Given that there is an obesity epidemic, you might expect that when one of the world’s leading science writers, Gary Taubes, addresses the subject — challenging thirty years of official dietary advice — it would get a lot of press coverage. That the book took five years full-time to write, and has a 60-page bibliography indicating that pretty much all nutritional science over the past 150 years has been examined, means that journalism owes a lot of attention to such a work. However, as Google is my witness, this still seems not to have happened. As far as I can tell, The Economist -- my news chamberlain — should also be ashamed of itself.

My own excuse for not reading it yet is that it’s a big book and I’m a notoriously slow reader. But I’m kicking myself too that I missed it when it came out, even though my favourite blogs made mention of it, and a pretty hot thinker gave it a nod at some website or other that sells books out in the long tail.

I will doubtless come back to the book in future, published as Good Calories, Bad Calories in the US last autumn, and earlier this year as The Diet Delusion: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Loss and Disease in the UK. And I can’t wait to read it, now that the publisher has sent me a copy — that’s if I can wrest it from the Knackered Hackette’s grasp.

As an appetiser, there are two online video presentations Taubes has done around the book, one here given to the School of Public Health at Berkeley last autumn, the one below to the Stevens Institute for Technology. (They’re over an hour long, so if it rains at Wimbledon, you have something else to watch rather than Borg v McEnroe again.)

The presentations are an interesting example of journalistic method. But then, Taubes is unusual in his thoroughness. You could say that he approaches the job of journalist like a scientist, or by simply applying his scientific training. His subject matter — diet and public health — could not be more important. It also speaks for the importance of books, which have been getting a bit of a bashing by some online mavens recently, who, like so many of us, live their lives increasingly through the Googleprism. Elsewhere Taubes describes how long it takes to produce such a thoroughly researched work, but it is that thoroughness which reveals the power of looking back through the science, journalism and politics of a subject to see how an idea was born, and then cascaded into a conventional wisdom. Perhaps the following passage from an interview six months ago with blogging academic and self-experimenter Seth Roberts helps partially to explain what happens:-

Papers, and its still the case, for the most part, today, the people who got those jobs weren’t the shining intellects on the newspaper, and the shining intellects didn’t want to be diet and health writers. If you’re a whip-smart young guy or girl who wants to go into journalism, you want to be an investigative reporter, a political reporter, or a war correspondent; you don’t want to write about diet and health. Or at least you didn’t. So I think that was one of the problems….

  • …So now it’s 1977, the McGovern Committee and the USDA make these proclamations about what constitutes a healthy diet, and there’s simply no skepticism. (With the possible exception of Bill Broad writing in Science Magazine, which no one outside the field of science was reading.) So the government tells us that we should eat low-fat diets — and not even learned authorities in the government, but Congressman and USDA bureaucrats channeling 30-year-old congressional staffers — and lo and behold, all these health reporters decide it must be true. That’s the failure.

But I really liked Taubes’ self-indulgence, which seems fully justified in light of his own self-effacement:-

In my fantasy life, I get a call from the managing editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and they say they’ve read my book and they want to know how they can improve their health and diet reporting. Because they can see, whether or not I’m 100% right, or 80%, or only 50%, surely their reporters did something wrong. Now there’s a fantasy for you!

I’d extend his fantasy and suggest there’s a lot that Taubes as a journalist could teach these august institutions and their readers. The difficult question these days is: will someone pay for it all?

The whole interview is worth a very close read because Taubes describes too how he approaches the process of science writing and, above all else, identifying bad science. He applies some simple heuristics to divine a bad scientist when those he is dealing with are notionally more qualified than he. For example, this is how he assessed one figure:-

There are all kinds of signs. He told me there was no controversy, when there was obviously a controversy. His side might have been right, but to deny there was a controversy was ludicrous. He talked about the legitimacy of throwing out negative data. You measure salt consumption one way; you don’t see any effect on blood pressure, and so you decide that’s obviously the wrong way to measure it. The implication of everything he told me was that he knew what the answer was before he did his experiments, and then he adjusted his experimental techniques and methodology until he got the answer that he wanted. And he believed this was legitimate science. There are other signs. I’m a stickler about the use of words like “evidence” and “proof”. So if someone tells you there’s no evidence for some controversial belief, you can be fairly confident that they’re a bad scientist. There’s always evidence, or there wouldn’t be a controversy. If somebody says that “we proved that this was true” or “we set out to prove that this was true” that’s another bad sign. The point here, as Popper noted, among others, is that you can never prove anything is true; you can only refute it. So researchers who talk about proving a hypothesis is true rather than testing it make me worried.

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