If you’ve ever read or attempted to read papers published in scientific journals, you may have noticed that they are full of tables and supplemental attachments. Some of these are useful and essential and some of them are ridiculous fluff. I routinely left out many of the tables in these journal articles that I published on my site. That is because they look particularly useless, adding nothing to the content or readability of the paper and serving only to create noise and distract the reader, taking up his or her precious time.
My son’s school science project one year illustrated this nicely. He went to a great school where he was taught critical thinking skills. As well, the science instruction was top notch. But a big part of the package he was given for his project was about including tables and graphs, making it seem that science and tables/graphs were almost synonymous. I helped him with his project and we included a graph, even though the graph in no way made the very simple data any easier to understand. It just looked pretty.
I used to publish journal papers on my old site. When the tables seemed particularly important, I included them, but when there were ten of them I had to say enough was enough. Still, tables are at least more “primary” to the study. What you’ll also notice is what is called supplementary information. Files attached, to be downloaded separately. Some papers have so many of these supplementary items, it begins to look like a data dump. Not many readers will comb through reams of supplementary files, especially when a great deal of the information in them is already in the paper.
I thought I was the only one who felt this way but, apparently, at least one journal editor is fed up as well. Christine Borowski, who is the executive editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) published an editorial in the journal about this problem called Enough is Enough, and planned to put a stop to it in her journal. According to her, many are complaining about the “overabundance of supplementary information” in primary research articles. In fact, she says the complaints are at cacophonous levels. 1Borowski, Christine. “Enough Is Enough.” JEM, Rockefeller University Press, 4 July 2011, jem.rupress.org/content/208/7/1337. The Journal of Neuroscience made a similar announcement regarding supplemental material. Maunsell, John, Ed. “Announcement Regarding Supplemental Material.” 2The Journal of Neuroscience. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://www.jneurosci.org/content/30/32/10599.full>
Data dumping is not only limited to supplementary information in scientific papers. I find it in something I know a lot more about (than I do about scientific papers): articles about fitness, strength training, etc. Now, if this is a problem in research papers written by people with strings of letters after their names, what the heck is it doing in fitness and nutrition articles aimed at lay-people?
What do I define as a data dump in this regard? Reams and reams of non-essential technical information, especially replete with accompanying obtuse technical jargon.
My own articles are long, sometimes. In fact, they are often over-long. But I don’t think anyone can accuse me of being overly technical or obtuse. I try to thoroughly explain and back up my ideas, and I may sometimes go overboard. The same is true of other authors. However, even concerning technical info, you have to ask, is the author just being over-zealous or, and this is the million-dollar question, is it a smoke-screen?
There are so many different kinds of articles with different purposes, all of them under the general fitness umbrella or the nutrition umbrella. The purpose of some articles is to get across technical information. But when it is not, there is one simple question to ask: How essential is all this stuff to the article?
Usually, if you have doubts as to whether there is a purpose to all the ‘extra’ information thrown into the article, you are on to something. The strength of your reaction to this will probably give you a clue as to whether the author was just being a bit over-enthusiastic, or whether the data dump was a cover operation designed to look smart but teaching nothing. Very precise seeming numbers are a big part of this.
Throwing a lot of numbers into a concept that cannot even be precisely measured is not about data. It’s about what Charles Seife, in Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled By the Numbers, calls “proofiness.” Very precise information about areas of human performance? Well, it just doesn’t get that precise. Seife calls these mostly made-up numbers Potemkin numbers, which he named after Prince Gregory Potemkin, who, according to legend, duped an empress with an elaborate facade. 3Seife, Charles. Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. New York: Viking, 2010.
Potemkin did not want the Russian empress to know that a certain area in the Crimea was an unpopulated, barren wasteland. He thought that he needed to convince her the area was bustling and thriving. To this end, he basically made what would be, by today’s standards, a movie set of a small town, like the ones they make for Westerns. He built wooden frameworks, facades made to look like villages and towns when viewed from a distance. The empress traveled through the area in her fancy carriage and was easily fooled into thinking these were busy towns, full of people. To Seife, Potemkin numbers are just like Potemkin villages: facades.
And I agree. Look at random through some articles about health or fitness. You will find that many of them are chock full of very precise figures like statistics and other numbers. Look at this example from UNICEF. Now, I certainly support the goals of UNICEF but what you’ll notice is that the article is full to the brim with very precise statistics such as a mother giving birth in Sub-Saharan Africa has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in childbirth and about 529,000 women die in childbirth each year. The article is full of proofiness. It is very unlikely that many of the numbers the article claims could be known so precisely. But it doesn’t matter, for the reason expressed by the quote from Richard Hofstadter, which Seife uses at the beginning of his introduction:
The American mind seems extremely vulnerable to the belief that any alleged knowledge which can be expressed in figures is in fact as final and exact as the figures in which it is expressed. – Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life 4Seife, Charles. Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. New York: Viking, 2010.
What if you asked me how to get through your sticking point on the bench press and I told you this: You have to use speed training so that you can learn to accelerate through the sticking point. You need to use exactly 50% of your 1RM on bench for 8 sets of 3.
Don’t I sound really smart? Precise numbers like these must have taken a lot of figuring out. No. I’m just repeating numbers that someone else made up. Yes, made up. If you tell people the truth, that there is no exact right intensity and exact number of reps and sets that everyone must do to “get through their sticking point,” they will simply turn the page. Go to the next article that gives them some exact numbers. Numbers have the ring of not only proofiness, but truthiness. The more precise the formula is that someone feeds you, the more you should suspect them of selling you a bill of goods. This is a problem that we as writers have to contend with. I do not think the solution is to sell out and just make stuff up. Instead, we must take a bit of time and explain how it all comes together. I can tell you that five good guidelines will take a person MUCH further than two hard and fast rules. See what I just did there?
I talked more about overly precise numbers in regards to strength training and fitness in Average Deadlift Weight: How Numbers Lie.
Remember the movie Good Will Hunting? When Matt Damon’s character Will was being his usual pedantic self, and Robin Williams said to him, “I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some book?” Assuming you are not reading a reference article (think Wikipedia and the like), when you read a long, long article full of technical mumbo-jumbo, and you end up sitting there scratching your head, thinking ‘I didn’t learn anything I could not have read in some book or some study, and then I still wouldn’t have understood it,’ you have just fell victim to the data dump. I’ve written many reference articles but even in those a data-dump could be a sin, depending on the purpose and target audience. And of course, my audience is not college students, even though, I am honored to say, my articles are sometimes used as reference material by teachers for their students.
Horn tooting done. Once, in another incarnation of my writing career, I had the opportunity to look through the “briefs” from a very large corporate lawsuit. A brief is the epitome of oxymoron. Lawyers don’t do anything brief. These were printed and bound books many of them over 300 pages long. And there were hundreds of them spanning years for one lawsuit.
The idea, I take it, is that if you want to get your way you state your position in as muddy a way as possible and throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at them.
Several years ago, Goldman Sachs perpetrated a data dump of this sort that has probably set a record. When asked for information by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission the company dumped over 2.5 billion pages of info (5 terabytes of data) that would, according to a Business Week article, take 159 years to print out on a laser printer. Needless to say, the commission wasn’t laughing.
So much of the data dump has to do with science and people’s perception of it. Science pertaining to fitness and what we actually do on a practical level, do not always coincide. Some authors just either don’t get this or willfully ignore it, thinking that biochemistry can explain how a person gets strong better than a well-qualified strength coach with a coherent philosophy of training.
This actually serves as a great example of bullshit in the fitness, strength training, and bodybuilding industries. It takes very little effort to learn a few details about the biochemistry of fitness and then explain to people how one or more of these details holds the secret to their success. In muscle building, some magical terms are protein synthesis and anabolic hormones. It requires no knowledge of the actual practices needed to build muscle to tell someone that they need to increase their protein synthesis or that doing heavy squats will increase anabolic hormones and thus increase muscle growth.
Another favorite instruction in muscle-building is to “focus on recruiting type 2 fibers.” This could only happen in weight training! Imagine a sprinter saying “Coach, I can’t run fast enough.” Now imagine his coach replying, “Well, son, focus on those type 2 fibers.” Always put your hands over your ears when someone tells you to FOCUS on an underlying physiological detail. It’s a red herring, not a goal.
It’s easy to see through this type of bullshit by understanding that you can only react to what can see, measure, and record! You can measure how much weight you lift, how many reps you perform, how many sets you do. You can even measure how much protein you consume or how many calories you take in. You cannot measure your level of protein synthesis. So, dwelling on it will in no way help you build muscle. Even if I tell you that doing X will increase your body’s synthesis of protein, you have no way of measuring and reacting to the results so you will have no idea if what I am telling you is meaningful. Therefore, I can tell you anything as long as you can’t observe it and it sounds scientific! Therefore, no, you cannot help someone get stronger, or build muscle, by teaching them biochemistry.
Sometimes, this kind of thing has to do with a mistaken quest for precision. Precision for precision’s sake is rarely helpful to a fitness or training goal. Such needless precision, often, on the part of fitness trainers, leads to misguided notions and ad-hoc explanations and justifications for the precision. In other words, instead of basing advice on actual goals and real-world intentions, trainers often base advice on their interpretation of a physiological or biomechanical “fact” and this leads them to adopt ideas that are not actually in line with a productive means of training or exercising. Inherit is the fact that they lack the experience and knowledge to actually be effective. They may not know they are bullshitting, but they are. Anytime you place a higher priority on demonstrating knowledge than gaining it, you are in danger of becoming a bullshitter.
For example, I wrote an article about the idea that you cannot isolate a muscle. We hear this all the time, don’t we? I dared to ask, so what?
Well, a certain trainer, when asked about isolating a muscle, responded, you can’t isolate a muscle and why would you want to?
It’s a silly question. Anyone who has ever tried to build muscle knows why you would want to “isolate” a muscle.
This trainer, in his zeal for precision, is pretending that the whole idea of an isolation exercise is silly (and dangerous) because you can’t technically isolate a muscle. You see, I doubt very much that he arrived at his conclusion about how you should not bother with isolation exercises until he learned the tasty little fact that you can’t technically isolate a muscle. This is one of those isolated facts that “travels well” in the fitness industry, something that I will discuss in detail later in this book. This type of fact is able to be passed around easily without a lot of baggage attached!
The “fact” is that what we label an isolation exercise versus a compound exercise does not need to be precise to precisely mark our intentions. While facts matter, isolating facts outside of context solely for the sake of technical precision is the province of a novice thinker. Facts and knowledge are not the same things! Anybody with any knowledge of muscle-building knows that if you want to grow any single muscle groups to be as large as possible, you’ll have to do isolation exercises. You’ll have to ‘seek’ to isolate that muscle group, regardless of whether you can every truly isolate it. You want to emphasize it and provide the greatest possible stimulus. Now, do you really think we want to start calling them emphasizing exercises?
Much of this has to do with nothing more than pseudo-intellectual posturing. Throwing around high-sounding terms and scholarly sounding ideas without actually saying anything, and that is primarily what I am talking about. I’ve grown so very weary of the trend toward fitness professionals thinking their job is to impress us with how many studies they read and how they derive so many theories from them. Our job is not to derive theories, our job is to solve problems. We seem to be forgetting that. So many of the people doing this really are the good-guys! They mean so very well but are caught up in this rat-race to prove they are smarter than the average bear. For every choir member who hangs on their every word and tells them how brilliant they are, there are five people out there who get nothing from it because they alienated at the very beginning by posturing and intellectualism. Their fellow fitness superstars might be impressed by their data dump but the people who actually need advice are going to fall victim to misinformation simply because it is presented in a format that makes them feel like it is relevant to them, and that the author cares. So while they think you are saving the world with their knowledge-bombs, in reality, they are adding to the problem by driving away the very people who could benefit most from their sincere desire to help.
I would never want everybody to write like I do, or to a certain style or standard. That is not what I am saying here. What I am saying, instead, is that it is time we all examine our fundamental motivations and remember why we got into this field in the first place.
Sundry fitness and nutrition writers and other fitness pros on the internet, those who are trying to fake it till they make it, although they serve as a great lesson, are the least of our concern. There are many more powerful and harmful agents at work.
Resources [ + ]
|1.||↲||Borowski, Christine. “Enough Is Enough.” JEM, Rockefeller University Press, 4 July 2011, jem.rupress.org/content/208/7/1337.|
|2.||↲||The Journal of Neuroscience. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://www.jneurosci.org/content/30/32/10599.full>|
|3, 4.||↲||Seife, Charles. Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. New York: Viking, 2010.|