The Wicked Problem of Obesity

Here is a statement with a lot of truthiness: if you eat fatty food, you will get fat. What could be simpler, right? Lard goes in the piehole and then the tummy gnomes paste it to your thighs. It seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe that it’s completely wrong. But biochemistry is not straightforward, and it’s insanely difficult to work out the relationship between what you eat and how much weight you gain. Things that have been asserted for years as dogma turn out to be not so well supported.

Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, knows this beat well. I enjoyed this podcast interview with him by medical podcaster Peter Attia: Bad science and challenging the conventional wisdom of obesity. Part of what makes Taubes an entertaining character is his background studying pathological science. Having written a book on cold fusion, he knows bad science when he sees it. And, in his telling, the science of nutrition is full of it.

The scientific gold standard is Popperian falsifiability. You always want decisive experiments with clear outcomes. If I announce a new comet in Sagittarius, then within a day or two astronomers in Berlin, Bangkok, and Bratislava should be able to confirm or refute my claim. But what if there’s no good way to test my claim? Suppose the people in Bratislava think my telescope has comet-shaped spots on the lens, and I in turn refuse to endorse their obviously defective non-comet-spotting telescope. How can we resolve our dispute?

Debates like this happen all the time in science, and they can take years to unravel. The surprising thing about the obesity story is that the question being debated is so fundamental that it feels like two physicists arguing about which way is up. In the interview, Taubes and Attia muse about whether ANY feasible experiment could break the deadlock between competing nutritional camps. It’s almost as if the problem of obesity lives in a shadowed region beyond the reach of science.

If that sounds incredible, then I agree. That’s why the interview is worth your time. Science is hard. Truthiness, on the other hand, is like a Cool Ranch Dorito. It tastes so good, but it can be bad for your health.

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