Living in a Huckster’s Paradise

Yale Daily News staff reporter David Yaffe-Bellany has produced the most detailed account of the David Katz scandal to date. For the uninitiated, I’ll spare the details of a somewhat irrelevant debate between scientists over the merits of the United States Dietary Guidelines.¹

To all intents and purposes, the story begins with this ill-tempered tweet.

Jason Fung David Katz

The tweeter is Dr. Jason Fung, a Toronto-based nephrologist. The ass is David Katz, whose extensive credentials make up more square footage than I’m willing to cover in this post. In short, Katz works as a professor at Yale, moonlighting as Huffington Post columnist. 

The review is for a book titled reVision: Lore of the Corners Trilogy (Book 1), which was supposedly authored by one Samhu Iyyam. The sub-heading on the review reveals the truth.

David Katz Huff Po Update

Poor Professor Katz, blowing his own trumpet to an audience of one. But what a glorious sound! Comparisons with Milton, Yeats, Dickens and Plato aren’t quite good enough. The book resides on a higher plane, where the Bible, the Bill of Rights and the Bhagavad Gita “commingle.” Signing-off (“-fin”), he likens his masterwork to a “truly great wine.” 

As pseudonymous-brag, I give this an A+.

Following Fung’s attention-grabbing tweet, the story was picked up by Peter Heimlich. An independent reporter whose joint research with his wife Karen helped expose the unethical conduct of his famous father, Heimlich has a nose for sniffing out fraud.  

On further investigation, Heimlich uncovered this familiar-sounding synopsis of the Iyyam book by Amazon user “David L. Katz.”

Via Heimlich’s blog, The Sidebar:

David Katz Amazon

The attribution of identical reviews to identical names raises an obvious question, namely: did professor Katz review his own book on Amazon? Awaiting a response to that question from Amazon’s PR team, the hawk-eyed Heimlich nabbed Katz signing-off another book review in his trademark style, where he makes a point of listing his credentials. Oops.

Katz, a one-man content mill churning out articles at the rate of a young L. Ron Hubbard, with whom he shares a gift for puffery, is one of the most oft-quoted sources in the media. Yet his standing as a writer is apparently of so little regard that few seemed to care that he violated basic journalistic standards. 

An artless attempt to redirect the conversation presents the possibility that he might also be immune to the Streisand Effect.

National Nutrition Policy David Katz

Katz states that national nutritional policy is “imperiled by bullies” who criticise his failure to act ethically. By this logic when I call Katz a dangerous huckster I put public health itself in jeopardy. The conceit is that Katz has the power to influence policy on a national level – and yet he lacks the fortitude to overcome a few negative comments. 

As humble-brag, I give this a D.

Though it would be foolish to try to unravel Katz’s tangled logic, let’s momentarily dispense with logic to address the claim that “this is all part of a campaign to undermine the public health for private profit.” Could there really be a cabal of evil scientists out to silence him? 

Back in 2008, Katz gave a speech at the first annual (why not make a habit of it?) symposium on “Integrative Medicine” at Yale University, at which he was quoted as saying that science needed to adopt a “more fluid concept of evidence.”

Via America, Land of the Health Hucksters by David Colquhoun, The Atlantic, 2011:

America, Land of the Health Hucksters David Calquhoun

Katz’s first instinct was to claim Colquhoun had misrepresented his position.

The Guardians of Science David Katz

For if only we had access to his circle of friends, we would understand that Katz cannot be trusted to accurately state his position in a public forum.

In the same article he clarifies his position, restating the much-maligned view that science requires a more fluid concept of evidence.”

The Guardians of Science David Katz 2

Clearly, Colquhoun did not misrepresent Katz’s position. If anything, he was rather generous, clearing sufficient space on his blog to accommodate Katz’s many qualifications, even providing a link to a video where the distinguished professor is allowed to speak at length.

Issues over misrepresentation lie with Katz alone, who seems to have trouble admitting when he is wrong. Even his apology for pseudonymously deceiving readers, requiring him merely to simulate sincerity, is spoiled by his compulsion to self-aggrandise – he can’t help but refer to his own book as “an epic fiction novel.”

As vainglorious-brag, this one deserves a solid B.

Katz portrays himself as the solitary scientist. A lone voice in the wilderness, singlehandedly taking on whom he calls the Guardians of Science. It’s a convenient cover, one that masks a multitude of sins. However, it fails to explain why his critics are largely relegated to the bowels of the blogosphere, while he enjoys a prominent platform on the Huffington Post.² 

Ah, the Huffington Post, that mainstay of quality content. Where self-confessed quacks are free to extol the virtues of complementary and alternative medicine. Where nobody cares that cancer isn’t a toxin. Where books receive glowing reviews from their own authors. As Fred Brown, spokesman for the Society of Professional Journalists, told the Yale Daily News: it ain’t ethical.

As for the unresolved matter of the Amazon book review, Yaffe-Bellany has succeeded in extracting this telling comment from Katz.

Yale Daily News David Katz quote

That he fails to grasp why some might consider his behaviour unethical does not reflect well on his professional standards. 

Is this what passes for intellectual integrity at Yale?

¹Investigative reporter Nina Teicholz, whose writing challenges the science on diet and nutrition, was criticised by Katz in the Huffington Post last year. His focus is an article by Teicholz that featured in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) earlier that year.

In his article, Katz makes several references to the fact that Teicholz had recently written a book on the history of nutrition science, titled The Big Fat Surprise. The implication is that the impetus for Teicholz’s article was to promote her book. This is unfair, as Teicholz does not refer to her book in her article.

Katz also states that, unlike Teicholz, he does not have a book to sell. Teicholz’s response points out that Katz has in fact written no less than seven diet books. 

If you want to make money, you write seven diet books, as David Katz has done, and whom I mention because he has prominently accused me of being motivated only by book sales (Perhaps he is thinking of his own motivations, since Katz charges $3500 an hour, according to his deposition, to consult with companies, including Chobani, for whom he [was] hired to defend the sugar content of its yogurt; Katz is also supported by Hershey’s, Quaker Oats, and JuicePlus, who sell the kind of high-carb products that he promotes in his work).

On November 5, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published an open letter requesting that the BMJ issue a retraction of Teicholz’s article. David Katz was one of many scientists who signed the letter.

²In July 2012, the Huffington Post was ranked #1 on the 15 Most Popular Political Sites list by eBizMBA Rank.


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