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What are you looking at? It’s an online book. Basically, what that means is that I’ve published my book here on my site, StrengthMinded, as a series of blog posts to be read in a certain order, just as you would a book. So, each post is a new chapter or section of the book. This book is the BS Vaccine for Fitness (And Nutrition). It was written to help inoculate you against fitness bullshit. This is the preface, the part where I talk about why I wrote the book.
Regardless of why I wrote it, why should anyone want to read it? That is the question and a valid one! When I was batting around the idea for an eBook on ‘How to Spot Bullshit in Fitness Articles’ a friend whose opinion I trust said that he did not believe anyone would buy a book with such a title. It needed positive reinforcement. To me, learning to shield yourself from bullshit is a positive thing. In fact, today, I believe it may be one of the most important intellectual tools a person can possess. However, I think I can convince you of the need for books like this one by talking about one all-encompassing criterion that drives our pursuits in fitness and every other domain: Belief.
The internet is as much a belief engine as an information engine. What you believe is often different than what you know. Furthermore, there is something odd about believing that makes it quite different from knowing. What you believe is much less subject to change than what you know.
I’ve often talked about belief perseverance. We are all subject to it. Belief perseverance is the tendency to stubbornly cling to one’s beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence discrediting that belief. It is not always a bad thing. You have a right to it, in fact.
Let’s say I believe a certain website is a waste of my time and that I have many instances to back up that notion. If I come across some articles that are useful should I abandon my belief about this website? Probably not.
What if someone takes the time to painstakingly search through the website to present to me five examples of useful articles? Should I then change my belief? Well, I’d have to ask myself if I have enough tolerance for aggravation to find the diamond in a mountain of coal on a regular basis. And I’d have to conclude that I do not. It is in my own best interest to cling to my opinion even if that opinion is not always justifiable. Just as if I do well on a math test I probably should not come to the conclusion that I am a math whiz.
Clearly though, my dislike of a certain website is of minor importance to those around me and one would find it hard to prove that this dislike would damage me in any way, let alone others. It is also not evident how much my belief should change given the evidence of five good articles from hundreds. This is often the case with health and fitness-related subjects as well. Often, these beliefs are part of a larger belief system, so changing one part can undermine that system.
Removing a brick from one’s belief system, thereby threatening its collapse, causes a great deal of cognitive stress and, in some cases, social embarrassment. We often don’t realize how important one belief can be to someone and how this makes it all the more difficult to convince them to abandon the belief.
Belief can be so hard to shake that a person will cling to a belief even after the source of that belief has been discredited! Not long ago, I responded to a person claiming that we should never, ever, drink milk or consume dairy products and that casein protein from milk had been shown to cause cancer. It turned out, as I expected, that this person had been influenced by the widely debunked China Study, actually a book, by T. Colin Campbell, et al. I explained to the person that this book was, to put it bluntly, a load of crap. Then I provided several scholarly articles debunking the work.
Amazingly, the fellow readily accepted that he had been mistaken about the China Study. Mission accomplished!
Well, no. After apologizing for his mistake, he told me that he should have cited other sources for his assertions. Is it likely he had other sources? Not at all. He simply had no intention of letting go of his beliefs about milk and dairy. He could accept that the book he was so very enamored of a moment ago was a load of bunk, but even though the source of his belief had been shown to be discredited, he absolutely would not change that belief!
It’s true. Sometimes people fanatically cling to beliefs even after the initial information that led to them has been COMPLETELY discredited. They will ignore the evidence or attempt to discredit it. They will misinterpret it to suit their initial beliefs. They will manufacture false information; often unconsciously. It all comes down to the same thing: They will heroically defend and protect their belief despite unassailable disconfirming evidence.
If you think this is bonkers, consider that it is possible to cling to beliefs about fitness, nutrition, etc. even after you’ve forgotten the source of those beliefs. You may believe that squatting will give you big arms because of ‘testosterone’ but if asked where you came by this information, you’re left scratching your head.
When it comes to developing our critical thinking skills, belief perseverance is just the tip of the iceberg and yet, given how stubborn beliefs are, you may begin to realize that once you’ve fallen victim to bullshit, all the credible and scholarly information in the world may fail to shake it loose!
Bullshit is like a baited hook. You may only have one chance to recognize it for what it is. If you fail to do so, the hook is set, and it becomes a part of your belief system, for better or for worse.
While this book is about fitness and nutrition, our challenges in the internet age are far more profound, and learning to see the bullshit I discuss in this book, I hope, will help you learn to recognize it elsewhere than fitness and nutrition information.
It is, after all, one thing to not accept certain complex social or economic truths. But when the facts smack us over the head and we STILL refuse to accept the truth, we see just how tricky the human mind can be. Most of us value the truth very much, yet you wouldn’t think so from the way we behave. Despite what many assert, this is nothing new. Ignorance, even willful ignorance, has always been with us.
Yet, according to Lee McIntyre in “Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age,” we’ve reached a tipping point. We have more information at our fingertips than ever before in human history, and the amount of misinformation may just outweigh the factual. This misinformation can be spread around the world in hours if not minutes, and we are besieged by unscrupulous con-artists who exploit our innate cognitive weaknesses for their own agenda or gain.1McIntyre, Lee C. Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age. Routledge, 2015.
Certain people don’t want you to know certain things, or will actively work to organize doubt or uncertainty or misinformation to help maintain (your) ignorance…This is an idea insufficiently explored by philosophers, that ignorance should not be viewed as a simple omission or gap, but rather as an active production. – Robert N. Proctor.
Ignorance is not simply an omission. It is created and nurtured by certain people with their own agenda. In the fitness industry and its related domains, that agenda is usually profit. This does now always imply that a person was not ignorant before but was made newly ignorant by an unscrupulous messenger. It may be that a person is maintained in a state of ignorance. In other words, there are people who want to make us ignorant, and people who want to keep us ignorant.
It may be difficult to change our beliefs and combat the misinformation that leads to ignorance unless we train ourselves to modify our viewpoint as new information becomes available.
Or, we can defer belief until more evidence becomes available. The absence of belief has become a taboo concept in our society. Belief itself is seen as a virtue, even in the absence of evidence, where lack of belief has become synonymous with ’emptiness’ or ‘shallowness’ even though to most rational thinkers blind belief simply means someone is more comfortable in a dark room fool of false shadows than in the light of day. As Thomas Jefferson said:
Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.
The little ways are obvious: Stubbornly refusing to give up useless dietary supplements, for instance, is at least harmful to our wallet. And if we rely on quick-fix solutions based on misplaced belief, we may ignore the more important big picture, thus impacting our goals in the long term.
But there can be even more dangerous results.
One type of belief perseverance involves self impressions. This persistence of self-impression is a primary psychological consideration. A trainee’s beliefs about their ability, for instance, can create a very strong psychological barrier to performance. And there are more harmful beliefs that people have about their body. What starts out as belief about one’s body image: too fat, too skinny, not muscular, etc. can develop into a full-blown body dysmorphia. This is a serious and prevalent problem today and it can start with something that is innate to all of us: belief perseverance.
Several years back, the “extreme stretching” fad was making its way around the bodybuilding forums. It was even given a scientific-sounding name: fascia stretching. It was based on quack science concerning the “fascia bag” surrounding muscles. The idea was that your muscles are nothing more than a bunch of sausage stuffed into a skin. They can only grow so much because the bag is too small. Therefore if you stretch, tear, and enlarge the bag you will become huge. The evidence? Someone hung some weights from birds’ wings and left them there for a long time. The birds’ breast muscles enlarged.
Based on this one experiment it was concluded that to get big you had to use extreme stretching. Doesn’t sound safe? Don’t worry. The fascia stretching crowd explained that you couldn’t be injured using static stretching very easily because the stretch reflex could be “avoided” by slowly moving into the stretch. And as long as you stretched very slowly your muscles would safely lengthen like a piece of taffy. Basically, they believed the same myth about static stretching that many people do: static stretching cannot injure you, only dynamic stretching can. Or something to that effect.
Needless to say, I reacted very strongly to the word extreme being attached to stretching. I found myself in numerous debates in which I presented huge amounts of data on muscle physiology and showed clearly that this practice was not only scientific crap but was very dangerous.
But to very little avail. The perpetrators of this stretching fad were popular and considered bodybuilding authorities. The trainees spreading this practice had bought the explanation for how it worked and rationalized to themselves how it must be true. No matter how hard I worked that initial impression and rationalization could not be shaken off despite my overwhelming evidence that it was hare-brained and dangerous. This is another example of belief perseverance at work and shows how we can believe to our own detriment.
To a novice and even to those who consider themselves advanced, it is possible to fall into the trap of belief perseverance. It has happened to me and to you. And it will happen again. So how do we combat it?
Learn to recognize bullshit! You must learn to recognize it not only from others but from yourself. Do you know how you came to most of your opinions and beliefs about fitness and nutrition or most other domains? In reality, we tend to have no idea how we arrived at most of our opinions and beliefs.
Not knowing the origin of your beliefs is not always a fatal flaw. You don’t need to know all the time. You really don’t. But, some things are important to you. So, here is JOB NUMBER ONE for learning to think critically (think for yourself) and not have your beliefs handed to you by someone else without you even knowing it:
When you say “I believe this” the very next thing to ask is “WHY do I believe this? How did I come to this conclusion?” The answer may shock you.
Here, I’m using a very broad definition of bullshit but it is my hope that by reading this book you will develop a finely honed bullshit meter. One thing I want you to realize is that you are not too smart to fall for bullshit. Being smart, in itself, is no hindrance to being duped. You have to use those smarts of yours to develop the critical thinking skills needed to recognize and avoid BS! Thinking you are too smart to be taken in, more than likely, will make you easier to fool.
This book is not about correcting misinformation as much as it is about finding ways to stop misinformation before it can take root in your mind. Once spread and accepted, misinformation has such persistence that countering it can at times seem hopeless.
As Lewandowsky, at al. state in Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing, the deck is stacked in favor of accepting misinformation. Better, then, is to counter misinformation before it takes root.
Before we begin, I’ll give you a head start:
Whenever you are presented with a rationalization as to why a certain thing is true simply explain to yourself why the OPPOSITE could be true. Investigate it, think about it, and come up with what is called a counter explanation. This practice will prevent the original rationalization from becoming cemented into a persistent belief and you will be left with the process of considering the facts from a more objective standpoint.
You will be surprised just how flimsy most rationalizations can be and how easily they can be overturned by a counter explanation. It doesn’t even matter if the counter explanation turns out to be true, only that it is a convincing alternative based on the facts at hand.
|McIntyre, Lee C. Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age. Routledge, 2015.