Science Krispies: Junk, Pseudo and Pop!

In light of recent events, I thought I'd do a little bump fest.  My apologies to my regulars.  I will be putting out new material very soon.
Original post date:  9/29/11

Oh CarbSane, why must you constantly criticize my favorite guru?  After all:
  • He/she helped me lose XX lbs
  • He/she is right about ABC & LMNOP
  • He/she is just trying to get the studies done
  • He/she saved my life!
  • He/she has helped me finally understand why I'm fat
  • He/she cured my XYZ
  • The mainstream is wrong, we need more like him/her, don't discourage them
  • Ad Hominem!!!!
  • etc. etc.
It seems like so very long ago that Jimmy Moore asked me if I thought Taubes was doing harm, or more harm than good, or something like that, given that I felt he was spreading incorrect information.  This question was prompted by what used to be in my "About" profile.   Basically, I feel if you're going to challenge mainstream/concensus beliefs you consider inaccurate, getting your own "facts" wrong is ultimately counter-productive.  You may think researchers and the members of various committees and doctors are all nimrods incapable of seeing the truth, but there's going to be someone smart enough smell the pile of poo you're serving up in the name of science.  

If the whole gluttony and sloth or CICO/ELMM stuff is worthless, foisting WWGF on your phys ed teacher, as one 15 year old recently emailed Jimmy that they planned to do, is not the solution.  The cause of turning the tide on grain consumption is not going to be helped by Wheat Belly, and if either remains true to form, neither Taubes nor Lustig's upcoming books on sugar will change much either -- although sugar is already rather demonized in the mainstream, a least if NY politicians are any indication.

The Science Krispies, then are Junk Science, Pseudo Science and Pop Science.    Often indistinguishable from one another, and sometimes qualifying to play the role of all three Krispies, but I'll briefly define each and give some examples.  

Junk Science:  

To me, junk science is just flat out wrong and provably so.   Certainly many parts of Taubes' writings qualify outright as junk science.  Nora Gedgaudas' "all body fat comes from glucose"  and the most recent entry in this field being Wheat Belly with it's acid/alkaline nonsense are two more examples.   I would say that statements for which one cannot present a modicum of scientific support would also fall under the umbrella of junk.  A newcomer on this front is Jack Kruse whose blog is littered with loosely referenced (if at all) claims with no coherent evidence presented.  Seems he took a page from Taubes with his made up facts, like that probably 30% of carbs in a meal are turned to fat.  

The worst part about junk science arguments is that they are often put forth to counter purported junk science to begin with.  It's the whole two wrongs don't make a right thing.  If the mainstream is wrong that A causes B, presenting junk science that C actually causes B neither (a) refutes that A could still be a factor, nor (b) lends much credibility to criticism of A.  Most importantly, when someone discovers, as they eventually will, that C is just flat out wrong,  while it doesn't directly make the case for A, it lends to the impression that *they* were right about A all along.  At the very least, it brings your case against A into question because your credibility is shot.  Case in point:  after learning about the problems with his obesity hypothesis, many times folks have wondered if perhaps Taubes' convincing case against the lipid-heart hypothesis might also be as full of holes as TWICHOO.


I will make the distinction between pseudoscience and junk science as follows:  junk = demonstrably wrong while pseudo = twisting just enough true "facts" to mean something else.  Taubes is the king of pseudoscience, and it sure is clever.  He weaves just enough "this is true" and "this is true" into his arguments that of course "that" must be true (and of course in pre-war Germany it was the accepted word!)    His remaining argument of insulin trapping fat into the fat cells is a classic example.  Yes, insulin stimulates esterification/deposition and suppresses lipolysis/mobilization but the notion that this means insulin (via dietary carbs)  regulates fat tissue mass is pseudoscience.  

Although it could easily fall under junk science (see how quickly the lines of bad science are blurred?) I would put Mazel's Beverly Hills Diet in the pseudoscience realm predominantly.  Why?  Because her diet was based on enzymes breaking down fat.  Which they do ... lipases in the digestive system break down fats for uptake.  She never said as much (that I'm aware), but she implied that this "fat breaking-up" was the same as the lipolysis/lipase action in your blood stream/fat tissue, and hence your fat burning.  

I put a lot of Lustig's arguments in this category.  Much (but not all) of what he says about fructose is technically correct, but taken out of context of dose it's pretty much nonsense to equate fructose to alcohol in all but the most extreme cases.   Like Lustig, most alarmist arguments fall under this umbrella -- just enough fact to blow all out of proportion to make your "scientific" case.

Pop Science

This type of scientific argument seeks to bring a complex topic down to the level the general population can comprehend.  Now certainly this is a noble effort and, what good is having the scientific facts behind you if 99 out of 100 people have no clue what you're talking about anyway?  Still, if distilling the message down to a few sentence sound-bite fundamentally alters the meaning of what is being said, then pop science is ultimately counterproductive.  Add in the fact that the message will make it's way around the population mostly through word of mouth -- a mass game of science info telephone* -- and it's bound to get more distorted still.  What you end up with are "facts" uttered by this person or that person who often can't even name their source.  Mantras like "you can't store fat without carbs" and "fructose is poison" and "carbs stop fat burning" are born this way.  Mark Sisson said as much once that it's all about bringing it down to a level to maximize the buy-in -- the details aren't that important so long as the message is heard and makes for a catchy mantra.

On the one hand this type is the most innocuous -- nobody scrutinizes this as much, and like political commercials and news headlines, if they turn out to be oversimplifications that distort facts, it is likely forgiven.  On the other hand, it can be the most insidious and damaging in the end, because it often takes longer to turn the tide on a pop culture mantra.   Because of the popularity and simplicity there is this laissez-faire attitude of "what's the harm?"   I mean so what if carbs aren't really insidiously fattening from the 151st gram onward, we could all do to eat fewer carbs, right?    There's no urgency to debunk these memes, and this makes them all the more potentially harmful when you have people avoiding potatoes, bananas and beans for fear of developing diabetes.

So, what of Junk, Pseudo and Pop?  

They're all bad science, and lots of what is put out there these days in the name of science qualifies as being one giant conglomerate Krispie.  And like the cereal that the original Snap, Crackle and Pop advertise, the Krispie science ends up being mostly just hot air with little substance.  Expect more of your guru ;-)

I promise the next post here will be some science.  No more Krispie treats for my detractors ;-)

*Telephone was a childhood game where kids would sit in a circle and the first kid would be given a phrase to whisper to their neighbor.  The neighbor would repeat it to his neighbor, and so on around the circle.  The last kid would say it out loud.  I don't recall any circle ever getting the correct saying around!


Anonymous said…
"when someone discovers, as they eventually will, that C is just flat out wrong, it doesn't make the case for A, but it leaves the impression that *they* were right all along about A. "

Speaking as one who is deeply suspicious of wheat flour in the diet, this is my precise issue with Wheat Belly.

If wheat is demonized for reasons that don't stand scrutiny then the "heart healthy whole grains" meme will eventually win.

Excellent post.

I find myself torn over the "pop" part - at some level to effect change the message must be marketed and this is ultiately as much political as scientific. It is not an easy thing to do.. Even on my own blog complaints are divided between "too technical" and "not enough detail"...

But perhaps if journalists like Mann can do it with science books about anthropology like 1491 then we can hope for diet and health books that do it as well without made-up or unrecongnizably distorted ideas.
CarbSane said…
Thanks James & Kurt!

Yeah, Kurt I'm torn on the "pop" angle too. Huge fan of folks like Bill Nye the Science Guy and all that jazz. I guess my hang up is if when simplifying things you change the meaning of them that's where trouble starts. I think this is exemplified in the whole "when you burn carbs you don't burn fat" notion and such. Tis a balancing act. I'm sure I don't succeed as often as I'd like here. It's far easier in my classes where I know my general audience going in, and a bit more about where they stand by the facial expressions/surveys/etc. by the second or third meeting ...
Sue said…
He/she cured me, helped me lose weight etc, etc,
Hate when people don't realise that they themselves did the work and lost weight etc. Said guru may have given you some of the tools or info but didn't lose the weight for you.
Anonymous said…
This post remind me of:
I remember listening to a podcast interview with Ned Kock of Health Correlator & he made this offhand remark about GCBC - something about Taubes's remarkable ability to turn technical stuff about fiber or some such thing into a page-turning tale. ("Tale" being the operative word I now realize.) In pondering Kock's remark it struck me that communicating these technical concepts in a way that laymen can understand is not to be underestimated. Too bad so many of these these Junk- and Pseudo-science Krispies, er, authors on the wrong side of correct information seem to excel at it. But then again, they have NY Times bestselling books & oodles of branded supplements & lucrative speaking engagements & weekend getaway-cons, so they probably don't really care.
Quarrel said…
I think when writing science books for any audience it's tough to get everything right.

There are 2 things that tend to make the effort and book worthwhile IMO:

a) You *try* and get it right up front.
b) You are happy to be corrected and discuss the short comings of your book/work.

Anything that cites research papers and cutting edge science is going to be somewhat out-dated by the time it gets printed. That's ok- but taking a frozen-in-time view that everything you said is right is the biggest thing that drives me crazy about Taubes et al.

Jaminet for instance has a much more gracious and nuanced approach. (that said, he seems happy to jump on the Wheat Belly = good bandwagon)

CarbSane said…
@Sue: This bothers me too, especially with Taubes for GCBC as it wasn't even a diet book, and the diet in WWGF is just rehashed (four decades old) Atkins Induction. That said, Paul Jaminet is my hero for "giving me permission" to eat starches! LOL. I do credit Atkins for convincing me to try LC ... it got me past this notion that any particular food was fattening. To eat ad libitum of anything and lose weight? This was new for someone with ED's and a history of yo yoing. Then again I see many who develop ED's from LCing, so it's no panacea that's for sure.

Yes, Q, it's really the doubling down with WWGF that kills Taubes. Over and over to any critic it is he who attacks the messenger and never addresses the criticism. Even with the interview where he came clean on the whole G3P issue, it wasn't that he got it wrong, it was all those endocrinology texts that got it wrong.
Tonus said…
I'm tempted to make a dramatic post complaining about all the new acronyms (XX, ABC, LMNOP, XYZ!!!) but I worry that at least a couple of people would take it seriously.

I think that for a lot of people, junk science works when it promises an easy way out. Isn't that how snake oil salesmen always operated? Take a swig of this elixir, and a multitude of ills will be cured. And it's amazingly cheap!

We want the easy way out. It's natural to want it because it's efficient and I think that we strive for efficiency, consciously or not. The drive for efficiency can be so strong that it blocks out the critical thinking that we need when we're offered something that's too good to be true. And some people will simply turn off that part of the brain and lock on to an idea with fanatical determination, if it promises something that they desperately want.
Sue said…
Yes I like Paul Jaminet too and his ideas about starches plus he's just all round nice guy.
Unknown said…
You know, the thing that I have observed trying to learn about and share my low-carb experience is that people often forget who their real enemies are. It's funny that you would use snap, crackle, and pop as your example, as your example as William Keith Kellogg was one of the greatest purveyors of religious dogma and junk science in his quest to have people eat a vegetarian diet. To this day, cereal is a cash cow. 4 dollars of nutrient-absent grains in sugar made for pennies. I wrote a blog entry about it. ( I think it is possible to live in a world where Gary Taubes and Paul Jaminet can both be people you like and admire and learn from, and can likewise, not totally agree with. Let's just not be silly here and make false enemies. If Robert Atkins made a billion dollars off his diet, that just pales in comparison to the many billion gross that companies like Kellogg's and Procter and Gamble, etc. make. And besides, you can ignore both Jaminet and Taubes and Jack Kruse and Atkins, but you can't ignore Kellogg's. That's what's in my kids school lunch everyday along with low-fat milk. That's policy, and you have to make your kids lunch to avoid it. You have to actively avoid Kellogg's. But you can just ignore those people you don't like, and they won't bother you again. I understand that pop science and such may be not to your liking, but do you actually like Mark Sisson or your doctor that spends 6 minutes with you and puts you on a statin? Once again, let's not make false enemies.
CarbSane said…
Welcome doctor_ostric: I'm not really comfortable talking about this in the context of enemies. I don't know Mark Sisson to like him or not but he seems like a nice guy. The stereotype of the uncaring doctor who just pushes pills is unfair. Of course a person can like and admire both Paul and Gary, but that person is not me. Also, this like/dislike thing is annoying, though at least you didn't say hate. I agree and disagree with folks I like more or less, it's not relevant. Let's face it, in the LC world it is difficult to just ignore GT. When I was looking to assure myself that my LC lifestyle was healthy for the long haul, there was no avoiding his mangling of the science. I think the science section of The New Atkins was a step in the right direction to be able to discuss low carb nutrition with one's doctor. But no doctor should take me seriously if I try to tell them my fat cells went wild hoarding fatty acids and I started eating more because my body decided to grow horizontally. I've been saying for a long time that when advocacy involves misinformation it ultimately undermines "the cause" whatever that may be. WAPF's Wise Traditions Conference featured Mercola as a speaker? That undermines them in my book, no matter how many other fine speakers they had.
Unknown said…
Then there is "Broscience" which is usually in evidence at the gym.

"Bro you've got to eat at least 1 gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight"
Galina L. said…
"Hate when people don't realise that they themselves did the work and lost weight etc",
Unfortunately people often don't realize that they have to do most of the work themselves, no one is here to give them 100% correct for your particular case advice, and it is wrong idea to look for a Guru. It makes life easier, when there is no guru, you have no one to blame and no one is expected to be correct all the time, and no matter how somebody reacted on any food, you my have a different experience.The other day some women complained on the blog that she gained weight on a LC diet because somebody gave her a wrong advise, and convinced her that milk fat was a nutritional equivalent of wood shavings "I was told to eat 2,5-3,5 times as much fat as proteïn and that proteïne must be your weight in kg. That is what I was doing, building up my health (and weight). I was told that too much diary fat is wasted and could not add to body fat, and that to much protein can convert to carbs." Luckily, she paid attention on her personal experience and "Up to now I have lost 1 kg in a few day doing less fat but eating enough."

I am very grateful to everyone who writes nutritional blogs, I am very grateful to GT and Dr.Eades and many others for their books, all it gave me numerous ideas to try and inspired me in my long weight-loss journey. I never tried to read Dr. Davis's book because content of his blog gave me a hint it wouldn't be a good idea, even though I agree with his general message. I am also grateful to Dr.Agatson for his book "The South-beach Diet", when I started limiting carbs, I was afraid of eating fats,my gallbladder was removed 10 years ago, and the South-beach diet was very politically correct for a former fat-fob like me. Often we need inspiration more than a detailed plan.
Unknown said…
Good post! Some real life experience puts a lot of this science stuff in perspective. The data gets important when you have a real health problem. My wife had a heart attack last year, and she was saved by and angioplasty and yes, drugs. She's 59. Years of smoking had something to do with it. But her LDL has always been in the healthy range, around 90. The cardiologist explained that LDL numbers can be high or low for a given individual. Some people can tolerate much higher amounts. He also explained exactly why she was getting the drugs; because decades of both population and lab studies show they work. Period. Demonizing statins and physicians like the wonderful guy who saved her life is just, well, stupid. Same for dieticians. My wife talked to a nurse/dietician who informed her that refined carbs were as bad a choice as fatty foods for many people. This idea that the SAD is what dieticians recommend is simply ridiculous. I call this the "Snackwell" argument. It's BS. No dietician will tell you it's OK as long as it's low fat.
A year later, she is doing very well, exercising daily, and watching her diet. (yeah, less fat/meat) I was drawn to the "paleo" arguments because they seemed rational at first, although I never bought the "carbs are evil" stuff, and I found the narcissism of some paleo gurus a little hard to take. Let's face it; a lot of this is about appearance. Now I relegate it to another fad. There is much that we don't know about nutrition. But some people have marketing down cold.
Woodey said…
Great post! Thanks for breaking down the three types, I normally lump pseudo with junk, but now I see there is a difference between the two, however subtle it may be. In regards to the gurus, Josh on his blog site Laststopfatloss summed it up best when responding to a person who used a guru blog to refute his thread:

"I’d say that Wolf is arrogant and counting on his readers to be.. well “dumb,” for lack of a better word. He essentially talks a lot of mumbo-jumbo that nobody can really wrap their head around or dispute, because it doesn’t really mean anything."

He had more to say, but I thought that part really summed up how I feel about all the gurus (not just Wolf). If you want to read the whole thing:
Galina L. said…
Probably,thous who are very good in a pop-science,like Dr.Davis could inspire more people to change their diets from SAT to something else. Almost anything else would be better. Most people love to read stories and watch performances more than scientific explanation. I remember somebody commented on a Tom Naughton blog how she got inspired to try a LC diet because Dr.Os during his show used a torch on a piece of styrofoam to demonstrate how fat melts in people whose body-type required a LC diet for a weight-loss. I watched that episode, it resulted only in extreme irritation, everyone is not the same, but we all need a better health.
bentleyj74 said…
Agree Tonus! I think a lot of people who have problems getting things to line up are victims of their own efficiency.
MM said…
Thanks for clarifying. So, when I said Kruse was spouting pseudo-science, I should have been using the term junk science.
Woodey said…
For Kruse a new term of science should be created, something like "Kooky Science". I had a couple of other terms, but out of respect for Carb I will save them for my own blog.:)
Anonymous said…
Jack the liar strikes again!/melissamcewen/status/202627695408975872
Karen said…
looked for your blog Woodey and there are no posts. :( let us know when you post something. Would love to read them.
Karen said…
Oh my!!! LOL I suppose someone hacked him then too!
Woodey said…

I'm working on putting my blog together. I'm not to computer suave so it's taking me some time to get this stuff going. Carb recommended WordPress and said that it's for more advanced comp people, she wasn't lying.:)