September 13, 2012 | 8
There’s no such thing as objective science journalism, any more than there is objective science. Some journalists are just more overt about their biases.
Gary Taubes has been ferociously attacking conventional dietary wisdom for more than a decade. Conventional wisdom holds that consuming more calories than you burn off makes you fat. Wrong, Taubes insists: It’s not the calories, per se, but the kind of calories that matters. The chief culprit in obesity, he says, is carbohydrates. You can lose weight and keep it off, Taubes contends, on a diet with lots of fat and protein as long as you minimize your carbs.
Gary himself eats lots of meat, cheese, eggs, butter, oil and nuts and avoids bread, pasta, rice, cookies, soft drinks and even fruit and vegetables. He has laid out the evidence for his hypothesis in two books: the huge, data-dense Good Calories, Bad Calories (Knopf 2007) and the shorter, more user-friendly Why We Get Fat (Knopf 2010). I admire Taubes’s reporting and analytic skills, which is why I invited him to give a talk at Stevens Institute in 2009 and interviewed him on Bloggingheads.tv in 2011. I nonetheless have doubts about his dietary views, which I summarized on this blog.
My post annoyed my old friend Gary, but he acknowledged that the evidence for his viewpoint is still not clear-cut; almost all dietary studies are flawed, and better research is needed. This is such a truism in medical research that I didn’t take it seriously. In fact, it sounded like the kind of thing a journalist says when he’s getting ready to abandon an old, frustrating obsession.
But Taubes clearly meant what he said about the need for more research. He called me a couple weeks ago to tell me a remarkable story. John Arnold, a wealthy financier, recently contacted Taubes after hearing him talk on the radio about the need for better research on diet and obesity. Arnold, who with his wife oversees the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, wanted to help provide funds for such research.
That conversation led to the creation of the Nutrition Science Initiative, or NuSI, a nonprofit headed by Taubes and the physician Peter Attia and based in San Diego. NuSI describes itself in a statement released this week as “dedicated to dramatically reducing the economic and social burden of obesity and obesity-related diseases by significantly improving nutrition science.” The nonprofit plans to support research carried out by a “consortium of respected clinicians and scientists from the fields of endocrinology, metabolism, diabetes, obesity and nutrition.” The Arnold Foundation has put up money for NuSI’s first two years of operation.
NuSI collaborators—from Duke, the University of Massachusetts and other schools–are now planning rigorous tests of weight-reduction regimens. Most dietary studies, Taubes points out, rely on what subjects say about their eating and exercising rather than measuring what they’re actually doing. Some studies have observed subjects under tightly controlled conditions, with food and energy expenditures precisely monitored, but for obvious reasons such studies generally involve few subjects and don’t last long. Taubes hopes NuSI will carry out highly controlled experiment—perhaps involving special observation chambers that monitor energy expenditures—involving statistically significant numbers of subjects and lasting at least three or four months.
Taubes believes that the NuSI research will confirm his perspective on diet and obesity, but he realizes that the data could point in a different direction. Most of the scientists designing NuSI experiments, he says, do not share his views. But he founded NuSI, Taubes notes, not to prove he’s right but to help solve the obesity epidemic, which contributes as much as $150 billion a year to U.S. health-care costs.
I admire Taubes for stepping out of his role as a journalist-observer and becoming an active participant in a field he covers, especially when the results could end up undercutting his own claims. What he’s doing takes guts and initiative. To learn more about NuSI—perhaps because you want to participate in or support its research—check out its website, www.nusi.org.
By the way, just because there is no such thing as objective science or science journalism does not mean that there is no such thing as objective knowledge. This is the paradox of science, that flawed, biased, emotional creatures can over time arrive at the truth. In the realm of medicine, clear-cut, durable truths are hard to come by. But I have no doubt that with better research we can achieve much better understanding of and solutions to obesity. At the very least, NuSI seems to be a step in the right direction.
Credit: Alfred A. Knopf.