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.

Taubes's dual challenge of my use and assessment of the Registry falls on both counts. I cited its use by numerous peer-reviewed publications to show that (once again) Taubes has cut himself off from the medical community in rejecting its usefulness. My interpretation of the study is precisely the same as that of James Hill and Rena Wing, who were in charge of it. The people in the Registry are keeping their weight off through a diet that is the opposite of what Atkins recommends. Yes, the Registry is uncontrolled; that's part of its value. It's an additional piece of information refuting Atkins-Taubes that happens to jibe with the controlled studies and the government surveys. Instead, Taubes prefers the Consumer Reports write-in survey which, unlike the Registry, had no mechanism for checking veracity or for tracking.

To reiterate, there is no empirical support for Taubes's assertion that high-fat intake can suppress hunger and he cited no such support, substituting instead another volley of verbiage. Barbara Rolls is certainly widely considered the top authority on the subject, with PubMed registering an amazing 49 references to articles using her name (Rolls BJ) and "satiety" as search terms. Try that with "Taubes" or "Atkins" and you'll find zip. Taubes also misrepresents the scope of Rolls' work; she has studied satiety in practically every way imaginable. Perhaps that explains why Taubes omitted every word from his six-hour interview with her, as well as all the work discussed in those 49 PubMed references. Furthermore, a PubMed search reveals that one review after another has found fat has no satiety advantage over carbohydrates.

There are numerous such misrepresentations in Taubes' response. Marion Nestle "is not and never has been an obesity researcher," says Taubes. Yet she's the author or co-author of six medical or science journal articles and one book on the subject. The "glycemic index concept" could help explain why the Atkins diet works, says Taubes. Is that why he couldn't do any better than to present hyperglycemia expert Michael Schwartz as a supporter of the concept when Schwartz had already written in Science that, "Although the concept that insulin triggers weight gain has little scientific merit, it remains a key selling point for advocates of diets that are low in carbohydrate and high in protein and fat"? Just whom might Schwartz be referring to?

Refuting Taubes' indignant assertions point by point would involve repeating my original essay; I refer readers back to that story. I'll merely conclude with his treatment of the 1973 AMA assessment, which again is refuted simply by rereading my article. The AMA found that, "The notion that sedentary persons, without malabsorption or hyperthyroidism, can lose weight on a diet containing 5,000 calories a day [as Atkins claimed] is incredible," that "no scientific evidence exists to suggest that the low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet has a metabolic advantage over more conventional diets for weight reduction," and "there is no reason to associate a diet rich in carbohydrate with obesity." All this Taubes summarized by saying the AMA "acknowledged that the diet probably worked."

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.

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of The Fat of the Land: The American Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves (Viking, 1997). His next book, on biotechnology, will be published in the spring by Encounter Books. An archive of Michael Fumento's work is online at fumento.com.

For Gary Taubes' reply to Michael Fumento, click here. Fumento's story "Big Fat Fake" appeared in the March issue of Reason. Taubes's story, "What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?," appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2002.