An exercise in vitriol rather than sound journalism

Michael Fumento's article "Big Fat Fake" in the March issue of Reason led Gary Taubes to make the following response. Taubes is the author of the New York Times Magazine story "What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?," which Fumento examined in his Reason story. To read Fumento's reply to Taubes, click here.

To the editors:

I am ambivalent about writing this response to Michael Fumento's article ("Big Fat Fake"). On the one hand, the article simply doesn't deserve a response. It is a noteworthy exercise in vitriol, and perhaps self-aggrandizement, but it falls far short of legitimate journalism. On the other hand, journalists and historians, not to mention the occasional lay reader, have a tendency to assume that if something makes it into publication it is somehow de facto true or justifiable. This is never necessarily the case. For that reason, which I find slightly more persuasive, a published response might mitigate that tendency toward excessive credulity, at least in this particular circumstance.

Fumento's article attacks my work and my credibility, and then tries to sell it as a commentary on the state of science and medical journalism. His attempt might have been compelling had he managed to get at least a small percentage of his facts right and to avoid journalistic sins of omission and commission worse than any of which he accuses me. To put it simply, even on those rare and splendid occasions when Fumento does get a fact right, he still manages to thoroughly misrepresent my article and mangle the interpretation of the relevant science. While it's effectively impossible, even in the copious space I've taken, to rectify all Fumento's excessive distortions, the following attempts to clarify the key issues and correct some of the more egregious errors.

For starters, in his second paragraph, Fumento characterizes my article as arguing "that the consumption of too little fat [Fumento's emphasis] could explain the explosion in obesity." He does not quote the article, which would have been easy to do had it included such a declaration anywhere in its nearly 8,000 words, but it doesn't. Rather my article challenged the accepted dogma that obesity and excess weight are caused by the excessive consumption of fat calories, and instead suggested that it was caused by the excessive consumption of calories from refined carbohydrates and starches. I referred to this proposition repeatedly as the "alternative hypothesis", using the word "hypothesis" to imply strongly that it is not a fact but a supposition that should be rigorously tested. The article discussed the possibility that refined carbohydrates and starches might have a unique effect on our metabolism that either causes excessive hunger or an unbalanced deposition of calories in fat tissue. If so, it suggested, such a metabolic effect could explain the 150-year-old popularity of low carbohydrate diets for weight loss.

Dr. Robert Atkins and his eponymous diet played a major role in the article because Atkins has been preaching the evils of carbohydrates for at least 30 years. Only recently, however, have mainstream medical researchers concluded that perhaps his very-low-carbohydrate diet is worth testing. These trials, as a result, might shed light on whether the alternative hypothesis is scientifically meaningful.

Among Fumento's primary criticisms are that I only cite individuals who support my thesis and disregard those who don't. He ignores the fact that because the article challenges the accepted dietary dogma, and indeed acknowledges that challenge in the opening paragraph, by definition it implies that considerably more than half of all researchers and administrators believe the accepted dogma. If they didn't, it wouldn't be dogma. The point of writing the article was precisely to note that some equally respectable scientists question this dogma, and then to explain why. I defined the state of the argument as having undergone "a subtle shift in the scientific consensus" over the past five years: "It used to be that even considering the possibility of the alternative hypothesis, let alone researching it, was tantamount to quackery by association. Now a small but growing minority of establishment researchers have come to take seriously what the low-carb diet doctors have said all along." The phrase "small but growing minority" implies a large, albeit perhaps shrinking majority that will disagree with what I say. The obvious point is that this majority has gotten plenty of space to air their views over the decades. They didn't need my help.

Moreover, I interviewed close to 100 researchers for The New York Times Magazine article, to go with 150 or so for its March 2001 predecessor in the journal Science ("The Soft Science of Dietary Fat"). I quoted or attributed information to two dozen of them. Once again, as in any good work of journalism, the opinions of the great majority of those interviewed were left out--up to 90 percent in my case, depending on how you want to do the calculation. One hopes this is true of Fumento's research as well. If he is implying otherwise, then he only interviewed a dozen people for his story, which is woefully insufficient for such a complex and controversial subject.

If Fumento did interview more, then it's conceivable he omitted the comments, for instance, of those who believed that my article had merit. And then he was undeniably selective about which opinions he would publicly embrace in support of his thesis from those researchers he did interview. For instance, he first cites Harvard's Walter Willett chastising me for neglecting his anxieties about red meat and colon and prostate cancer. But then Fumento characterizes me as "clipping the data" for saying "that the percentage [Fumento's emphasis] of fat in the American diet has been decreasing for two decades," when Fumento thinks it would be more relevant to discuss the absolute number of fat calories consumed. Yet Willett is perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the idea that total fat calories are irrelevant to the obesity epidemic, a point he makes in print several times a year. A recent example was an article in the American Journal of Medicine just last December, co-authored with Columbia University researcher Rudy Leibel, in which Willett and Leibel phrase the point almost exactly as I did. "Moreover, within the United States," they wrote, "a substantial decline in the percentage of energy from fat [my emphasis] during the last 2 decades has corresponded with a massive increase in the prevalence of obesity."

As for Willett's red meat/cancer anxieties, which he did indeed reiterate to me numerous times, Willett himself acknowledges that the data are ambiguous. Willett's own Nurses' Health Study revealed an elevated risk of colorectal cancer in women who ate red meat frequently, but the Nurses' Health Study has recently arrived at the wrong answer on several major health issues--most notably, the effects of post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy--and so its credibility is debatable. Moreover, Willett played a major role in preparation of a 1997 report published by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research. That report noted that of seven studies similar to Willett's, three, including Willett's, saw an association between red meat and colorectal cancer, while the other four did not. As for prostate cancer, the authors of the report could find neither "convincing" nor even "probable" reason to believe that diets high in red meat increase risk. I could have mentioned this but, like Fumento, I was working with limited space and chose to use what seemed most relevant.

Fumento next accuses me of tricking Stanford University researcher John Farquhar into seeming to support the Atkins diet and he quotes an infuriated Gerald Reaven, also of Stanford, calling my article "outrageous" and saying that I set him up.

For starters, Reaven was not quoted in the article, a fact that he and Fumento apparently consider irrelevant. Reaven's name and research were mentioned in the context of two paragraphs on the history of Syndrome X that have precisely zero to say about the Atkins's diet and sit over 3000 words and 24 paragraphs after one discussion of the Atkins diet and 1500 words and 18 paragraphs before the next. When I interviewed Reaven last year, however, he did say the following about Atkins's diet, on tape, on the record, and I trust he won't mind me repeating it: "I think it's a great way to lose weight. That's not the issue." The issue, he said, was whether it was safe for long-term weight maintenance, which he doubted. Reaven believes saturated fat should be avoided, as well as carbohydrates. Atkins only advocates avoiding the latter.

As for Farquhar, if Fumento's reporting is accurate, then he would like an apology for how I used him in the article. Fumento reports it this way:

"I was greatly offended by how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins diet," he wrote in an e-mail he broadcast to reporters and to colleagues who were stunned that Farquhar might actually hold the beliefs Taubes attributed to him. "We are against the Atkins Diet," he wrote, speaking for himself and Reaven. "I told him [Taubes] there is the minor degree of merit" to the idea that "people are getting fatter because too much emphasis is being placed on just cutting fats," Farquhar told me. But "once I gave him that opening -- bingo -- he was off and running, even though I said about six times that this is not the cause of the obesity epidemic."

It is conceivable, however, that Farquhar's memory on this issue is not up to snuff. The relevant interview, in this case, occurred through e-mail and so relying on his memory is unnecessary.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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    Having read all three pieces in this debate, Fumento's critique of Taubes is so wholly inadequate I feel embarassed for him, and disappointed that Reason didn't vet Fumento seriously before publishing his original critique of Taubes. Taubes' position is increasingly permeating the research community and will likely be vindicated, leaving Fumento's piece as an embarassing example of Reason failing its mandate to provide critical analysis of contemporary debates. Reason's standards should be higher than merely being a forum for dissent -- you should have some standards for the dissent, and recognize dogmatic clinging to establishment thinking when you see it. The sooner the Lipid Hypothesis dies and refined carbs are recognized for their negative health effects the better the health of the world. We owe Taubes a serious debt of thanks for his integtrity and iconoclastic pursuit of reason. He shouldn't have had to offer this defense, likely only read by a fraction of those who read the original critique.

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    Great response. I'm disappointed that Reason didn't recognize expert-led dogma dished out by Fumento

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    Taubes writes, "Regrettably, Fumento doesn't seem to understand the critical point, and perhaps even the less critical points, and so makes us both look like idiots." Reminds me of the Rabbi's advice: "Never argue with a fool - passersby won't know who's who."

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    I am very interested in this debate. Undoubtedly, the calories in, calories out hypothesis that I was taught (my physiology professor said only calories mattered - you could eat only butter and you wouldn't weigh anymore if you ate 2,000 calories from lettice or butter).
    I think as biology advances, and it is understood that fat cells are not nearly the passive recepticles of "excess calories" that they were once thought to be, it will become to understood that what you eat matters for some percentage of the poplulation.
    Also, one thing that has to be understood is that we all differ. Some people can eat, eat, eat and not gain weight. Some people are sensitive to carbs, and some aren't.
    My own experience of going on a low carbohydrate diet was very salutory - I lost weight, my triglycerides decreased as well as my LDL cholesterol.

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    Is it possible to get a small concise article near the front page of either Vancouver BC newspaper. It should include Dr Wortman, Alert Bay, G&B Carbs and possibly Valemount? I so need help with an argument.

  • Dav||

    Excellent reply from Gary


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