June 28, 2021

Nutritional Biochemistry

#167 – Gary Taubes: Bad science and challenging the conventional wisdom of obesity

Doing a background analysis is the hard, relentless, rigorous grunt work of science. It's endless and thankless, because if you do it right, all you'll do is prove that you were wrong all along.” —Gary Taubes

Read Time 42 minutes

Gary Taubes is an investigative science and health journalist and a best-selling author. In this podcast, Gary explains how he developed a healthy skepticism for science as he was transitioning from being a physics major to beginning as a science journalist. He talks about how he was particularly drawn to sussing out “pathologic science,” telling the stories behind his books on the discovery of the W and Z bosons and cold fusion, emphasizing the need for researchers to perform a thorough background analysis. Gary then describes how his work came to focus on public health, nutrition, and obesity.  He provides a great historic overview of obesity research and provides his explanation for why the conventional wisdom today is incorrect.



We discuss:

  • Gary’s background in science and journalism, and developing a healthy skepticism for science [2:20];
  • Gary’s boxing experience, and the challenge of appreciating behavioral risk [8:40];
  • How Gary developed his writing skills, and what the best science writers do well [16:45];
  • Example of how science can go wrong, and the story behind Gary’s first book, Nobel Dreams [25:15];
  • Theoretical vs. experimental physicists: The important differentiation and the relationship between the two [36:00];
  • Pathological science: research tainted by unconscious bias or subjective effects [40:30];
  • Reflecting on the aftermath of writing Nobel Dreams and the legacy of Carlo Rubbia [49:45];
  • Scientific fraud: The story of the cold fusion experiments at Georgia Tech and the subject of Gary’s book, Bad Science [53:45];
  • Problems with epidemiology, history of the scientific method, and the conflict of public health science [1:09:00];
  • Gary’s first foray into the bad science of nutrition [1:26:45];
  • Research implicating insulin’s role in obesity, and the story behind what led to Gary’s book, Good Calories, Bad Calories [1:36:15]
  • The history of obesity research, dietary fat, and fat metabolism [1:46:00]
  • The evolving understanding of the role of fat metabolism in obesity and weight gain [1:55:15]
  • Mutant mice experiments giving way to competing theories about obesity [2:04:00]
  • How Gary thinks about the findings that do not support his alternative hypothesis about obesity [2:08:00]
  • Challenges with addressing the obesity and diabetes epidemics, palatability and convenience of food, and other hypotheses [2:14:45];
  • Challenging the energy balance hypothesis, and the difficulty of doing good nutrition studies [2:25:00]; and
  • More.


Gary’s background in science and journalism, and developing a healthy skepticism for science [2:20]

  • Gary began in the hard sciences
    • majored in applied physics at Harvard 
    • Growing up in the 1960s, he read science fiction and wanted to be an astronaut
    • Was also competing with older brother who studied physics
    • But “Hamiltonian was beyond my ability to comprehend,” so he did not pursue physics after college
    • Instead he got a Master’s in aerospace engineering at Stanford
      • Realized he wouldn’t be chosen as an astronaut over shorter, lighter candidates who were in better shape
      • Also realized that he “wouldn’t survive very well in any kind of military hierarchy that required blind acknowledgement to superiors”

Where was that seed planted of insatiable skepticism and a refusal to bend to authority?

  • He switched from science to journalism 
    • When his son plays basketball, Gary notices that the best players are the ones who have older brothers who play
      • On some level, Gary’s competition with his brother started his skepticism
    • he went to journalism school at Columbia to become an investigative journalist
    • After journalism school he took a job at Discover Magazine
  • He did a piece on the Shroud of Turin
    • the supposed burial shroud of Christ appeared in the historical record right around the 11th or 12th century when there a big market in fake religious artifacts
    • Researchers from Los Alamos took their high-tech imaging equipment to Turin to examine the shroud
      • they said they didn’t understand how it was made, even though it had been carbon-dated to the 11th and 12th century
    • He thought their conclusions were not supported by the data

“There’s nothing fundamentally different about somebody who goes into science and somebody who goes into journalism, other than we have sort of different mechanisms of wanting to understand what truth is.” —Gary Taubes

  • If they were unable to determine how the shroud was created, don’t have to conclude it was made by supernatural means
  • it could mean that the equipment used was simply inadequate
  • Today, we’re almost having the same debate about the cause of obesity:
    • Are you doing the right experiments?
    • Have you refuted the hypothesis, or are the experiments flawed? 
    • And that’s always a fundamental issue in science

Gary’s boxing experience, and the challenge of appreciating behavioral risk [8:40]

The challenge of appreciating behavior risk

  • Gary started smoking in 1978 when he was depressed
    • struggled with the transition from undergrad to grad school where no one knew him
    • Took him 20 years to quit
  • As he and Peter discussed in their work with the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI), kids rarely think in terms of the things they do being dangerous
  • He and Peter both boxed, but Peter never considered it dangerous (“I had this true mental block”)
  • When he was 20, Peter suffered a very severe concussion from boxing
    • hospitalized for two days, had significant bruising and cerebral contusions, and a headache that lasted for three months
    • took him that long to realize how dangerous it was
  • Gary’s college friend was killed in a boxing match their senior year
    • Nevertheless, Gary still started to box 3 year later
    • “I never thought that what happened to him could happen to me until I got knocked out in the Golden Gloves. . At which point, there’s this awareness when you get knocked unconscious, when you wake up that some people never wake up from that.”

“I always thought it was fascinating that the less life we have left to live, the more risk adverse we become.” —Gary Taubes

Lessons in boxing

  • It’s hard to make young people understand prevention of chronic illness, disease, and addiction
    • Gary is sure behavioral psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky would have something to say about that
    • In his house, Gary has a framed photo of himself lying prostrate in the ring that he refers to as “hubris protection”

Gary’s experiences with amateur boxing

  • There were a number of high-profile deaths in boxing in the early 80s
  • At Discover Gary worked with Denise Grady, who now works for the New York Times
    • Denise did a story on what happens to the brain in boxing
    • She would slip articles under Gary’s door about boxing-related brain injuries
  • Gary would box with Norman Mailer’s nephew in a group Mailer had that boxed each other on Saturday mornings
  • Gary got the idea to box in the Golden Gloves and write an article about it
    • He was too old by a few months
    • Sports Illustrated pulled it because he’d have to fake his birth certificate
    • Ended up writing it for Playboy instead
      • His SIL was angry that he wrote an article for a magazine that portrayed women in a bad way
      • Though he acknowledges that she had a point, he said that some of the best writers were writing for that magazine “and maybe later I’ll have the platform by which I can be too good for this approach”
    • He won his first fight against a police officer who “beat the crap out of me in the first round” when he realized he needed to punch back and knocked him out in the second round
    • In his second fight, he got knocked out in 1 minute and 37 seconds
  • Gary had only been boxing as an amateur for 4 months, but he had a James Bond complex
    • Getting knocked out was a reminder of his limits and that “there are things I should stay away from if I want to have a long and healthy life”
    • He never boxed again

{end of show notes preview}

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Gary Taubes, M.S., M.J.

Gary Taubes is an investigative science and health journalist and co-founder of the non-profit Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI.org). He is the author of numerous books, including The Case For Keto (2020), The Case Against Sugar (2016), Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (2010), Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007), Bad Science (1993), and Nobel Dreams (1987).  Taubes is the recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Award in Health Policy Research and has won numerous other awards for his journalism, including the International Health Reporting Award from the Pan American Health Organization. He also received the National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Journalism Award in 1996, 1999 and 2001, becoming the first print journalist to win this award three times. Taubes graduated from Harvard College with an undergraduate degree in applied physics, received an master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University, and earned a degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Website: https://garytaubes.com/

Twitter: @garytaubes

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  1. It seems to me that Gary puts a lot of emphasis on the ob/ob mouse model having higher fat mass than isocaloric control mice and argues this is due to the effect of insulin. It is possible insulin plays a role in this, but a more likely alternative hypothesis is that it’s due to elevated glucocorticoid levels. It’s well established that glucocorticoids can change body composition independent of calorie intake and that leptin plays a role in suppressing glucocorticoid secretion. Adrenalectomy plus food restriction nearly (although not completely) ameliorates the body composition differences between ob/ob mice and control mice.

  2. A wonder about Elvis and how glucocorticoids can change body composition independent of calorie intake. Between January 1987 and when he died in August of 1987 his body physically showed a rapid change in fat content.

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