I was recently led to this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review via Twitter, where it was retweeted by @ProfTimNoakes. Tim Noakes, for those of you who may not have heard of him, is a South African sport scientist who used to be the guru of “carbo-loading” for major sports events like marathon-running, as chronicled in his once-iconic book, The Lore of Running. This year he caused a bit of a stir when he turned that lore on its head and declared that everything he had said about carbo-loading was false. Instead, he became the latest advocate for a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, which also means he became the latest poster-child for the deceased Robert Atkins and the very-alive-and-kicking Gary Taubes. (Read the Philosophe’s take on Noakes here)
These days you don’t have to actively seek out information about diets and eating to have come across some of the raging debates about what and how to eat, because even the Daily Mail will gladly fill you in on the latest while you’re catching up on Becks and Posh (just yesterday they reported on the possibility of the obesity crisis being “over” thanks to some amazing new research which can turn all our bad fat into good fat). And while reporting on science in popular media is in theory a good thing, in practice it too often turns out to be disastrous, because it too often is a) bad science reporting, b) a pissing contest or c) both. Cue the CJR article, which describes the “feud” between Gary Taubes and Gina Kolata, who had the apparent nerve to publish a Q&A with an esteemed scientist (that would be Dr. Jules Hirsch, ’emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University’, and an obesity researcher for almost six decades) who maintained that there is no magic diet – not even the Atkins/Taubes/Noakes one.
Now, normally I wouldn’t have pegged the CJR and the Daily Mail in the same category, but on the evidence of this piece, I’m not so sure any more. Author Paul Scott is clearly more convinced by Taubes than he is by Kolata, and that is his prerogative. But the “evidence” for supporting that side is laughable. As an example of how the low-fat ideology has been left ‘in the rear-view mirror’, he tells us that ‘Michael Pollan readily goes to bat for butter’. Pollanites can sigh and help themselves to another slice of foie, but the rest of us should say, “so?”. Here’s another factoid “in support” of the low-carb, high-fat lifestyle: ‘Public health interventions are taking aim at Big Gulps, not Ben & Jerry’s’. Right. So because someone is trying to limit my freedom to consume a bucket of coke, I can happily chow down a bucket of Ben & Jerry’s? (I’ll have the Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, because I’m in dire need of caffeine, plus if you add an ‘l’, it becomes Health Bar Crunch’):
(Thanks to Midlife Diplomatic Crisis blogger for the picture)
Almost worse, though, is the snarky tone of this piece which ends with a rather unsophisticated swipe at Kolata:
‘Poor Taubes. No one warned him that 600 pages of evidence were never going to be enough. The theory that weight gain boils down “calories-in, calories-out” is the last man standing in the diet wars. The principle anchors the comforting American belief that personal responsibility explains all of our ills. It validates all that wasted time on the treadmill that people like Kolata and others endorse. It keeps us watching shows like The Biggest Loser. It leaves the door open to low-calorie, high-carbohydrate food products that make the economy hum, are portable, do not require we learn to cook, make children stop crying, and taste good. Any efforts at reporting science to the contrary will always have a rough road.’
The person who originally tweeted the link to this piece – and who was retweeted by Tim Noakes – headlined it thus: ‘The diet wars at the NY Times: Who is winning and who smells of desperation?’
When, exactly, did this issue of public and private health turn into a competition? I could half understand a competition between scientists – because it would actually be cool to see who could come up with some real and ground-breaking science first – but between journalists? The only signs of desperation I smell here are from the ones who refuse to acknowledge that there is no magic marker that can wipe away the main culprit behind most people’s excess weight, which is (boring!) themselves.
Yes, I know that some people have metabolic disorders. I also know that some people are “pre-diabetic”, or “carb-resistant”, like Tim Noakes, which apparently means that he benefits particularly from the high-fat, low-carb diet. But that he benefits from it does not mean that you or I would, which also means that it is not automatically a public health serum, as he has repeatedly represented it as. I have read Taubes’ 600-page tome, and have been less impressed than bamboozled by the amount of evidence he presents for his cause. It was much the same at a Noakes talk I recently attended, where he threw study after study at the audience. Unfortunately throwing “evidence” at people isn’t a very solid approach (sceptics call this a Gish Gallop), particularly if you can’t answer the question (posed by me after the talk) of why he omits evidence that contradicts his thesis, or if a scientist like him admits in a public forum (as Noakes also did) to preferring observational studies to clinical trials. This should have all our alarm bells ringing, or rather the bullshit sirens wailing.
Some do. But they are quickly drowned out by the chorus of zombie voices who prefer the magic solutions. Ta-Nehisi Coates put it excellently in his comment on the Jonah Lehrer incident (is that too nice a word?) over at The Atlantic:
‘But we now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now.’