The last section of this book concerned, in some part, evidence. If I could name the biggest problem the fitness industry has with evidence it would be this. The timing is all wrong! You see, you should not start thinking about evidence after you’ve read something or after you’ve, perhaps, developed a pet theory. You should be thinking about evidence now. Thinking about evidence, what is is, what constitutes it, is another ingredient recognizing bullshit. And, you don’t have to become a scientific expert to do it.
To my chagrin, I’ve noticed that those who talk about rational thinking and skepticism do not seem to think very hard. I think I know some of the reasons for this but right now I’m thinking about a particular example.
I was reading an article about skepticism in which the author made the point that you can still think rationally about a subject even when there is not a lot, or no, scientific evidence concerning it. This I agree with and it’s a point that needs to be made given the constant shouting about evidence…even when you have it, your brain is not supposed to shut down.
But the author brought up an example where she said she was asked for statistics about the frequency with which white people touched the hair of black people without permission (her words). She said that of course there are no university studies on this but since there are so many people complaining of this in blogs, etc., on such a frequent basis, it must be true and must happen quite frequently. After all, is there a conspiracy where people of darker skin got together and decided as a group to falsely accuse lighter-skinned people of touching their hair uninvited? The author seemed to think that she was done being rational for the day and challenged her readers to come up with another counter-explanation.
I can think of a few. But critical thinking asks a lot more of us. First, we might ask, what is the actual question and what are the assumptions? Are we assuming that this rude behavior actually does happen at least sometimes? If, yes, and if we are only questioning the frequency, how often do we consider frequent? If you touch your own hair one-hundred times a day, it may not be considered frequent at all. But having another person do it once, without permission, will seem quite frequent enough.
Now, I would think that the amount of blogs and complaints about this phenomenon is NOT a good indication of the true frequency of it. Something being frequent or not is subjective and based on your perception of it. Evidence might hold us to a number, which may be arbitrary. But it is still rational to think that this rude behavior, in our society, is too frequent if it happens even once! Especially if you are the person being touched. As a darker skin person who has his or her hair touched, say, three times in their entire life by a lighter skin person, you could easily disregard the hundreds of times when a lighter skin person did not touch your hair. So, from that perspective this happened to you very infrequently but the three times that it did were disconcerting (or infuriating) enough to make them stand out in your mind and cause you to overestimate the frequency.
What if a study was done? We’ve just realized that there are ways for our study to be confounded. If we just sent out a questionnaire saying “how often has this happened to you” we would not get accurate data at all. In fact, if we don’t do some serious thinking about how to word our questions, we could screw up the whole thing royally. So, as much as we want evidence, we have to start thinking before we go about experimenting or gathering data so that we can eliminate as many factors as possible that may make our data irrelevant. With social problems, this is especially hard, and some people think you cannot be scientific at all in this area. Regardless, the same is true of any field. And, I would like to remind you that fitness, bodybuilding, and strength training have their own culture and failing to be aware of that culture is a mistake.
Most of us don’t set up studies or know anything about doing so. We leave such things to university professors and scientists. But even then, the same things that work against us work against scientists, and not all studies, in this regard, are created equally. So, we must start thinking before we go shouting for evidence, or looking for evidence, to support our conclusions or another person’s claims. What kind of evidence do we consider valid? What are the pitfalls? Are the data from studies likely to be generalizable?
And once you have the data to consider, how do you look at it? Many people consider knowledge to be factual information. We hear, “I’m going to give you the facts so you can be knowledgeable on this subject,” all the time. But if you want to base your decisions on the evidence you must transform knowledge. You must think about it, judge it, see how it fits in with other knowledge (like that from other disciplines), and then adapt it to what you do, or your particular needs. At its heart, this process is not about experimental or other data, but about critical thinking.
I, for example, am a strength trainer. What a physical therapist does with evidence and knowledge will not necessarily be the same thing I do. I also must consider what kind of information is actually practical (discriminate) and what is interesting but not yet relevant! As enamored as the fitness world is with Evidence-Based Practice, naming something does not explain it. The kind of thinking I do is nowhere near as complex as a medical professional must do, but I have never come upon a new piece of data and thrown out every single thing I’ve ever learned! I don’t change my practice based on evidence, I change it based on a great deal of thought about that evidence and many other things. Yet, in the name of science, I see just this sort of behavior constantly. One new study about the effect of front squats on the back and droves of fitness pros will shout, “Out with front squats!”
The interennet is not scientific simply because regular people are being asked for evidence to back up their statements. If you are ever asked for a ‘study’ to back up a statement you make, realise that the person asking probably does not have a clear-cut notion at all of what form such evidence might take.
It seems, often, that people expect to pick up some piece of jargon that some expert coined, search for it in PubMed, and find a cache of studies about it. And, if they don’t find a bunch of studies, the concept must not be important and must not really exist! This, of course, will depend upon the esteem they have for their original authority figure. If he or she is famous enough, then most people will continue to regurgitate the information, instead of, perhaps, picking up a few more scholarly sources and figuring things out from the ground up. There are so many scientific concepts that concern fitness and strength training that are routinely misinterpreted and misused. This tells us we have to know about it before we can look for it! Evidence has become the new they and they, as a collective, are a bunch of abstracts on the internet. Even if you are not concerned about learning more about the scientific concepts that inform fitness, you now know not to be overly impressed with claims of evidence. It may just be bullshit.
Now, let’s take a break from science and evidence and discuss a more fundamental and easily understood way in which the fitness industry misleads us. This is a basic critical thinking skill that most members of the industry either lack or purposely ignore: Comparing versus contrasting.