Continued from Part 4:
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 5.

SETH: Well, I think your book is a great book, and I don’t think its effect is limited to how many reviews it gets. What books do you think your book resembles? I think of it as a book showing that authorities can be seriously wrong, but what do you think?

GARY TAUBES: You know, I don’t know, actually. I can’t answer that question without sounding like a crazed egomaniac, so I won’t. What the book does is try to explain why the paradigm of obesity and chronic disease has to change and then to offer the alternative paradigm. Although I don’t use the word “paradigm” in the second half of the book, that’s what it’s trying to do. I want people to stop thinking about obesity as a disorder of overeating, calories in over calories out, and think about it as a disorder of excess fat accumulation. That’s a classic paradigm shift, or at least so I think. I don’t believe that you can understand obesity and its associated chronic diseases, without thinking of obesity fundamentally as a disorder of excess fat accumulation and asking this question: what regulates fat accumulation? That’s going to be the thing that tells you what the cause of obesity is. If it’s a paradigm shift, then you have to ask yourself how many paradigm shifts are there like this, and what kind of books have been written to directly shift those paradigms, and then I sound like I have some serious ego problems.

SETH: Then let me put the question differently. I think your book piles up an enormous amount of evidence that is hard to refute. The cumulative effect of all that evidence is not that we’ve been lied to, of course, but that we’ve been misled, badly misled, about something that’s really important, namely our health. So, are there other books like this?

GARY TAUBES: I really can’t answer that question either. I’m not erudite enough and then I spent the last five years doing nothing but reading about fats and carbohydrates, so my memory of other subjects fades away. Here’s how I think of it, though: when I was talking with my editor about this book when we in the editing process — and he’s a tremendous editor, who has edited maybe eight or nine non-fiction Pulitzers — I brought up a book called Ashes to Ashes as an example. Ashes to Ashes is by Richard Kluger and it won the Pulitzer and my editor edited it. It’s about the cigarette industry and not just the industry itself, but the science and the struggle to understand that cigarettes cause lung cancer. I said to my editor, “Imagine if we lived in a world where the public health authorities were telling us that lung cancer is caused by saturated fat”. Kluger has got to write a different book, and that’s the situation that we are in.

SETH: Kluger has got to write a longer book? Was that your argument?

GARY TAUBES: He’s got to write a different book. His book was actually longer than mine, but it was a narrative, which mine isn’t. If you’re going to convince the entire public health community that they’ve made a horrible mistake — or many of them, in this case, whether about cigarettes or obesity and disease — then you have to build an argument as carefully and as rigorously as you can. It’s like arguing a legal case, more so than telling a story. And that’s one of the reasons why my book can be difficult to read, or challenging.

SETH: I found it easy to read.

GARY TAUBES: Well, good. See, I read the Amazon reviews. I shouldn’t but I do. And for every three people who say it’s tremendous, there’s somebody who says “It’s boring” and they couldn’t get through 20 pages of it. One problem is that we gave it this diet-like spin, with the title “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and people buy it expecting a diet book. And it’s not a diet book. I also have a lot of friends who tell me they bought the book and they’re jumping into it, and I never hear from them about it. It tells me, being a cynic, that they got to the section on VLDL and LDL or some such, and that was the end of that.

SETH: I think it has a lot of evidence. I think the book is harder to read than it might be, because you feel compelled to have a lot more evidence than usual, because you’re saying something that everyone says is false. If what you’re saying was more conventional or acceptable or went down more easily, you wouldn’t need as much evidence.

GARY TAUBES: Well, that’s the thing. This is one of the ironies, again, of reviews like Gina Kolata’s or some other that I’ve got. They’ll say the book’s too long, it goes on and on, and then they’ll say “he doesn’t even mention X,” or “he leaves out this evidence”. I’m all too aware of the arguments I left out, the counter-arguments, the counter-counter-arguments, the counter-counter-counter-arguments. At one point I had a draft of the book that was 400,000 words, unfinished. For every section, like the section on salt and blood pressure, I would say “here’s why we believe what we’ve come to believe. Here’s the counter-evidence implicating carbohydrates. Here’s how the authority figures treat that counter-evidence. Here’s why they can look at that evidence and think it’s not a challenge to their beliefs”. And my editor, bless his heart, said “Look, you don’t need this. If you get a chance to lecture on this material, then you can tell the people in the audience why their counter-counter-arguments aren’t actually refutations of the carbohydrate hypothesis. You don’t need fifteen different levels in the book.” But, you’re right, I’m trying to convince people of something they don’t believe. I was walking this tightrope between making it readable for the lay public, so that they could make their own decisions, and hoping that doctors, researchers, and authorities would read it, and they might say, “Well, you know, Taubes has a point. Maybe we should take this seriously.” What I fear is that on one level, I lose some of the lay public, because it’s too difficult and advanced, and on the other level, the physicians and researchers aren’t going to read it anyway, because they don’t see that a journalist can tell them anything they don’t already know. And then there’s this effect where, after I challenge half a dozen of their most fundamental beliefs, and they’re only 150 pages into it, do they just burn out? The example that I use there is that if somebody came out with a really-well-reviewed book saying that extrasensory perception should be taken seriously as a scientific phenomenon, I wouldn’t be able to read it. No matter how good it was, or other people thought it was, I wouldn’t be able to read it. I might try, because I tell myself I have to be intellectually honest and rigorous, but I could imagine, after 50 pages, I’d just say “I can’t do it. Maybe he’s right, but I can’t process it. My brain won’t allow me to process what he’s saying”. I wonder if that’s going on here, too: “Saturated fat, OK, but salt, fiber? Give us a break.”
Continued in part 6.