A fascinating book

by Russ Roberts on November 6, 2011

in Books, Truth-seeking & ideology

I am reading Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, preparing for an EconTalk podcast. It is a fascinating book. Nominally about health and diet, it is equally about the challenge of confirmation bias, the role of ideology and prior beliefs in deterring true scientific inquiry, and the inevitable challenges of disentangling cause and effect in a complex system. Sadly, it reminded me a lot of macroeconomics. That of course, is my own confirmation bias at work. But I fear it is true that macroeconomics has failed the public in the same way that epidemiology has. More to come in about two weeks when the interview will air.

There are many interesting quotes about science and the truth-seeking in the book. Meanwhile, here is Richard Feynman on truth-seeking and ideology, quoted by Taubes:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

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Jon Murphy November 6, 2011 at 3:13 pm

This podcast will air on the 21st? I look forward to it.

paul November 6, 2011 at 8:29 pm

i also look forward to it!

Invisible Backhand November 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Say Russ, it’s been about a week since you issued your challenge. From what I can see only Daniel Kuehn has responded, and you didn’t reply. Is the challenge over with? Is it going on somewhere I didn’t see?

Invisible Backhand November 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm

And, hey, Russ, will you be doing another economics rap video? If so, when? Where? What’s the estimated budget? Can I contribute? If so, do I get to write some of the lyrics? If not, would it be all right if I wrote some of the music? If not, would it be all right if I played in the band? If not, could I at least sit in on the recording session? No? What about a rehearsal?

Economic Freedom November 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm

How to you feed your fat face? Whose money are you using to survive? You obviously don’t work for a living. You must be one of those trust fund babies who live off interest and dividends while other real people have to work to support you. The system is broke when a total troll loser gets away with chronic freeloading. I can think of a show for you to go on: American Idle.

Invisible Backhand November 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm

The system is broke because Wall Street is fixed.

Brian PCF November 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful book.

Invisible Backhand November 6, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Sorry to be off topic twice in the same post Russ, but could you do a post about your speech at the Four Seasons?

Invisible Backhand November 6, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Oh, and one more thing (sorry to be off topic), but would you also tell us what you ordered at the Four Season? Was it A La Carte or Prix Fixe? Was it good? Did you like it? Say, (sorry to be off topic again) but, do you like sea food? I like it. I mean, not just tuna fish and stuff, but do you like things like lobster, shrimp, and scallops? I’ve never tasted scallops but I think I might have tasted a shrimp once. If you ordered lobster, did you use a bib? What about a Wet-Nap afterward? Did they give you one? For free?

Hey, sorry to be off topic three times in the same post, Russ, but I just really want to know.

Invisible Backhand November 6, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I laughed.


Greg Webb November 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm


David MacRae November 6, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Diet and economics are just two examples of a general rule: all politically-funded science is based on lies because its purpose is to advance someone’s political agenda, not the cause of science. Others include AIDS research and anything put forward by the environmental movement. As Taubes says, these people don’t even deserve the title of scientist because that’s not what they; they are party hacks.

Generally, it is fairly simple to find a way that these hypotheses violate decent science and common sense. To take diet as an example, the lipid hypothesis is nonsense on the face of it. We are made of saturated fat. Why on earth would it be dangerous to eat an essential component of our bodies? On the contrary, we need the stuff.

As you say, macro-economics is also based on garbage. The claims are absurd. Saving is bad. Spending – on anything – makes you richer. If someone, say China, gives you stuff cheaply, that’s also bad for you. A five year old knows better.

There are two basic types of fraudulent science.used to prove the validity of nonsense. In dietary research, as Taubes points out, badly designed studies dominate (and I have to believe that, in most cases, the bad design is deliberate). In other areas, like economics and climate, computer models substitute. The models reflect the belief systems that the party hacks are trying to advance and therefore the results are exactly what you would expect.

BTW, if you like Taubes, I strongly recommend Tom Naughton’s “Fathead: the Movie”. It’s an absolutely hilarious take on the same subject. Extremely well done. It doesn’t have the scientific rigour of GCBC but it’s also something you can show your friends who aren’t willing to plow through 500 dense pages.

Gil November 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Quickly gobble up all the trans fat you can get hand on before the gubmint totally bans it.

dsylexic November 7, 2011 at 7:50 am

yep without the gubmint telling you,you would consider it your patriotic duty to keep consuming transfats

vikingvista November 6, 2011 at 4:00 pm

The more I think about it, the more I think it was shear genius the way you teased the scientistic self-deluded, like Krugman, out of the woodwork with your ideology posts. They probably still don’t know what hit them.

Krishnan November 6, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Nothing will change stick in the mud idealogues like Krugman – if it happens to be noon and someone says “it is noon”, Krugman will come back and say “No, it is not – there is a conspiracy to make you believe it is noon – I think it is midnight”. To idealogues like Krugman, anyone who has the audacity to not fall in line – believe everything he writes and pays homage – are idiots who are stupid and worse. Take a look at how he attacks without responding to particulars or even concede that he may be wrong.

Curmudgeon Geographer November 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm

I got turned on to Gary Taubes recent books (GCBC and Why We Get Fat) when I followed a link to his recent “Is Sugar Toxic” essay in the NYTimes. Very worth reading, do a web search for that title. While you are at it, watch the YouTube video linked to in the sugar essay.

Reading Gary’s GCBC was like a punch in the gut towards my faith in government “guided” consensus in nutritional science. Nearly completely evaporated worse than my faith in government “guided” consensus in climate science.

Younger Cato November 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Feynman was truly a genius. Wish more “social scientists” heeded his many words of wisdom.

vikingvista November 6, 2011 at 5:12 pm

A typical social scientist wants his field to be something it never can be. Faced with that impossibility, instead of trying to make it all that it can be, he feigns being a scientist and then ridicules his more rational critics as being unobjective and anti-science.

To a real scientist, like Feynman, most of what the social scientists call “science” isn’t even worth laughing at.

Karl Smith November 6, 2011 at 4:46 pm

GCBC is a great book. One of my favorites. And, I think Gary does great work.

I would say that at times Gary attacks the methodology of epidemiology when the problem is the interpretation. There is lots of good information out there. Making sense of it is a different story.

Chucklehead November 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm

How is your exercise regimen going? Are you still with it?

Sam Grove November 6, 2011 at 5:06 pm

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Who do you trust more than yourself?

Mark Sundstrom November 6, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Russ, I read the Taubes book a few years ago. Good choice. I am looking forward to the podcast.

Greg Ransom November 6, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Is it “confirmation bias” when I perceive a duck as a duck?

How does this “confirmation bias” theory work, anyway?

vidyohs November 6, 2011 at 5:41 pm

One of my mentors said, “The eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not bullshit thy self.”

Unfortunately most of us do anyway.

Invisible Backhand November 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Vidyohs, I brought up you and Dan H at another blog:


Darren November 7, 2011 at 11:52 am

Unfortunately most of us do anyway.

I don’t so much. It’s probably why I get depressed.

Jordan Pine November 6, 2011 at 6:05 pm

So excited to hear you are reading Taubes, and impressed you took on the tome when the shorter and more accessible, “Why We Get Fat” is now available. (It wasn’t when I read Taubes, so I had no choice but to tackle the tome.) I admire deep thinkers who are able to get past their biases, assess things in a truly scientific way and thereby come to a counter-consensus point of view. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to discover that one such thinker in economics (yourself) had found another such thinker in a completely unrelated field. Perhaps that’s partly because it validates my odd and seemingly random choice of reading material. Maybe there is a category here after all? The Feynman approach to all inquiry?

Jordan Pine

muirgeo November 6, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Not sure anything about the book but I think I can state with confidence that broadly speaking epidemiology has been one of the areas of study that has most advanced the human condition. And it’s important to understand because even when results are uncertain we often have much to gain by paying attention and moving cautiously forward. Life is all about risk and insurance. Using poor data wisely is almost always better than going on chance alone.

David Fish November 6, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Uh you might want to read the book if you believe that.

Invisible Backhand November 6, 2011 at 7:07 pm

One thing I like to do for books is go to Amazon and see if there are any one star reviews:

For example, Mr. Taubes is nihilistic about any evidence against animal fat. To him, every study has a flaw, nothing is ever certain. But when it comes to uncontrolled observational studies of other cultures (evidence that’s much weaker than the evidence he finds fault with), he accepts it without critical thinking.

“Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Hence they can lead to disastrous decisions, especially in organizational, military, political and social contexts.”

“Individuals have to constantly remind themselves of this tendency and actively seek out data contrary to their beliefs.” Since this isn’t easy, most of the time we’re stuck with bias. Nobody can be completely free of bias but we can make an effort. But we should always be biased in favor of studies published in peer reviewed journals over opinions published in books or on web sites. (Peer review attempts to find obvious errors and correct biased interpretations that go beyond the data.) And we should always value long term studies that measure disease more than short term studies that only measure risk factors.

For example, if Mr. Taubes had submitted his book to peer review, someone would have pointed out that the Masai are not a good argument for eating a high animal fat diet since they eat cholesterol lowering saponins and are believed to have genetic hypocholesterolemia.

much more at


David Fish November 7, 2011 at 9:40 am

One thing i like to do for books is read them. Since there is no correlation between cholesterol and heart disease that review is meaningless. Taubes isn’t unbiased and will admit that. He is however more right than wrong.

Cliff November 7, 2011 at 10:10 am

There is no relationship between dietary cholesterol and heart disease. There is a strong correlation between blood cholesterol and heart disease, which is what he is talking about.

Invisible Backhand November 7, 2011 at 10:56 am

If only David had read a…

Curmudgeon Geographer November 7, 2011 at 8:34 pm

But there isn’t that either. Reading Ignore the Awkward, The Great Cholesterol Con, The Cholesterol Delusion, The Dark Side of Statins, etc. would surely be cause for doubt for any relationship between serum cholesterol and atherosclerosis.

Skinny Dave November 6, 2011 at 10:58 pm

There is a great bloggingheads.tv interview with Taubes from a couple months back. I know there is overlap and trust Russ will lead him down other interesting paths.

Brian D. November 7, 2011 at 9:28 am

I recommend checking out the documentary “Fat Head.” While you probably know what he’ll cover (he borrows heavily from Taubes) it’s quite entertaining and very libertarian. Tom’s blog is also pretty good.

Seth November 7, 2011 at 10:41 am

Sample size of one:

I had trouble with my cholesterol. HDL number is supposed to be over 40 and mine was always below that. The brochures they gave me told me to eat low cholesterol foods.

I read Taubes’ latest book “Why We Get Fat”. It pegged my low cholesterol diet as a potential contributor to my problems. It said to eat more foods with beneficial cholesterol, like eggs and olive oil. I started eating more eggs and turkey bacon and cheese for breakfast.

I went to my company’s health screening last week. I expected my cholesterol numbers to be worse. I was surprised when they were better. My HDL, for the first time, was above 40.

R November 7, 2011 at 11:31 am

Sad that Econ Talk has probably influenced my diet more than anything else. First it introduces me to Art DeVany and the Paleo diet which has lead me to a significant weight loss and significantly better health. Now “Good Calories, Bad Calories” which is a big deal in ancestory health circles. Keep up the diverse topics on Econ Talk and please bring back Munger. It has been too long.

Rick Hull November 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm

In a similar vein, I recently made an impulse purchase of a nominally scifi book — Good Humor Man, http://www.amazon.com/The-Good-Humor-Man-ebook/dp/B005VRKPWK/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1320686984&sr=1-1

I can’t remember who referred it to me, but I think it might have been here. Anyhow, it’s a fun read that shows some of the unintended consequences of “good choice” mandates (regarding diet in particular) from top down.

Charlie November 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm

It’s funny. I use this type of book to defend economics as a science. Considering we don’t even know how to feed a human, economics looks pretty good.

There are similar books about all of the false knowledge and unreplicable results in the medical literature. For most drugs we have, we don’t really know if they work and if they do, we don’t really know why.

My takeaway has always been science is hard, knowledge grows slowly and economics isn’t so bad.

Ian Random November 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I think science 2.0 has attempted refutation of Taubes, but they relay on the Ornish diet whose benefits can be racked up to exercise alone. There is also a great video by Taubes talking to a bunch of diet researchers and he points out one mechanism for fat that they all know about, but don’t want to pursue. There is some saying out there that science only progresses when the people at the top die and let in new ideas. I personally am starting to have doubts about published research that was government funded.

“Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite. ”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960

Neal W. November 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Why hasn’t my comment been approved?

Invisible Backhand November 7, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Did you include two or more links in it? Those get deleted.

Neal W. November 8, 2011 at 1:20 am

Yes, it was a bunch of links countering Taubes positions.

Bu November 8, 2011 at 9:58 am

I made a similar post, but it met the same fate. Kind of difficult to offer sources for refutation under these conditions.

sad bodybuilder November 8, 2011 at 1:06 am

Just as a carpenter could talk with a Marxist and be completely mislead about economics, an economist can talk to Taubes and be completely mislead about nutrition. Please, please, please read Alan Aragon and/or Lyle McDonald.

Bu November 8, 2011 at 10:02 am

agreed completely. I made a response with links to Lyle’s insulin series, his bit about fructose, as well as Alan’s “The bitter truth about fructose alarmism,” and even a piece from the much loved Reason calling out Taubes for misquoting and various other forms of confirmation bias. Sadly, it was lost to the spam filter.

Mike T November 8, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Have read blogs by both of the above authors and neither make much of a dent in Taubes central thesis. If you are overweight with signs of metabolic syndrome, reducing carbs to a minimum appears to be the single most effective way of restoring a healthy metabolism (weight, blood pressure etc.) without working out 2 hrs/day.

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