Exclusive Interviews
Gary Taubes on Cold Fusion, Good Nutrition and What Makes Bad and Good Science
By Anthony Wile - November 22, 2009

Introduction: Mr. Taubes is the author of a number of well-received books including Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease (Knopf, 2007). Taubes studied applied physics at Harvard as an undergraduate and has an M.S. degree in engineering from Stanford University (1978) and in journalism from Columbia University (1981). He began writing and reporting on science and medicine for Discover magazine in 1982. As a free-lance journalist, he's written for Science, where he's been a contributing correspondent since 1993, for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Playboy and a host of other publications. Taubes has won numerous awards for his reporting including the International Health Reporting Award from the Pan American Health Organization and the National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Journalism Award, which he won in 1996, 1999 and 2001. (He is the only print journalist to win this award three times.) Since the mid-1980s, Taubes has focused his reporting on controversial science, on the excruciatingly difficult job of establishing reliable knowledge in any field of inquiry, and on the scientific tools and methodology needed to do so. Books along these lines include Nobel Dreams (Random House 1987), and Bad Science, The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion (Random House, 1993), a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Awards.

Daily Bell: Can you tell us about some of your books? You seem to take a decidedly idiosyncratic point of view. Is that part of your nature or a professional gambit?

Taubes: Well, all my books are effectively on the same subject – the sociology of science and what happens when the researchers involved are less than rigorous about how they pursue the science. I've often joked with my friends that I've written the same book three times – first on high energy physics (Nobel Dreams), then on nuclear physics (Bad Science) and finally on something people actually care about, nutrition, obesity and chronic disease (Good Calories, Bad Calories). But they're all about the difficulty of doing good science and how easy it is to get the wrong answer if you're anything less than relentless in your attention to detail and to what the data actually imply. This is an idiosyncratic approach, only because most science and health journalists tend to see their jobs as translating the difficult subjects of science and medicine into language the lay public can understand. They're either not interested or unaware that some of the subjects they're reporting are not based on reliable knowledge. I'm all too familiar with scientists who delude themselves about the quality of their data and it's made me take a much more skeptical approach to the subject. I also find the borderline between good and bad science fascinating, so this is my preferred area of study.

Daily Bell: Give us some of your background. How did you create a career along these lines?

Taubes: I was an undergraduate physics major and I did a master's program in engineering, but it was clear that I wasn't cut out, intellectually, for a career in either field. After reading Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men, I decided that investigative reporting was the career for me and got another master's degree in journalism. I only started working as a science reporter because that was the only job that I could find after graduate school that didn't require relocating to some far and, to me, unappealing corner of the country. I then spent a few years as a reporter and writer for Discover magazine before going off to write my first book – Nobel Dreams. I lived for nine months at CERN, the European physics lab outside Geneva, thinking I was going to write about the next great breakthrough in high energy physics, and instead found myself chronicling the misadventures of a huge collaboration of physicists, led by Carlo Rubbia, a Nobel laureate and future director general of CERN, as they discovered non-existent elementary particles. It was an intense learning experience in how hard it is to do good science and how easy it is to get the wrong result.

When my book came out I thought I'd never work in science journalism again – Rubbia was quoted in the New York Post calling me "an asshole" – but instead I kept meeting scientists who wanted to tell me about the bad science (and bad scientists) in their field and point me — like a gun, in effect — in the direction of the problem. After I wrote Bad Science, which was about the cold fusion fiasco of 1989, a subject that obsessed me because, among other things, it was so obviously wrong, some of my friends in the physics community said, "if you think the science in cold fusion is bad, you should look at the research suggesting that electromagnetic fields cause cancer." and they were right. That connection was based on observational epidemiology and observational epidemiology is the basis of much of the conventional wisdom on nutrition and chronic disease. I've been working on that connection ever since.

Daily Bell: Here are some of your books. Please respond to their titles with an update as to the impact of the books and how the subject matter has changed or evolved since you wrote them.

Nobel Dreams (1987) …

Taubes: This was about the mistaken discovery of "supersymmetric" particles by Rubbia and his collaboration at CERN, as well as the earlier work that won Rubbia the Nobel Prize. After my book, Rubbia went onto become director-general of CERN and was in large part responsible for convincing CERN to build the Large Hadron Collider, which is the machine that's just now coming back on line. I'm still a big fan of high energy physics and hope the machine actually finds something interesting, although I wouldn't actually bet that it will.

Daily Bell: Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion (1993) …

Taubes: This was about the erroneous claim in 1989 of cold fusion by two scientists at the University of Utah and the firestorm that followed. I ended up interviewing some 300 people involved, and described how and why it came about, and how it played out among the scientists, the politicians and in the press. Cold fusion was a non-existent phenomenon. It was the product of wishful thinking and very, very bad science. The catch is that it promised salvation – cheap, clean infinite energy – which is what made it so enticing. As I predicted at the end of the book, that kind of promise would lure people to it long after it became obvious to any reasonable scientist that it was simply wrong, and so interest in the subject would keep going indefinitely, although it would asymptotically approach zero as the years went by. Twenty years later, that prediction was dead on.

Daily Bell: Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007) …

Taubes: This was the result of my foray into public health and particularly nutrition and chronic disease research. It's hard to imagine how bad this science really is in that field until you go back and actually read the papers yourself and see how completely ambiguous the evidence was and how it was selectively interpreted to support the preconceptions of the researchers doing the studies. I spent, depending on how you want to count it, from five to seven or eight years on this one book. The first third of the book explains how we came to believe that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease and describes how this came about by selective interpretation of the evidence. The second third provides an alternative hypothesis, which is that most chronic diseases – heart disease, diabetes, cancer, even Alzheimer's – are caused by the effect of easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars on our blood sugar, insulin and fat accumulation. I never thought going into this that I'd actually find an alternative hypothesis that was compelling; I thought I'd just be debunking the conventional wisdom, which I already knew was the result of some terrible science. As it turned out, though, there was an obvious alternative hypothesis and a consistent line of evidence supporting it that went from the 19th century through to the latest research in the journals today. Finally, the last third of the book is about obesity and what makes us fat, arguing that it's not this simplistic and effectively meaningless calories-in-calories-out, but the effect of carbohydrates specifically on insulin and insulin on fat accumulation. As for the impact, I'm still hoping to see some. Some researchers in the field have read the book and find the arguments compelling, and I've been invited to give some fairly prestigious lectures that journalists rarely do – grand rounds in medical schools and the NIH, for instance – but I'd still say 99 percent of the relevant researchers and policy makers either don't know the book exists or would say it's nonsense, and then proudly proclaim they've never read it and never will.

Daily Bell: You joined Discover magazine at one point in your young career. Discover magazine strikes us as fairly mainstream and a publication not dedicated to doing what you definitely do – which is to push the boundaries of mainstream scientific inquiry. How did you get along there?

Taubes: I loved working at Discover. It was the early 1980s. Science journalism was seen as the next great frontier. And the staff included some remarkably smart and talented people. Once I established myself, the editors pretty much let me write about what interested me and they treated writers well. The one problem, what I didn't realize, is that this heyday of science journalism wouldn't last, and that ever since then it's been a downhill slope as Discover has gone from one owner to the next, and its competition has gone out of business. It's hard to make a magazine pay for itself when the subject is good hard science without (a lot) of embellishment.

Daily Bell: Were you surprised by the ruckus over your debunking the low-fat diet myth?

Taubes: Yes, although I shouldn't have been. What I didn't take into account was the effect a cover story in the New York Times Magazine has compared to, say, Science or the same story in a book. I'd never been in that position before, so now I know. Had I written the same story – "What if it's all been a big fat lie" – for Discover or Science it would have gone virtually unnoticed (as it's prequel "The soft science of dietary fat," published in Science, did indeed do). In fact, when GC,BC came out in 2007, I did a story for New York Magazine on why exercise doesn't lead to weight loss – a very controversial subject. The response was subdued, at best, because New York Magazine isn't widely read outside New York. A few months ago Time Magazine did a cover story on the same subject – arguably a poorly-conceived version of my NY Magazine story and the relevant section from my book, which Time quoted — and, bang, uproar!

Daily Bell: Do you have a follow up book in the works to Good Calories, Bad Calories?

Taubes: Two. One is probably going to be called Why We Get Fat and it takes the argument about obesity being caused by carbohydrates, not calories, and lays it out in 160 readable, polemical pages. One problem with GC,BC is that it was too technical for the lay reader and too long for the physicians and researchers and policy makers. As a result, the most important argument in the book – that the conventional wisdom on the cause of obesity is nonsensical – went mostly unnoticed. So this is my way of trying to take that critical argument and lay it out in a way that people might actually pay attention. Lay people can get through it and learn what they have to do to lose weight and keep it off. And the medical researchers and physicians might actually take the time to read it – skim it, at least – and learn something. Who knows, maybe even my fellow science and health journalists will read it, although that's probably asking too much of the world. The second book is a longer project on the history, politics and health effects of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which could be the fundamental problems in modern diets.

Daily Bell: What have you learned about the scientific establishment from your writings and its reaction?

Taubes: Well, I don't want to tar the entire scientific establishment. In general, I'd still rather hang out with a dozen scientists than a dozen lawyers or wall street bankers any day, but there are some fields of inquiry that have gone off the rails, where the researchers just don't understand what science is and how to do it. In the epilog to GCBC I talk about this problem and how I went out of my way not to use the word "scientist" to describe the people working in nutrition, chronic disease and obesity research. The few times I did use it, I did so because I thought those people were exceptions to the general rule — good scientists who would be recognized as such in any field. So what I learned is that skepticism is always warranted and that science journalists should approach their subject in the same way that political reporters approach politics or even sports reporters sports. We shouldn't assume something is true just because a figure of authority tells us so or because a paper was published to that effect in a peer reviewed journal. On the other hand, science is inherently more difficult to understand, or at least requires more technical background, than politics or sports and it requires a higher level of expertise to be skeptical in the right ways. I'm not sure many science journalists are smart enough to do the kind of skeptical reporting that's necessary, and I've often wondered if I'm one of those who could use an extra ten or twenty IQ points to do the job.

Daily Bell: Can you explain the main findings of your book on Good Calories, Bad Calories?

Taubes: I listed them in the epilogue of the book. Here's that list:

  1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease or any other chronic disease of civilization.
  2. The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion and so the hormonal regulation of homeostasis − the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily-digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on our health, weight and well-being.
  3. Sugars – sucrose and high fructose corn syrup specifically – are particularly harmful, probably because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevate insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbohydrates.
  4. Through their direct effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes. They are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer's Disease and the other chronic diseases of civilization.
  5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation not overeating and not sedentary behavior.
  6. Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter any more than it causes a child to grow taller. Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.
  7. Fattening and obesity are caused by an imbalance – a disequilibrium − in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue and fat metabolism: Fat synthesis and storage exceeds the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this balance.
  8. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated – either chronically or after a meal – we accumulate fat in our fat tissue. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.
  9. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The less carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.
  10. By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.

Daily Bell: Can you explain more about salt in diet and blood pressure, etc?

Taubes: For 50 years, researchers have been trying to causally link salt consumption to hypertension and the data has continued to be, at best, ambiguous. It's a nice hypothesis, but it just hasn't panned out in human trials or even, really, in the observational studies. On the other hand, it's been known since the 1870s that carbohydrates cause water retention and the more water you retain, simplistically speaking, the higher your blood pressure will be. It's been known since the 1950s that when people go on carbohydrate-restricted diets their blood pressure drops dramatically because of that water loss, and it's been known since the 1980s that one of the many things insulin does is regulate blood pressure. Moreover, hypertension is associated with obesity and diabetes so, in one sense, whatever causes obesity and diabetes also causes hypertension, and obesity and diabetes, as I explain in GCBC, are almost assuredly caused by the quality and quantity of carbohydrates in our diet.

Daily Bell: What do you think about CERN? We think it may be a big boondoggle?

Taubes: As I said, I'm a big fan of science and of high energy physics and I'm not against spending billions of dollars to learn how the universe works. The catch is that we may not learn anything significant because there may not be anything new to discover in the energy range of the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN. This will be perceived as a boondoggle – why did we spend all that money? But the only way to find out there's nothing there is to spend the money. It's the chance you have to take. So I personally hope the machine works and works well and that they can correctly interpret the data it produces, and that some remarkable discovery comes out of it, but if it doesn't or they can't, I still won't consider it a boondoggle, just another unfortunate lesson that nature isn't kind with her secrets and that science isn't easy (or cheap anymore).

Daily Bell: You think the inventors of so-called cold fusion are bad scientists. Can you tell us what makes a bad scientist and a good one?

Taubes: In a commencement address that Richard Feynman gave at Caltech in the 1960s, he said that "the first principle [of science] is that you must not fool yourself − and you are the easiest person to fool." So the simplest way to think about it is that good scientists are the ones who are most aware of this fact: how easy it is to be fooled by their data and to fool themselves. They're the ones who are most skeptical about their own work, not just the work of others. They're also aware that the only way not to be fooled is to work relentlessly to try to disprove your own pet theories, not try to confirm them. Bad scientists do one experiment, get some interesting result, decide they've discovered something new, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to somehow prove that they did. Again, science doesn't work that way. You have to put more faith in negative evidence than in positive; you have to put more effort into trying to refute your own beliefs and hypotheses, rather than trying to prove them. If you fail to refute them, then you can begin to take them seriously. And, yes, the inventors of cold fusion were bad scientists.

Daily Bell: What do you think of Nobel prizes?

Taubes: I have mixed feelings. Here are some of the negatives: they often glorify the big discoveries in science, rather than the hard work and rigorous science that makes those discoveries possible. In some cases, they go to people who would not even be on a list of the dozen best scientists in the field, but happened to be in the right place at the right time or had the political wherewithal to make an experiment happen. Because they can only be given to three scientists at most in any one field in any one year, they often create artificial distinctions about who did meaningful work and who didn't. And once they do any of these things, the people who get the Nobel have influence to effect research and funding priorities far beyond their peers (or even their betters). So the prizes can distort the science and the way we perceive the science in many different ways. As for the positives, well, they bring attention to the endeavor and they motivate a lot of scientists to do more interesting and challenging work than they otherwise might.

Daily Bell: Explain the term "pathological science," if you don't mind?

Taubes: It is a term invented by the Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir to describe what he called "the science of things that aren't so." Cold fusion is a classic example of pathological science: it doesn't exist. It's a non-existent phenomenon, but that didn't stop dozens, maybe even hundreds of researchers from studying it or publishing papers about it, etc. And those researchers, as Langmuir put it, were mostly the ones who "are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions." You can find Langmuir's original essay on line by clicking here now.

Daily Bell: Is the Atkins diet misunderstood? Is criticism unwarranted?

Taubes: Yes, I believe it is misunderstood. Fundamentally it's a diet that restricts only carbohydrates, which is a good thing to do because it's the carbohydrates that make us fat. It allows us to eat as much as we want of protein and fat, which is a good thing, because these nutrients don't make us fat and so we can eat until our bodies are satisfied, but not get fat because of it. And, yes, I think the criticism is misconceived and always has been. In effect, the nutritionists and the physicians and the researchers and public health authorities who got us into this situation decided they were going to bet our lives (not necessarily theirs) on the belief that saturated fat caused heart disease and ignore all the hard science on the regulation of adipose tissue metabolism telling us that carbohydrates are the problem. They also had to ignore, and they did, a century of anecdotal evidence that carbohydrates are fattening so that they could tell us to eat less fat and more carbs. I find this unreasonable on the face of it, but it was made worse by the fact that the data implicating saturated fat in heart disease was always bad, as well. Much of the evidence actually exonerated saturated fats, so the researchers did what bad scientists always do, which is rationalize away this negative evidence and only pay attention to the positive. When I was reporting a lengthy story on salt and hypertension for Science back in the late 1990s, one Scottish physician memorably referred to this way of working as "Bing Crosby epidemiology": you accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. It's got a nice rhythm to it, but it's the essence of bad science.

Daily Bell: How can someone lose weight? Proper diet and exercise? What constitutes that?

Taubes: As I concluded in GCBC, we get fat not because we eat too much or because we're sedentary but because the carbohydrates in our diet raise insulin levels and insulin works to store fat in the fat tissue. Since carbohydrates literally make us fat, then the only way to become lean again is to avoid the offending agents – the carbohydrates. So proper diet to me is a diet that avoids easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars – in essence, all those foods that my mother's generation thought were uniquely fattening: bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, soft drinks, beer, sweets, pastries, etc. I don't think the fat content of the diet is nearly as important as the carbohydrate content and it may be effectively irrelevant if we get the carbohydrate part right. This is an unconventional point of view but, as I said, having spent much of the last decade reading the relevant literature back to the 19th century, I find this far more compelling than what we've been taught to believe.

Daily Bell: Do you believe in global warming?

Taubes: Usually. Although I can understand the perspective of the skeptics, as well.

Daily Bell: Thanks for taking the time to speak to our readers. We admire your work a great deal.

After Thoughts

Most science writing is of the "gee whiz" variety but Gary Taubes is one of the few brave souls who dare to ask the hard questions. His focus on what constitutes good science and what makes bad science is most helpful in delineating what is going on today. His bravery in following legitimate conclusions about nutrition and diet has not endeared him to those who seek to use the creation and ingestion of food as a kind of political manifesto.

In fact, our only criticism of Taubes (and it not a criticism so much as an observation) is that in our opinion his skepticism about what passes for science these days does not go far enough. However, in deference to the man and his significant work we will add that he himself is of a scientific caste, understated and somewhat linear in his methodology. He may believe in wider conclusions based on his work, but we get the feeling he is not about to make broad statements about science given that even his rigorously researched conclusions have caused a good deal of controversy.

So we will jump into the fray for him. We tend to believe – and this is NOT an opinion we have arrived at through any kind of numerical or scientific analysis – that the entire Western scientific culture has been perverted by the endless amounts of money cast at it by governmental entities at the behest of a small coterie of individuals with great wealth and a generational agenda. This goes to the heart of the Daily Bell's ongoing analysis, which is all about the growing efforts by the monetary elite to impose dominant social themes on the West's increasingly harried masses.

The imposition of dominant social themes – promotions, if you will – has grown dramatically in our opinion throughout the 20th century as psychology and technology became ever-more sharply honed tools that allowed those in power to create useful and wealth-generating ventures.

We have also come to realize that the monetary elite does almost everything of a POLICY nature in the open so that those who are involved in its efforts cannot be accused of cover-ups. When it does do anything that has the slightest hint of secrecy along these lines (Google Bilderbergers) the backlash is immense, especially in the era of the Internet. What has developed, therefore, necessarily, is a group of interconnected think tanks, NGOs, non profit agencies and quasi-governmental entities that tend to come up with the dominant social themes that are then promoted throughout the West – once the proper scientific support has been arranged.

What are some of these? Overpopulation, climate change, extinction of animals, carbon poisoning, tailored vaccines to address individual deadly diseases, etc. Each of these and many more are based not on science but on "opinion" and the science, what there is of it, takes place after the fact. The idea, in our estimation, is to create promotions that frighten people into giving away money and control to "authorities" and companies that provide appropriate "solutions."

Without fear there is no convincing reason to act. Without panic there is no reason to do so immediately. Creating an endless climate of fear through constant exhortations that the world is ending if this or that problem is not resolved through gobs of taxpayer money is a lucrative business.

Global warming is perhaps the most egregious of these promotions (or memes). Temperatures have seemingly been going DOWN for the past decade, and recently we are beginning to see articles admitting this fact, albeit reluctantly, in the pages of such publications as Der Spiegel. But the signifier of an elite promotion is that it is not the least bit derailed by the facts. It takes an inordinately big ruckus to derail a dominant social theme because a lot of money goes into marketing them and so many people eventually make lucrative careers supporting them.

Facts are fungible when it comes to dominant social themes. The logic doesn't matter, only the result (more laws, more taxes, etc.) Side effects are routinely pooh-poohed. Difficulties are set aside. Logical argument becomes irrelevant.

Money is the motivating factor in all this. The amount of public money thrown at science today is infinitely corrupting. If you are a researcher, where are you going to go? Universities in the West are on the public dole and private institutions for the most part are linked in some form or other to governmental entities as well – or at least share stated agendas.

Science in our humble opinion, is a commodity in this day and age. Those behind the world's dominant social themes see science as an adjunct to important messages designed to generate yet more wealth and control. At the moment, we live not in an age of reason but an age of promotion. Of course we believe that the Internet is changing all that. But in the meantime, bad science will continue to be churned out by those more interested in supporting dominant social themes than seeking the truth. There are only a few in the recent past who have tried to combat this trend. Gary Taubes is one of them.

(Editor's note: The above was written before the story broke on the leaked emails that apparently show "collusion" among global warming supporters.)

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