Gary Taubes tries to overwhelm the reader with sheer verbiage

Gary Taubes has written a response to Michael Fumento's article "Big Fat Fake," which appeared in the March issue of Reason. Below is Fumento's reply to Taubes.

Gary Taubes devotes 9,400 words - 1,400 words more than his original New York Times Magazine piece - to attacking a 5,500-word article that, he writes, "simply doesn't deserve a response." His apparent strategy is to try to overwhelm the reader with sheer verbiage. His use of insults such as calling me a "wannabe medical journalist" (I have published three medical books with major publishers; he's published two) speaks for itself.

Consider his discussion of Walter Willett, who, as Taubes puts it, "chastised" him for neglecting Willett's "anxieties about red meat and colon and prostate cancer." These so-called "anxieties" were irrelevant to my purpose, which was to illustrate Taubes's habit of omitting all studies, facts, and quotes that hurt his thesis. Specifically, I stated that Taubes "quoted or invoked the name of [Willett] seven times during his piece. Willett protests, however, that 'I told Taubes several times that red meat is associated with higher risk of colon and possibly prostate cancer, but he left that out.'" So both Willett and I are making the assertion that Taubes clips quotes. Rather than address this, Taubes circumvents it.

But the question remains: Why did Taubes slice out Willett's assertion? And why in his 9,400-word response did he find no room to address another such example I provided: the email in which National Institutes of Health researcher Richard Veech said Taubes "omitted to say that I strongly urged people to not use the Atkins diet without the supervision of a physician." Taubes even uses his letter to clip Willett again. "Willett is perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the idea that total fat calories are irrelevant to the obesity epidemic," writes Taubes. True, but he's also outspoken in saying, as he told me for my book, The Fat of the Land, "As far as body fat goes, it doesn't make a difference where your calories come from." He thus explicitly rejects the Atkins-Taubes thesis that only carbohydrates make you fat.

Likewise, Taubes spends 1,300 words trying to exculpate himself from John Farquhar's accusations. Taubes's message is that we should pay no attention to what Farquhar said, but rather what he meant to say as interpreted by Gary Taubes. But how much more straightforward can you get than this: "I was greatly offended by how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins diet."? Or this: "I think he's a dangerous man. I'm sorry I ever talked to him."? Or Farquhar's declaration that if Taubes "tries to make it look like I'm saying that I was supporting the idea that the obesity epidemic was from overloading on carbohydrates [as Taubes did] that this was so far off the mark that I would have to vomit." Farquhar also ripped Taubes' treatment of his words in the November 2002 Nutrition Action Healthletter.

Likewise with Stanford's Gerald Reaven: Taubes thinks a good song and dance can erase such damning statements as: "I thought [Taubes's] article was outrageous," that "in the context it looked like I was buying the rest of that crap," and "I tried to be helpful and a good citizen, and I ended up being embarrassed as hell. He sort of set me up." Taubes writes that he has Reaven on tape saying "I think [the Atkins diet] is a great way to lose weight," but I'll stick with such public statements as an online interview in which Reaven declares: "One can lose weight on a low-calorie diet if it is primarily composed of fat calories or carbohydrate calories or protein calories. It makes no difference!"

Taubes insists that "Only recently, however, have mainstream medical researchers concluded that perhaps [Atkins'] very-low-carbohydrate diet is worth testing." Yet in his Times article, Taubes noted that Ancel Keys was studying low-carbohydrate diets in the 1950s - and concluding they were superior to what Atkins would later recommend. Plug "low-carbohydrate" and "obesity" into the NIH-operated online database PubMed and you'll find 102 publications dating back just to 1967.

Taubes's excuse for excluding from his piece researchers who rejected the Atkins-Taubes thesis is bizarre. "The obvious point is that this majority [of scientists] has gotten plenty of space to air their views over the decades," he declares. "They didn't need my help." So if you're writing a piece on another widely accepted modern superstition, for example magnet therapy, then because most doctors says it's baloney it's okay to omit them?

As Barbara Rolls put it, Taubes is "very selective in what he chooses to include because he's trying to sell a specific line," but "that's not how science should be done. You can't interview everybody and simply ignore the people you don't want to hear."

Paul Raeburn, president of the National Association of Science Writers, agrees. "I do think that Gary Taubes's piece was misleading," he said in a December 2002 American Journalism Review article. That article's writer noted that, "Raeburn says Taubes should have emphasized throughout the article that he was advancing an unproved viewpoint and that many studies support the other side." I myself did not omit a single comment from anybody who believed Taubes's article "had merit" because not a single one did.

Taubes also insists that space limitations kept him from using quotes from supporters of his position, specifically naming Dr. Jules Hirsch. Would that be the same Hirsch who told me that, "I'm glad he [Taubes] didn't quote me," because he knew his position would be distorted? According to Hirsch, "Taubes has craftily brought this back from the dead somehow but he can't prop it up too long." That same Hirsch is paraphrased by Taubes's fellow contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, in the March-April 2003 issue of Modern Maturity, as saying "Most of the ex-Atkins dieters he has seen, he notes, regained all their lost weight soon after they stopped the diet."

Regarding fat intake, Taubes admits, "Fumento prefers to use what are known as food availability data, as do I in most circumstances, although not this one." Why not? It's the same reason as always: It doesn't support his thesis. Availability data as a surrogate for consumption is problematic because it doesn't measure food lost en route to the consumer's mouth. But consumption data is terribly inaccurate, because as myriad studies show, people fib to themselves and to researchers about what they eat and how much. Availability data trends, however, are reliable; and these clearly show Americans eating more fat as well as everything else. There's your explanation for the obesity epidemic; no Atkins-Taubes hocus-pocus theories required. Taubes's effort to explain away this increase in fat consumption by saying that a lot of it is from fried foods in the fast-food industry as well as the increased use of salad oils is another of the red herrings with which his piece is littered. What matters is not the source of the fat; it matters only that we're eating more than ever.

Taubes criticizes my use of material from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and even suggests a conspiracy theory to explain its conclusions. But every review study I could identify -- only three of which I had room for in the piece -- showed just what that the Journal of the American Dietetic Association did: High-fat diets make high-fat people. Taubes found no reviews to contradict these studies, admitting now that the one review he put forth as an exception, the Cochrane meta-analysis, wasn't even on point. I further invite readers to trust neither Taubes nor myself on this, but rather to enter "diet composition" and "obesity" into PubMed, look for article titles that are obviously on point, and read the conclusions.

My article addressed at length the absurdity of ruling out randomized-controlled trials regarding dietary intake on the basis of intervention problems, noting among other things that the five unpublished studies that Taubes falsely claimed support the Atkins-Taubes thesis were all intervention studies. None employed the "gold standard" of double-blind, placebo-controlled. His attempt to confuse "intervention effects" with "intervention studies" is just more hot air. If the published "intervention studies" with their "intervention effects" are all untrustworthy, then so too are the unpublished ones. Moreover, much of the data that damns the Atkins regimen is from an ongoing, repeatedly analyzed national food survey (called NHANES); by definition "survey" means no intervention.

Taubes says that the criticism of the Atkins diet offered by University of Colorado's James Hill contradicts that of his co-researcher, Gary Foster. But in my original piece, I quoted Foster explaining that "the probable explanation for the greater weight loss in the groups on the Atkins regimen" is that it "gives people a framework to eat fewer calories, since most of the choices in this culture are carbohydrate driven. . . . You're left eating a lot of fat, and you get tired of that. Over time people eat fewer calories." Hill and Foster agree; it's Taubes who's left on the outside looking in. Nonetheless, he repeats his claim that there's "some metabolic benefit gained by restricting carbohydrates," a notion also explicitly rejected in my piece by another co-author of the five studies, Randy Seeley of the University of Cincinnati.

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  • ||

    Fumento's response to 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.

  • ||

    As someone that read all of Taubes book, I think Mr. Fumento grossly misrepresents what Taubes said - Taubes ending point was that good answers needed more research - he even stated that in order to edit down the size of the book that they left out the some of the other side of the Low-carb/low/fat debate ( the Keys dogma has been repeated so often in other places - did he need to include it?) .

    Taubes did a good job of pointing out the junk science involved with Keys' lowfat montra.

    Mr. Fumento says

    "Nonetheless, he repeats his claim that there's "some metabolic benefit gained by restricting carbohydrates, a notion also explicitly rejected in my piece by another co-author of the five studies, Randy Seeley of the University of Cincinnati"

    I think this view point totally discredits Fumento. Is there anyone here that doesn't get the carbohydrate connection? That is: Eating carbs causes insulin to go up - insulin increases hunger - hungry people eat more - people that eat more get obese. YMMV - but a large portion of this carbohydrate gobboling country became obese following the low-fat montra.

    Should he have used observational studies to refute observational studies? I would think both studies would have to agree to let the Keys take stand.

    Taubes does not have to prove low-carb to show that low-fat was wrong headed - showing counter examples destroys the Keys argument - he leaves it to future studies to sort it out.

    I'm pretty sure Taubes is correct - I'm not sure how much is just carbohydrate and how much is fructose - but stopping sugar did not let me lose weight (did the earlier sugar damage my insulin system?) - cutting carbs did. The place I would leave company with Taubes is he did not spend time on looking at the different kinds of fat - and I think that is important.

    Is the Atkins-ish take from Taubes book the whole picture? I think not - we are still learning what we should eat. (less SFA

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  • Andy||

    No I'm sorry Fumento, Taubes won in that argument hands down! Also, defences against criticisms tend to require expansions (the provision of more details) if they are to be effective and thorough, which would account for the "sheer verbiage" of which you accuse Taubes. In order to be thorough in his defence against your criticisms, he had no choice but to write at length. It didn't "overwhelm" me though. He owned that contest. Your comeback was second rate.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Simple as it gets:
    I lost over a third of my body weight without hunger by eating low carb and high fat.
    I have kept it off for eight years that way.
    Low fat semi-starvation didn't work, even with two hours/day of exercise.

  • rpavich||

    Lol...

    Quote:
    I shall make no effort to refute point-by-point someone who in fear for his reputation as a science writer has decided he can substitute length for facts.

    Well that's pretty obvious...but I don't think that's the reason.

    Your original piece was a one-sided-ill-reasoned hit piece, and Gary's response was a careful rebuttal of a few main points; all without insulting...something you seem not to be able to do.

    Then your rebuttal isn't a rebuttal at all....but more spewage and the refusal the correct Gary (evidently not possible so a run and smoke grenade approach was taken.)

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