Thin Body of Evidence

Why I Have Doubts about Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat

By John Horgan

When someone divides a complex phenomenon into two basic categories, he invariably oversimplifies and distorts reality. Anyway, there are two basic styles of science journalism, celebratory and critical. Celebratory journalists help us appreciate the cool things scientists discover, whereas critical journalists challenge scientists’ claims.

Gary Taubes practices critical science journalism, although calling Gary "critical" is like calling Donald Trump "self-confident." No journalist whacks scientists with more gusto than Gary, whom I’ve known for 15 years. Gary, who earned his degree in physics and was briefly—and tellingly—an amateur boxer, began his career thumping physicists. His first book, Nobel Dreams (Random House, 1987), asserted that ruthless ambition more than the desire for truth compelled Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia to seek the particles that mediate the weak nuclear force. (Scientists can be swell-headed! Who knew?) In his next book, Bad Science (Random House, 1993), Gary lambasted the jokers behind the "cold fusion" fiasco of the late 1980s.

Gary’s career really took off when he switched his focus from physics to a topic that the masses actually care about: diet. In a lengthy article published in 1998 in Science (for which he has long been a correspondent) Gary raised doubts about the claim that low-salt diets are healthy. In a 2002 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Gary questioned the truism that people are getting fatter because they eat too much—especially fatty foods—and exercise too little. Carbohydrates, Gary contended, have fueled the epidemic of obesity in the U.S.; cut the carbs and you can eat all the fat and protein you like, just as the controversial diet doctor Robert Atkins has insisted for decades. Gary expanded on the Times article in a dense, 500-plus-page book, Good Calories, Bad Calories (Knopf, 2007), and a newer, much shorter, easier-to-digest sequel, Why We Get Fat (Knopf, 2010).

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