Friday, April 18, 2008

Doughnut Truth

Good Calories and  Bad

By John Taylor; 2008 Apr 18, 10 Jalal, 165 BE


I have been very slowly reading through Seth Robert's book, "The Shangri-La Diet." A few weeks ago I tried and failed to go on this diet in its olive oil version. Unfortunately when I took olive oil on an empty stomach it made me nauseated. I plan to try again using a different oil in a month or so (you can use almost anything, including sugar water, as long as the body does not associate taste with the calories). Here is an interview explaining the basics of this diet on the website of Calorie Lab,


Interview with Shangri-La Diet author Seth Roberts


I like how Roberts starts off his book with this incisive quote:


"Vladimir Nabokov coined the term doughnut truth to mean only the truth, and the whole truth, with a hole in the truth."


This expression "doughnut truth" aptly describes the lack of scientific method that afflicts dietary studies. Francis Bacon, in one of the guys who started science going, said that one good book replaces a hundred mediocre books. When the learned think scientifically, that is just what happens. Old theories, old advice, are replaced by newer and better ones. In diet, though, mediocre book after mediocre book is churned out, and contradictory advice doled out without agreement or discrimination. And this goes on while obesity is rising to epidemic proportions!


Something is gravely wrong.


The hole in this doughnut is large and gaping, and all that comes out of the knowledge machine are more doughnuts.


Roberts has an excellent blog and discussion area from which I learned a great deal. Here he introduces a science writer named Gary Taubes, whose most recent book about dietary science actually does treat food and weight loss as a science. Taubes has had an interesting career. He wrote a book about the cold fusion controversy in the 1980's. Unlike many scientific thinkers, who try to find out truth or help mankind, he is devoted to investigating and understanding error in science. Over decades he has scoured the scientific world to find the worst scientists, and interviewed them in detail. I have not read his books yet, but I was very impressed by how much I learned just by a few articles and interviews with Taubes. Here are some blurbs for his latest book on diet,


"Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health"


Blurbs: "Good Calories, Bad Calories is a tour de force of scientific investigation, certain to redefine the ongoing debate about the foods we eat and their effects on our health." "Gary Taubes' `Good Calories, Bad Calories' is easily the most important book on diet and health to be published in the past one hundred years. It is clear, fast-paced and exciting to read, rigorous, authoritative, and a beacon of hope for all those who struggle with problems of weight regulation and general health--as who does not? If Taubes were a scientist rather than a gifted, resourceful science journalist, he would deserve and receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine."


This is wonderful! A writer who specializes in what is science, and what is not. In interviews he talks about what makes a good and a bad scientist, and what it means to follow the scientific method, rather than to just mimic it the way just about everybody with the slightest claim to authority does, especially when it comes to diet advice. Most interesting is this, where Seth Roberts interviews Taubes:


Taubes has interviewed some of the worst scientists in the world, and in the interview he goes through the qualities and failings of these fellows, and indicates how he separates the sheep from the goats. The lousy scientists are eminently knowledgeable and academically highly qualified, yet they fail to take the necessary leap to objectivity and humility that makes for science. I will include a section of this interview at the end of this essay, but now I only say that as I read how Taubes discerns a bad scientist, I could not help but think about what makes a person a good Baha'i or not. Auxiliary Board members have to do what Taubes did, they have long interviews with believers who are on the border between resignation, "dis-enrollment" or breaking the Covenant. Fortunately, the rest of us are spared from that depressing job. But reading this interview, I was surprised at how close these lousy scientists are to the lousy Baha'is who are so notorious in our history. For example, in our children's class, reading a children's biography of the Master, Abdu'l-Baha's half-brother, Mirza Muhammad Ali, turns up again and again. Last night Thomas asked:


"Who was more evil, Mirza Yahya or Mirza Muhammad Ali?"


I could not answer that. Both were pretty bad. I guess the only answer is "God knows," unless, that is, one of my learned readers can point to an authoritative source that says one was worse than the other. Both were attacked by envy -- the green eyed monster. They envied their Brother's pre-eminence, and tried to co-opt it. Of course, when I talk about the green-eyed monster our kids object vociferously, since both have green eyes, as does their mother. So I have to add that there are green-eyed people and green-eyed monsters, and never the twain will meet. For one thing, one is beautiful and the other is not -- though sometimes I offer subliminal comment by sneezing, "Ahh, ahh, chFREAKooo!"


Anyway, my point was that the demands of truth are the same on all: in this sense, religious truth is the same as scientific truth. We have mind children and then we are obliged to as it were beat them, or like Abraham did with His son, put them up on a rock and sacrifice them. That is, we have to be humble and regard ourselves and our mind children as fallible, and go out and try to prove them wrong. Otherwise we are not being scientific or a Baha'i.


Seth Roberts Interviews Gary Taubes


INTERVIEWER What did that scientist say that made you rank him so low?

TAUBES There are all kinds of signs. He told me there was no controversy, when there was obviously a controversy. His side might have been right, but to deny there as a controversy was ludicrous. He talked about the legitimacy of throwing out negative data. You measure salt consumption one way; you do not see any effect on blood pressure, and so you decide that is obviously the wrong way to measure it. The implication of everything he told me  was that he knew what the answer was before he did his experiments, and then he adjusted his experimental techniques and methodology until he got the answer that he wanted.

 And he believed this was legitimate science. There are other signs.

 I am a stickler about the use of words like evidence and proof. So if someone tells you there is no evidence for some controversial belief, you can be fairly confident that they are a bad scientist. There is always evidence, or there would not be a controversy. If somebody says that we proved that this was true or we set out to prove that this was true that is another bad sign. The point here, as Popper noted, among others, is that you can never prove anything is true; you can only refute it. So researchers who talk about proving a hypothesis is true rather than testing it make me worried.


INTERVIEWER Yeah, I see what you are saying. They overstate; they twist things around to make it come out the way they want. They are way too sure...


TAUBES Yes, and the really good scientists are the ones, almost by definition, who are most skeptical of evidence that seems to support their beliefs. They are most aware of how they could have been fooled, how they could have screwed up, or how they might have missed artifacts in their experiment that could have explained what they observed.


They are very careful about what they say. If you ask them to do play devils advocate, and tell you how they could have screwed up, then at the very least, they will say: "Well, if I knew how I could have done it, I would have checked it before I made the claim. So when I'm talking about discerning the difference between a good scientist and a bad scientist, I'm talking about how they speak about their research, the evidence itself, its presence or absence.

My friends in journalism would often ask me this question: by what right do I think (I can) make decisions about who is a good scientist and who is not. I would say,


"Well, when you're an English major, you can be confident that Norman Mailer was a better writer than John Grisham, even though John Grisham makes 10 to 100 times more money. Its just a feel for what you do; I do not know how else to describe it. I know a good scientist when I talk with one. I might be fooled, on occasion, but..."


TAUBES Yes, that's a very good sign, but these people don't realize they're saying the same things and doing the same experiments and making the same mistakes that their predecessors made a century go because they don't bother reading that literature. For reasons I still don't really understand, these people see no reason to pay attention to the history of their field. Imagine if physicists saw no reason to pay attention to Einstein and Plank and Maxwell and Heisenberg? I mean, these guys all lived a century ago, why would anyone want to know about them or the experiments they did? But in physics, mathematics and even biology, the history is carried along with it. As the science progresses, it takes with it the successful ideas and the students learn about the history along with the science.


In obesity research, World War II just cut all of that off. For whatever reason, several generations of researchers grew up with this belief that the history of the field does not matter. And so they don't even know or care that they're saying the same thing and doing the same experiments that their predecessors did 100 years ago. And then this latest generation is  full of young molecular biologists, and they start the clock in 1994, when leptin was discovered. They are not aware that they are not making progress, because they believe that nothing of value was done until 1994.


TAUBES Beginning in the 1960s, when newspapers institutionalized this idea of having diet and health/nutrition writers on newspapers, and its still the case, for the most part, today, the people who got those jobs were not the shining intellects on the newspaper, and the shining intellects did not want to be diet and health writers. If you are a whip-smart young guy or girl who wants to go into journalism, you want to be an investigative reporter, a political reporter, or a war correspondent; you do not want to write about diet and health.


Or at least you did not.


So I think that was one of the problems. You got not very smart people; truly mediocre reporters, doing jobs that turned out to have remarkable significance and influence. I do think that Jane Brody is as responsible as anyone alive for the obesity epidemic. She just bought into this idea of the low-fat diet as a healthy diet, and her sources in New York told her that Atkins was a quack, and that fat was bad, and she never questioned any of it. I do not know if she had the intellectual wherewithal to do it.


In any other field of reporting, as far as I know, reporters are supposed to be as sceptical of their sources as scientists are supposed to be sceptical of their data. Certainly, if George Bush tells a political reporter something, that political reporter does not treat it like its true. He might faithfully report what George Bush said, but you are supposed to be sceptical of what government institutions tell you.


So now it's 1977, the McGovern Committee and the USDA make these proclamations about what constitutes a healthy diet, and there is simply no scepticism. (With the possible exception of Bill Broad writing in Science Magazine, which no one outside the field of science was reading.) So the government tells us that we should eat low-fat diets -- and not even learned authorities in the government, but Congressman and USDA bureaucrats channelling 30-year-old congressional staffers -- and lo and behold, all these health reporters  decide it must be true. That is the failure. In my fantasy life, I get a call from the managing editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and they say they have read my book and they want to know how they can improve their health and diet reporting.  Because they can see, whether or not I'm 100% right, or 80%, or only 50%, surely their reporters did something wrong. Now there's a fantasy for you.


INTERVIEWER Yeah, I agree. That makes sense. So, what would you say?


TAUBES I have not figured that one out yet. Get some of your political reporters to do the health writing. Get the smarter people on the paper to do it.


INTERVIEWER Well, I always thought of you as one of the very few science writers who was sufficiently skeptical. Practically none of them are.


TAUBES That is basically the problem. This lack of skepticism. But I had an advantage. . . You will remember, in my first book, I got to live at a physics laboratory and I was lied to regularly by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. His conception of truth was what he needed to be true at the moment, and what he could get people to believe. So if you called him on the lie, and he was kind of a charming fellow, he would acknowledge that he might have misled you, and then he would step back and try another lie, because it was not in his best interest to tell the truth.


Then I did this book on cold fusion where I spent three years, basically, getting lied to constantly by anyone who thought it was in their best interest. There was a period in my life where it was hard for me to trust anyone, because I had just been around too many people who believed that the truth was what was convenient. I also knew, by the time I got into public health reporting, I knew what it took to do good science.

 So, if somebody was not doing it, I knew there was no reason to put them on a pedestal. The first article I ever wrote for Science magazine was an investigative piece of an alleged fraud that had happened in the cold fusion episode -- a fundamental result that kept the field alive for another few months could not be explained by nuclear physics.


That alone was so remarkable -- as one of the smartest men in the world suggested to me, a physicist named Dick Garwin at IBM -- that it should have made everyone suspect fraud. If something cannot be explained by a very well-tested theory, you would question the ethics of the researcher who did the work before you would question the theory. This is Hume's idea that eyewitness testimony is never good enough to make you believe in the existence of a miracle, because a miracle is, by definition, something that is impossible by all our accepted theories. Its easier to believe that 10, 100, or 1000 people were deluded or dishonest then it is to believe that the Virgin Mary really did appear in Times Square or whatever your miracle of choice is.

 ... What happened when you met with the [UC Berkeley School of Public Health] epidemiology students?


TAUBES Again, it was a little discouraging, only because these kids really want to do good, they want to make a difference in the world. Thats why they go into the field. They want to have an effect. But as I say at the end of the book, to do science right, your primary motivation has to be to learn the truth, and if you are infected with this desire to change the world, to save lives, it takes you away from the fundamental motivation, which is to get it right.

If you want to save lives, then you want to get the word out as quickly as possible. You don't want to wait ten or twenty years or more for definitive evidence, for the rigorous tests to be done; you want to give advice and tell people what you've learned, even if you only think that you've learned it. Doing science right takes a long time.

So does good journalism.

 You can say the difference between my book and Gina Kolata's book is -- not counting whatever difference in intellect we begin with--my book took five years, more than full time, because I was not going to say anything until I was certain that what I was saying was sound. She wrote her book in two years, part-time, while still working full-time as a New York Times reporter.

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