The Drama of Nutrition

Intro

When I started this podcast/blog a few years ago, I was basically doing it as a way to kill time. I really liked listening to podcasts, I enjoyed talking to people smarter than me, and I enjoyed editing and producing the audio. I started it in grad school and found it to be terribly satisfying. The blog portion of this endeavor was mainly as a “show notes” page or summary page. Eventually the podcast portion of this site went dormant some years ago, although I keep telling myself I will revive it soon. It’s very common for me to run across someone in person or in a book or something and think. “This is fascinating. I should see if they would not mind being interviewed.” But I rarely actually reach out to people for interviewing anymore because I know I won’t have the time. Others can interpret that as I choose not to make time for doing it which is probably fair, too.

Then I got out of school and started climbing the career ladder and the blogging itself became less and less frequent. Nonetheless I always imagined this would be a place to discuss academic nutrition science, nutrition science in the news, the food industry, food safety, food chemistry, and all that nonsense. However, this post will be a little different. This is going to effectively be about stupid he-said-she-said bullsh*t, high school drama with only a passing relation to actual nutrition science, so if that kind of thing is not your bag then just skip this post.

Background

I became compelled to write this post after seeing a tweet by Nina Teicholz the other day.

This tweet links to a post that paints Teicholz as something of a nutrition policy martyr: someone who just wanted to bring capital-T Truth to the ignorant masses and is crucified for it like some sort of modern day Galileo. I don’t know much background on what exactly happened, but the Consumer Federation of America organized a conference on nutrition policy that included several panels on the topic of nutrition policy. Apparently someone over there had the boneheaded idea of inviting Teicholz to be one of the panelists.1

Who knows what happened after that. Maybe someone decided to do some actual research on her or maybe all the other panelists were insulted to even be on the same panel as Teicholz.2 Now they have two choices, both of which are sub-optimal: keep Teicholz on the panel and undermine your other panelists and possibly your organization’s reputation or uninvite her and give her perhaps the greatest marketing gimmick she has had all year. It would seem CFA chose the latter. She can now claim that the self-proclaimed nutrition elite are attempting to silence discussion and debate, and she has trumpeted this quite loudly at least on Twitter. It plays right into her narrative.

Vigorous Debate

Here we get to the meat and potatoes of this post. I don’t think Teicholz has any real desire for a substantive debate on the science, she just wants to appear that she does because it sounds good to the people who buy her books and the (misinformed) billionaires that fund her fledgling Nutrition Coalition advocacy group.

I know she cares not for any kind of scientific debate because she had agreed to come on my podcast to discuss her book in a more skeptical light then blew it up. She agreed, but then mere hours before we were to meet she told me that she would not do the interview, but that if I scrubbed my posts on her she would “feel more enthusiastic” about meeting.

teichols emails

For some context I had invited her on the podcast multiple times and was ignored each time.3 That is until Marion Nestle linked to my blog and Techolz admonished her for doing so in the comments, along with some contradicting opinions regarding my blog: it was the only serious critique of her work she had seen and even thanked me for my “good work” yet it was apparently sloppy and riddled with errors.4 I again invited her to discuss these alleged errors on my podcast to which she surprisingly agreed!5

So we emailed back and forth to nail down a time that worked for both of us. Then at literally 2:25am, a few hours before we were supposed to get together, she emails me claiming that she was too busy to meet. (She also asked me if I was going to some sort of BBQ dinner which is what that is about.) Then I said what I did above.

I think the message is pretty clear. She will not engage with any skeptics, despite the following statement in her book6:

A scientist must always try to disprove his or her own hypothesis. Or, as one of the great science philosophers of the twentieth century. Karl Popper, described, “The method of science is the method of bold conjectures and ingenious and severe attempts to refute them.”

Also around this time I heard more than just a rumor from an acquaintance at NYU that Teicholz was attempting to hire a NYU grad student to research the citations in my critique of her book. The fact that she attempted this speaks volumes. Shouldn’t she posses the studies she herself cited, and shouldn’t she be able to understand and interpret them?

Interestingly this attempt to hire someone to presumably research my critique was immediately after she agreed to come on my podcast: Feb 24, 2015. I am assuming since no rebuttal to my critique has appeared from Teicholz, no grad student took her up on her temporary employment offer. Either that or perhaps someone did but found no errors in my work.

Bottom Line

It’s pretty evident that Teicholz is not interested in debating the merits of “her” ideas. She wants no part in a vigorous scientific discussion. She does not want to engage with anyone skeptical of the ideas she writes about.

Still I am open to the possibility that people can change. If she at any point is interested in having that conversation we should have had over a year ago in Austin I welcome it. Despite the fact that she gave me the shaft that day, Nina can consider this an open invitation to have that great debate.

Epilogue

I read a piece in the New Yorker today by Atul Gawande.7 It was about science deniers. A paragraph caught my eye and made me think of the low-carb movement:

Science’s defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another.

If anyone follows the diet wars I think you can see where I am going here. I’m not about to write a treatise on this, but a few bullet points are okay, right?

They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views.

  • This is literally what The Big Fat Surprise and Good Calories, Bad Calories are about. Most all other low-carb nonsense being derived from Good Calories, Bad Calories, anyway.

They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record.

  • Just look at the parade of clowns that Tom Naughton in Fat Head claims are experts. What other standard-bearers do we have for the current low-carb movement? Jimmy Moore?  Zoe Harcombe? Are you kidding me with these people? Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz have been so thoroughly discredited it’s amazing they can still pretend to be experts. Oh yeah, money. Volek and Phinney are probably the best they have. Or Kevin Hall. No wait he is a traitor because he might be publishing results not favorable to NuSI.

They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field.

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2014/06/nina-teiholz-shaister-part-i-diets-of.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2014/06/nina-teiholz-shaister-part-ii.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2014/06/nina-teiholz-shaister-part-iii-well.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2014/06/nina-teiholz-shaister-part-iv-random.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2014/06/plagerizing-plagiarism-and-plagiarists.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2014/05/no-big-surprise.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2015/02/nina-teicholz-distorts-facts-again.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2015/02/nina-teicholz-corrects-big-fat-surprise.html

http://carbsanity.blogspot.com/2015/03/nina-teicholz-distorts-fatty-acid.html

Slipp Digby discusses Teicholz’s biases

http://slippdigby.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/nina-teicholz-health-ministers-and-the-swedish-government-low-carb-diet-guidelines/

http://slippdigby.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/eat-like-an-ancient-egyptian/

And others:

http://velvetgloveironfist.blogspot.com/2015/03/nina-teicholzs-big-fat-surprise.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/diet-and-nutrition_b_5266165.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/were-fat-and-sick-and-the-broccoli-did-it_b_6744724.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-f-jacobson/distorting-nutrition-facts-to-generate-buzz_b_6776024.html

http://www.foodpolitics.com/2015/02/dietary-guidelines-shouldnt-be-this-controversial/

(I might be leaving a few out…)

They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies.

  • Like it’s going out of style. The ad hominem, the straw man, tu quoque, petitio principii, special pleading, and the good ol’ anecdotal evidence are also popular.

And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another.

  • Indeed. Epidemiological studies are used to make the case for low carb diets, yet when they are used in favor of a more plant-based diet then all of a sudden epidemiology is not a real science, and clinical trials are the only acceptable evidence. When clinical trials are marshaled in favor of diets that are not low-carb then there is always a reason to dismiss them: The population is too small, the duration was too short, they didn’t measure the right things, the diets weren’t controlled well enough, some people dropped out, the author of the study spoke at a vegetarian conference, or one study doesn’t prove anything. I am not making any of these up, by the way. They are real excuses.

cloud

1. Not that panels like this have any real effect on policy making. It’s not like the Consumer Federation of America is an arm of the government or anything. It appears to be a private non-profit advocacy group. And speaking as someone who has attended a number of conferences like these it’s just a lot of navel-gazing, and I think an excuse for some people to get away from their jobs for a week and stay in a Hilton on their employer’s dime. Networking for the purposes of advancing one’s career is probably the the only real outcome of conferences like these. But that’s just my opinion, I could be a cynical old coot.

2. I know I would be upset if I had spent my entire career involved with nutrition policy and I get invited to speak on a panel with someone who clearly has no knowledge or education in nutrition or policy (other than cranking out a poorly researched book). I mean, imagine a different panel discussing something like foreign policy and you have a four-star general, a professor of political science, a former ambassador… and Alex Jones. Just being on the panel lends credibility to crackpot ideas.

3. If you click that reddit link to Teicholz’s AMA you’ll find links by /u/melissaf1015 that I actually think is really Teicholz herself trying her hand at astroturfing.

4. Interestingly, every time Teicholz mentions me in a comment section of a site or elsewhere she makes a number of errors about yours truly that are completely made-up, while the actual facts about me are easily found on my About page.

5. Not that it really matters, but I was actually both very excited and very nervous about the prospect. I wanted it to be a really well-done episode, so I spent a great deal of time researching and even bought some fancy new recording equipment. This had all the makings of a great podcast episode.

6. Gary Taubes unsurprisingly makes the exact same statement in Good Calories, Bad Calories.

7. As it happens, Atul Gawande unfortunately kind of, sort of (but not really) endorses Teicholz in a tweet. Shame he wasn’t a bit more discerning before tweeting her out.

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8 thoughts on “The Drama of Nutrition

      • Cool, just circled back and saw this — thanks. I am a fan of Paul’s generally reasoned approach to diet (and his openness to critique, and willingness to revise his own recommendations), and was surprised to see him in such company — particularly since the PHD was probably the galvanizing force for the “safe starch” renaissance of the past few years.

        That being said, I’m sure it’s not “perfect.” I thought the commentary at http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/03/04/book-review-the-perfect-health-diet provided good food for thought.

  1. Now that NuSI has driven a stake through its own heart it’s time for some apologies.

    Ten years wasted chasing fructose down a rabbit hole has cost the country billions in obesity health problems.

    Ten years of telling people that “fat will not make you fat” has cost the country billions in obesity health problems.

    Ten years of telling people that exercise is ineffective for weight loss has cost the country billions in obesity health problems.

    Because MANY people reading Gary’s crap advice in the popular press believed it. And followed it to the detriment of their health. There were serious consequences from feeding America this line of bullshit.

    Taubes needs to admit that the flawed memory-based NHANES study that led him to believe that US fat consumption is decreasing [reread 2002’s “What if it’s all been a big fat lie” – the discredited NHANES study launched Taubes’ entire franchise] is wrong and is inconsistent with USDA’s regular reports of increasing US fat consumption. In 2010 we were eating 44% of our calories as fat, and nearly double the amount of fat we ate in the meat-and-potatoes days of 1909. And fat didn’t make us fat? Bull.Shit.

    Taubes needs to admit that the obesity problem is due to eating too much seed oil fat AND processed carbs, and spending too much ass time on electronic media.

  2. Seth… met you on the plane from Denver to Seattle last week when you noticed I was reading “The Case Against Sugar”. As I said, I bought the book because I heard him being interviewed and he seemed to make a reasonable case so I wanted to learn more.

    Interesting discussions here. After reading some of the posts here I will also pick up “Eat Well and Stay Well”.

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