Swan Song

[no I'm not retiring the blog]

TLDR:  Rather than dragging things on by dismissing more black swans, Gary Taubes could eat crow and go quietly into the night.

After a long hiatus from any meaningful new content, and monumental blows to TWICHOO (Taubes Wrong Insulin Carbohydrate Hypothesis Of Obesity -- c'mon, it has a much better ring to it than the Ludwigian version),, Gary Taubes has gotten back to blogging a bit.*

He has apparently been reading (in fits and starts, in other words, probably not really reading) obscure books about obscure cultures from long, long ago.  Mind you, that in five years plus of arduous and comprehensive research put forth in Good Calories, Bad Calories, there was no mention of the Yahgan people he's about to discuss.   One wonders why not.  Heck, this is right in his time period of excellence for nutritional research and reporting!  (Uttermost Parts of the Earth, this is to a 2007 version of a book Taubes states was published in 1948).  But alas, no Yahgan (I also checked Wikipedia's alternate spellings), among the conventional-wisdom-challenging by Taubes circa 2007.

It's OK really, nobody expects you to track down every obscure culture, especially one that counters your hypotheses.  Shhh... look away ... no paradoxes to be found here!

Fast forward to 2018.  Currently, Gary Taubes has been  thinking about black swans as he engages in a bit of light Summer reading.  Perhaps no longer needing to devote so much time to NuSI has opened up a lot of free time for such endeavors.

(*something I still hold out hope of doing more of myself)

Gary Taubes Ponders Black Swans

Opening with a quote regarding the short stature of the Yahgan (someone alert Stephen Phinney and the giant Osage!)

"The Yahgan women were short and fat, with tapering limbs and little hands and feet.”
Followed by:  {bold emphasis mine, CS}
So why a black swan? The italics in the quote are mine.{the larger font is mine, CS} The women, writes Bridges, were fat, and yet the diet was virtually all animal products: fish, otter, seal, guanaco, foxes, and birds.
If sugar and refined carbohydrates make us fat, as I’ve argued in my books, shouldn’t these women have been lean? Is that a black swan, the refutation of the hypothesis? I would say no, but it’s an interesting discussion (I hope).

Taubes goes on to speculate that these women may not have been obese by modern standards.  While I tend to agree with this speculation, that's not the point.  One: Nobody gets obese without getting overweight/fat first!  Two: They were fat -- or fatty -- enough for this to be noted.  NOT lean.  Are we to believe that insulin so delicately regulates fat storage, as Taubes contends, that it enables some to get fat, but only so fat, and not obese?

A full reading of TWICHOO 1.0 (aka Good Calories, Bad Calories) clearly predicts that it is carbohydrates, and only carbohydrates that favor fat storage over lean.  Indeed, the ninth of Taubes' ten point "inescapable conclusions" reads:
9. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.
You cannot offer a "maybe they were already fat and carbs will make them fatter"  caveat to excuse away that they were some degree of fat.  Not when the hypothesis includes statements such as above.

In this regard, in the simplest of terms, the Yahgan are black swans.  

They ate very little carbohydrate vs. the Europeans who invaded their homeland, yet were considered "fat" (at least the women by comparison to European women).  Yes, a valid genetic/evolutionary argument can explain this *inconvenient* paradox, but TWICHOO says it's all about the insulin and carbohydrate intake.  Furthermore, TWICHOO says that they could not have adapted to the cold by increasing fat stores.

So as he tries to explain this away by other means, someone should really take away Gary Taubes' shovel.   The hole he's dug for himself for over the past decade is too deep already.  In case there's any doubt:

Exhibit A: {numbered for clarity}
By the mid-1960s, four facts had been established beyond reasonable doubt:
(1) carbohydrates are singularly responsible for prompting insulin secretion;
(2) insulin is singularly responsible for inducing fat accumulation;
(3) dietary carbohydrates are required for excess fat accumulation; and
(4) both Type 2 diabetics and the obese have abnormally elevated levels of circulating insulin and a “greatly exaggerated” insulin response to carbohydrates in the diet, ...
 (Kindle Locations 8010-8014)
Exhibit B:
Just a few more details are necessary to understand why we get fat. The first is that the amount of glycerol phosphate available to the fat cells to accumulate fat— to bind the fatty acids together into triglycerides and lock them into the adipose tissue— also depends directly on the carbohydrates in the diet. Dietary glucose is the primary source of glycerol phosphate. The more carbohydrates consumed, the more glycerol phosphate available, and so the more fat can accumulate. For this reason alone, it may be impossible to store excess body fat without at least some carbohydrates in the diet and without the ongoing metabolism of these dietary carbohydrates to provide glucose and the necessary glycerol phosphate. (Kindle Locations 7974-7979)
THIS, THIS, THIS.   Newer "keto" converts may not recall this, but we're talking the scientific case Gary Taubes put forth in a book he has since described as "the equivalent of three PhD theses".   This is about the hypothesis put forth in Good Calories, Bad Calories.  The hypothesis he has NEVER *formally* restated in writing.  

The Yaghan are black swans to the hypothesis that you can't get fat without eating carbohydrates.  I don't think he should be let off the hook on this.  He still argues Point 5, reworded to acknowledge that overeating must be involved.
5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating, and not sedentary behavior....
...  has become something like (paraphrase) "you're not getting fatter because you overeat, you overeat because you're getting fatter".    The current torch-carrier for TWICHOO is Dr. David Ludwig.  Relying on an expansion of Point 10 ...
10.  By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.
This is the whole energy availability hypothesis that Ludwig, himself, falsified five years ago.  But I digress ... 

Before pondering yet more swans, Gary Taubes should clearly and completely restate his hypothesis.   

The Swan Dance:

In the scientific method, the first step is not formulating a hypothesis, it is the gathering of evidence and observation upon which to base one!  Before you go in search of more swans, those around you should be swimming in the same direction!

It is for this reason that I have stated many times that TWICHOO should never have even been put forth.   A large body of existing observation and evidence stood contrary to the hypothesis from its inception.

When one reads Good Calories, Bad Calories, they're bound to be impressed by Taubes' seeming thoroughness in seeking out black swans to the so-called conventional wisdom:  that obesity is caused by eating too much and/or moving too little.  The problem is, many were simply white swans covered in soot, something that would have been revealed to Taubes had he bothered with more than a cursory look.  Volume over substance.  Obese, soot covered white swans?  Or should I say soot covered white swans with obesity (grin).    The sheer volume of and copious references in GCBC is overwhelming and gives the false impression of a thorough and accurate study of the subject.

It was worse, still, the number of black swans to his alternative.  They were swimming all over the place in that book.  Nobody will ever know just how many of his references he read in full.  We do know that Taubes hired grad students to "bring him papers" ... LOL, I have to chuckle imagining him barking out orders like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.   In the end, many of the sources discussing hunter-gatherer tribes, often more historic in nature than scientific, turn out not to be black swans to conventional wisdom after all.  Many morph into black swans to Taubes' own hypothesis.  Add in the physiological scientific research,  that points (and pointed) overwhelmingly against TWICHOO, and not only are white swans hard to find, but there are seemingly swans of every color in of the rainbow!!    Page after page of brightly colored swans leading an unbiased researcher in the opposite direction of where Gary Taubes ends up.

Because in the 1960s, "every woman knew that carbohydrate is fattening,” .... hmmmm, maybe Gary Taubes really is Miranda Priestly.

In the end, the bigger problem for Taubes is not that he's rediscovering ornithology at this late stage in the game, it's all the black swans he ignored during his initial investigation.  

The Pima ~ 

Gary Taubes' Original (Unintentional) Black Swan Peoples

I'm pretty sure virtually everyone reading recognizes the images below. They are in the book, and some version of this slide in seemingly every lecture.    
 The Pima are put forth in GCBC immediately after this statement:
Any hypothesis that purports to explain how obesity is caused, after all, should explain the emergence of obesity in any population and at any time, not just the increasing obesity in the past few decades.
I agree.   He then goes on to use the Pima as a black swan to the prevailing idea of obesity being the result of affluence or an environment where food is plentiful.   Here's an excerpt (sorry I don't have access to my Kindle version at the moment)  

The Pima Indians of southwestern Arizona are now infamous for having the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States. Today the standard explanation for obesity among the Pima is that they have succumbed, as we all have, to prosperity and the toxic environment of American life.  Over the last century, the Pima supposedly experienced a nutrition transition—an exaggerated version of the changing-American-diet story. Farmers and hunters became relatively sedentary wage-earners, while their diet changed from one very low in fat and high in fiber-rich carbohydrates and vegetables to a modern high-fat, high-sugar American diet. “As the typical American diet became more available on the reservation after the [Second World] war,” according to an NIH report entitled The Pima Indians: Pathfinders for Health, “people became more overweight.” “If the Pima Indians could return to some of their traditions,” explained one NIH authority, “including a high degree of physical activity and a diet with less fat and more starch, we might be able to reduce the rate, and surely the severity, of unhealthy weight in most of the population." 
The problem with this version of the Pima history is that obesity and overweight had been evident a century ago, when the relevant nutrition transition was from relative abundance to extreme poverty. From November 1901 to June 1902, the Harvard anthropologist Frank Russell lived on the Pima reservation south of Phoenix studying the tribe and its culture. Many of the older Pima, Russell noted in a report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, “exhibit a degree of obesity that is in striking contrast with the ‘tall and sinewy’ Indian conventionalized in popular thought.”
This was then woven in with a litany of populations, past and present, across the globe, that exhibit this supposed Poverty-Obesity Paradox.  In stacking up what he labels as black swans, the intent is to  indirectly support his "alternative".  But obesity is not associated with caloric scarcity.    Most of the obesity we see in materially impoverished populations is facilitated by an artificial availability of sufficient calories.  Taubes has been "forced", repeatedly, to admit some version of "well of course you need to eat more calories than you expend to gain weight, but the question is why", and his answer is this fat-cells-gone-wild notion that carbs cause insulin cause fat sequestration cause eating.  The Pima present no white swan to such an hypothesis!  Not according to that which he put forth in GCBC where we are led to believe that Indians on the reservations were getting fat in spectacular fashion while surviving on twigs and coffee.   If there were true caloric scarcity, it would just be impossible to sustain obesity.  True food scarcity always leads to low body weight (emaciation if severe) -- e.g. concentration camps, Minnesota Starvation Experiment, Ethiopia when I was growing up, etc.  Material poverty does not when there is not caloric scarcity.  Here's a hint:
“Especially well-nourished individuals, females and also males, occur in every tribe and at all ages,” Hrdlička reported, “but real obesity is found almost exclusively among the Indians on reservations.”
Those living on reservations were being supplied with foods that, though of different sorts than those we see in true affluence, were capable of supplying ample calories to support obesity. Fry bread can be found mentioned as a traditional food of most North American tribes.  It's all over various books and on various websites, etc. Often served with sugar and you know what that resembles ... While some version may have existed in traditional culture, there is scant mention of frying as a food preparation.  Yet it became a staple of reservation life. There was both great diversity of diets/lifestyles of North American tribes, and great specificity in each tribe's preferred foods.  When Tribe A would make use of a certain fruit while Tribe B next door makes none, the ubiquity of fry bread almost certainly points to a later introduction.   In andy case, fry bread IS the "western diet".  It is a staple of what I'll call "caloric affluence", the makings for which were available to Indians on reservations in supplies sufficient to sustain obesity.

Don't believe me, read for yourselves!  RussellHrdlička.   There can be no doubt, reading these accounts, that if anything, these peoples sought out MORE carbohydrate and limited their fat intake largely to whatever was inherent in their food sources.  There is only a very occasional mention to frying anything in suet, and the animals they consumed for food -- warm/freshwater fish, clams, rabbits, deer, etc. (listed in Russell) would have been lean;  Sorry Nina Teicholz, no buffalo EVER mentioned, even in the mid 1850s account of John Griffin.  There is much mention of pounding and grinding and even tossing parched and pounded seeds into the air so the seed coat would fly off.  However crude, this is REFININGThere's also mention of sugar and syrups -- concentrating the carbohydrate of cactus fruits and such.  I've included some screenshots from Hrdlička at the end of this post for convenience, but the links above are to the full publications.  

The Pima are TWICHOO Black Swans

in Diabetes Care Jan 1993  (full text pdf)

We investigated the composition of the foods comparable to those available to the Pima ~100 yr ago, with the aim of reproducing this traditional diet as faithfully as possible for a dietary intervention study. An approximation of the traditional diet was ascertained from the ethnohistoric literature and traditional recipes. 
We estimated that the traditional Pima diet, although seasonably variable, was ~70-80% carbohydrate, 8-12% fat, and 12-18% protein
And then: 
... in 1971 that Pima Indian women consumed a diet that was 44% carbohydrate, 44% fat, and 12% protein. ... in 1989 ... the current diet was -47 % carbohydrate, 35% fat, 15% protein, and 3% alcohol .
When Taubes talks about nutritional transitions, you cannot "quality of the carbohydrate" your way out of the fact that the most striking transition is from a very high carb, low fat one, to one high in fat.  Even if calories were constant (which they could not be) a transition from 10% fat to 40% fat is essentially exactly what we do to mice to produce diet-induced-obesity   If you factor in a modest increase in calories, by the 1970s the Pima were consuming at least 5 times the fat of their traditional diet.  And they became spectacularly fat.

Point 1 of the "conclusions that [were] inescapable" to Taubes was:
1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.
And a repeat of Point 9
9. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.
Certainly the quality of the carbohydrate played a role, but, french fries have a lower glucose and insulin index than boiled white potatoes, and potato chips have lower scores still.   Anyone who would claim that plain potatoes are somehow more fattening than fries or chips is not to be taken seriously.

The indisputable fact is that the Pima were never a tribe that relied heavily on animal foods, and neither, apparently, were neighboring tribes.  They were G²-H's (I'm flipping the order to imply priority),  Gardner⦁Gatherer-Hunters. 

The obvious nutrition transition and ensuing obesity is clearly in direct contrast to TWICHOO, and as such the Pima are quintessential black swans to the hypothesis.

~~~ Apologies in advance for all the attempts at bird humor to follow.~~~
~ Special apologies to the innocent beautiful birds. ~

When Your Hypothesis Runs Afowl of the Evidence ...

For all of his supposed deep thinking, Taubes rarely displays any indication of thinking critically.  He simply dismisses, offers up lame "outs", etc. while rarely offering up the quality evidence he demands of others.  The Japanese?  {paraphrase} "Well they ate mostly brown rice and barely any sugar."   Remember that one?

Taubes has always set up his case as one of two competing hypotheses.  The reader is manipulated into viewing black swans to "conventional wisdom" as if they were white swans to TWICHOO.  One's mind boggles over the wasted millions that could have been saved had Taubes devoted ANY thought, or preferably ink, to the possible ways that the Pima might ultimately counter his hypothesis.  Such was his zeal to use them to counter the "idiots" researching obesity.

It seems particularly odd to me that he is pondering black swans at this late stage in the game, when he had come across copious birdlife throughout his research for GCBC.  That is, of course, if one presumes he read all of these various works in their entirety.   There are basically two explanations for the position he finds himself in today.
A.  Ignorance:  He didn't really do as thorough job of research as we've been led to believe.  He didn't read ALL of Newsholme & Start.  He didn't read Frayn's Metabolic Regulation.  He didn't read ALL of Russell, Griffin or Hrdlička.   
B.  Cherry Picking:  He only presented the parts of all of the narratives and research -- writings that he DID read in full -- in such a way as to support TWICHOO, and left out those that didn't.  A most unscientific approach for someone demanding such a high bar from everyone else. 
It's somewhat amusing that in defending himself against criticism from yours truly (and others), Gary Taubes would rather (and has done so!) cop to "intellectual laziness" akin to Point A above than admit to Point B.  To admit to Point B, in any nuance, is to admit to his own bias at best, or lack of scientific/journalistic integrity at worst.  I suppose there's a third option C:  Gary Taubes doesn't really understand much if any of what he researched.   This may well be the case.  I submit that it's not an either/or that we are dealing with here, it's a combination of all of the above.  At this point, the increasingly unpalatable mixture is dusted with finely powdered white Selberg Dust to make it go down more easily. 

It’s very dangerous to have a fixed idea. A person with a fixed idea will always find some way of convincing himself in the end that he is right.
~ATLE SELBERG  from Good Calories, Bad Calories 

I name this dust in honor of the author of the above quote, Atle Selberg.  This is the opening quote from the chapter in GCBC entitled Fiber.  This chapter was devoted to how everyone was wrong about the fiber in whole-food carbs to the detriment of demonizing his favorite culprit:  Sugar And Refined Carbs.  Oh my, this might just raise my SARCasm flag (grin). 

I'm not sure exactly what prompted Taubes' most recent ornithopontifications, but if he's serious about his renewed obsession, he'll need to finally address the Pima.  I don't hold out much hope for him doing so, and if he does, I expect a circular reasoning like we see in his second attempt at Black Swanicide:  Thoughts on a Black Swan 2 — The Hadza and Honey   In this he writes:
As I see it, meaningful evidence against the hypothesis in the sugar book — a black swan — would be a population that does experience an obesity and diabetes epidemic, and yet consumes either very little sugar or has not recently upped its sugar consumption considerably.
Ahh, well.  That would be all fine and good, had he not just told us that getting fat without sugar wasn't a black swan either.
The women, writes Bridges, were fat, and yet the diet was virtually all animal products: fish, otter, seal, guanaco, foxes, and birds.
If sugar and refined carbohydrates make us fat, as I’ve argued in my books, shouldn’t these women have been lean? Is that a black swan, the refutation of the hypothesis? I would say no, 
Perhaps he's gone swan colorblind, or to make it sound more sciencey, let's use the latin: olorcolor cæcus.  I'm sure he would go into full-on SARCastic mode with the Pima.  It doesn't matter to Gary Taubes.

Proposed Swan Song

When ...

  • the evidence runs afowl of your hypothesis, and 
  • you find yourself swimming in a sea of black swans
The noble swan song might be to set up a black swan sanctuary.  Acknowledge that your hypothesis has been repeatedly falsified.

I realize this is too much to ask of Gary Taubes.  He has instead, resorted to committing acts of mass black swanicide -- or n. oloricide.  And it's not just the swans he's trying to kill off, it's the reputations of various scientists, young (grin) and old, who have raised them.  

Instead of this route, I propose that it it might be time to embrace the bevy in black.  If he insists on continuing his obsession with ornithology, perhaps he can find a new career on some cooking network ... 

We'll call his show Eating Crow.  

Some Hrdlička  screen shots