Bookkeeper of Calories

I finished Taubes’ book a few weeks back and can now say that I’m absolutely convinced that his view that carbohydrates are directly connected to obesity and diabetes is correct. One of the blurbs on the back cover of the book calls it “the most important book on diet and health to be published in the past one hundred years.” It might very well be that too. Chapter after chapter painstakingly documents the errors and omissions, and the prejudices and biases that went into manufacturing the consensus against dietary fat and in favor of carbohydrates. I do not wish to go into the details, but I do wish to quote from the Epilogue-

In the 1890s, Francis Benedict and Wilbur Atwater, pioneers of the science of nutrition in the United States, spent a year in the laboratory testing the assumption that the law of energy conservation applied to humans as well as animals. They did so not because they doubted that it did, but precisely because it seemed so obvious. “No one would question” it, they wrote. “The quantitative demonstration is, however, desirable, and an attested method for such demonstration is of fundamental importance for the study of the general laws of metabolism of both matter and energy.”

This is how functioning science works. Outstanding questions are identified or hypotheses proposed; experimental tests are than established either to answer the questions or to refute the hypotheses, regardless of how obviously true they might appear to be. If assertions are made without the empirical evidence to defend them, they are vigorously rebuked. In science, as Merton noted, progress is made only by first establishing whether one’s predecessors have erred or “have stopped before tracking down the implications of their results or have passed over in their work what is there to be seen by the fresh eye of another.” Each new claim to knowledge, therefore, has to be picked apart and appraised. Its shortcomings have to be established unequivocally before we can know what questions remain to be asked, and so what answers to seek—what we know is really so and what we don’t. “This unending exchange of critical judgment,” Merton wrote, “of praise and punishment, is developed in science to a degree that makes the monitoring of children’s behavior by their parents seem little more than child’s play.”

The institutionalized vigilance, “this unending exchange of critical judgment,” is nowhere to be found in the study of nutrition, chronic disease, and obesity, and it hasn’t been for decades. For this reason, it is difficult to use the term “scientist” to describe those individuals who work in these disciplines, and, indeed, I have actively avoided doing so in this book. It’s simply debatable, at best, whether what these individuals have practiced for the past fifty years, and whether the culture they have created, as a result, can reasonably be described as science, as most working scientists or philosophers of science would typically characterize it. Individuals in these disciplines think of themselves as scientists; they use the terminology of science in their work, and they certainly borrow the authority of science to communicate their beliefs to the general public, but “the results of their enterprise,” as Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, might have put it, “do not add up to science as we know it.”

Taubes is being polite when he refrains from using the term “scientist” to describe someone working in these fields. These people discard empirical evidence if it doesn’t fit their preconceived notions, don’t understand causality (or physics, for that matter), specialize (and then work in isolated silos) to the point of lunacy, engage in research that is incapable of answering the relevant questions, and do a million other things of a similar nature. And then have to gall to provide “expert” advice to everyone else. If I look for a term to describe such a person, “quack” comes to mind. And witch doctor. And whatever you call those people who burned Bruno at the stake, given the way they treated scientists who dared to oppose the consensus, and the number of careers they managed to sabotage as a result.

I’m surprised at my own surprise, though, because this is not a unique situation. Hayek once “accused” economists of pretense and scientism. And what is the IPCC but an attempt at “manufacturing consensus”?

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Comments

  • blr_p  On August 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    This sounds like an interesting book to have, challenging a lot of conventional wisdom. Here’s the review of the book in sceptic.

    Agree on the parallel with IPCC & AGW :)

  • blr_p  On August 13, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Hrm, now that i realise it, you’re referring to Taubes first book ‘Good calories, Bad calories’ whilst the review above talks about his second book ‘Why we get fat’

    So which of the two would you recommend ?

    The second one appears to be more about fat whereas the first seems to be more general and hence wider in scope, more technical though.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On September 7, 2011 at 10:29 pm

      The first one. I have both, but the second one is somewhat limited in scope and is written for people who don’t want to go too deep into the subject. Taubes gives two reasons for writing about it again. This is the second one:

      Good Calories, Bad Calories is lengthy (nearly five hundred pages), dense with science and historical context, and densely annotated, all of which I believe was necessary to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the experts and assure that they (or any reader) take nothing I say on trust alone. The book demands that the reader devote considerable time and attention to following the evidence and the arguments. For this reason, many who read it have asked me to write another book, one that their husbands or wives, their aging parents, or their friends and siblings can read without difficulty. Many physicians have asked me to write a book that they can give to their patients, or even to their fellow physicians, a book that doesn’t require such an investment of time and effort.

      I have to say, though, that I haven’t actually read the second one yet. Seems a bit superfluous, after having read GCBC.

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