“In the years that followed my first interview with [Tim Noakes] in 2012, every time our paths crossed we’d catch up and compare notes, and I would invariably comment on how he still had traction in the media – a major achievement for any science story. Each time he seemed to vacillate between being upbeat and frustrated, and this was reflected in the tone of his language.
On one occasion on 5 August 2014 Noakes presented a talk at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in downtown Johannesburg as part of its National Science Week celebrations. I had been invited to introduce him and facilitate a question and answer session afterwards. As is usual at a Tim Noakes talk the audience boasted passionate supporters, easily identifiable by the well-thumbed Noakes books clutched close to their chests, their enthusiastic nodding at the appropriate moments, and the echoes of adulation in their eyes. But these weren’t adoring fans, they were people – mostly middle-aged – to whom Noakes was something of a saviour. They each had a story about how they had been on chronic medication for crippling life-threatening illnesses, but since changing their diet had cast aside their pills, to walk unaided, with a renewed spring in their step.
'The plural of anecdote is not data'
Such adulation can be unhealthy for a personality, and make no mistake, Tim Noakes is a personality. It can poison humility and strip away meekness, and embolden a belief in invincibility. It’s why much of my career as a broadcaster was spent tackling pop stars and politicians puffed up by a sense of importance.
As I listened to Noakes on this occasion I suspected he had befallen the curse. He remained firm on the line that for people, like himself, who were insulin resistant, a diet that was low in sugar-releasing carbohydrates and high in energy-supplying fats was the best course of nutritional action, and that the growing scientific evidence supported this. However, his talk and his answers to the questions afterwards were punctured by seemingly unscientific outbursts. There were lots of anecdotes, and as any scientist should know, the plural of anecdote is not data; but I ascribed those to his skill at communicating science and connecting with the audience. But there were also the repeated claims that powerful forces were attempting to protect what was akin to dogma, and that pharmaceutical companies made a profit from sick people who could otherwise get healthy simply by changing their diet.
I had tried to corroborate the seemingly wild things he was saying with the seasoned academic I knew him to be. Because of the demands of peer review, scientists are renowned for their careful, qualified phrasing when answering questions, but Professor Tim Noakes addressing the nodding audience was perfectly comfortable making what seemed to be wild accusations. Looking back on the notes I made that day I can see where I scribbled the word "paranoid?" and circled it.
Afterwards I caught up with Noakes and challenged him, saying I had found it quite uncomfortable listening to him talking about conspiracies to silence him. He smiled and said, "But, Daryl, it’s true; trust me, it’ll soon all come out." I was unaware at that stage that he knew an official complaint had been made against him.
Very vocal on social media
In the years that followed, Noakes lost little momentum. He seemed to pop up anywhere to talk about his research and that of others that showed that a simple change in an eating lifestyle could have dramatic effect on people with metabolic syndrome – that so-called cluster of conditions such as high blood pressure and sugar levels, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, which, together, can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
But most of all he became very vocal on social media, especially Twitter. If academic science has a publishing nemesis, it is Twitter. Substantive scientific knowledge grows through the veracity of detailed intellectual academic discussion in peer-review journals, which is by known persons and accompanied by data and further detailed evidence. Twitter, however, is accessible to anyone, embraces anonymity and allows unsupported claims, limited to 140 characters or less. It therefore acts as an energy ramp for that ethereal source of popular reasoning, usually prefaced with "you know what they say".
This is why when I teach scientists how to communicate their research, there is a noticeable reluctance to embrace social media. Younger scientists seem more open to the idea, but generally there’s a disinclination to engage in a media space they see as frivolous, even dangerous. For them it’s a place for pop stars to share pics of their new shoes, attention-seeking politicians to peddle their idle thoughts, frustrated journalists to keep their opinions alive, and where people called @dogfart69 can wield the social fidelity that should only be accorded to philosophers. For scientists, if publishing had an axis of intellectual integrity, scientific journals would be at one end, Twitter at the other.
Although there’s a merit of truth in all of this, what is unavoidable is that many leading scientists do use Twitter, especially those who see the value in communicating their research outside of the confines of academia and engaging directly with people about it.
Nevertheless, when Noakes fired off his first tweet, in April 2012, according to many scientists he would have been turning his back on the exclusivity of academia, and further embracing popularism. For others it would have posed something of a threat. Given the popularity of Noakes, his academic seniority and the unfettered reach of social media, his opinions on diet and lifestyle would have unlimited reach and immeasurable impact.
However, there’s a flipside: social media also acts as a leveller, dishing out brutal rebuke if collectively warranted. Say something ridiculous and it’ll earn instant and continuous retaliation. It’s why Twitter is a never-ending battleground of wills that can separate opinion into binary constructs, and the belief, when it comes to science, that things are either right or wrong. When it comes to something so complex as human biochemistry and nutrition, the resultant tension is virtually tangible, and sentiment sometimes borderline feral.
Why is this? Why is the matter of what we eat a source of such bitter disputation? If food simply serves the function of providing energy for our bodies, why should we be bothered with issues of aesthetics? The answer lies in our emotional connection with food: it is intimately intertwined with issues of social identification and self-awareness. Foods are anchor points in religious and cultural identities; for example, the eating, or not, of pork, beef, milk and shellfish. Meals are the centrepieces of family ceremonies, social discourse and intimate encounters; we "get together for a braai", "meet for coffee", "do business over lunch" or "have a romantic dinner". But more than that, what we consume is connected with our self-image. It is part of the regime that defines us and tells others who we are; whether or not we eat free-range meat or meat at all, if we dine on sushi and champagne or burgers and beer. We are also socially catalogued by the brands we consume and where we consume them. But importantly, we are told that what we eat is linked to how we look. Magazine covers boast photoshopped models and recipes to help you look that good, and social media feeds off this fascination with our body image.
Turgid culture of food and identity
The importance of food is also captured in our media consumption. Walk into any leading bookstore and you will probably find that the section or shelves dedicated to "Food and Cooking" will outsize any other; your local Sunday newspaper will no doubt have a section dedicated to all things food; pop stars and Hollywood actors are quick to endorse their latest weird diets, which their slavish fans suck up; food-bloggers command page views that mainstream news titles could only dream of; and there are popular TV channels dedicated entirely to food and cooking.
Into this turgid culture of food and identity stepped Tim Noakes on 5 February 2014 when he replied to a question posted two days earlier on Twitter, addressed to him and Sally-Ann Creed, a nutritional therapist (and co-author with Noakes of The Real Meal Revolution). It was from a breastfeeding mother, Pippa Leenstra: "Is LCHF eating ok for breastfeeding mums? Worried about all the dairy + cauliflower = wind for babies??" Noakes’s reply was the following: "Baby doesn’t eat the dairy and cauliflower. Just very healthy high fat breast milk. Key is to ween [sic] baby onto LCHF."
It’s not an offensive tweet by any stretch of the imagination, neither does it fall foul of any media law - it’s not libellous and there’s no encouragement of harm to others. People could disagree with him and had a voice to do so; that’s the point of social media: it is a platform for public discussion.”
Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick is available in bookshops.