This is a philosophical post of sorts that's been knocking around in my head for a while.  I've briefly defined here before the type of intellectual bullying that goes on that I've always referred to in my real life as baffling with bullshit.  A more detailed example can be found in this blog post.  Today I want to talk about another tactic prevalent in the works and writings of pseudoscience journalists and bloggers.  It's the use of the concept of whether or not someone understands something, basically taking advantage of the general lack of knowledge in the population as a whole to make them feel stupid.  This, too, is a form of intellectual bullying folks, there's no doubt about it.  I'm sure there's some fancy Latin phrase for all of this, but I just want to point out how it is used against folks in debate and encourage would be victims to stick up for themselves and not fall for it!

You guessed it, one of the biggest names to employ this tactic is none other than Gary Taubes.  For a very long time I would listen to his various lectures and interviews and wonder just what it was, aside for the heaps of misinformation, that I found so annoying about his presentation.  And then one day it hit me.  Taubes is very fond of using the following phrase:  When you understand that ... (fill in theory)

So let's use one of his theories to complete that sentence.   When Taubes says something like:  
When you understand that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior, then you realize that mainstream beliefs about obesity are wrong.
He is doing three things:

  1. He implies that obesity as a disorder of excess fat accumulation is a settled fact, and
  2. He implies that anyone who doesn't accept it as fact simply doesn't understand, and 
  3. By inference, he calls you stupid - or at least not as smart as all the others who do "understand"

Pretty nice trick, eh?  Ever so subtle, but intellectual bullying nonetheless.  What the above statement should read like is something like this.  
When you accept the theory that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior, then you realize that mainstream beliefs about obesity are wrong.
But then, unlike the previous version, it remains incumbent upon Taubes to support his theories and address the points made by those who are critical of them.  Something he's demonstrated he's not so good at.  Now to be fair, this sort of usage of the word is so prevalent, apparently, that Taubes' usage is actually cited as a definition in none other than Merriam Webster's dictionary:  
2: to accept as a fact or truth or regard as plausible without utter certainty [we understand that he is returning from abroad]
Nonetheless, most of us hear understand, and interpret that word in this context by the first definitions:
1 a : to grasp the meaning of [understand Russian]
b : to grasp the reasonableness of [his behavior is hard to understand]
c : to have thorough or technical acquaintance with or expertness in the practice of [understand finance]

d : to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of  [understands children]
I contend "a" in general, or "c" in the context in which Taubes uses this.

It is very easy, especially when one is out of their realm of expertise and not familiar with all of the facts, to fall prey to this tactic.  I find myself rather lost in some of the conversations on Paleo boards about this or that society or this or that era and such.  Because it's just not something I've studied.  That doesn't mean I'm not capable of understanding it.   I think the same holds true for the general population for whom science is a long ago memory of a class or two in high school, or perhaps college.   Science, and math, are rather intimidating subject matters for a lot of people.   But most of the concepts can be boiled down to plain English (or your language) for you to actually understand.  This tactic, rather, plays to the insecurities of feeling lost simply because you don't know enough about something, and ultimately encourages intellectual laziness -- just "understand" it ... accept it as the truth ... then you don't have to actually *understand* any of it ... as in having a thorough knowledge and grasp of the facts.  

Ya know, I hear all the time:  Well, it works so I don't care how.  This is fine!  If you want to accept a theory as correct because it seems to make sense in your personal experience and is working for you, by all means I'm not going to beat you over the head with a high fiber low carb stick and send you off on an intellectual low carb goose chase to go read 1000 journal articles.  Indeed I was taken a bit to task for displaying a bit of intellectual laziness myself when I discovered selenium magically cured my insomnia and expressing my thoughts that "I don't care" why.  That's fair enough, but my basic philosophy in life is that when something's working for me, I guess I don't need to go looking for all those Popper white swans.   And lots of low carbers (ahem, myself included) share their experiences of how it helped them lose weight and other things.  But, most of my readers realize by now, what bothers me is those who merely accept a theory and don't really care about the validity of it going around brow-beating others into submission.  These are the people who channel Taubes' use of "understand" as they argue in favor of his theories and eventually go away or storm off because:  "you'll never understand".  It is reprehensible, frankly, to run around saying that it doesn't matter if Taubes gets this or that wrong because "his theories" worked for me ... all the while joining in on the derision of all of those who supposedly are "wrong".   It doesn't work that way.  Present a cogent evidence based argument as to why they are wrong and you are correct. 

So ... the next time someone bullies you with this line, take a deep breath and think about it before succumbing to the bullying.  Do you really not understand?  If so, ask for a better explanation or take a bit of time to gather more background knowledge if you need to.  If you understand but aren't buying it, don't fall for this line. 


Sanjeev said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sanjeev said…
Sanjeev said...

you're putting it very, VERY kindly. KH spammed the board in what looked like a scorched-earth poison-the-well campaign.

You make it seem like a few straw men and illogical arguments - to me it seemed like dozens upon dozens.

And when his chronometer was cleaned by James Krieger enumerating the straw men, and a remedial English lesson added to the remedial logical fallacies 101 class, he went away in a huff.

reminded me of the kids who destroy a chess board when they're losing.

"Archevore" ... phhhhhhht. More like Jughead-vore.

Keep reading more Buddhism Kurt (and boasting about it in narcissistic posts) : someday you may understand "right action", and why the Buddha put meditation and insight practices in 3rd position.

I doubt it though.
Mirrorball said…
It's very simple. Kurt Harris is a DOCTOR (*gasp*), that's why he understands. Evelyn doesn't understand because she is not a doctor.
Richard Koffler said…
As you keep pointing out, just about 100% of the research on what causes obesity and what can be done about is wide open to conflicting interpretations.

Meanwhile, many people, myself included (and I'm a trained geek), are compelled to do something about their weight during this lifetime.

Reading the scientific literature won't help all the way, again as well pointed out by astute observations -- including yours -- about how all of it is imperfect.

Now you pick on the "black box" approach: "I don't care how it works as long as it works". And for the third and final time, trying to reach a well informed conclusion about any approach is impossible because the research behind every approach is imperfect, again as you well observe every time you write something.

So, what is a fat guy like me supposed to do? I don't don't what's left after you rule out "experts", quasi experts, and your own experience.
drcldrcl said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
drcldrcl said…
obesity is obviously excess fat accumulation. What causes it? humans are not well evolved to handle large amounts of carbohydrate as high carbohydrate consumption = very high insulin levels. insulin inhibits release of fat from fat cells. what on earth is so difficult? its not a theory it been known for a hundred years when it was figured out what killed type 1 diabetics.

If, as gary is, you were trying to shift people's way of thinking then how would you go about doing it without using phrases like once you understand and realise? Then when you figure it out you should let gary know how to do it. Maybe you should write a book about it instead of a blog.
Diana said…
You're right, Taubes's way of putting things is so unbelievably arrogant, although Kurt Harris and Eades win prizes for sheer disagreeability. Let's all remember: the word "quack" was invented for doctors.

Perhaps even better would be: "If you accept the theory that obesity is a disorder..." If rather than when being an even more conditional and humble way to put it. When you haven't proven something, you must put the proposition in the conditional sense.

Regarding the "if it works for me" business. The thing is, it didn't work for us. If it had, we wouldn't be contributing here, and Evie wouldn't have started this blog. We all used to drink the stevia-sweetened Koolaid. But it wasn't working.

Why? Well, come aboard and let's try to figure that out, rather than doing the old point and splutter and name, blame and shame routine. We're not the ones who have our egos on the line.

Isn't that, frankly, the nature of all good science? You've got a problem that needs solving. Let's figure it out. It's no more complicated than that. OK, so something seems to be working for this guy....looks good - but it's not working for that guy, or girl. What is going on? Let's figure it out!

That's all we are saying here. Low-carb didn't work for us. Jeez, I tried it for over 10 years, and Michael Eades accused me of "confirmation bias"!!

No one wanted to believe in low-carb more than I did. The idea of being able to eat steak and whipped cream (in the same meal!) was utter heaven to me. I even love green salad! But it didn't work. I didn't lose weight, and mentally low carb was just suckage. (Taubes loves to talk about 'satiety' - true, lack of fat in the diet is lousy, but for me, carbs induce satiety also.)

Going back to the old Taubes dictum, "not overeating and not sedentary behavior, then you realize that mainstream beliefs about obesity are wrong" I wish he'd explain why everyone who does the entire Appalachian Trail loses weight, sometimes a lot. Could hiking 2200 miles in 7 months day after day, in a non-obesogenic environment have something to do with it? Ya think?
Sanjeev said…
>> what's left after you rule out "experts", quasi experts, and your own experience

Why rule out experts?

Realize that there are some who have
1. worked in the field for many years

2. studied all the literature, INCLUDING studies that refute their pet theories

3. report their findings - with clients and their reviews honestly (NO CHERRY PICKING)

3a change their minds when experience and science goes against an old stance

4. report what their reviews and and experience point to, successes and failures
5. successfully led clients to sustained fat mass control

Names that spring to mind that actually provide conssultations and books and advice:
Lyle McDonald (who wrote about ASP 10 years ago (!!!!))
James Krieger
Alan Aragon
Leigh Peele
Jamie Hale (see his posts on Alan Aragon's Fructose threads, great commentary)

And why rule out your own experience? Successful smokers try to quit times on average (don't have the study handy, sorry). I think it's similar for those that eventually successfully control their weight - they need several experiences, at least partially, to know what to expect.

drcldrcl: for further discussions here, many of us have been through this curriculum:

Please check out

then this

then one of the entries down the right hand side of this screen, the one labeled "Gary Taubes Fact Check(81) "
Sanjeev said…
and yes, for many of us the curriculum DID include

; (

Good Calories, Bad Calories"
Sanjeev said…
> Successful smokers try to quit times on average (don't have the study handy, sorry)

smokers who eventually quit successfully and very long term, before the successful attempt, try to quit (I think it was 5 from memory) times on average.
Sanjeev said…
> 2. studied all the literature, INCLUDING studies that refute their pet theories

Maybe not ALL the lit ; ) ... it just seems like they have
Helen said…
Yeah, Kurt Harris. I haven't read that much of his own blogs, because it would drive me mad - but his comments on others' have made my head spin with logical fallacies stated with the utmost assurance, such because fructose in large enough amounts is toxic, it is toxic in *any* amount (um, so this must be true of, basically, everything? Like iron, salt, water? We are doomed), but butter isn't because there's "no evidence" that dairy fat is harmful. (I'm sure I could find some journal articles finding that it is, whether I agree with them or not.)

Another was that Asians and Caucasians are different subspecies and if you don't agree with him and the other people he cites as agreeing with him then you are simply falling prey to political correctness, which is blinding you to the fact that this subspecies difference could well explain why the Japanese have a longer life expectancy than Americans (in his argument, he deliberately conflates "Caucasians" with "Americans"). There must be *some* explanation why a high-carb diet isn't harmful to some people, other than that a high-carb diet might not be harmful! But maybe he ought then to have a disclaimer on his blog, stating that his advice only applies to certain subspecies.

I thought of having it out with him on a few of these issues, but the thought was exhausting. I responded to his subspecies argument in part, but didn't go back to see if he'd continued to respond; I didn't want my mind churning on arguments with Kurt Harris all day long. I don't know why people listen to him.
Diana said…
Sigh. I just wish that Harris would 'splain to me why Andrew Thompson, who did the entire Appal. Trail in an unbelievable 45 days (that's 45 miles a day) eating 8,000 cals. a day, lost 30 pounds on the trail. Why Kurt, why? (And I doubt Andrew was fat to begin with.)

Why Kurt, why?
Why Gary, why?
Why Michael Eades, why?

Mary Dan, why?
(something tells me Mary Dan is such a sweet lady because she sneaks a few carbs now and again. I read her recipes and they make me hungry. I strongly believe that the reason why these guys are in such a rotten depressed mood is because their insulin levels are chronically low, and insulin has an effect on mood.)
Diana said…

I just looked up and read your exchange w/Harris on Don Matesz regarding the Japanese, "subspecies" ,etc. My stomach turns. I don't disagree with the idea that the Japanese are genetically adapted to their diet. Just as I am genetically adapted to eat wheat and dairy! But Don gave studies which prove that all humans process macronutrients more or less the same way, while Harris just went into aggressive Paleo mode. It's a waste of time getting angry over these guys.

But I do.
MM said…
Well, I'm glad it's not just me, and Kurt's blog makes other people mad too. I thought I was just being irrational, but every time I read his blog I would feel my blood pressure rise, so I stopped. It's just not worth it.
CarbSane said…
Thanks Sanjeev for your "analysis". I really should have delved more into who it was I was dealing with rather than let Kurt monopolize so much of my time back when he was spamming this board. His behavior here was bad enough, but one really would not expect the trolling after me around the internet from a person of his supposed stature. I just relistened to an older interview he did with Jimmy Moore and he was clearly in the Taubes camp yet he kept trying to say "I never said that" or "I don't believe that" here.

I misread Peter horribly as well going on his reputation amongst certain groups. When he reached out to me for the full text of the Axen paper I didn't realize it was for the purpose of his assault on the characters of those researchers. It's one thing to tear apart a study, it's quite another to do it in the manner in which it did. I guess I shouldn't have written a blog post on his fasting insulin statements, somehow he felt dissed or mocked by what I wrote, but it wasn't enough for him to disagree, he had to deliberately mock and impugn me and basically tell his commenters not to engage me. Oh well. Live and learn :)
CarbSane said…
Hi rkoffler: For me it boils down to good old CICO. The more academic approaches to why populations as a whole get fatter offer little to me. I know how I got fat and I know how to get thinner than I am now. I've been this same -- reduced "normal" size -- for three years now. All of the information I come across leads me to still consider LC a very effective way to lose weight, a less effective way to keep it off over the long term. I think you've misinterpreted me if you think I rule out experts and one's own experiences. I just choose my experts wisely. Does their advice stand up to the light of day? Most of what they say simply doesn't in my book. It started out hearing this or that and physio/biochem being a rather distant academic memory. Still, lots of these theories made no sense or just sounded off compared to what I had learned. To me, the experts are/were Frayn, McGarry, Boden, and their ilk, not the journalists who interview them. Atkins made sense to me the first time I did LC b/c he presented a first law of thermo argument on energy balance and ketones allowed -- according to Atkins -- people to eat more calories and pee out huge amounts of calories so long as they remained in ketosis. We now know that he was NOT right all along, but that doesn't render his diet ineffective.
CarbSane said…
@drcldrcl: Welcome! Nobody is arguing against what the acute effects of insulin are. But our fat cells DON'T just go rogue hoarding fat because we've eaten a carby meal vs. a fatty meal. And so I ultimately believe at this point that Taubes is being dishonest in trying to shift the paradigm. It doesn't need shifting. Obesity is caused by a chronic persistent positive energy balance. He is trying to even redefine "overeating" which is frankly silly. A person overeats if they are eating more than their body requires on a consistent basis. If at some point the person gets big enough that their weight stabilizes out at 50-100 lbs over a normal weight, they are still overeating for the XYZ person they should be. Now folks will spin theories about how insulin makes us overeat, but these are (a) not substantiated by the evidence, and (b) further proof that the original (and only one needed) hypothesis that CICO ultimately "rules".

I feel that these days when Taubes says "when you understand that" it should really be "when you believe that what I say is true" ... in the absence of any evidence that it is.
CarbSane said…
Yeah, Helen, that discussion really blew my mind!