I bought Gary Taubes’ Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion back in 1990 or so. I didn’t get around to reading it until this year, well over 25 years later. I bought the hardcover when I was about 25 years old, and just wasn’t sufficiently cynical yet to enjoy it. This year, I knew what it offered, and whet my chops and dug into it. I couldn’t put it down until I read most of it a few days later. Lots of lulz on Pons and Fleischmann, but particularly Stanley Pons. Taubes painted him as somewhat inept, and totally out of his electrochemistry league trying to claim a breakthrough in nuclear physics. Desperately trying to defend the impossible (significant excess heat from a simple electrochemical cell), Pons squirms to avoid the press, skeptics, and peers seeking to replicate his “results”. Its pure schadenfreude at it’s finest.
I remember the Pons and Fleischmann premature announcement hitting the news. I was in grad school, and discussed it with friends. We were very skeptical of the claims, and after a day, knew it was a total joke. And the world remembers it that way too. Pons and Fleischmann are now synonyms for bad science, and cold fusion is the poster child for pathological science (fixed-idea cranks forever trying to “prove” their pet beliefs).
Fast-forward 30 years, and the tables have turned. Taubes switched from reporting on science to inserting himself into what he calls one of the weakest sciences, nutrition. He formed a non-profit (NuSI), to drive his self-proclaimed “Manhattan Project of Obesity” featuring metabolic ward studies aimed at determining once-and-for-all if it’s the carbs or the calories that make us fat.
I never understood how he could say with a straight face that “carbs literally make you fat”, or “what if everything you’ve been told about nutrition was wrong?”, or when he suggests that eating unlimited amounts of fat (in a ketogenic state) wouldn’t cause weight gain. His talks usually involve an hour of dancing around the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. He then points out a few small populations that he says got obese during famines. He says that all the experiments showing that calories drive weight changes, not macronutrient composition, were done wrong. And just about every sentence he utters makes you want to gouge your eyes out. Especially the one about Occam’s Razor supporting his position.
But what drives people even crazier is trying to figure out why he’s doing this. You might immediately think he’s doing it for the money, which has indeed been very rewarding for him. But then you think no, no one would subject themselves to such ridicule for so loudly touting a simplistic idea thats been dismissed a long time ago. In fact, he’s kept a very low profile all these years, avoiding his critics in any format (live, interview, social media, etc.), with the one-time exception of a disastrous debate with Alan Aragon. Taubes himself says he understands why people would consider him a quack.
But can he really believe his own “Alternative Hypothesis” of obesity? I guess you can discount all the existing evidence, once you get it in your head that “everyone’s wrong”. And what could make “everyone” be wrong, seeing as how science is self-correcting, and who’d miss the chance to scoop everyone with the correct solution? A conspiracy perhaps, as members parrot the party line (“dogma”). And why a conspiracy? Well, maybe complacency, or group-think, or professional coercion (see “Yudkin vs. Keys”). And who put this idea into Taubes’ mind? Dr. Robert Atkins and his New Diet Revolution. And why would he believe it? Because it fit with Taubes’ own dietary biases and experiences. So why could Taubes break the conspiracy? Because he’s an outsider. And wouldn’t it be great if I was right, and proved everybody wrong?
That actually makes some sense. People will firmly retrench in their convictions when they feel surrounded by the enemy. Then good luck trying to tell them they might be wrong. There’s times when we’re convinced we’re right, and that everyone else is wrong. It’s human nature, part of an independent mind, which occasionally pays off. We trust our intuition. And sometimes we get very stubborn.
But wouldn’t a normal person stop and think, “Can I really go against the consensus belief, and claim that all of science has it wrong, and I have it right? On the national stage?” Well, you need a catchy premise to pitch a book, and that kind of idea sells, so you go for it. After all, you can’t go around promoting a book as, “well, maybe carbohydrates cause weight gain because of insulin, but maybe not”. No producer would book you on their show, and no one would listen if they did.
So then how did it all escalate to forming your own non-profit foundation and raising hundreds of millions to actually scientifically test your hypothesis with the leading experts in the field? Who knows. It might have started in conversations with like-minded authors and researchers. I guess you convince yourselves that its a good idea. You can fund the studies you always wanted to see, and pay yourself to do it. And the scientific community will learn something in the end, right?
But here we are, and the first results from the NuSI Energy Balance Consortium metabolic studies are out and things are looking bad for Taubes’ carbohydrate-insulin theory of obesity. The results confirm prior studies, and what people expect, given our very evolved metabolism that can efficiently extract and store almost all the energy from our dietary fat and carbohydrate. Just think “Twinkie Diet”, and why it works. To a very good first-order, it’s the total calories that count, not the macro-nutrient composition of the diet.
And it looks like Taubes won’t even accept the results of his own studies. Does that make him dishonest, or just a crank? There are plenty of celebrity cranks (Jenny McCarthy, e.g.). Is it the ego that won’t let them admit mistake? That makes some sense. They had to have a pretty big ego to first promote such an unlikely and criticized theory. Turning back would look pretty bad. Or they might just be convinced they’re right. There’s enough murkiness in the details to give them eternal hope.
People have speculated former NuSI President Peter Attia quietly left his post late last year because he saw the writing on the wall. That’s understandable, as his reputation wasn’t entirely invested into the “Alternative Hypothesis” as Taubes is.
So who will write Bad Science 2? I doubt anyone will, because the original Bad Science probably didn’t sell very well. As another irony, what it mostly did for Taubes was to give him writing awards and scientific credibility to write best-selling diet books. And as Dr. Michael Eades himself says, a successful book is all about the marketability of the author, not the content of the book itself.
So what will happen to Gary Taubes? Even if all the NuSI studies come out to totally discredit the carbohydrate-insulin theory of obesity, he’s not going to suffer personally. He’s been heavily criticized by some, and fawningly idolized by others for the last 15+ years. He looks just fine, maybe a little bit older. Plus, low-carbs diets will never die, so he’ll always have a friendly audience. What have you seen of him over the last 15 years to make you think he’ll change his mind? Taubes will not be following Stanley Pons in exile to France.
Sure there’s people out there who think he’s acted in bad faith the whole way through this 15 year affair. I think it’s really hard to outright lie for that long, convincingly, in front of audiences over and over. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was speaking from some type of conviction. But I’m sure he was well aware of the money the gig was producing. And I don’t have any problems with that, because it was all funded willingly by people who wanted to believe what Taubes was saying, and will continue to believe, no matter what his own studies reveal.