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Seth RobertsRSS Feed of this column.

I am a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and author of Read More »

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.

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.

SETH: I just spoke to someone who reduced the carbohydrate in his diet, for various reasons, including your book. He found that his performance on mental problems started improving again. It had stopped improving; it had been constant for a long time, and then it started getting better. So it may be that when you reduce the carbohydrate in your diet, your brain starts working better.

Many parents have said yes. David Healy, a Scottish psychiatrist, prompted by those stories, did a small experiment in which undepressed persons took anti-depressants. About 10% of them started having suicidal thoughts.

In the New York Times, Abigail Zuger, an M.D., recently reviewed a book called Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine by R. Barker Bausell — the “truth” being, if I read Zuger correctly, that it’s all baloney. Zuger calls the book “immensely educational”. Not educational enough:

Someone named Scylla waterboarded himself and provided a detailed account of what happened. “Old” self-experimentation, you could say, was doctors doing dangerous things to themselves for a short time to prove some idea that they already believed (e.g., a dentist using laughing gas as an anesthetic); “new” self-experimentation is me doing something perfectly safe for a long time to solve a problem that I have no clue how to solve. What Scylla did is between the two. Short duration, not completely safe, done to find out if waterboarding is torture or not. Scylla had no strong opinion about this when he started.

The other shoe drops. A year ago Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker about the Apgar score, a low-tech measurement of newborn viability that led to vast improvements in obstetrics. That’s the “how to improve?” side of things. Now Gawande has written about something equally simple and powerful on the “here’s how to improve” side of medicine: the use of checklists to improve ICU treatment.