speech. In their minds, speaking confidently (re: using words like never, always, none, all) equates with really knowing your stuff. I personally don't see it that way. In fact, I tend to respect the opinions of folks who use words and phrases that sound a little wishy-washy, but that's just me. :`)

As you've mentioned, another technique seems to be the denigration of mainstream scientists and medical professionals. In her blog post, Nora writes: "Now gentlemen, with all due respect, think back to your physiology 101 class (the one you were made to forget in order to pass your pharmacology 101 class): How is insulin defined in your textbooks? Allow me to refresh your memories: Insulin is the fat storage hormone." What the...? I'm no expert on logical fallacies, so I'll just have to say that that passage is just plain nonsensical and inflammatory. But there are people out there who just love this stuff. Yep, it is really sad.
CarbSane said…
Agreed. I find her condescencion on that quote very off-putting.
Colby said…
Excellent post. It is an interesting phenomenon- the low carb, paleo, and primal cultures that have arisen online recently. You bring up great points in that they generally don't concede when they are wrong and clearly most are very selective in their data seeking. The number of balanced bloggers are less common at this point, and unfortunately people generally aren't attracted to non-sensationalism and cautious statements.

I particularly like your quote "I agree that FAR too often mainstream thought has been flat out wrong about one thing or another in terms of dietary advice, blood lipids and disease risk. However they are not wrong about everything. "

I've observed that these bloggers tend to take a skeptical approach to to conventional wisdom on everything - many of the prominent ones are outspoken libertarians and anthropogenic climate change denialists. It is one thing to be skeptical of research and go in and examine it yourself, but there is a fine line between skeptical objectivity and falling prey to a number of cognitive bias'.
CarbSane said…
Thanks Colby!

There are any number of "circular references" on the internet that I encountered when I first started researching for myself. This is the way something becomes "fact". Some examples of this are: the so-called Metabolic Advantage is around 300 cal/day (Eades), diet is 80% of body weight (Sisson), you can't store fat without dietary carbs (Taubes). These and other "facts" are repeated around the web on blogs and discussion forums, often without attribution, but say something enough times and it becomes "common knowledge".

LC "Gurus" seem to get caught up a bit in the whole trailblazing rebel thing, whereby everything "mainstream" must be wrong. So I think your observation of skepticism is one I've seen but would even take a step further: outright reactionary opposition. Yet these same people take at face value unsubstantiated claims by low carb researchers. I can't count how many times I've heard about the lengthy list of references in Taubes GCBC -- but in compiling a long list it obscures the fact that many of the central points of his hypothesis (taken as fact) are unreferenced or referenced with outdated sources that have since been demonstrated to be wrong.