Continued from Part 1:
I interviewed Gary Taubes by phone a few weeks ago, shortly after he gave a talk about the main ideas of his new book — Good Calories, Bad Calories — at UC Berkeley. The interview lasted about 2 hours. This is part 2.
SETH: What do you think about prions?
GARY TAUBES: Here’s the problem with prions: the claim is that here’s a radical discovery — an infectious agent that doesn’t have nucleic acid — and it’s based fundamentally on a negative result, which is that when researchers have gone looking for the nucleic acids they failed to find them. Therefore, so the logic goes, they must not be there.
The original claim, by Stan Pruisner, another Nobel Prize winner, was premature. He made some claims in his early papers that were definitively wrong. Yet everything he’s done since then supports his initial claim, which suggests he’s was either remarkably lucky to begin with, or he’s only capable of interpreting his results so that they agree with his preconceptions. One of the themes in all of my work is that if you go public on premature data, what happens is that the motivation to do really good science ceases.
By “really good science”, what you’re supposed to do, as brutally as you can, is to try to come up with tests that would refute your own hypothesis. The idea is that if your hypothesis survives every rigorous test you can imagine, and all those that everyone else can imagine, then you can start believing itss true.
But once you’ve staked a claim based on premature data — once you’ve gone out on a limb without doing any of those rigorous tests — now your motivation becomes to prove that you were right., which you can never do in any case. But the point is that you stop trying to refute your hypothesis, and you start trying to accumulate evidence that supports it and the latter isn’t science. It’s more like what happens in religions.
SETH: That’s what happened with Peter Duesberg. He was a good scientist until he started making claims about HIV.
GARY TAUBES: When I wrote this prion article in 1987, the science was so bad that it was a joke. Still, I never said that the prion concept wasn’t correct; I just said there was excruciatingly little evidence to support it, and there were plenty of reasons to believe it was wrong.
How do you get strains of an infectious agent without nucleic acids (RNA or DNA) to encode the information in the strains? If you actually look today, even though Prusiner has won the Nobel Prize, if you go to the WHO website or the NIH website and you read up on prions, you’ll see that it’s still considered a hypothesis.
There’s still no way to explain how you can get strains without a virus. Prusiner has these ideas, but they’re along the lines of now “a miracle happens”. It’s another long story, but one of the problems (and this is a theme in my book), when you let an untested hypothesis grow and infect the science to the point where people start to believe it’s true, even though it’s never been rigorously tested, the obstacles against ever overturning it get bigger and bigger.
It’s like the dietary fat hypothesis: you let it sit around for 40 years, and it evolves to the point that people consider it dogma; it’s virtually impossible to overturn it. The situation with prions isn’t so bad because the public doesn’t care about prions the way that they care about diet, but once the Nobel Prize is awarded, even though it’s still considered a hypothesis, people tend to ignore the studies that suggest it’s wrong.
There’s one researcher from Yale who is constantly publishing evidence in major journals that she’s found the nucleic acids, and people just ignore her. They believe the question has already been answered.
SETH: What’s her name?
GARY TAUBES: Laura Manuelidis
Continued in Part 3: