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The Potato People
A pseudonymous online scientific collective tries to solve the mystery of obesity
In 2016, an Australian school teacher named Andrew Taylor decided to eat nothing but potatoes for a year.
It was a decision born of desperation. He was overweight and had been bullied for as long as he could remember. Over the years, he tried every diet and every exercise regime he could think of. But he’d encountered an experience common to hundreds of millions of people: nothing seemed to work.
Every diet had failed; many had left him heavier than before. Each time the pattern was the same. For weeks, or even months, he’d stick to the plan – counting calories, or avoiding carbs, or removing sugar. These diets put him into caloric deficit, bringing hunger and fatigue and irritability, and the results would be slow in coming. He was starving himself and had little to show for it.
So, whenever Taylor found himself reaching a weight-loss milestone, he’d give himself a reward. He’d eat, say, a slice of pizza. But then he’d find himself eating a second. The pizza would lead to a tub of ice cream; the ice cream might be followed by beer. And before the night was over he would find his diet abandoned; his head swamped by feelings of shame.
Those of us who don’t experience obesity are poorly equipped to understand the experience of people like Taylor, but the nearly 75% of adult Americans described by the CDC as either overweight or obese are better placed. They are more likely to appreciate his exhaustion—his sense of being trapped in a cycle from which there is no escape.
One day, in late 2015, Taylor found himself having fallen off the wagon yet again. It had happened just as it always happened: an arduous diet had been followed by a precipitous binge, and Taylor found himself once more reaching for a beer. But this time, and for the first time, he found the moment epiphanic. The symbolism was too stark to be ignored. His relationship with food, he decided, was like an alcoholic’s relationship with alcohol.
Armed with this new self-narrative, Taylor decided to treat his relationship with food like he would an addiction. He knew abstinence wouldn’t work—that, after all, is all dieting is—but he figured he could make food less addictive by making it as boring as possible. He spent 6 weeks researching the nutritional value of various boring foodstuffs, settled on the humble potato, and on New Year's Day declared his resolution to eat nothing else for the coming year. There would be no counting calories. In fact, Taylor gave himself permission to eat as much as he liked, so long as it was a potato.
Taylor had chosen well. Potatoes, he had learned in his research, are extraordinarily nutritious. They contain all the amino acids one needs to get by, and are missing only a few important vitamins, like B12. Standard white potatoes don’t have much Vitamin A, but sweet potatoes do. So Taylor took B12 supplements, ate the occasional sweet potato, and regularly checked in with his doctor.
“Over the year of potatoes I had five medical check ups”, Taylor told me. “One at the very start and then another after each quarter. All check ups included blood tests. On top of that I had four bone density DEXA scans and at the end of the year I was medically examined at Adelaide University. Everything was great all the way.” Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us: potatoes have the uncommon, and under acknowledged, virtue of being very nearly nutritionally-complete.
In a video posted to YouTube on January 2, 2016, an obese Taylor can be seen announcing his plans to the world. “G’day”, he says, walking under what looks like a humid Melbourne sky. He’s sweating and breathing hard. “I’m on my way back from the shop. Got my backpack on. And I, uh, have got 6 kilos (13 lbs) of potatoes in there.”
When I spoke to Taylor via Zoom last November, nearly 7 years after he first committed himself to his year of potatoes, he was again out for a walk through the streets of suburban Melbourne. There the similarities end. Andrew Taylor was no longer obese. He had lost 117lbs (53kgs), or nearly a third of his body weight, in the year he ate potatoes.
I first learned about Andrew Taylor at a seafood restaurant in September last year. My party had settled into an easy, bantering camaraderie, talking happily about nothing, when our fourth member, a man I was meeting for the first time that night, sheepishly let on that for weeks his diet had consisted largely of potatoes.
My new friend—call him M—had stumbled upon a scientific study conducted by an online collective of anonymous researchers using the internet to do science outside the academic research system. These self-described ‘mad scientists’ go by the name Slime Mold Time Mold and in 2022 organized hundreds of online volunteers into a month-long all-potato diet. They were conducting an experiment to see if Andrew Taylor’s story could be replicated. Might potatoes, they wondered, hold the cure to obesity?
M is a normal, reasonable, and intelligent man of around 30 years old. He is a top graduate of an Ivy League university and holds a serious professional job at a Manhattan firm. And, because of some words on an anonymous blog, he decided to eat a bowl of potatoes for lunch every day. M wasn’t even a participant in Slime Mold Time Mold’s science experiment. He simply came across their work, got excited, and decided to follow along at home. Instead of a total replacement diet, M opted for “potatoes by default”: whenever he cooked for himself, he cooked potatoes. He lost about a tenth of his body weight this way.
Over ceviche and salmon, M told us first about Andrew Taylor, and then about a man by the name of Chris Voigt. In 2010, Voigt, a potato lobbyist and Executive Director of the Washington State Potato Commission, was sick of the potato’s bad reputation. The USDA was threatening to remove potatoes from school lunches, and had recently excluded the vegetable from lists of subsidized foods in low-income programs. In a campaign against these changes, Voigt set out to show that potatoes were so nutritious you could live on them, and set himself a goal of eating 20 potatoes a day for 60 days. Voigt figured 20 potatoes would contain enough calories to replace his typical caloric intake, so he expected to maintain his weight. He lost 21lbs (9.5kgs).
To the anonymous science bloggers known as Slime Mold Time Mold, Voigt and Taylor were giving testimony that demanded scientific attention. Because potatoes are traditionally associated with weight gain, it would have been surprising if Taylor and Voigt hadn’t put weight on after eating an unlimited supply of potatoes. But here an unlimited potato diet appeared to trigger far more weight loss than the vast majority of diets ever subjected to scientific research.
In the language of academic science, the intervention demonstrated a massive effect size. And, crucially, these subjects appeared to lose weight without ever feeling hungry, which suggested the diet might be easier to stick with than alternatives. The bloggers wondered if, like Alexander Fleming looking into his petri dish, these potato people may just have stumbled upon a world-shifting scientific breakthrough.
At the very least the idea needed disproving. “Anecdotes by themselves are limited,” wrote Slime Mold Time Mold at the time. “We don’t know how many people tried this diet and didn’t get such stunning weight loss. We don’t know how long the weight stays off for. And the sample size is really small. Someone should really do a study or something, and figure this thing out.”
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In Slime Mold Time Mold’s Potato Diet Community Trial, nearly two hundred strangers from the internet voluntarily replaced their entire diet with potatoes for a month, weighing themselves daily. For those used to the stringency of academic research, the guidelines felt remarkably lax. ‘Perfect adherence isn’t necessary,’ wrote the researchers. ‘If you can’t get potatoes, eat something else rather than go hungry, and pick up the potatoes again when you can.’ They pointed out that one mainstay of academic science, the control group, was unnecessary, because ‘the spontaneous remission rate for obesity is so low.’ If people did lose weight, they figured, they’d know why.
Announcing the trial back in April 2022, the mad scientists themselves seemed uncertain how seriously to take the enterprise (the headline read ‘Potato Diet Community Trial: Sign up Now, lol’). But if the researchers were worried about a muted response, they needn’t have been. The study aimed at a minimum of 20 participants. When applications closed, 220 strangers from the internet had registered.
In the end, Slime Mold Time Mold collected self-reported data from 160 participants, analyzed the results, and posted their findings, raw data, and methodology freely and publicly on the internet. There had been no ethics board; no peer review; no institutional funding. Just a blog, anonymous scientists, and hundreds of people willing to eat nothing but potatoes in the name of science.
The results were extraordinary. Those who ate nothing but potatoes for 4 weeks lost on average 10.6 lbs (4.8 kgs)– far more weight, in far less time, than other studied diets can boast. Comparative studies of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates find that, whatever the diet, overweight people tend to lose roughly the same amount: about 13.2 lbs (6 kgs) over six months. This makes the potato diet, if Slime Mold Time Mold’s data is to be believed, among the most effective diets ever researched. ‘People lost more weight on the potato diet,’ they told me later, ‘than, as far as we can tell, any other diet in the history of mankind.’
Two months after we first met, M invited me and at least 30 others to his Jersey City apartment to eat and celebrate potatoes. ‘Welcome to Potato Con!!’ read the invitation. ‘Experience the satiating powers of potatoes and mingle with other potato enthusiasts.’ I walked in the front door and immediately felt better about arriving empty handed: at least 15 different potato dishes already crowded the table. The potatoes had been roasted, baked, boiled, fried, and turned into salad. The bemused and excited guests, mostly colleagues and friends of M, stood around making conversation about potatoes, and about the taste of potatoes, and also about different ways to cook potatoes. A consensus was reached: potatoes are very versatile.
I took a plastic plate and a plastic spoon and tried as many dishes as I could. My plate exhibited the full spectrum; beige all the way to brown. A Spotify playlist titled ‘Bangerz and Mash’ could be heard dimly behind the chatter of Russets and Yukons. The room was filled with an optimistic, if anxious, spirit; one sensing that behind a tongue-in-cheek, slightly embarrassed self-awareness, the guests harbored earnest hopes that they might be part of something transformative.
Eventually, word got out that I was a journalist on the trail of the elusive—and, to this crowd, infamous—Slime Mold Time Mold. An excited and curious collection of evangelicals gathered around. Between forkfuls of mash, and with a hushed air of reverence, a kind-looking enthusiast asked me if I had learned the true identity of ‘the Slimes.’
In fact, I had been emailing Slime Mold Time Mold for weeks, receiving long, arcane, stimulating replies, all written in the collective voice and all signed SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD. The About page of their website listed three initials, ‘E & S & R’, which made me think there were three of them, though I had no other evidence for this. In truth they had already become a haunting presence in my life. I felt like they could be anyone and everyone. On the subway I peered at strangers and wondered if they too hosted pseudonymous science blogs in their spare time. The emails read like the disembodied voice of the internet. I was no closer to meeting them.
At the party I could only disappoint the crowd. ‘I have no idea who they are. And I’ve promised them anonymity, anyway,’ I said, hoping I sounded like a serious journalist. I had another fear as I looked around the room: for all I knew, the mad scientists were among us.
‘To us, the story is that we're on the cusp of a potential 21st century scientific revolution driven by the power of the internet,’ the collective voice of Slime Mold Time Mold told me in one email. ‘There’s a huge appetite for mad science right now, because the failings of academic science have become so obvious. Mysteries are lying around in plain view for anyone to see them; theorizing costs nothing but your time; and empirical research is cheaper and easier than you think.’
One of those mysteries, they say, is obesity itself. Before 1900, obesity seems to have affected just 3.4% of adult American men. By 1976, people had become a little heavier – in developed countries obesity rates had crept up to about 10%. Then, suddenly, something changed. By 2000, the CDC reported obesity among 30.5% of adult Americans. By the year 2020, the rate had increased to 41.9%. What happened in 1976, they ask, and why, in the face of history’s largest public health campaign, has obesity spread unimpeded?
That is the starting question of A Chemical Hunger, a viral, and contested, series of blog posts written by Slime Mold Time Mold insisting the obesity epidemic is not close to being understood. On top of querying obesity’s recent acceleration, Slime Mold Time Mold ask a slew of related questions to further undermine our confidence in the standard explanations.
What, for example, accounts for research of hunter-gatherer communities suggesting that non-industrial people stay lean no matter what they eat, nor how often they exercise? Why does data seem to suggest that animals—lab animals, domesticated animals, and wild animals—also all appear to be getting fatter? Why does “palatable human food”, what is occasionally referred to as “a cafeteria diet”, trigger more overeating and weight gain than equally-caloric other foods? Why are (and this is my favorite) people at higher altitudes much, much leaner than people at lower altitudes? And finally, why don’t diets work? People, it seems, used to stay thin without trying: now they can’t get thin by trying. Something, Slime Mold Time Mold suggest, has changed.
There is a conventional wisdom about obesity: it is what happens when people consume more calories than they burn. Overweight people simply eat too much and exercise too little. This view, sometimes referred to by researchers as CICO (Calories In, Calories Out) is so intuitive as to be nearly unassailable. It has become common sense to the extent that it today defines government health initiatives around the world. Defending his proposal to reduce the cup size of sugary drinks in New York City, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg equated CICO with the laws of physics. “If you want to lose weight, don’t eat. This is not medicine, it’s thermodynamics. If you take in more than you use, you store it.”
For years, that narrative has flattered the ego of those of us with “normal” BMIs. Lean bodies, the story went, must be the result of healthy decisions. Because those behaviors are understood as virtues, thinness is virtue embodied. Conversely, people who fall outside of the “normal” bandwidth ought to feel something closer to shame. If obesity is mere thermodynamics, fat people just must not be disciplined enough. That makes the shame justified – even constructive. The title of one column in The Times last October was explicit: ‘Fat shaming is only way to beat obesity crisis’.
This story oversimplifies the matter to the point of dishonesty. Expending more energy than is consumed brings about weight loss, but many of the factors that determine energy input and output appear to be outside of conscious control. Rather than being mere sites of caloric exchange, our bodies seem to have ways of managing our fat levels beyond simply storing fat or exercising: candidates range from fidgeting to changes in body temperature to the regulation of sleep, fatigue, and, of course, appetite. How much fat a body stores or sheds varies drastically from body to body, even when diet and exercise are controlled for. Twin studies, in which one pair of twins gains more weight than another pair, suggest that much of this is genetic. And overfeeding studies, in which subjects are fed massive caloric surpluses, seem to show that it’s extraordinarily difficult for lean bodies to gain and hold weight. As soon as the forced-surpluses end, the subjects shed their added weight faster than they ever gained it.
For overweight people, the idea of plummeting back to a “normal” BMI without effort must sound miraculous. Overweight people, that is, most people in most modern industrial societies, experience something close to the inverse. Their bodies also whiplash to an equilibrium, but that equilibrium is set higher than those of their leaner peers. Along the way they feel hunger and fatigue more acutely.
This is to say that, even if different bodies did store and shed calories identically, the subjective experience of this process would be far harder on some humans than others. It is this fact that has propelled the recent craze for semaglutide – the drug interacts with the parts of the brain that suppress appetite. It allows people to experience the world as leaner people do.
The observation that bodies have automatic, non-conscious ways of shedding or conserving energy, up to and including the subjective experiences of hunger and fatigue, should be devastating for our conventional fat-shaming wisdom. “[CICO] seems to exist mostly to make lean people feel smug,” writes Stephen Guyenet, an obesity researcher, “since it attributes their leanness entirely to wise voluntary decisions and a strong character. I think at this point, few people in the research world believe the CICO model.”
Instead, a pool of scientific literature suggests that our bodies regulate fat levels just as they regulate other things, like body temperature: homeostatically. And here we come to the radical thesis of A Chemical Hunger. Slime Mold Time Mold argue that, since the 1970s, human lipostats (think thermostats, but for body fat) have been reset higher and higher.
Until the late 20th century, they suggest, obesity was rare because bodies regulated towards a “healthy” BMI. It was easy to stay thin because you weren’t fighting against your internal settings. But now, as if your house thermostat were reset to 90 degrees, human bodies are increasingly “set” to overweight and obese levels of fat. The best explanation for this change, they think, is that environmental contaminants are affecting our brains, and, in their view, one likely culprit is lithium in our water and in our food. This is how they answer the mystery of obesity, and how they explain the success of the potato diet. There’s something in potatoes, they suggest, that helps to undo the effect of whatever is raising our lipostats.
The lithium theory of obesity is the type of claim that, if found to be true, would change the course of human history. And while the idea is not unheard of in academic science, it has rarely received such treatment as in A Chemical Hunger. Perhaps that is part of the reason why, over and over again, when I spoke to academics about a team of online anonymous bloggers conducting experiments they hope will cure obesity, the response has been one of skepticism. In the words of one expert I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, ‘this situation has a lot of red flags for me. Anonymous authors with no obvious expertise, specious arguments, “everything you thought you knew is wrong”, “this one idea explains everything”. It honestly boggles my mind that they got funding to pursue this.’
In a piece published to the Substack Slow Boring, the pundit Matt Yglesias wrote against the idea that the obesity epidemic is even particularly novel: to his mind, the change from 1976 is something of an accounting error. Meanwhile, Slime Mold Time Mold’s most vocal critic, a fellow online amateur named Natália Coelho Mendonça, was driven to write multiple rebuttals of their theory on the popular website LessWrong. Her work makes a range of counterclaims, including but not limited to: lithium exposure in the general population is pretty low; the data about obese animals is weak; and there’s evidence that the lower atmospheric pressure at higher altitudes drives down obesity.
In the meantime, the potato diet really does seem to work. Why? In the latter half of 2022, the researchers wondered if it might have something to do with the potato’s particularly high levels of potassium. To find out, they launched the Low-Dose Potassium Community Trial, inviting participants to take small doses of NU-SALT throughout the day. (With participant safety in mind, participants were asked to consume less than half the potassium one would get from the full-potato diet. High doses of potassium are particularly likely to be unsafe for people with kidney disease). After four weeks, participants lost weight on average, but not much: only 0.89 lbs (0.4 kgs).
So the mad scientists turned back to potatoes. Wondering if eating half the potatoes would bring about half the weight loss, Slime Mold Time Mold launched the Half-Tato Community Trial, also to mixed results. Where full potato diet participants saw average weight loss of 10.6 lbs (4.8 kgs) over four weeks, the half potato diet averaged only 1.7 lbs (0.77 kgs) over the same period. Again – statistically significant weight loss, but nothing of the magnitude seen in the first trial.
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The question remained: who were these mad scientists? This January, months after I first started corresponding with Slime Mold Time Mold, and just as I had begun to lose hope of ever discovering their identity, the elusive scientists invited me to visit them in Boston. I felt as though I was among the elect, specially chosen to glimpse behind the curtain of the world. I took the train up from New York, then the T from South Station to Harvard Square. At Grendel’s Den, the well-worn Cambridge student pub, I stepped inside, hurriedly, my eyes adjusting to the dark, and, after a moment, saw a group at a table in the back corner wave me over.
On the train I had taken the time to record my expectations for Slime Mold Time Mold. The mad scientists, I was confident, would be three men, grad students, all around thirty. They’d wear hiking sandals and go bouldering on the weekend. And though Slime Mold Time Mold asked that I give no identifying details in this piece, I will say this much: I was wrong on all counts.
Despite the atmosphere of secrecy, Slime Mold Time Mold insist that they are pseudonymous, not anonymous. When I pushed them on this, I felt a touch of defensiveness in the reply. ‘Writing under a pen name is very historically normal, so it always strikes us as kind of weird when people ask about our using a pseudonym. No one would think to ask George Orwell or Lewis Carroll why they wrote under pen names,’ one of them told me. ‘Anyway’, they said, ‘the research should stand by itself’.
Slime Mold Time Mold are well-educated, astute, and worldly. Their personalities range from the pugilistic to the conciliatory. They are highly scientifically-literate and share a determined, even defiant, independent streak. They have no interest in public recognition, nor the validation of institutional research. When I asked them if they wanted to be taken seriously, they gave a flat ‘no’. Seriousness, they believe, is not an epistemic virtue.
Their attitude is infectious. Observing their willingness to be guided by their own lights, one feels a mixed sense of inadequacy and optimism. It is a reminder that many of us are more free than we allow ourselves to believe. I wanted to know how I too could liberate myself from the opinion of others, and received a koan-like reply. ‘The point is not to prove yourself,’ one of them said with a shrug. ‘It’s to express yourself.’
At Grendel’s Pub, what Slime Mold Time Mold most wanted to express to me were the failures of academic science. With them was their frequent collaborator Adam Mastroianni, research psychologist and writer of the Substack Experimental History. One of his most widely-shared posts, The Rise and Fall of Peer Review, received abusive correspondence from members of the scientific academy. He was unfazed. For every abusive comment, he received ten messages of support.
Slime Mold Time Mold’s concerns are familiar. The academic research system, defined by a rigid professionalization of science, has increasingly sought to ring-fence itself from the world, becoming exploitative, hierarchical, and dogmatic along the way. The radical spirit of science has been lost, and the result, the mad scientists say, is a sclerotic and wasteful process that produces far fewer meaningful results than it ought to. ‘It’s an absolute snooze-fest,’ Slime Mold Time Mold told me in an early email. The best analogy, they say, is a ‘zombie salmon’. Confused, I clicked the accompanying link: they’d sent me a 15 second amateur Youtube video of a salmon, dead and rotting, somehow upright against the current.
Ultimately, their biggest complaint is the attitude that research is for some people and not others. ‘The idea is that people are really dumb, and we have to protect them from bad ideas,’ Mastroianni put it. But that idea, they argue, is patronizing, undemocratic, and only makes the situation worse. Peer review, for instance, supposedly exists to ensure published papers are trustworthy and credible, but critics like Mastroianni argue that its real effect is to make published papers appear trustworthy and credible. A number of studies published over the last two decades put peer review to the test by deliberately submitting flawed papers for publication. The studies were remarkably consistent: peer review caught errors around 30% of the time. The paper that first claimed that vaccines cause autism, Slime Mold Time Mold remind me, was peer reviewed, and published in The Lancet, one of medicine’s most prestigious journals. It took twelve years for the editors of The Lancet to issue a retraction.
‘It can be frustrating when, on the internet, people criticize our work much more harshly than they criticize things that appear in peer reviewed journals,’ the mad scientists tell me later, over tea. I think of the swift and strong reactions from the academics I spoke to. ‘But we think ultimately it is encouraging, because work should be held to a really high standard.’
This year, in a series of blog posts they called N=1, Slime Mold Time Mold began to call upon their readers to experiment on themselves. One reader, going by the name Krinn, decided to continue her potassium trial, but slowly increase her intake until she got about 10,000 mg of potassium a day—the amount one might get from the full potato diet. In her study, published on Tumblr with the name ‘An Ad-Hoc, Informally-Specified, Bug-Ridden, Single-Subject Study Of Weight Loss Via Potassium Supplementation And Exercise Without Dieting’ Krinn reported that ‘I lost 30 pounds (13.6 kgs) in 6 months by chugging a bunch of potassium salt and exercising a lot.’ To the uninitiated, the exercise would appear to be a confounding factor, except Krinn insists that ‘My subjective experience is that cranking my potassium intake way up made it possible to do a lot more exercise than I had been doing without also eating a lot more.’ What could that mean?
‘One obvious alternate explanation for my successful weight loss’, Krinn writes, ‘is "well yeah, you doubled your exertion and kept your food intake the same, of course you lost weight."’ She goes on:
‘but I don't find that explanation satisfying. To start with, if it were that easy, people would do it more often. There are a tremendous number of people who would like to lose weight and a tremendous marketplace of devices, services, and professionals to help them use exercise for that purpose, and yet in a 20-year NCHS study, average exercise rose without obesity falling.’
Meanwhile, Krinn’s results—again, this is a sample size of one—were significantly more impressive than those of studies that measure exercise-only regimes. What Krinn and Slime Mold Time Mold want to suggest is that the potassium made it easier for her to go into caloric deficit without triggering lipostatic resistance. Or, put another way, ‘exercising more and eating less’, wrote Slime Mold Time Mold,
‘is not an explanation any more than "the bullet" is a good explanation for "who killed the mayor?" Something about the potato diet lowered people's lipostat set point, which reduced their appetite, which yes made them eat fewer calories, which was part of what led them to lose weight. Yes, "fewer kcal/day" is somewhere in the causal chain. No, it is not an explanation.’
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I called Slime Mold Time Mold to voice my doubts. I had, over the previous months, felt alternatively seduced and disenchanted by their lithium theory of obesity, but the results of the Potato Diet Community Trial could not be forgotten. On that front I had just one question: couldn’t the success of the potato diet just be a function of it being a mono-diet? Mono-diets are common stock in the fad diet world. If they work, the explanation could be more like the one Andrew Taylor offered: eating becomes boring. The mystery of obesity is not answered by lithium or lipostats but simply by the fact that modern food is too palatable. Mono-diets make food less palatable, which drives down appetite, which in turn drives down caloric intake. Returning to an unpalatable diet helps to reshape a person’s relationship with food, and that explains why it becomes easier to lose weight.
‘If there were other mono-diets that work, we think people would have found them,’ they told me. ‘You’d expect documentation.’ But there are people out there spruiking miracle mono-diets involving other foods, I replied, and the potato diet barely had documentation until Slime Mold Time Mold came along. Leanne Ratcliffe, for instance, an influencer known as Freelee the Banana Girl, endorses a ‘fruititarian’ diet and often goes days eating only bananas. It could be that studies involving mono-diets like hers would return similar results—the reason they haven’t been studied is that institutional science won’t touch it, and not everyone runs an anonymous science blog.
It’s possible, Slime Mold Time Mold told me, but they won’t think it is plausible until more testimony comes in. Part of science is intuitional, they say, and their intuition suggests other mono-diets won’t work. Still, one told me, ‘other people might have different intuitions, and that’s the beauty of empiricism: they can do their own study, and I think it could be very informative.’ To their credit, getting people with opposing views to run their own studies is a key tenet of the Slime Mold Time Mold philosophy. ‘Everything they need to start an N=1 study is on our blog right now,’ they reminded me. And then there’s institutional scientists, who, the mad scientists hope, will increasingly join the fray. ‘We would love’, they insisted, ‘someone to replicate our research under controlled academic conditions.’
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Until that happens we may not be able to know whether these online anonymous scientists have achieved major advances in obesity research or have been chasing a red herring. Until then, you should know this: I have picked up a potato habit. Whenever I have nothing better to eat, I eat a bowl of potatoes.
It happens easily enough. When my pantry is empty and I am on the verge of ordering Thai, I remember the sack of potatoes in the cupboard above my sink, and I remember Andrew Taylor and Chris Voigt and the miracle that is the close-to-nutritional-completeness of the humble spud. I think of the potato’s journey: native to South America, cultivated there by the people of the Andes, before being brought to Europe in the 1500s. I think of the potato blight: its first instances in the north-eastern states of the USA; its export to Europe and to Ireland; its decimation of the Irish potato stock, in particular, and therefore the Irish people, in particular (the Irish depending on a single susceptible strain of potato, the Irish Lumper). I think then of the triggering of the emigration of around a million Irish men and women: many to the north-eastern states of the USA, the place from which the blight first sprung.
Pretty soon I find myself, knife in hand, chopping my potatoes into pieces, dribbling olive oil across them, and sprinkling them with salt. I put them in the oven at some arbitrary temperature and, as I wait, I consider the slight, unlikely, thrilling possibility that strangers on the internet are managing to do what fifty years of professional research science has failed to do: solve the mystery of obesity.
Or they might be totally wrong. I consider this, too, as I douse my spuds in hot sauce, feeling at once compelled and uncertain, and I remember an early Slime Mold Time Mold email. ‘To be clear, we started doing all this to have fun,’ they wrote at the time. ‘But a scientific revolution does seem like a natural next step.’