Many of you have sent me Ian Leslie’s The Sugar Conspiracy, which is long but good. None of it will be new to close readers of this blog, my Upshot columns, or anyone who has read Gary Taubes or Nina Teicholz, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out. I don’t want to spend too much time on the science here, though. I want to discuss what Leslie says about Teicholz.
As I’ve noted previously, I enjoyed The Big Fat Surprise very much. It certainly made me think. But last October, when Nina (whom I’ve now corresponded with repeatedly, so I think it’s OK to use her first name) wrote a piece in the BMJ about the nutrition guidelines, I gently took her to task at The Upshot for what I perceived to be an argumentative tone. More significantly, I linked to various others who disagreed with her who REALLY took an argumentative tone. I also critiqued her article over points where I disagreed with her.
I think it’s fair to say that she wasn’t entirely pleased with me. She emailed me, and asked if we could chat. I immediately replied that I’d be happy to.
We talked for about 90 minutes. I told her at the start of our conversation that I was a fan, and that I bet we’d likely agree much more on nutrition than we’d disagree. She wanted to go through a list of what she considered to be “mistakes” in my Upshot piece, and, one by one, I defended them. Or maybe “defended” is the wrong word, since I never felt like I needed to be defensive. I explained my thought processes. I still feel like pretty much all her concerns were over interpretation, and I certainly believe that when it comes to nutrition, there’s room for reasonable people to disagree. Again and again, though, we returned to a point on which we were completely in sync – the science of nutrition is quite abysmal.
After the conversation was over, she still didn’t seem satisfied, though, and told me that she felt like she needed to write to my editors with her concerns. Or maybe she had, already, and wanted to let me know. Regardless, she was gracious about it. I told her I thought that was entirely appropriate. I also encouraged her to blog her thoughts. This should be debated in public.
In the end, my editors and I also discussed her concerns, and they felt like no corrections were needed.
Since then, though, I’ve been absolutely dismayed at how Nina has been portrayed in some circles. I think Leslie gets it entirely right. There’s a huge amount of vitriol sent in her direction, far more than seems appropriate for anything she’s written. I didn’t find the demand for a retraction of her article (signed by 173 scientists!) to be that compelling.* When experts complain to me personally about Nina, I find that they are angry with her, but rarely can point to any specific sins she’s committed, other than disagreeing with their beliefs about the role of saturated fat in a healthy diet.
Some can point to interpretations she’s made with which they find fault, but that’s not a fatal flaw. The conclusions of any paper are up for debate.
Since I wrote my Upshot column, I’ve felt compelled to drop Nina a note of support from time to time, when the news seems unfair to her, or when she’s uninvited from a conference, or when someone is just plain mean. The passionate hatred many seem to have for her is completely out of proportion to her documented actions. She doesn’t deserve it. I like her very much, and I’m not the biggest people-person around.
I’d also note that I don’t think there’s any disagreement between what Nina and Gary** write, but he seems to inspire comparatively little anger. Make of that what you will.
* Read Nina’s response to that demand here.
** I also correspond with Gary Taubes, so he gets first name treatment, too.