Originally posted January 30, 2017.
A profound and amazing story of American success is rolled out for you here by WIRED’S Sam Apple. The thriller chronicles the story of “the youngest billionaire in America” and his link to two of my all-time favorite nutrition writers.
Mr. Apple introduces you (and how lucky you are) to John Arnold, John’s wife Laura, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the foundation’s funding for science journalist Gary Taubes and journalist Nina Teicholz. I have long been a fan of both Gary and Nina and have posted my interest in each as well their groundbreaking books (See Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise and Taubes’ Why We Get Fat). From Sam Apple:
At 14, he started his first business. At 23, he (John Arnold) began making millions for Enron. At 28, he launched his own hedge fund. At 33, he became the youngest billionaire in America. At 38, he retired. John Arnold’s next mission?
A number of the Arnolds’ reform efforts have focused on fixing nutrition science. In 2011 the science journalist Gary Taubes received an email from Arnold himself. Having spent more than a decade picking apart nutrition science, Taubes soon found himself cofounding an organization with a substantial grant from the Arnold Foundation, to rebuild the study of obesity from the ground up. And in 2015 the Arnold Foundation paid journalist Nina Teicholz to investigate the scientific review process that informs the US Dietary Guidelines. Just weeks before the federal guidelines were due for an update, Teicholz’s blistering report appeared in the prominent medical journal The BMJ, charging that the government’s panel of scientists had failed to consider evidence that would have done away with long-held worries about eating saturated fat.
A childhood math prodigy turned medical researcher, Ioannidis (John) became a kind of godfather to the science reform crowd in 2005, when he published two devastating papers—one of them titled simply “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Now, with a $6 million initial grant from the Arnold Foundation, Ioannidis and his colleague Steven Goodman are setting out to turn the study of scientific practice—known as meta-research—into a full-fledged field in its own right, with a new research center at Stanford.
One day in November 2011, he (John Arnold) was listening to the podcast EconTalk, hosted by libertarian economist Russ Roberts. The guest that day was science journalist Gary Taubes, and he was talking about how the prevailing dietary wisdom of the past 40 years—that eating too much fat leads to obesity and heart disease—arose from the flimsiest of scientific evidence.
The foundational studies, Taubes said, looked at the diets and disease rates in various countries, then essentially guessed at which items in the diet were responsible for the country’s good or bad health statistics. Worse yet, whenever evidence came along that contradicted the consensus about the dangers of eating fat—often evidence that was much stronger than the evidence for the dangers—it was ignored or not even published. Hardly anyone in the world of nutrition science seemed willing to question the science behind the low-fat diet, even after Americans grew fat and diabetic in record numbers.
The picture Taubes painted wasn’t of a flawed study here or there but of a fundamentally broken scientific culture. During the podcast, he mentioned that he was raising money in the hope of funding experiments that might deepen our understanding of the root causes of obesity. Not long after the podcast went online, he received a five-line email from Arnold. “From the little I know about the science of nutrition, your study makes a lot of sense,” Arnold wrote. Like Nosek (Brian), Taubes had to Google Arnold to learn who he was. Six months later the Arnold Foundation made a $4.7 million seed grant to the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI), the nonprofit Taubes cofounded to support fundamental research on diet and health. The next year the Arnolds promised $35.5 million more.
Arnold is careful not to lump all researchers together when he talks about the problems in science. But he tells me that listening to Taubes and reading his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, had been an “aha moment” for him. “Science is built like a building,” Arnold says. “One floor on top of the next.” In nutrition, “the whole foundation of the research had been flawed. All these things that we thought we knew—when we step back and look at the evidence base—it’s just not there.”
Read more here.