Now for the punch line to my shaggy dog story – i.e. iconic moment number one. In the Q&A session following my hour-long presentation, a member of the PBRC faculty, a distinguished-looking gentleman who I’d guess was in his mid to late sixties, raised his hand and said, “Mr. Taubes, is it fair to say that one subtext of your talk is that you think we are all idiots?”
Is it fair to say that I think they are all idiots? A surprisingly good question.
Certainly one subtext of my talk (and my work) is that a journalist is getting it right and sixty-odd years of nutritionists and obesity researchers got it wrong (with maybe a half dozen exceptions who were marginalized for their beliefs.) So, yes, it was fair to say that I think a large body of otherwise very smart people, Ph.D.s and M.D.s all, were operating with suboptimal intelligence. Certainly in a pursuit — science — in which the one goal is to get the right answer, getting the wrong answer on such a huge and tragic scale borders on inexcusable.
I'll respond to the question posed in this thread's newly edited title: "Can Gary Taubes fix science? Does it need to be fixed?"
Science -- or rather, the accumulation of knowledge we call "science" -- always needs critiquing. The idea that the pursuit and understanding of scientific knowledge should be left only to those who bear certain credentials is anathema to the very foundations of the scientific enterprise. Anybody can "fix" science, in the sense that anyone, regardless of their title or station in life, who can understand the language in which hypotheses are proposed, the mechanics of the experiments performed, and the logic of the subsequent analyses is ipso facto qualified to do so. To say otherwise is to hide all experiment and analysis under a shroud of professionally enforced secrecy, and to undermine the very transparency that makes science work in the first place.
You may agree with Taubes or disagree with him, but to shoot his arguments down on the basis of his arrogant upstartness, while politically expedient, is illogical from the point of view of the pursuit of knowledge. What ought to matter in the game is the hypotheses themselves, the arguments and the predictions and the experiments and the analyses, not the identities or personalities of the players on the field.
The question and quote above aren't a very good representation of the article. His point wasn't that thousands of scientists have been idiots, and therefore we need Sir Gary to ride up on his white horse and save us from them. The point was that it's human nature to work within the paradigms we believe, and that applies even to scientists who try to see things objectively. That's not just true in this area of obesity and nutrition either; read Inventing the AIDS Virus to learn (regardless of whether you buy his alternative AIDS theory) how many times in history medical scientists have latched onto incorrect theories of disease -- even in some cases after the disease had been cured in some way they had rejected. See also education, agriculture, or any other field where there are strong economic and social forces backing the status quo. When you learn, work, and live entirely in a particular world, you tend to accept that world's assumptions without even realizing it. And when those assumptions turn out to have been wrong, you can look like an idiot, no matter how smart and dedicated you are.
As Taubes says, that's why so often it's an outsider that presents the alternative theory that shakes things up. The outsider hasn't been steeped in the paradigm that the expert authorities have. Of course, as he also says, the outsiders are also almost always wrong, which is why the authorities get so impatient with them and reject them as cranks. But if you're going to find that diamond in the rough, that one outsider who's onto something important, you have to be willing to listen to them.
Taubes isn't saying here that he's right because he's the outsider. He's saying he's not automatically wrong because he's the outsider, which is a logical fallacy that always comes up -- as someone said above, let's see his PhD before we listen to him. In my opinion, he's saying that if you're going to invite him into the discussion, you should engage his ideas, not his degrees or time spent as an authority in the field.
A couple great quotes from Paul Graham:
The most valuable truths are the ones most people don't believe. They're like undervalued stocks. If you start with them, you'll have the whole field to yourself. So when you find an idea you know is good but most people disagree with, you should not merely ignore their objections, but push aggressively in that direction.
If you believe everything you're supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn't also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s -- or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter? Odds are you would have.
Me, I certainly appreciate the energy Taubes is putting into dismantling the "eat less, move more" model of obesity. That said, I'm one of those who thinks that the fact that avoiding carbs helps some people with weight loss does NOT necessarily mean that Taubes' hypothesis (high carbs -> insulin ->fat storage) is the end-all be-all explanation for obesity (even now that he's got the caveat that fructose needs to be initially involved). And Taubes' comment in his Robb Wolf podcast that he wasn't up to speed on leptin? Hmmm.
IMO, Shift's Obesity System Influence Diagram illustrates that obesity is way more complicated than either Taubes' or Guyenet's hypotheses accounts for. But at least in Stephan's defense, he's not out there arguing that his does.
The discourse is great and I look forward to more of it.
I think that eventually the science will be vetted out and more congruent. I don't buy the argument about Taubes not being a scientist etc. I love Weston A. Price too and to quote The Hangover, "He's just a Dentist."
I'm looking forward to reading the series as I found GCBC insightful.
I personally don't think that all carbs are bad, or that all our "modern" health woes are caused by carbs, but I do think bad carbs (processed, sugar-filled, etc.) do play some role.
While I'm a huge fan of Taubes, I think he should make an appointment with Dr. K. and bone up on the multi-faceted Quilt. Taubes even admitted recently what he "wasn't up to speed on leptin". Insulin and carbs aren't the only factors, and reward theory does have an influence whether he likes it or not.
Let'em go at it. Nothing bad can come from it. We'll get to witness some great topics discussed and chewed over. I don't care for the personal attack aspect of it, if there is one, but I do enjoy the fleshing out of ideas and concepts.
Let's sit back and enjoy the ride. Chances are, we'll all gain something from this ongoing debate.
Meh…He really didn’t say anything consequential.
He seems to be laying more of a groundwork for the argument that it really doesn’t matter what his critics say because there are two paradigms involved - it will all come down to the experiment he wants funded.
I read Kuhn twenty years ago, and imagine most scientists have as well. I don’t think the talk of paradigm shifts will sway real scientists as much as it does the general public.
I like shift's diagram but it is really too complex for the average person to use.
Gary Taubes is interesting and there are many people who would say that Fructose is a dose dependent hepatoxin (Lustig, Lalonde,etc.) Do I or many of them think its the only answer? Most people would say it is much more complex than one factor and we are going to have to have a slightly more nuanced answer than avoid fructose.
Even though they are feuding, both sides want to fund studies and prove themselves right. At the end of the day, there is not much money funded research in consumption of whole food so we do not see mainstream academic departments working on this.
Disagreements are good as long as people are willing to test their guesses and move forward.
I think Fenyman put it best how science should evolve in The Character of Physical Law which Taubes cited
In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.