This started as a comment over on Stephan's blog, but started getting a bit long. So I hope Stephan won't mind too much if I move it over here. Plus it contains thoughts about various and sundry names in the LC webosphere with whom I've had brief exchanges. Those exchanged have had these thoughts brewing for quite some time, but in the end it seems to go back to the ultimate arrogant anti-scientist supreme: One Mr. Gary Taubes.
When I first read Taubes, I got the impression that he had little understanding of how science really works. That first impression has been confirmed many times over in the intervening years. I have always wondered over why medical schools and such would bring in a science journalist to lecture medical students on such a topic. If one doesn't have a PhD in the exact field these days it is difficult to teach at the college level at all for example. Gary has a bachelors in physics, with no apparent experience as a "scientist". Apparently he practically lived in a lab for a while, and I guess this is where he believes he amassed the knowledge to view researchers critically and offer up his sage advice on how they ought to be doing their jobs. Given his influence in certain circles, I think he's responsible for the wave of scientist bashing replete with a warped understanding of what science actually is and how it's done.
Likely THE most arrogant -- and laughable -- statement Taubes made was in his interview with Jimmy Moore largely in response to yours truly. Taubes actually claimed that GCBC was the equivalent to not one, not two, but three PhD theses. His acolytes ate it up. Anyone even remotely familiar with the process of earning a PhD (hopefully) cringed at even the suggestion. GCBC has given license to a bunch of layperson "debunkers" who routinely call scientists liars, idiots and impugn their motives and such. This is especially rich coming from folks like Tom Naughton, Dana Carpender and even Jimmy "aw shucks" Moore.
There's a DVD out there called Big Fat Fiasco. A fiasco indeed. In it Fat Head smears scientists for their supposed ineptitude and then goes on to make up a theory out of thin air. I'm talking about his "you're as fat as you need to be" theory of blood glucose control that his fans accepted as fact. This, folks, is not critical thinking. Somehow, I suppose, people who have the education and experience in the relevant field are too stupid to tie their own shoes but a comedian and a journalist? Well, these two are smarter than all those guys (and gals) in lab coats.
If paleo promoters think that the Ioniddis paper is somehow relevant to their movement, I think they are making a huge mistake. For some reason they include Ioniddis on the Paleo Infographic put out by the PaleoHacks gang. What am I talking about? Ioniddis published this paper with a provocative title: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. Ioniddis "charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed." That's some serious sheet for the groundbreaking, paradigm, rebel rousers. Only most never bothered to look into Ioniddis' work. Did he pore over thousands of publications in the literature and look for actual flaws in measurement, data presentation, methodology, etc.? No. He concocted a mathematical model that plays with probability numbers to infer what effect such things as perceived bias might have on the outcomes of hypothetical studies. No doubt this is the stuff Fat Head is influenced by, but it is hardly a substantial argument to support his claim.
Clearly there is research going on out there that is funded by advocacy groups that is biased. It makes for a great presentation on a low carb cruise, but it hardly damns all science in the sweeping manner in which it is implied. In an ideal world these bad apples would not pass the peer review filter, but you will often find them challenged in editorials, letters to the journal editors, etc. Of course all of this is leaving aside the utter hypocrisy of low carbers who shun rodent studies and studies funded by their supposed enemies when they don't produce the desired result. But if they do? Atkins funded Volek and ovarectomized rats are darlings in the low carb world. Surely no low carb researcher is going to exaggerate the results of their studies, right? Anthony Colpo recently addressed this with Westman's GI study. Why are not folks complaining that we are not provided with the medications taken by (and changes in dosages) for ALL of the participants in that study -- as opposed to only those who were taking insulin? Duh ... eat less carbohydrate, need less insulin if you're insulin dependent. This is only even "interesting" if one views exogenous insulin as an evil medication rather than supplementing a hormonal insufficiency.
So we have a fiction writer tossing off barbs at Stephan for some supposed "career building hypothesis". I would say to those petty folks: SO WHAT if it is!! This is actually not, as I understand his statements, the focus of his primary research -- IOW that for which he receives a salary to conduct. But honestly, so what if it was? Only cookbook, fiction, diet book and whatever we would call GCBC at this point authors and comedians are allowed to make a living as they do bashing science? (And doing a bang up job of bastardizing it in the process). You would have thought I accused him of murder or something for spelling Taubes' name with a $ a couple of times. Does anyone in the audience really think that a three-quarter of a million dollar advance might just have influenced the finished product? If Taubes were really the researcher supreme he makes himself out to be, he no doubt (as I've demonstrated many times here) came across enough contradictory evidence to his hypothesis to where it should never have been formulated and published. Does anyone doubt having blown through the advance and taking longer than originally allotted to complete had anything to do with his sloppy presentation of the science? That in 2010, the last thing he needed was to have that sloppiness exposed what with a new book coming out. Having one's journalistic cred challenged is not a career booster for sure.
No, only "mainstream" scientists are hopelessly influenced by bias. As one Paleo Hacker accused me, since I once worked for "Big Pharma", I'm one of THEM so so hopelessly biased I can't see the truth that is the Gospel of the Church of Scikrispology. I don't know what folks like Andre think goes on with researchers, but my work in drug development didn't impact things one way or the other. I spent a good portion of my time developing the assays to characterize basic pharmacokinetics and how drugs were metabolized for potential candidates. I worked on literally hundreds of such candidates during my relatively short career. Whether or not a candidate was selected for further development was influenced by my results, but I had no "horse" in the race. If it wasn't going to be one drug it would be another. Perhaps there are some unscrupulous folks in the highest tiers at some companies who push certain things to market despite safety or efficacy concerns because of the tremendous investment that's been made, but it is an insult, frankly, when people malign the research scientist. This is true as well for the media treatment of various studies. There's a kneejerk reaction to what is written about studies in the popular press where Jimmy likes to post pictures and emails of the lead researchers so we can "tell them what we think" of their garbage when quite often, their study was solid and didn't even conclude the heralded headline.
So this exchange on Stephan's blog is what riled me up a bit:
Stephan: I write for a publication called "the scientific literature". Popular books are all well and good, but what has Taubes written that has gone through a scientific peer review process? Nothing. That's why he can sling around these wild ideas with no accountability. permalink
Jeff: With all due respect Stephan...You haven't necessarily peppered the scientific literature with first or senior authored peer reviewed manuscripts (in my opinion that should not be used to invalidate you ideas, btw). Your getting to point of invalidating Carbsane, Kurt Harris, Chris Kresser and others with these views of Taubes and lack of credentials hindering his interpretation of the scientific literature. permalink
For the record, I didn't see Stephan's comment in this light, but in the end, I don't see why scientists are not at least regarded as more credible to comment on such things. Taubes likes to brag on his advantage of being able to call up and interview scientists about their work. I don't suppose that just might be trumped by Stephan who not only researches in the field, but might even discuss whassup over his starchy lunch on occasion with others? And I don't suppose Stephan ever has occasion to chit chat with others in the field ... it's laughable to think otherwise! It is fair for doctors to question my (or Stephan's) clinical experience (or rather lack thereof, neither of us are medical doctor), but with Taubes you have a journalist questioning essentially all research conducted in the obesity realm for the past six decades. Perhaps the opinion of a scientist actually working in that arena might have more credible input?! I'd say so.
Which is not to say Stephan might not be wrong here and there. But his point is that Stephan has been through the peer review process. For the record, so have I. The list is short, but the list of related research (in house publications, graduate review papers, etc.) is long and diverse. Whether it was for a grade, or part of my job performance that was reviewed for promotion/compensation, accuracy and thoroughness are but two aspects my scientific writings were evaluated critically for over two decades. My education is in biology, chemistry, biomedical engineering and metallurgy. I also probably knew more at one time about bone physiology than many doctors, even orthopedists, because of my PhD thesis work (that was not completed but nonetheless considerably down the road) and research papers. So yes, at the risk of being boastful, I do bring a lot to the table when it comes to critically analyzing scientific literature and it's implications. This is not to say someone without my experiences might not be equally able to do so, but Fat Head ain't one of them. And neither, apparently, is Gary Taubes. I'm not dissing doctors here, but the skill set cultivated in medical school and practicing medicine is drastically different from that in graduate school and scientific research. Perhaps the problem lies with the doctors misinterpreting the outcomes of the research moreso than the researchers. And perhaps part of the problem lies in folks like Taubes and Mercola and Ioniddis who live to sensationalize and appeal to the libertarian victim in all of us being snowed by the "Big Man".
At the very least, when one reads various blog posts on certain issues, they should take the experience of the blogger into account. Although I think my writings spoke for themselves, it was a major reason for "coming out" as it were. So, Eades had cred as a diet doc of sorts, and Davis had cred as a cardiologist. In my opinion the past tense is warranted, these two have lost a lot (all in my eyes) of credibility based on their track record and writings. The battery acid thing is some serious, unrecoverable, and duplicated in print nonsense from WheatBelly, and gee, where to start with Eades. His triglycerides in the blood came from the carbs in a meal flub is, in my eyes, his worst. But were than not enough he made a total arse of himself tangling with his supposed intellectual inferior in Anthony Colpo. So much so, I've made mention of that in my "You need to check in if" list.
Stephan's point was that Taubes has likely never written a thing that has had to pass scrutiny on scientific *FACT*. Clearly his publishers were not concerned over the accuracy of his hypothesis. No editor "fact checked" Gary's own references, or the embarrassing Newsholme & Start fiasco would not have seen the light of day. Writing a book like GCBC is so far removed from what actually goes into a PhD thesis it's ... it's ... it's just one of the more absurd things I've heard someone claim. Taubes hired researchers for him to find sources while apparently he manned the phones and dispatched emails.
But for those unfamiliar with the PhD process, here's a "Cliff's Notes" version of the process. Idea -- often this is "future research" from prior works of the group of one's mentor/advisor, sometimes it's something entirely different. This is followed by a serious bigtime literature search -- especially for more novel proposals -- to ensure this hasn't actually already been studied, and essentially writing a review paper on the state of the science to date. Preliminary research and results then provide the backing for the Prospectus. PhD candidates will often be involved in drafting funding/grant applications and such. The Prospectus is a serious document that, after all that, can be rejected by your institution of higher learning, often without reason. In some cases it's like half of the finished thesis. Upon acceptance, research continues, gets written up and goes through numerous, NUMEROUS drafts and review by one's advisory committee. Then, after all that, you dress up in a suit and tie, or the female equivalent, and present your work. You field questions from the general audience, after which you are grilled by the department faculty. Then you go to a sound proof room and sweat. It doesn't happen often, but even after all that, you can be sent back and denied the degree.
TWICHOO would not have made it to the Prospectus stage of a PhD. If I cited a 1965 textbook as my source for the basis of the major part (the Adiposity 101), not only would my advisor have kicked me out of his office, he might just have tried to get me kicked out of the program (after grading his homework papers for him first of course - grin). Folks, textbooks are NOT acceptable sources for all but the most basic of mentions in any serious science publication. Throughout GCBC and subsequent lectures, Taubes "implies" that this research and that research has not been done. That we don't know this or that. GARBAGE. Just because he didn't look for it, doesn't mean the research isn't out there. The fat cells gone wild lipophilia hypothesis does not explain the "simple obesity" of which we have an epidemic. The peer review process would not have let Taubes get away with taking the understanding of IR up to 1982 with one of Neels' competing hypotheses some 25 years later.
The referencing in GCBC is often touted by his supporters as proof that it is some seminal work. It is horrible folks. It would NOT be accepted, period. If you have ANY notions that publishers check the scientific facts of what they put out, lay it to rest knowing that Nora Gedgaudas' absolutely horrible book was picked up by a publisher and re-released this year. (A friend sent me her copy so I've now read enough of it to pass judgment). Her telling of biochemistry/physiology is flat out incorrect (not to mention I think she borders on plagiarizing Rosedale). It just is. Heck, forget popular press books, textbooks are notorious for containing errors as well, although certain classics like Guyton, Lehninger and such are pretty solid.
Taubes likes to talk a big game about hypotheses and how science ought to be done. He has no clue what he's talking about. His hypothesis would not have made it past the idea stage. This nonsense that I can make up any old crap and it's up to everyone else to prove me wrong is not how science works!! Null hypothesis, schmull hypothesis. You formulate a hypothesis to explain observations and design experiments to test the hypothesis that should produce consistent results. For example, if it's carbs or calories, you control for calories and alter carbs and see if weight is gained or lost. That was done by Grey & Kipnis for one, in the early 70's. Any reasonably thorough search of the literature to date in 2002 would have landed Taubes' hypothesis on the trash heap it was tossed on back in the 50's. All of the evidence he says doesn't support the conventional wisdom "hypothesis" doesn't really support TWICHOO either, not to mention the mountains of evidence he ignores. That we're still discussing this now is discouraging. "I lost weight on LC" doesn't evidence for TWICHOO make. Again. It just doesn't. Rather than receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars with apparently but a promised "exposé" in return, real scientists have to pitch their hypotheses to reach a level to deserve funding. Their assertions and interpretations are scrutinized repeatedly by peers -- aka other scientists who know what they're talking about, not a lay public that is easily swayed because they lack the background to spot junk science). Real scientists write their work up with no guarantees it will be accepted for publication, and receive no direct compensation for the writings (as in royalties and advances). Just who do you think has more cred folks ... the pop-sci journalist with a book deal, or the scientist?
The bottom line, Taubes' writings were never "fact checked" on the science. As Stephan said, he, like others, can throw around theories and such and nobody ever scrutinized it. As such for several years, with the help of the dwindling low carb craze in need of a new hero, Taubes writings became synonymous with fact and truth. He talks a convincing game. It all sounds so simple. Except I'm somewhat appalled that anyone with a basic education in physiology didn't get the feeling I did when I first read his works. There was always the "this doesn't sound right" -- how is it you start accumulating fat and then eat more as a result? Is that 151st gram carb eliciting that one extra insulin molecule to be secreted causing mass adipocyte rebellion? It made no sense. Taubes is easily exposed and debunked. That he's still even in this game and hasn't returned to something he presumably knows a little more about, is a testimony to the power of personality -- or rather persona, because he doesn't strike me as having a particularly compelling personality. And more than anything else, the incredible draw to the messenger who is telling people what they want to hear.
I was originally going to address a dig by Rosedale in his re-re-re...buttal on safe starches, as well as Mercola's characterization of Paul Jaminet as "only a PhD astrophysicist" in this post. But it is long enough, so I'll save it for a Part II. I think a little more respect is in order for the scientists out there in the field. Without the work of so many unheralded ones for decades, we wouldn't have all of the different insulin formulas and other options for treating diabetes, no matter that some think they are all just harmful. We wouldn't know about mitochondrial damage, or whatever. Is all of the research relevant to help us "little guys" and our doctors find a healthy path to a healthy weight? Of course not. But that research doesn't necessarily impact us, does it. But if Taubes has his way, and the doctors and scientists actually DO listen to him, the lives of many stand to be impacted through laws (sugar taxes anyone?) and treatments based on truly flawed science. Where medicine goes wrong today, it will not be righted by the likes of Gary Taubes.
Hug a scientist today ;-)