Since I have begun to talk about evidence, I feel it is best to start with the type of evidence we see most often in the fitness and nutrition industries: anecdotal evidence. Although what I will present hear is a bit old by internet standards, it serves as a great example of how anecdotal evidence is abused and misused. The subject is the craze over Hugh Jackman’s way of strength training and muscle building in his preparation for his role as the Wolverine.
During the time that Wolverine training was so popular in the online strength and bodybuilding community, so was critical thinking. Critical thinking, like “evidence based training” was all the rage. Both have rarely been more than a couple of buzz-words.
Most people in the fitness industry want to talk about good thinking, rather than do it. Critical thinking is hard work. It is never-ending. Critical thinking is a bit like the deadlift. There are those who do deadlifts, and there are those who shout “Booyah, arrrgh, deadlifts, BEASTMODE! Hardcore!” One of my main reasons for not believing that critical thinking is really something the fitness industry, at large, cares about, is that too many of its members do it selectively. In other words, they think about things they have a negative reaction to and criticize those things, but when something happens to coincide with their general views, the thinking stops, even if it doesn’t represent a credible “scientific” stance. One of these instances is anecdotal evidence, and “this works for me” prescriptions given by individual trainees, or better yet, celebrities who strength train or stay fit for movies, or what have you.
The So-Called Appeal to Authority
The fallacy that is sometimes named “appeal to authority” is actually a fallacy of bringing up inappropriate experts or authorities. It is usually misused.
Most often, what is called an appeal to authority by an opponent is not a fallacy, unless it is a misused appeal to authority (in other words a fallacious appeal to authority or a questionable authority). This is also often mistaken for the fallacy Argumentum ad verecundiam. Argumentum ad verecundiam, in Latin, means something like “argument from reverence.” An easy example of this fallacy is when someone tells you that you are wrong simply because their expert authority is more respected and famous.
An appeal to authority, in and of itself, is not wrong. It is not wrong to bring up an expert in a field to support an argument. Wouldn’t bringing up Einstein in a physics discussion be appropriate? But bringing up Einstein in a lawn care discussion would NOT be appropriate, nor even would it be appropriate to cite Einstein concerning politics and social issues, even though he had definite opinions about both.
However, many of the claims of appeal to authority used in online discussions are nothing more than an attempt by an opponent to quickly dispense with an argument by saying “you broke the rules by bringing up an expert.” Most of the time, the person trying to cloud the issue by his claim of fallacy, has no expertise or even basic knowledge with which to evaluate the cited claims of the authority.
How many times have you heard someone asking for data and methods from a study as if they themselves could evaluate it and planned to set up their own experiment to see if they could replicate the results?
I have noticed a similar attempt to dismiss the claims of authority by people who have obviously never heard of said authority, except for the quick Googling they do to try to BS their way out of the conundrum.
So be aware that when you try to dismiss someone’s claims by dismissing their authority, you are implying that you are qualified to evaluate the work of that expert. You are in danger of misrepresenting yourself. A great example of this kind of misrepresentation is the Lenski affair.
It is true that Hugh Jackman did some pretty “hardcore” lifting to get ready for his roles as Wolverine. He engaged in what even I would call strength training, and I am fairly selective in my personal definition. Many men would like to look like Wolverine, or at least Hugh Jackman playing the Wolverine. Whats more, Jackman had some pretty impressive deadlifts. He also allowed the media “behind the scenes” of his training and posted YouTube videos of himself deadlifting, etc. He and his trainer even appeared on a behind-the-scenes TV program for the Wolverine movies.
While it is not fair to say that Jackman gave out advice, his viewpoints on training were shared around by quite a few fitness and strength professionals, including in the form of articles about what he says and does about training. Many of the training quotes attributed to him were what many of us would consider “reasonable.” They basically came down to “lift heavy and keep your diet in check.” No supplements, except, apparently, BCAAs. Since what he said seemed reasonable it was treated like a “breath of fresh air” by personal trainers who are tired of celebrities and their silly viewpoints on exercise and staying in shape.
Now, let’s imagine we’re talking about Brad Pitt. After all, there are hundreds of “Brad Pitt Workouts” on the net. Let’s imagine that Brad says quite the opposite. He uses “high volume body part splits” exclusively, never deadlifts or lifts heavy at all, and takes every bodybuilding supplement you can imagine. In fact, he spends much more of his considerable wealth on supplements than he does on food. Remember, this is hypothetical. Now, just imagine the reaction if Pitt said those things. Is it “reasonable?”
Remember those value-laden reactions I spoke about earlier in the book. Instead, let’s apply some actual critical thinking to both situations, the real one concerning Wolverine, and the hypothetical one concerning Brad Pitt: Both cases are anecdotal. Neither is credible evidence of good training practices. Just because many of us happen to agree with Jackman’s way of doing things doesn’t make him more of an expert or authority. It doesn’t make him a professional. It doesn’t mean that his experiences and results can be extrapolated to apply to a general population. Anecdotal evidence is anecdotal evidence.
And yet, if it is any kind of evidence, what is it evidence of? Both the body that Jackman displays as the Wolverine, and the body Brad Pitt has in “Fight Club,” are bodies people would envy. Perhaps even more people would envy Pitt’s look in the movie Troy. Which one they envy the most has nothing to do with correctness. It has only to do with values. There is this old saying in strength training, after all: Guys either want to look like Wolverine or Spider-Man.
If Brad was able to achieve his chiseled ab “Fight Club” or bulkier but still chiseled Troy look with supplementation and commercial gym machines, the results speak for themselves. It just so happens that there are many fitness pros who would endorse his methods, hypothetically speaking, because of the results he got. And there are just as many who would equate his physique with health, completing the circle. It gets results and it’s “proper.”
Others would reject his methods because they don’t coincide with what these trainers consider proper. “He is full of shit. He doesn’t know shit about training and his methods only apply to him. It’s anecdotal evidence,” they would say. Some of those same pros who would react this way are the same ones who quoted Jackman’s views on training. Not because they think Jackman’s views represent credible evidence, but because those views agree with their own.
No matter how impressed you are with a heavy deadlift, you can’t reject one celebrities “successful” method and embrace the other on no other basis they coincide with your previous beliefs about training. Neither celebrity can be considered to be qualified to give general training advice to a general training population as they have no experience training others and no real background education and knowledge in the field. No matter how much I like what he has to say, I can’t endorse his views as “evidence” for my own. As well, I’d have to have hundreds and hundreds of Jackman’s to say I have evidence that my “lift heavy and eat well” prescriptions are credible, and even then it wouldn’t constitute proof.
Most people are not really considering how unique such a celebrity’s situation might be. Do we imagine that he ever really has problems with a large accumulation of body fat? I don’t. For me, the struggle is eating enough to get results in my training. Gaining fat just isn’t a problem. If I told you to, eat whatever you want and train heavy, you’d have to call question me. It works for me because my body has a different sort of set-point. I don’t store fat easily or for the long term. If I start to put on a little, it will melt off as fast as it comes as soon as I lay off a bit on eating. Does that apply to you? Probably not. Jackman is also fond of smoking cigars. He dehydrated to look more cut before filming, much like a bodybuilder would. Should we endorse that as well? Let’s be clear: He was a man with a job to do.
Another thing that many people are failing to notice is that Jackman’s body evolved greatly after the first X-men movie. His results came over a substantial space of time. There are no magical methods that will turn you into the Wolverine overnight. That is one of main points he himself tried to convey, after all, that it takes hard work and commitment over the long haul. Compare the two images below. They represent a span of 13 years. I would like to point out, however, that in the second image, he’s 44! You should hope to look this good, ever.
We cannot embrace anecdotal evidence based on how much we would like it to be credible, or how much it pleases us. We complain when famous athletes make commercials about soap, shampoo, cars, underwear, etc. as if they are experts on these things. Sometimes, they make even more serious statements about more serious topics. We complain when famous actors make statements about healthcare, such as Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccine debacle. Is it because they are inappropriate authorities? Is it because, at times, they are making potentially harmful claims? Or is it because we just don’t like what they have to say? In truth, nothing Jenny McCarthy says about vaccines has merit EVEN if she was pro-vaccine!
And, as I’ve mentioned before, just because you like what Bill Gates has to say on the subject of vaccines, doesn’t make him a credible source either! The same goes for the Wolverine. Jackman has a right to his results. He obviously worked tremendously hard. He has a right to tell others about how he went about it. And, one thing that he was quick to say is that it if downright HARD. It is not easy to get the fitness results you want. There are no shortcuts for hard work.
I understand the attraction, though. It is hard not to get behind Mr. Wolverine. He truly worked his ass off and controlled his diet very closely, and still does. He is not a loudmouth blow-hard. He’s somewhat soft-spoken and he seems humble. He believes that it is easier to stay in shape than get in shape. How can you not like that message? Do I like what he has to say? Absolutely, you bet I do. He is a fellow lifter, if nothing else. The fitness industry, however, does not have a right to hold any of this up as evidence for their own practices, especially as it represents a selective bias.