Interview with Gary Taubes (part 11)

INTERVIEWER What happened when you met with the [UC Berkeley School of Public Health] epidemiology students?

TAUBES Again, it was a little discouraging, only because these kids really want to do good, they want to make a difference in the world. That’s why they go into the field. They want to have an effect. But as I say at the end of the book, to do science right, your primary motivation has to be to learn the truth, and if you’re infected with this desire to change the world, to save lives, it takes you away from the fundamental motivation, which is to get it right. If you want to save lives, then you want to get the word out as quickly as possible. You don’t want to wait ten or twenty years or more for definitive evidence, for the rigorous tests to be done; you want to give advice and tell people what you’ve learned, even if you only think that you’ve learned it. Doing science right takes a long time. So does good journalism. You can say the difference between my book and Gina Kolata’s book is — not counting whatever difference in intellect we begin with– my book took five years, more than full time, because I wasn’t going to say anything until I was certain that what I was saying was sound. She wrote her book in two years, part-time, while still working full-time as a New York Times reporter.

INTERVIEWER Yeah, they’re very different.

TAUBES Even when I was writing magazine articles, if I was in danger of missing a deadline, which was often the case, I would ask my editors, “Do you want it on time, or do you want it right?”.

INTERVIEWER There was a managing editor at The New Yorker, one of the first, whose motto was “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

TAUBES When I was a young journalist working for Discover, which was owned by Time, Inc., the philosophy was that one of the worst things anybody could do was over-report a story. Just get the facts and get it out. Except science doesn’t work like that. Science, you’ve got to get it right, and that takes time, and you can’t do it on deadline. Along those lines, I did read one of your blog entries about settling points versus set points, and I thought it might be… You know, I Google myself, as all writers do fairly regularly, so first you read all news stories that day, hoping that the Google Alert might have missed something, and then you go to the blogs.

INTERVIEWER So you read my post about the most surprising thing in your book?

TAUBES What was the most surprising thing?

INTERVIEWER That you didn’t agree that set points play a role in homeostasis.

TAUBES It’s funny – the more I think about it, the more Claude Bernard was brilliant. (I’d like to do a book on Claude Bernard, but probably can’t because my French is terrible.) In particular, this idea of the milieu interieur? The fundamental idea of homeostasis is that the body works to maintain the stability of what he called the milieu interieur, which gets translated to “internal environment”. What he meant by that is the conditions right outside the membrane of the cell, every cell in the body. So the body wants to maintain stable this internal environment — the pH, the blood pressure, the ionic potential, everything — of the cell itself. So it wants to make sure that the environment the cell lives in — every cell — remains relatively stable. in that sense, we’re this huge symbiotic organism made up of billions of individual cells, and homeostasis functions to keep the conditions that these cell live in stable. So each cell lives in this little isolated world, and it’s got to see stable conditions, or it’s going to die. The idea of the set point is that there’s some central controller in the brain that maintains homeostasis, but that’s naive. Rather, there’s an unbelievably complicated mechanism composed of individual settling points. Like the fatty acid concentration on the interior, and exterior of the fat cell. If there’s more fatty acids on the outside of the cell membrane than the inside, then fatty acids flow into the cell, and you get slightly fatter. There’s no brain in charge. The brain may respond, and the hypothalamus sends signals back and forth, and effects changes in hormones in response to changes in the environment, but there’s so many different interrelated, interconnected feedback loops involved that to refer to a set point is to grossly oversimplify things this beautiful homeostatic system, and it directs attention away from the body, where all these feedback loops interact, to the brain. Did you ever read any books on chaos theory?

INTERVIEWER No, I haven’t.

TAUBES Well, to understand homeostasis you have to understand this concept of dynamic equilibrium, where there can be hundreds of forces acting simultaneously. And the point is, you’ve got these negative feedback loops all over the body, and they involve the brain, but on some level, the dynamic equilibrium you’re looking at is right at the cellular level. That’s where the forces converge to make us leaner or fatter. And the brain is part of these loops, but to concentrate on the brain misses the big picture.

INTERVIEWER The brain is sensitive to the environment — sure, the set point doesn’t really exist anywhere, and sure it’s a function of about a zillion things, not all of them in the brain, sure. But the reason I like that idea of a setpoint is that it’s easy to imagine something going up and down, rather than a million things going up and down.

TAUBES But the problem is once you oversimplify, there’s a tendency to believe the oversimplification. You should go back and read the papers on settling points. There were a couple, if I remember correctly, written by psychologists from the University of Chicago. You should go back and read those original papers. They’re fascinating, and the point they make, is that you don’t need the brain involved. Like we don’t think of the brain regulating blood pressure. You don’t really think of your brain regulating blood glucose. Those cycles I described in my lecture, you know, the triglyceride fatty acid cycle and the Randall cycle, serve to regulate blood sugar. Then hormones are layered on top of those cycles, and the hormones are determined, in part, by the hypothalamus, so you get the brain involved, and the sensing of the environment, but there are other ways to sense the environment, like temperature sensing of the skin, evaporation. There are other ways that we adjust to the environment without the involvement of the brain. One of the things I left out of the book, for instance, is this theory that hunger is perceived by the liver.

INTERVIEWER Perceived, or controlled?

TAUBES Perceived. Or sensed by the liver. You know, your eyes collect photons, and then they send the signal back through the optic nerve. The perception of the universe is done in the inside of the brain, but the eyes are the sense organ that collect the photons. Your ears detect sound waves, but your perception of what you’re hearing is inside of the brain. This theory says that your liver senses fuel availability and then your brain integrates the signals from the liver and registers them as hunger or the absence of hunger.

INTERVIEWER Hunger is internal. It’s like the recognition. Hunger is not something external to the body.

TAUBES Let me re-phrase it. It senses fuel ability. Then your brain perceives it as hunger and initiates — that would be a better way of putting it. But the sense organ of fuel availability is your liver. I had some discussions with Mark Friedman, a fascinating guy, really smart. He’s at the Monell Institute.

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11 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 11)”

  1. I haven’t been reading these interviews (I read blogs for the value-added), but I’ll once again take the contrarian position. Science done right is science that *works*. I see nothing wrong with straining at the bit to counteract disease before it is fully formed and overblown. Surely this is what the study of epidemiology is–else it’s medicine or biology. Leave it to the Historians of Science to be cautious and right.

  2. Well, do you see anything wrong with creating epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease because a nation’s diet was completely changed on the basis of a few misunderstood findings?

  3. Well, I still don’t know much about the world of epidemiology, and had assumed there were tests for significance as in most of science, but perhaps things get carried away when they are handed off to policymakers. Anyways, I actually ran into an epidemiologist today, and she echoed general frustrations with the half-assedness of many in the field, and not just in the issue of competency.

  4. Seth,

    Did you get a chance to ask Taubes to comment on the “China Study”. It seems like a well reasoned, well researched tome that comes to the exact opposite conclusions he does. It agrees that refined carbs are bad (is there anyone who doesn’t), but advocates an all whole foods plant based diet.

  5. I’m sympathetic to NE1: we have finite lifetimes, so it makes sense to act on partial or preliminary evidence rather than wait a couple of decades for the science to firm up. Sure, I may have wasted a few bucks on beta-carotene supplements back when they were being hyped – and maybe the Vitamin D I’m taking now will fail to live up to the claims being made for it. Still, I think the risks and benefits, based on the information available at the time, made it rational to take these supplements.

    As for the low-fat fiasco, the problem there was not in initially promoting the hypothesis, but in continuing to promote it – hegemonically – despite negative results. For someone fighting a weight problem, it made perfect sense to try the low-fat approach in 1978, but not in 1988 or 2008.

  6. What is puzzling to me is that the low fat theory took hold so fast and so hard. Even after reading GCBC it is hard for me to see why this happened.

    However, Gary, be of good cheer. I have convinced both of my parents to go low carb, and I gave each of them your book. I know you’d rather *scientists* were rethinking this stuff, but perhaps it will percolate in from the outside instead of the other way around.

  7. I like the concept of dynamic balance, would explain some things about why I can make sugar or oil work for weight loss, but if I take them together (not split am/pm, but a combined dose) or use protein powder SLD doesn’t seem to work over the long run as well.

  8. Neil:

    Thanks for that link… very interesting reading, particularly the stuff about Price who seems well worth reading.

    After going through the rebuttal, the counter rebuttal, and the counter-counter rebuttal my head’s spinning, but it certainly takes quite a bit of shine off of the China Study. Doesn’t mean it’s all wrong, but in the end it seems to me that you can quite reasonably shoot down the China Study’s conclusions, or at least that there isn’t enough information in the book itself to really justify its conclusions.

    Wade

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