I’m sitting here after typing out the title, wondering if I should hit the backspace key until it disappears. I’ve just bit off quite a piece of jerky. After all, you could write an article about “what if scientists were truly scientific.” Even at the best of times, scientists don’t completely live up to their ideals. But scientists, at least, do science rather than just wave a banner. The fitness industry reminds me, sometimes, of Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own.” When I see how personal so many fitness scientists take things, I want to incredulously cry “There’s no CRYING in science!”
So, what would the fitness industry look like if it really were scientific? A bunch of different bloggers could write dozens of posts on this and still not hit on all the ways in which fitness professionals are nothing like scientists and are not scientific in their thinking. Indeed, they aren’t even consistently rational.
Before I go any further, I received a lot of assistance from conversations with Jamie Hale and throughout this article, I have paraphrased or quoted some of his comments to me. To be clear, this does NOT mean that he is endorsing everything I say in this article. The opinions and conclusions in this article are all mine. Keep in mind that these are also a mix of public statements and personal communication, and I’ve made no effort to differentiate between the two (there was no need as the statements are internally consistent). After those parts that are attributable to Jamie, to make things easier, there will be a footnote to let you know when the contribution belongs to him. For instance:
The fitness industry, at least the part of it that claims it is scientific, presents a central hypocrisy, making fun of non-scientific claims regarding fitness and nutrition, yet consistently making absurd non-evidence based claims regarding critical thinking, behavioral, and cognitive science, and all sorts of other domains. 1Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com
You will find that much of this article comes down to this type of hypocrisy that is present in the fitness industry.
Since anything that describes the key characteristics of science or explores the “nature of science” is not examining reality but only scientific ideals, we can only explore the fitness industry’s claim to scientific thinking in a similar light. Keep in mind that while this post is about the fitness industry, it is aimed at its consumers, so while I might seem to be talking to fitness pros, and telling them the error of their ways, I am really trying to enlighten fitness consumers on how the practices of the fitness industry differ from pure scientific practices, even though it likes to shout science at every turn. If some fitness pros change their attitudes along the way, all the better.
Of course, I wouldn’t disrespect you and pretend you didn’t already recognize that it is a business and so has other interests besides scientific thinking. But, if the industry were honest about that, they’d shoot themselves in the wallet. The industry is NOT scientific! It hides behind lip service to science. But how? How does the industry not live up to scientific ideals? Since I’m not quite qualified to explore that like a real scientific expert would, I’ll explore it in my own way, and hope that I can do a good job of persuading my readers (foreshadowing!)
I do have a good reason for the direction I’m taking. I am not claiming, you see, that the fitness industry could be or should be purely scientific. In fact, I do not think that it can or that it makes any sense to claim that it can.
Fitness is Crazy
Some of the most “scientific” members of the fitness industry are bat-shit crazy. But the fitness industry doesn’t recognize crazy until it stands on its head and sings Amazing Grace. Because the fitness industry is nuts. You can get away with a lot of bullshit that you could never, ever, get away with in the scientific world. Not and have any type of career left. So that is one way that is different. To spell it out:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, Most of Those Entering It Would Be Laughed Out Of It
This includes many of the close, personal, fist-bumping, you-da-man, endorsing-the-products-of friends of even the most scientific people in the industry. What do scientists do when you claim to have invented a perpetual motion device? They roll their eyes and laugh at you. But since they are scientists, they watch you scramble around trying to show how your device works, then explain to you how you were mistaken, and why your device is NOT a perpetual motion device. Then, while you cry about conspiracies and pull the mystery card out of your ass, or any number of typical shenanigans that go on in the world of pseudo-science, the scientists quietly move on to matters of actual scientific interest.
But if you claim that rolling around on a vibrating platform will help your muscles get stronger, increase your cardiovascular endurance, heal your bad knees, or have a bunch of other unlikely but wonderful effects, not only will a bunch of people buy your damned device, and make you rich, but a bunch of fitness pros will help spread your message forth, especially since you say your device works because of science. Before you even say it, the fact that you yourself would scoff at such a device and such a person doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of others who would not. The fitness industry, unlike real scientists, ignores information that does not lead directly to more money. You don’t need me to tell you that there is a distinct difference between a for-profit enterprise and a purely scientific endeavor. Or do you? Is that getting a little personal? Does that make you mad, when I tell you that your clever marketing flies in the face of legitimate scientific thought? Well, I don’t blame you. That’d piss me off too. It’s a bit of a low blow. I can question your marketing but I can’t question your scientific chops! If I do that, it is time for a shit-storm! This brings us to the next point:
If the Fitness World Was Scientific, Its Members Would Not Take Disagreements and Refutations So Personally!
In other words, if the fitness industry were truly scientific, there would be a whole lot less crying, whining, and outright nasty feuding whenever someone refuted someone else’s precious scientific something or other. If you’ve ever been in a rock-n-roll band, you’ll know that many fitness pros are like drummers. If they practice a lick for eight hours, you can be damned sure they are going to use it in every song. Likewise, if a precious little pearl of the fitness industry does a week of research on a body part, or an exercise, or a “screen”, or an emerging theory, or a way of dieting, or even a piece of equipment, they will build a career around it, and defend their “science” on it as if their life depends on it. And, after a while, their career will depend on it, since they dig themselves in so deep they can’t ever dig their way out and not look like a complete and utter idiot (yes, this happens to actual scientists as well.) Tunnel vision plagues the industry. If you understand the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” you understand only a small part of it. Many fitness pros deny that the forest exists and shout, at the top of their lungs, that it all comes down to the tree they’ve planted. Yes, the tree is their program, or their special exercise, or their special field of interest or study, or whatever other “lick” they’ve practiced ad Infinitum. The characteristic of science, the elimination of the personal, is all but absent in the fitness world.
Now, if I, perhaps, wrote a post about the lack of scientific reality behind a leading fitness pro’s endorsement of a vibrating thing-a-ma-jig that should be in every home, like I mentioned above, he or she might, instead of rebutting my arguments with well-reasoned counter-arguments of their own, start an online campaign against me claiming that Eric Troy is a HATER, and is jealous of my success, and here are some testimonials, and, again, he’s a hater, and wah, wah, sniffle. But what if I was wrong? What if the science was real and the vibraty thing really was going to make you strong, and lean, and help you perfect your tiger style kung-fu? But, what if it costs $20,000 and the company who makes the devise that our hypothetical pro endorses is owned by the mafia? What then? Would I be right in my condemnation of the machine and the pro who endorsed it? This brings us to the next point:
If the Fitness Industry Was Really Scientific, It Would Not Speak To Values, or What is “Right or Wrong”
The fact that the machine’s cost makes it completely impractical for home-fitness and that the proceeds go to criminals has nothing to do with whether the scientific underpinnings are there or not there. If the scientific underpinnings of the machine’s use for fitness and health-related pursuits were sound, then my condemnation of the machine based on scientific principals would be incorrect. If this were shown by the evidence, and I turned around and claimed, “That may well be but I’m still right because it is too expensive and the company is owned by criminals!” I would be making a completely fallacious claim and I will have failed, as well, to separate ethical or moral considerations from scientific ones. The science may tell us whether the use of the machine makes sense (or more correctly the scientists, since science doesn’t say anything), and whether there is direct confirming evidence of its efficacy, but it cannot tell us whether we should use it on ethical grounds! Yet, the fitness industry is as much concerned with what is “right” and “wrong” as it is with what is scientific.
Of course, nobody would try to hawk a machine for in-home use that costs $20,000. But the fitness industry sure does hawk a lot of machines, and gadgets, and methods, and programs, and books, etc. Some of them are useful, that’s for sure. And, we cannot ignore the practical. I once got into an argument with someone who claimed that chains were always better than resistance bands for strength training. I pointed out that this was not confirmed by any evidence that I had heard of, but even if it were, chains would remain impractical for the average strength trainee. They are very, very expensive; they are hard to transport, etc. Bands, on the other hand, are comparatively cheap and a bunch of them can be stuffed into your gym bag, providing you with all sorts of resistance. Surely, chains and bands aren’t even exactly the same, but in a contest for which was more generally useful, I’d go for bands any day. I’d hawk bands over chains too because I’d sell more for those very reasons. But what does science hawk?
The answer is nothing. Science doesn’t try to sell us anything. Science is a pursuit and at the root of this pursuit is a thirst for knowledge.
There is, it turns out, much more to this question of values. You see, values are at the heart of the majority of debates in the fitness industry. One difference between the scientific world and the fitness world is that science deals with facts and evidence. The fitness world deals not only with facts but with values. Let me explain.
When we discuss fitness practices, nutrition, fat loss, and anything in the greater fitness world, there are many different kinds of statements we can make. But two basic kinds of statements we can make are factual statements and value statements.
If I define what a calorie is, I am making a factual statement about calories. If I tell you what you should or should not eat, I am making a value statement. This value statement is also known as a prescriptive statement. It is also a known-empirical statement, meaning it cannot be tested empirically.
Many circles in the fitness industry have norms of behaviors. These are practices that most members of these circles see as acceptable. Prescriptive statements are statements about what you SHOULD do, or what you OUGHT to do. Many non-empirical statements take this form. Think also of statements about “what the government should do.”
We assign negative or positive values to every practice. That means we are saying that it is good or bad, right or wrong.
Here is the problem. We normally do NOT verify these statements in the same way as statements of fact.
Let’s say you are shopping for a car. We can say that car A is better than car B because of reliability and gas mileage. But, we have just revealed that we value gas mileage and reliability. Are there other factors or characteristics we can use to evaluate whether one car is better than another? Of course. And if we switch to those values, another car becomes a better choice, and we are still dealing with a prescriptive (though non-moral) statement. So, in order to “verify” or accept the non-empirical statement “you should buy this car” we use certain over-riding non-empirical statements such as “a car with lower gas mileage is better,” or “reliability is very important.”
So, the problem is that we do NOT assess these statements in the same way as we assess statements of fact. We start with our norms, or standards, which are based on values as much as anything else, and we end up there again, with values.
We can say that something is effective towards a certain goal. However, not all goals are computed the same. A rational goal may be one, for instance, that serves the purpose of keeping us motivated for the long haul.
If we say that this sort of rational goal is not as good as a precise fitness or performance goal, guess what? We are back to values.
Am I saying there is no place for values? NO. But if you are unaware of how norms, standard, and values take the place of evidence of efficacy, or even good reasons to do something, then you are missing a big piece of the puzzle. However, the pink elephant in the room is that most seemingly “scientific” thinking in the fitness industry starts and ends with value statements and prescriptive statements. These are not statements of fact and they cannot be evaluated in terms of their scientific validity. This is yet one more reason the fitness industry is not scientific, and probably never will be.
The fitness industry has one over-riding value and goal. Making a profit. This brings us to the next point:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Place Knowledge Before Money
Yes, I said it. Knowledge takes precedence over material considerations in any pursuit that can be called purely scientific. The more scientific the fitness industry was, the less it would care what you, as an individual, does with this knowledge, and the more it would be concerned with expanding that knowledge. In other words, the more the fitness industry was scientific, the less of an ‘industry’ it would be.
“What, are you saying I’m wrong to try to make a living?” Oh, I am so tired of that whiny little comeback. Making a living does not entail becoming rich and famous. Many members of the fitness industry that you have never heard of make a living. Scientists often make a living. They don’t often number among the wealthy. People make money off the findings of science. The fitness industry makes money off the findings of science, sometimes. But science is about knowledge, and the fitness industry, when it puts the gains from knowledge before the acquisition of knowledge, is not being scientific.
Even more, if the fitness industry were really interested in scientific thinking, it would be more bold in its thinking!
That may seem like a strange thing to say. Science is methodical, reasonable, and for the most part, plodding. Scientists aren’t adventurers! Well, that is where you’re wrong. Although there are debates as to this kind of thing, many scientists would agree that the best kind of scientific thinking is indeed thinking that shakes things up a bit. Even if the thinking turns out to be wrong, but it ends up showing us something we didn’t know before, it’s good! So scientists, when it comes to their theories, make predictions about the world. “If my theory is correct, then we should expect to see this happen.” Making a prediction such as “if my theory is correct, we should expect absolutely nothing to happen differently” is not a prediction at all! Certainly not a bold one. And now we have the next point:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, Fitness Pros Would Take More Risks With Their Claims
Talk about no risk! So many of the claims made by the scientific fitness industry, including those who claim to be “evidence based trainers or practitioners” have no risk involved at all. We read articles of hundreds of words written to come to this basic conclusion: “If I’m right, it doesn’t really matter.” In other words, members of the fitness community regularly go to great pains to show the lack of evidence for a practice or concept, or evidence for a certain practice or concept, that, in the end, just makes us scratch our heads and say “So, what?” If I do this, nothing changes, and if I don’t do this, nothing changes.
Still, as I said, scientists tend to make distinct and testable predictions based on their theories.
This means that if the prediction is tested and what the scientists says should happen does not happen, the theory may well be wrong (not necessarily, though). This means real scientist take risks. They don’t just say, “here is what I think but you have no way of ever knowing whether I’m right, so take my word for it.” They certainly would not be comfortable in saying “here is what I think but it doesn’t really change anything if I’m right or wrong.” Imagine a fitness trainer who espouses a theory about say, endurance training that entails what he calls an “unconventional” way of training if it were correct. Why is he correct? Because he has evidence! What evidence? Well, read these PubMed abstracts!
He may point to evidence in the form of data from studies, but what he won’t do is make any predictions. He won’t say, “If I am correct, then this specific intervention should result in 5 times faster results than another specific intervention for completely untrained individuals.” Of course, we are getting into all sorts of trouble with how to select participants and how to go about designing a study to test such a prediction, but the point is, there is no prediction to test! Our fitness trainer takes no risks because he makes no predictions. If he’s wrong, he hasn’t really put himself out there enough to really get called out on it. And, since there is so much overlap between how we exercise and how our body adapts in specific ways, his method way may well seem to work just as well as any other method. If he talks enough science, and uses enough jargon, and does a good job of marketing his ideas, and he has the right people behind him (and the right website — that is important, too), people will convince themselves that his way works better and thus his theory is correct.
However, it is important to be clear about the testing of scientific predictions: Predictions are often inherent. Even if the the fitness pro doesn’t make any, we can still test his claims scientifically!
But none of this matters. The claimant doesn’t need to take any real risks as the fitness industry has a built-in idea spreading engine. Not only does he not take any risks with his claims, he doesn’t need to. And, he can claim, as Timothy Ferriss does in his book “The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman” that “hundreds of people have tested his method.” Scientists, for sure, have a different idea of how to “test” something! Ferriss may seem like an easy target, but this built-in confirmation is at work for many of the leading fat loss and fitness writers on the internet: The people who claim success are people who have already been indoctrinated into the writer’s ‘audience.’
See, it shouldn’t matter at all if a person had read all your blog posts or read your books! The success of a truly scientific theory does not rest on a scientist’s blog and they do not need to write hundreds of articles on it. One paper with testable predictions should do!
Testimonials from devoted followers may be evidence of some kind, but it is not scientific evidence! And, indeed, you can find a testimonial to support most any fitness claim, method, or product that exists. Keep in mind, of course, that testimonials can be faked and they often are faked. There is nothing that exists in the fitness world, from the most absurd to the most rigorously scientific, that someone does not believe in, and that someone will shout it from the rooftops.
Still, regardless of what our fitness trainer says, we could still test his method and compare it to other methods. However, many fitness pros espouse ideas that are not testable at all. ‘Pomegranates are superfood and will increase your health,’ is not testable. Be that as it may, there are ways to refute untestable ideas and we could refute this statement by examining whether it is possible for a food to be called a superfood, and what this would entail, and by pointing out that “increasing your health” is much too vague a statement to be scientific. For starters, at least. And this brings us to the next point, and it is an ironic one:
If The Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Understand That Not Everything Can Be Tested Empirically
First, understand that empirical is not a synonym for experimental. Many members of the fitness industry that all evidence besides experimental evidence is invalid. The same industry that claims to be scientific while making completely untestable claims, continually asks for evidence in the form of studies for whatever idea it would like to squash. By studies, most fitness pros mean experimental evidence. Often, the claims or concepts being discussed, for which they would like to see empirical evidence, are not easily tested by experimental means, and many times they cannot be confirmed in this way at all. As well, if they are tested, the results are not easily generalizable.
This may be a good time to pause for some reflection on what I’ve just written because we are getting into the meat of the matter. After all, when we start talking about tests, experiments, evidence, empiricism, and all that, we actually are starting to leave behind the everyday world and enter the world of scientists. To some extent, we are all scientists because not all evidence needs to be experimental evidence. That is, not all evidence is strictly experimental evidence or even scientific evidence. As well, as Jamie Hale has written about, some evidence is Bad Evidence. In this article, Jamie points out that not all scientific journals are quality journals, not all studies are good studies, and not all good studies are published. He also talks about what he calls the Experimental Research Fallacy:
It is a fallacy that experimental research is always good research. This fallacy is not generally explicitly stated but may be suggested when only experimental research seems to count in regards to the discussion or topic being discussed. As with other research methods, the reliability and validity must be considered along with additional factors that may impact the outcome or inferences regarding the outcome. 2Hale, Jamie. “Bad Evidence.” Knowledge Summit. N.p., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. <http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/bad-evidence.html>.
Jamie also writes about different types of research and discusses the difference between quantitative and qualitative research and the different goals of correlation and experimental research (prediction versus explanation). Many fitness pros that talk about research evidence do not seem to understand that not all such research serves the same purpose. Frequently, the stated purpose of the research, as stated by the authors, is ignored. Even more, the very conclusions of the authors is ignored, simply because the person quoting the research has an agenda. Agendas are at the root of most all problems of evidence in the fitness world. It needs to fit in their box. If it doesn’t fit, they make it fit.
It is a common misconception, and one that I’ve encountered in the fitness world time and again, that the only evidence that counts is experimental evidence.
What are examples of claims, then, that are not testable, but clearly refutable by other means than experimentation? Well, I said before that the fitness industry makes many vague claims. I once mentioned such statements as “This is the single most effective exercise you can do.” This is an extremely vague and untestable claim, yet is it typical! We do not even know what ‘effective’ means in this context. Effective for what? When claims like this are made, the claimant is ignoring foundational science, the basic information we all have access to that would easily tell him or her that such a claim is not only unscientific, it is actually nonsense. Concepts such as specificity can refute such claims without having to worry about whether they are testable. That is, no exercise can be the single most effective exercise because the physiological adaptations to exercise are specific.
It is not even clear to me that when most of the fitness industry talks of evidence or science that they have a clear-cut notion of what evidence or science is. For many, the words evidence, science, or scientific, seem to be synonymous with the concept of knowing or not knowing; or just with the concept of knowledge in general. Also clear to me is that many fitness pros equate scientific thinking with critical thinking. Thus, comes the next point:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Differentiate Between Theoretical Explanation and Evidence
According to some research, people may have a clear preference for either theoretical explanation or explanations of the underlying mechanisms. That is, some people want things to ‘make sense.’ Let’s say you came from a place where nobody had ever heard of antibiotics, and people had never used them. To cure infections, herbs with antibacterial properties are used, and since these plants are unreliable treatments at best, the medical establishment in your country has trouble treating anything other than minor infections. Bacterial plagues frequently ravish the populace, bringing certain death.
I tell you that in my country, we have penicillin and other treatments that can cure even these horrible plagues. I tell you that penicillin originally was discovered in mold. You are shocked! “Mold!” you say, “Mold would just make you sicker!” So, I carefully and painstakingly explain to you how penicillin was discovered in mold, why mold makes this substance, and how it was discovered to kill germs, even to the point of fighting heretofore devastating plagues. I explain to you the mechanisms whereby the penicillin works to cure infections, assisting the body in its own defensive mechanisms. After a lot of talk and many questions, you become convinced by my explanation (because you are not a backwards type of fellah) that penicillin is indeed a miracle drug. I have convinced you by explaining, in somewhat theoretical terms, why and how penicillin works. I haven’t, though, shown you any direct evidence as to its effectiveness.
Most of us do not need direct statistical evidence to prove to us that penicillin works. We know it works. That is common knowledge. Certainly, there are things having to do with fitness, as well, for which we need no evidence to convince us they are true. Some things in fitness are common knowledge. For these things, both the underlying explanatory mechanisms and direct evidence is out there, should we care to find it. For other claims or concepts, however, we have explanations that seem to fit, or seem to make sense, but we have no direct evidence for their effectiveness. The fitness industry has many built-in immunizing shields to protect it from refutations, and this is one of them: Explanations often stand in for evidence.
Above, I talked about the fitness blogger with hundreds of articles, all dedicated to explaining and convincing others of his pet theory or method. When he talks of evidence, he is not talking of direct evidence that his method is better than existing methods, but rather underlying data that is used as part of his explanation as to why and how his method works. His theory has never actually been tested. Therefore, there is no empirical data to prove its efficacy over competing methods. Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, other ‘evidence’ is cited, such as the reported results of dozens of his adoring fans.
None of this means that the explanations of our fitness blogger are not scientifically legitimate, although many may claim that they are not. The fact is that the theory and the mechanisms may well show that, if you were to try his method, you’d get good results. However, what isn’t clear at all is whether you’d get better results or the same results as you would with a competing method! The “proof is in the pudding” is not quite the right aphorism to use in regards to fitness interventions. If something works, it may just join a list with hundreds of similar methods that also work. It’s not the explanation and underlying mechanisms that are at fault, it is the conclusion. We may be able to conclude that a certain method will work, based on our knowledge of, for lack of a better term, exercise science, but we cannot conclude that it will work best.
Some of the most commercially successful weight loss and fitness concepts ignore this reality, yet those very fitness pros who make a living based on these methods will routinely ask for evidence that competing methods work better!
It could be that some of those competing methods have direct evidence to back up their efficacy. What if, however, certain people reject the explanation as to why that method works? It is routine, also, to throw out evidence of efficacy because you do not like the explanation. In other words, we often disregard the fact that something works and complain about whether its explanations make sense. We find they do not, so we reject the method!
If something works, it is because it obeys natural laws. This means that even if your reasons for constructing the method rest on shaky scientific foundations, the fact that it works does not change. So, evidence against an explanation does not cancel out evidence for the effectiveness of a certain method. We can still cite evidence that it works, we just need a better explanation as to why. Often, in the fitness world, this kind of false refutation of evidence takes the form of definitional statements. This method is not what has been supposed. It is something else. Thus, we need a new way of doing things. This refutation of the explanation becomes its own theoretical explanation for a new method! Yet, no evidence as valuable as that available for the efficacy of the old method is offered. If this makes sense to you, you have fallen down the rabbit hole of nonsense. We can know, after all, that something works without knowing exactly how it works! I will explain more of my thoughts on this problem in my upcoming post on evidence-based training.
Let’s not forget that more often than not, we know that something works before we know why. This is especially true in strength training, as has been brought up by many successful strength coaches, where in-the-trenches experience and methodology is confirmed by and explained by scientific research.
Let’s suppose then, that some disconfirming evidence against a certain practice does come up. This brings us to the next point.
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Not Automatically Reject a Theory Based on Disconfirming Data
This is actually a contentious subject. As Barbara Koslowski writes in Theory and Evidence: The Development of Scientific Reasoning, some maintain that when evidence and theory are not in accord, this means always that either the theory is wrong or the evidence is wrong. To illustrate this, Koslowski uses the example of penicillin, which was my reason for bringing up penicillin in the first place. Most of us know that penicillin does not kill all germs. It does not work on all infections, but it has a wide spectrum of action against bacterial infections, despite this. Koslowski, in regards to this, says:
…imagine that penicillin were administered to patients infected with a new strain of bacteria, and imagine also that the treatment were found to be ineffective. The data from the new strain of bacteria would constitute problematic evidence for the explanation that penicillin kills germs. However, I submit that few of us would be tempted even to reduce, let alone reject, our belief in the effectiveness of penicillin. I suggest that we would instead maintain the explanation that penicillin kills germs but modify it by restricting it to exclude the new strain of bacteria.
In other words, the author is saying that when disconfirming evidence comes up, we are not always justified in throwing out the theory. Instead, we may just modify the theory. Scientists routinely modify theories in the face of new evidence. We would be, in the words I used at the beginning, bat-shit crazy if we suggested that “penicillin sucks” because it doesn’t work on a certain strain of bacteria. When it comes to modifying existing theories, in terms of fitness, health, alternative medicine, nutrition, etc. we are getting into crazy land. As Koslowski says “in principle” theories can be modified and maintained in the face of anomalous data. There are, of course, limits to how much a theory can and should be modified in the face of anomalous (potentially disconfirming) evidence. This means that there are some modifications that are warranted, and some that are not. 3Koslowski, Barbara. Theory and Evidence: The Development of Scientific Reasoning. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.
Both Koslowski, and author Stephen Law in his book Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole, explain that when these modifications to theories become nothing more than a desperate patch job to help keep a theory afloat in a storm of theory sinking evidence, it is pejoratively called “ad hoc theorizing” or “ad hoc maneuvers,” a term coined by philosopher Karl Popper. It was Popper who popularized the concept that a theory that can never be disproven is not a scientific theory, in what is called the “rule of falsification.” Ad hoc maneuvers continually nail on additional modifications to a theory so that, in effect, it can never be refuted. As Stephen Law explains, some theories are non-falsifiable from the beginning, but others start out falsifiable only to become non-falsifiable by ad hoc maneuvering. 4Koslowski, Barbara. Theory and Evidence: The Development of Scientific Reasoning. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.,5Law, Stephen. Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011.
Stephen Law used Newton’s Theory of Universal Gravitation as an example of when the predictions that a theory makes are met with potentially disconfirming evidence, but the theory can be maintained by modifying the theory, or in this case, by calling on auxlilliary hypothesis (this is a popular example). Newton’s theory predicted that planetary bodies would have smooth, elliptical orbits. However, when the orbit of Uranus was found not to match with the prediction, scientists supposed that there must be some unknown body whose gravitational effect was working on Uranus, thus distorting its orbit. Notice that here, the prediction of an unknown planetary body can itself be tested, just as the predication as to Uranus’s orbit was tested. Thus was found Neptune, and Newton’s theory was maintained. 6Law, Stephen. Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011.
Ad hoc maneuvers are something quite different. Let’s say I have a theory about deadlifts. I tell you my theory in simple terms: If you deadlift, but don’t squat, it will help your squat 1RM go up.” I tell you this, and, trusting me (sucker) you stop squatting, even though this is your priority lift, and begin to train your deadlift. You do this for three weeks, and then you test your squat, only to find your 1RM has gone down. So follows a conversation:
You: I tried what you said, and I deadlifted for 3 weeks with no squatting, but my squat went down! You were wrong.
Me: Well, you should have asked me, you have to at least deadlift for 6 weeks to get any results.
A couple of weeks later, we are at it again.
You: I deadlifted for 6 weeks like you said, and still no results.
Me: What frequency? How many times a week did you deadlift? You have to deadlift twice a week.
You: Okay, I deadlifted twice a week for 6 weeks, and still, my squat isn’t any better.
Me: What parameters did you use? You have to deadlift once a week with 70% max for 3 sets to failure, and once a week with singles or doubles at +90%.
You: Okay, I trained the deadlift like you said. My squat is worse than ever, and I injured my lower back.
Me: Wait a minute, did you do a deload? And how many singles or doubles did you do a week? You have to do it on a wave.
You: No, I didn’t know I needed to do a deload and I don’t know what a wave is.
Me: Well, you probably didn’t recover enough to see your squat numbers go up. You need a deload. That’s also why you hurt your back. I’ll explain to you what a wave is in an email.
You: Damn! I think squatting is easier.
Me: You should have asked. It’s not some simple-minded shit. This is cutting-edge, hardcore training. You have to put in the work and do it right.
You: How the fuck was I supposed to know all those details! You never said I needed to ask all those questions.
Now, of course, nobody would really keep going back and trying all that crap again and again, but the nature of the exchange is actually typical. What I was doing was indeed ad hoc maneuvering. You may recognize that no matter WHAT THE RESULTS I would have kept coming up with new modifications to it. As it goes along, I may make those modifications more and more ridiculous, and less and less testable.
You: Okay, I tried it with a deload, but still no results. My squat is really low now. I need to get back to squatting.
Me: Results should not always be expected the first time. See, it takes time for your body to transfer the strength from the deadlifts over to the squat. You need to do it and then test two or three times. It’s different for everybody, but it works! Plus, what is your protein intake? We better go over your macros. And, what is your squat max, anyway? It has to be at least bodyweight for this to work. And, have you been trained properly in the deadlift? And…
You: You’re full of shit.
Me: Indeed I am!
Yet, all those things, in certain and probably separate circumstances, I could make a case for. That is, I could justify not squatting and deadlifting only, just not for the stated purpose. I could justify, at times, using 70% max for 3 sets to failure. I could justify using something for a certain period of time. I could justify the proposition that you need enough protein. I could justify a deload, at times. I can also justify, more easily, certain more scientific statements, like this one:
“The best way to get better at the back squat is the back squat. Why? Specificity. The strength gained from squatting transfers the most to the squat.”
But many members of the fitness industry, including the highly scientific and/or evidence-based trainers, are completely inconsistent in their promotion of scientific thinking. As Jamie Hale said:
We shouldn’t promote science part-time and ignore it at other times. However, many people do. This could be no more evident than in the fitness industry. The field is saturated with part-time scientists. Scientists in regards to exercise and nutrition, but profoundly irrational and unscientific in many other areas. 7Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com
What is often promoted as science in the fitness industry is actually not that at all. But, it is rather promotion of what the favorite authority says about science. Understanding science, rationality and statistics is hard work. Understanding that all science is not created equal is even harder work
[E.G.]…my nutrition deity said this research implied this so I will perpetuate this info as if it was my own inference. Or, as you said I understand logic so I am an expert in rationality, even though I don’t read the research on rationality. 8Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com
As I write this, you can bet, there are vocal members of the fitness industry who are railing against the pseudo-science ramblings of the Food Babe on nutrition and health because a bunch of others they look up to are doing so, but they are at the same time readily accepting concepts such as blood type diets. So:
f the Fitness Industry Were Scientific, It Would Not Have So Many Part Time Scientists and Part Time Critical Thinkers
Now, hundreds, upon hundreds, of members of the fitness world identify themselves as skeptics. What’s more, they seem to stake a claim to being full-time skeptics. I will be the first to say that I doubt very much there is such a thing as a full-time skeptic. The smart-ass and sarcastic comments I regularly see from some of those who are deemed great thinkers seem all to be based on their perception that they are more consistently skeptical, and less prone to cognitive biases than other poor fools who promote ridiculous and unscientific things. I would shudder at getting into “what is skepticism” but one thing is clear: A full-time skeptic would be a person who was all but debilitated. Still, one thing that these smart and oh-so-clever full-time skeptics are not skeptical about seems to be their own conclusions! That, as well, is part of being a critical thinker. You question not only the conclusions of others but your own as well.
To be fair, these people in the industry deemed to be smart and thought of as being great thinkers are probably more consistent in their thinking than others who pick and choose based purely on the appeal of certain concepts over another. As I pointed out above based on a quote from Jamie Hale, the fitness industry promotes science in the realm of fitness, and a growing part of it also promotes critical thinking, rationality, and cognitive science. Yet, it makes completely non-scientific, and often nonsense statements about all these. A typical trap that a fitness professional falls into is wanting to learn about critical thinking and reasoning, but putting less work into researching these areas than he or she puts into researching fitness. It won’t work. As well, to promote scientific thinking, you have to get into the hard work of understanding how science works. Once again, Jamie Hale explains:
Reading and understanding research methods and statistics are not easy. For most people formal training may be necessary to gain a firm understanding of these relatively difficult subjects. 9Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com
But, one thing that good experts do is limit their claims to their field of knowledge. For some reason, the fitness industry is becoming more and more over-confident of its worth and knowledge. The haughtiness and superiority of many of its members has reached gargantuan heights. As Jamie pointed out to me, “they often deviate from their field of knowledge and make absurd claims regarding other domains.” I won’t tell you the last line that I left out of that quote but suffice it to say that it did not express admiration for this practice.
The point is not that we are supposed to study everything and know everything. The point is that part of critical thinking is to be cognizant of the limits in your knowledge and experience. A full-time critical thinker recognizes that his knowledge is limited and even more that his expertise is limited. Perhaps some people think that by pretending to understand many areas outside their field, they reveal themselves to be true thinkers, but in reality, they reveal the opposite, their lack of thought. For it’s thinking that reveals the deficiencies in our knowledge and reasoning! That said, the more skilled you become at thinking scientifically, and critically, the more skilled you become at recognizing nonsense, sometimes at a glance, even when it IS outside your field of expertise.
One of the biggest sources of nonsense in fitness are absolute claims or even claims of absolute truth. So:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Make Less Absolute Claims, and Ask Less for Absolute Proof
True scientists accept that scientific knowledge is tentative and does not claim any absolute truth. Theories, and even laws, can and do change. It is also accepted that science is not only based on empirical evidence, but on inference, and even creative thought. The same information, or data, can and will be interpreted differently by different scientists. Interpreting scientific data is something that is and always will be subject to subjective and cultural influences, as well as being affected by biases and previous expectations. Scientists are not robots.
When people in the fitness industry scream “Data! Evidence! Proof!” They often fail to realize that the data is only as good as how it is interpreted. As I’ve said so many times, when the fitness industry asks for evidence, what we usually get is a list of PubMed references. Or even just one reference. “Here’s a study.” So, on a search for evidence, many just search PubMed or Google Scholar to see if one or two key terms come up, then see which study they think confirms what they already think. This is part of confirmation bias but that is not really the point of this passage. The real point is that the fitness world is full of what I call PubMed dreamers, who tend to think that if something is scientific, indeed, if it has proof and worth, they will find a bunch of studies “about it.” Often, important concepts and contributions are dismissed by PubMed dreamers because they failed to find a certain term in a PubMed search! Must not be real science!
A good bit of the time, of course, the studies do exist. It is the terminology that is not consistent. Instead of going off half-cocked to look for studies, then, many fitness pros would do better to learn more about the terms and concepts they encounter, by cross-referencing what they find using reliable and scholarly sources. As they do that, they will undoubtedly find more new terms and concepts, and so continue branching outwards until, before long, they discover that they do not know enough about the subject to really get anything out of a PubMed search.
Once you go to all that trouble though, and you finally learn about something, you might want to guard it and make it precious. That hard-won knowledge, should it be challenged, is hard to let go of. But again, scientific knowledge is tentative, and things will change. Therefore, if the fitness industry were scientific, the people in it wouldn’t act so precious about the things they know.
And speaking of knowing, as I think even most of the people who are hating on this article right now would agree, there is a serious lack of foundational knowledge in the fitness industry. As many people have attested, there are not enough obstacles to entry into the field. Sometimes, I think everybody in the fitness world is advanced. There seem to be no beginners. Everybody has loads of experience and knowledge. Everybody is hella competent. Nobody needs to bother with the basics. Nobody needs to study! No, Googling and PubMeding are not quite what I have in mind. So, that brings me to:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Study and Research More and Talk Less
That could be taken the wrong way. I don’t mean that people in the fitness industry should talk less about fitness, strength, nutrition, etc. If anything they should discuss these things more. If true discussion really did occur between professionals, things would be different! But, as I’ve already said in so many different ways in this article, most of what is called discussion in the fitness industry is anything but a true discussion. We attack, we whine and cry; we wheedle; we back-pat; we endorse; we recommend; and most of all we demonstrate our knowledge. You know what happens when you place a higher priority on demonstrating your knowledge than gaining knowledge? You might just become a bullshitter.
My personal evolution as both a strength trainer and a thinker, demonstrates what I think may be a typical pattern of development for those entering into this or any other field, but the fitness industry, I think, has a tendency to cause arrested development. When I first started out, I had a profound need for facts. Facts were synonymous, in fact, with knowing. Facts are so much easier to deal with. They are concrete, and they are a lot like the mail owls in Harry Potter: They fly around like little information packets. Facts, in the words of Mary S. Morgan, travel well:
Facts seem such obvious things: We think of them nowadays as settled pieces of knowledge that we can take for granted. And while individual or particular facts may be seen as important or striking within a particular filed, considered as a general category of knowledge, facts seem less problematic than the elements of evidence, theories, hypotheses or causal claims that appear in both our humanities and sciences, and less colourful than the characters or cases that appear in our narratives, histories and philosophies. But facts are not quite such straightforward things as they seem. 10Howlett, Peter, and Mary S. Morgan. How Well Do Facts Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.
A fact is a fact (is a fact) and yet facts are not what they seem. In a complex statement, many of us may have a hard time separating out the bits of fact from hypothesis, theory, inference, claims, etc. Members of the fitness industry have a need for “useful and reliable knowledge,” to borrow another phrase from Morgan. They also have a need to impart useful and reliable knowledge. This type of knowledge tends to come in small, easily assimilated packages. It’s the kind of knowledge you can keep in your back pocket and pull out just like you pull out your credit card at the gas pump. It could be that our great need for facts; our need for knowledge that is reliable and travels well, causes a short-circuit in our thinking and education. We have a hard time differentiating fact from guideline. Or fact from rule of thumb. Or fact from the abstract. We even, sometimes, fail to differentiate fact from opinion or conjecture!
This means that a great many, perhaps the majority, of the facts that are traveling around and being disseminated throughout the fitness industry are not facts (is that a fact?)
Besides this need for portable facts, the individuals in the industry (because it is an industry) have a need to demonstrate knowledge, as I say. However, unlike the scientific world, there are few built-in checks and balances. The industry does not check up on itself. This means that what passes for knowledge may be anything but. The consumers who hire fitness professionals cannot always recognize real knowledge, and they can easily be fooled by a semblance of knowledge, especially when knowledge becomes synonymous with facts.
Most of what passes for knowledge or facts in fitness is a form of regurgitation. There is a list of what I call status books, that if you read, or claim to have read, makes you seem more legit to other members of the fitness industry. In strength training, for instance, two such status books are Supertraining by Mel Siff and Science and Practice of Strength Training by Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky. How these books became status books is a subject for another day, and I’m not sure that I could do anything but guess on that, but what is ironic about both these books, and others like them, is that they are almost entirely theoretical in content (to use the term colloquially). Are there facts in them? Of course. Do the authors explicitly reveal when they are stating facts versus non-facts? Not always. Both these books are meant to be interpreted. In fact, Supertraining, which may be more of a status book than Science and Strength, contains very little of the practical at all!
Mel Siff achieved almost God-like status within his lifetime. To be sure, he was brilliant. But he also displayed the unfortunate tendency to refuse to keep himself within any semblance of true barriers. He was accomplished at “ad hoc” maneuvers, and could, therefore, defend almost any statement by continually patching up his theories until, yes, they could NOT be refuted. This tendency is certainly not unique to Siff. It plagues the industry which is absolutely inundated with pseudoscience, in which we find more ad hoc maneuvering than from people like Siff.
So, what I am saying is that one of the most respected authors in the strength training world was prone to using the type of tactic I described above. But since he was thought of as being an absolutely reliable dispenser of knowledge, this tendency was not only not recognized, but could easily confuse devotees into thinking such ad hoc tactics were representative of clear and concise scientific thinking. There are no better examples of this than exchanges between Siff and members of his Supertraining board. A quick search unearthed an example. Siff made the following statement:
If one could Press a heavy load, then one could easily jerk at least that same amount and usually about 20kg more, so that many big pressers could defeat a lifter who had a good snatch, but a weak jerk.
Even without qualification, this is a pretty safe statement. Most strength coaches would agree that most, with a little practice on the jerk, could do a good bit more than on the press. To say that this should “usually” be about 20kg, though, may be stretching it a bit. But, he’s not stating a fact. It is a conjecture.
However, a member questioned this statement. The member agreed that if your press is larger than another lifter, so is your jerk. But the member said that his personal 1RM on press is 65 kilos but his jerk was only 75. He thought that this came down to technique. The lifter gave an example of a person whose jerk far exceeded his press because of practice in the jerk.
Taking all this at face value, you could say: usually means usually. There are times when someone’s jerk will be a bit less than “expected.” If we thought of the 20kgs difference as a prediction (and it is) we could easily test it.
However, Mel Siff had never tested this. He revealed as much in his next statement:
Note that I stated “usually”, not “always”. My remark was based on many years of competitive and refereeing experience with the Press. And to back this up, here are some randomly chosen Presses and C&Js of a few top lifters from the good old Pressing days up to 1972…
We can skip over the list of lifts. What Siff was referring to by “up to 1972” was that the press was discontinued after that time. He is, in fact, differentiating the “Olympic” press from the Military press, and saying that it was a different lift, with a different technique.
In fact, in most divisions below Superheavy, there was at least a 20-25kg difference between Press and C&J. One simply cannot base one’s opinions on observations made on gym presses and jerks outside the competitive setting. As I have stressed several times before, the Olympic Press is very different from the Military Press and any other types of press, so what you consider to be a typical Olympic Press might not resemble that movement at all.
It is not a fact that his observations represent the entire reality of the press lift in the Olympics. His claim rests on his opinion that all lifters used a certain technique and that this technique, in those days, was explicitly taught. He is saying, in effect, that it is a completely separate movement from what most modern weight trainees think of as a press. Is this true? Well, it is not entirely true. It depends a great deal on how far you go back. Many Olympic lifters used a semi-explosive technique that employed a back-bend.To see this, watch the films of the Olympic press provided here (give the module a minute to load).
The first lifter, dated 1956, is the legendary Paul Anderson. Notice that his style of press resembles the Military press as we know it today! Now, watch the third lifter, Joseph Dube. What MY experience and observation tell me is that the form on this lift is entirely similar to what a trainee might do on a max press, even though this was never instructed as a technique. It is, in fact, something I’ve done dozens of times on big presses, but not with the intention of doing so. It is a compensation. So, how to we tease out a compensation that happens naturally and automatically during a big lift, from a trained technique? Jamie Hale mentions a similar example:
When teaching the Olympic lifts is it necessary to verbally cue the double knee bend? I don’t think so. I agree with Gayle Hatch in that this occurs naturally and there is no need to explicitly state double knee bend. 11 Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com
In many lifts, there is a problem with observations from competition, where the observer cannot really tell the difference between what is intended, and what actually occurs!
So, with the above statement, Siff put the first patch on his theory. You can only observe this phenomenon in competitive Olympic presses that occurred prior to 1972. All other examples are out. He has begun to make the evidence fit. Next, he says:
Your comment about superior technique being “a must for a big jerk” seems to corroborate this conclusion, because you are implying that the jerk involves more technical skill than a legitimate Olympic Press. This could not be further from the truth, since a genuine, explosive Olympic Press can easily involve more skill than a Jerk.
Here, he states what might be called one of those aforementioned auxilliary hypotheses. The “legitimate” Olympic press involved much more skill than a jerk. Ask yourself, is this testable? Is this subjective? Also ask yourself if there is such thing as a legitimate Olympic press? Were there any rules as to whether the lifter should use this certain technique as Siff implies, or whether the lifter could use a technique more like Paul Anderson’s? There was absolutely no such rule. A “legitimate Olympic press” is an invention. So, we see the second patch to the theory.
If you have not been coached by someone who has competed in the Pressing days (up to 1972), it is very unlikely that you or your heavier lifting colleague in the gym have mastered the correct way of doing the Olympic Press. One can Olympic Press far more than one can military press.
Here he further hammers home the idea of a correct Olympic press. Again, what is the correct way of doing the Olympic press? If we were to test this theory, how would we be sure to differentiate, completely, between this absolutely correct way and any other way of pressing the bar up overhead? Who would be the arbiter in this test? Would we consider this a valid test? How? Siff through out the example of the commenter with nothing more than the flick of a mental wrist. If the lifter could have mastered the correct way of doing the Olympic press, he seems to be saying, his jerk would not be so much more. Suddenly, here, Siff is concerned not with how much more the jerk is than the press, but that it is TOO MUCH MORE. Again, he displays a need for the evidence to fit his theory. Next, he goes on to say:
That could well explain the difference between his 135kg jerk and his apparently miserable Press of 80kg – he might be executing a rather slow military style press without using pretensed back extension and body sway. If that is the case, then his press is not at all bad, but if he is using proper Olympic pressing technique, then something must be seriously amiss. That large difference between his press and jerk may also be due to a weak press, not necessarily a strong jerk. What is his bodymass, by the way? What about his snatch?
So, instead of the lifters jerk being very good, his press is very bad. But what is a press? It is NOT what the lifter is doing, even though not everybody in the strength world might agree with this definition (I do not agree at all). Here, Siff is trading on ambiguity. He varies the definition of a press to suit his purposes. That is, he is saying that a lift is a lift, but it is also a particular technique.
To be fair, the idea that the press may be defined in several different ways that are similar, but differ in some key aspects, is not something that Siff invented. These could be compared to what scientists would call theoretical definitions, ones that can be context specific, borrow from several disciplines, and use terms that are substitutable. For instance, a military press MIGHT be called an Overhead press, depending on your definition. Despite all this, such definitions should be as clear and precise as possible.
However, in order to test and measure the claims that Siff made, we would need to do what Jamie mentioned above, or to operationalize. Such a definition would need to provide a way of looking at the press that provided measurable data. The question would be whether we could provide such an operational definition of the genuine Olympic press. How would a researcher, for example, “rate” a genuine press? We could certainly look at different ways of training the press, and operationalize the results. For an example, let’s compare two different statements about outcomes of training the press for strength:
Trainee: I am much stronger on the press.
Is this a statement that would be used in a research setting, to measure the effectiveness of a training method? No. We have not defined the terms precisely enough. Stronger could mean any number of things. The trainee may have added more reps, and thus felt stronger. He may have added weight to his 5RM, or his 1RM. He may have achieved a combination of these, and so lumped them all into the concept of being stronger. His definition of stronger, is “theoretical” and based on different terms, expectations, background, goals, etc. On the other hand:
Researcher: Trainees 1RM increased by 10%.
Can this statement be used in a research setting? Of course. Now, we have operationalised what “stronger” is or what “increased performance” is. We have defined it as in increase in the press 1RM, or the most the trainee could lift for one rep. This will provide data that can be compared.
The end of Siff’s statement used more of the “piling on the problems” tactic. What is his body mass? What about his snatch? Siff seems to be implying that if he knew these numbers, he could plug them into some hypothetical formula. He is asking for more evidence to fit into his theory. If you scroll back up to my example of an ad hoc session with a trainee, you might see that it is not so very different!
These are just the kind of facts that many fitness professionals go around regurgitating. Yet, in this entire exchange, there are actually very few facts presented. The commenter stated his numbers, and the numbers of a lifter he worked with. Those we could hold as facts. Siff listed the presses and jerks of a bunch of Olympic weightlifters prior to 1972 (which I left out). Those numbers we could call facts. Nothing else can be seen as an absolute fact. Despite this, and many other examples from Siff and others, the conclusions have probably been passed on as fact.
Many people would see Siff’s statement as having confirmed his theory. What has really happened is that Siff has picked, and manufactured out of whole cloth, evidence that is consistent with this theory. Although we may feel free to accept the general idea that a person’s jerk will be a bit more than their press, we would be amiss if we employed such thinking to defend this claim! To prevent this we need to talk less and think more! I can imagine that Siff did not expect to be challenged and that he had not really thought out the matter beforehand as much as he appeared to have done so. He was too busy talking and defending to really think about how unscientific, and in fact, unreasonable, his statements were becoming. Or so I imagine.
During all of this, to the unprepared, Siff would appear very knowledgeable. And indeed, he was. He displayed prodigious knowledge on numerous occasions and throughout his work. However, for the unprepared, there is no difference between facts, knowledge, and whatever the above might be. I am sure that many if they were sharing these quotes by Siff, would preface it by calling it a “knowledge bomb” by Mel Siff. Therefore:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Not Be So Hung Up on Authority Figures
You see, now that I’ve questioned a statement by the great, and highly revered Mel Siff, and, I think, refuted it, some members of the fitness community will say, “What? You think you know more than Mel Siff?!! He had more knowledge in this little finger than you have in your whole body.” Whatever that means…
Members of the fitness industry are not only interested in protecting the interests of a chosen few in their important in-group, whereby their career is advanced by association, they are interested in protecting the name of their gurus. This means that the large majority of Mel Siff fans who read this particular passage will hardly pay attention to what I have said and will not think about it much at all. They will assume that I am full of shit and that I am just an arrogant, know-it-all prick who has the gall to challenge the knowledge of one of the greats. You know what? Scientists do this as well! However, they actually do pay attention, and when a refutation is affective, sooner or later, the scientific community WILL take heed, and even the greats can be proven to have been mistaken. This rarely, if ever, happens in the fitness world. Someone who is deemed to have great knowledge is never seriously questioned, and when they are questioned, it is dismissed. So:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Separate Knowledge from Facts
Facts are a category of knowledge. But facts do not stand in for knowledge. You may notice that scientists, especially physicists, have a special word for facts that they sometimes use: Data. Those facts, in the form of 1RM’s in the above exchange, could be called data. They are little facts, aren’t they? They aren’t the big important facts. The big, important facts are what fitness pros often offer in their knowledge bombs. They intersperse this liberally with lots and lots of data. As any good lawyer knows, a good way to win is to beat them over the head with the facts. Lawyers sometimes have a liberal definition of the word fact, but basically, they are describing something akin to a data dump.
Let’s say I am advancing an argument. Being an accomplished bullshitter, I know that one way to put forth a convincing argument (to the unwary) is to obscure the argument. Somewhere in an argument are premises. Somewhere is a conclusion. There may even be unstated premises. When a huge collection of data and facts obscures a lack of knowledge, or even substitutes for knowledge, then facts and data become wonderful tools of bullshit. Most people would have a hard time, if I know what I’m doing, in differentiating relevant data from irrelevant data. They would have a hard time knowing what big facts supported my argument, and what big facts were just a smokescreen if I added enough of them. And I could add even more little facts. I could drown them in numbers, for instance. If my thinking is murky enough, and if my argument is ultimately flawed, I can still appear brilliant, if nobody can even recognize the actual argument! And if they do see it, I’ve thrown enough data at them to muddle their brains, and make them give up in frustration. Some fancy jargon and obfuscation complete the package. I am too smart to argue with!
The sad truth is that with the state of academic writing and the way journal articles are written, many actual scientists or academics encounter the same kind of thing on a daily basis! And they are supposed to be experts in their field. They understand the technical jargon. They should be able to see when data is irrelevant. They should be immune to bullshit. They are not. If they are not, how in the world does a scientific fitness industry hope to be? Start by recognizing that facts don’t change, but knowledge does. We have such instant access to a mountain of facts. More so, we all can access what seems like unlimited information in general. As I’ve said before, “probably, one the biggest drawbacks of the information age is unlimited information with limited background. Limited background makes facts interchangeable with knowledge.”
Throughout this article, it may have seemed as if I was trying to define what science is, and exactly how the fitness industry is not based on science. Well, I am trying to show how unscientific the fitness industry is, but to try to define science would be to make this more muddled than it has already become. Defining science, in fact, I find to be a favored province of bullshitters. On that I have to say:
If the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Stop Spewing Bullshit About What Science Is Or Is Not
I’m always saying that much of the fitness industry pays lip service to science. Science is a buzz-word. In so many online fitness conversations where scientific statements come up (or seemingly scientific statements), or just discussions of exercise science in general, the talk seems to eventually become preoccupied with defining science or discussing whether what is being said is really science. The “scientific method” often comes up. The same people who are making completely asinine and unscientific statements will often try to dismiss naysayers by mentioning the scientific method, and implying that anything not based on empirical evidence is not science, even though they themselves enjoy a happy immunity to this rule. To once again borrow a fitting quote from Percy W. Bridgman, in Reflections of a Physicist:
“It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it.” – Percy by Percy W. Bridgman
Although controlled experiments are necessary in many circumstances, they are not always possible. Often, the fitness world tries to dismiss any other scientific research methods other than controlled experiments. As Jamie Hale states in Bad Evidence, experimental research is one of many scientific methods. 12Hale, Jamie. “Bad Evidence.” Knowledge Summit. N.p., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. <http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/bad-evidence.html>. Often, anything other than experimental results are not seen as evidence:
If The Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Not Pay Lip Service to the Word Evidence
Evidence is not so easily defined as most people think. What constitutes evidence versus non-evidence can be especially difficult to tease out. The way evidence is used to advance theories can also be confusing. The fitness industry, for the most part, is stuck on one of two possible ways that evidence may be used in regards to theories. 13Hale, Jamie. “Bad Evidence.” Knowledge Summit. N.p., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. <http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/bad-evidence.html>.
We can say that that there are two basic ways of evidence (there are many, of course), which are almost polar opposites. Let’s say I make an observation. I’m walking along a riverbank, and I pick up some rocks. I notice that they all feel quite heavy in my hands and I figure that they all weigh somewhat over 4lbs. I hypothesize. “Maybe all rocks have a certain minimum weight. Maybe this weight is 4lbs.” I pick up some more, to test my hypothesis. After a while, I say “Yep, all rocks weigh over 4lbs.” That might be called a theory. It’s not necessarily a very good and scientific one. I haven’t made a lot of observations and done a lot of testing and revising. It is not a theory with a capital T but it serves for a simple example. Now, since I’ve advanced this theory about how heavy all rocks are I go a step further and say, “I predict that the next rock I pick up will weigh over 4lbs.” I’ve made a prediction and even come up with an idea for a test. If I pick up a rock that weighs less than 4lbs, my theory is falsified. The evidence disconfirms it. It the next rock weighs 4lbs or over, I’m on the right track. The evidence does not disconfirm the theory so the theory is provisionally true. I might make a new prediction. “If I go somewhere else where there are rocks and pick one up, it too will weigh at least 4lbs.”
So, I go somewhere else and find some rocks. I pick one up. It weighs only about one pound. The evidence has disconfirmed my theory. I can either throw out my theory and say “All rocks don’t weigh 4lbs or more, my theory is falsified,” or I could revise my theory to something like “river rocks weigh 4lbs or more but other rocks may weigh less,” and so on and so forth. It could stretch on forever, it seems. But as long as I am making predictions that I can test, and I am accepting the evidence as either confirming or disconfirming my theory, I’m not doing such a bad job. I’ve seen worse “science.” Of course, at some point, if I had any sense at all, I would accept that the weight of rocks is highly variable and I would quickly see that some rocks are very small, and very light, and some are much larger and much heavier. I might have to revise my definition of rock. When is a rock called a boulder? And when do we call it a stone? In fact, we have all these words and more, including the word pebble, for very small stones.
Here I’ve gone from observation to hypothesis, to theory, to prediction, to testing. Along the way, I might have to make new hypotheses when the evidence does not jibe with my predictions. This is one way to use evidence. The evidence is the result of my test. Let’s say that when I am conducting my experiments I keep a simple notebook with location, date, and weight of rock that I pick up off the ground.
Now let’s imagine you are an alien from outer space, exploring the Earth at a future date. You, for some reason only a bad science fiction author could explain, understand how to read English but you have no idea what a rock is. You come across my notebook of testing data. You read the entries and you see a mysterious collection of dates, weights, places, and the word rock. As a practicing anthropologist who specializes in extraterrestrial cultures, you quickly come up with a theory to explain this evidence, which you report, with great satisfaction and excitement, to your mission head:
“These curious creatures spend a lot of time weighing an item they call “rocks.” A rock must be a food animal that the natives raise for food. They weigh this animal as it grows, until it gains the right amount of weight and is ready for harvest. The preferred weight seems to be 4 Earth units called L-B-S!”
You, Mr. Alien Anthropologist, have used evidence in a different way, haven’t you? You came across the evidence and you formulated a theory to explain the evidence. You made absolutely no observations of the natives. You, in fact, have no previous experience with which to corroborate your assumptions about the behaviors of Earth natives. The way you explained the evidence seems to have nothing to do with the people of Earth at all, and everything to do with yourself, your expectations, your previous assumptions, your biases, etc.
This is not to say that we cannot come up with good explanations to explain the evidence, when we have other information to draw from. However, you skipped over seeking additional info and went right to explanation. This is exactly what many of the folks in the industry who have latched onto the term “evidence-based fitness” do about evidence. They read studies or other sources of information, see the data or conclusions of the study as evidence, and then advance “theories” about the evidence. The theory could be a new “method” or a correction to an old method. It could be a great many things. But most of these fail on a great many levels. They fail to make any predictions we can test. They fail, indeed, to even explain the evidence in light of the universe of other things we know about fitness and performance.
Also prevalent is the desire to find evidence to back up a certain practice, and then, upon not finding it, declaring that there is no evidence to support this practice, so we can stop doing it. Now, I could make a great many arguments against this kind of thinking in terms of performance. But what if we just look at that statement in isolation. “There is no evidence to support this practice, so we can stop doing this.”
Do you think that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence? In other words, does the absence of “experimental” or other evidence to support a certain practice, constitute actual evidence in and of itself? Because that is what the statement says. There is no evidence, and that is evidence.
Is this true? Well, it certainly might be! It depends on what we mean by absence of evidence. Is there no evidence for this practice because nobody has bothered to study it in a controlled setting? That does not disconfirm the practice. You can’t claim that the absence of a study disconfirms a practice! If studies exist, and the results of those studies (provided they are good ones) provide evidence that disconfirms the practice, then we’d be getting somewhere. Indeed, a lot of the time, when a person is saying “there is no evidence” they mean that the results of studies do not provide evidence to support something or other. Yet, often no evidence really does mean no studies! Still, there are other types of evidence, and we can draw on many different and yet scientific modes of thinking and research to support or refute the use of a certain practice or method.
Sometimes the studies have nothing to do with the practice but are thought to show evidence anyway. For instance, a lot of the little techniques we use in strength training are thought to be to prevent injury. This is not always the case at all. Many of the techniques that some say prevent injury are used by other strength trainers for entirely different reasons. The questions you ask about the use of the technique will drive your search for evidence. So let’s suppose that you find information that to you, suggests that NOT USING the technique does not result in injury, and not using it is not predictive of injury, etc. So, you announce, again, there is no evidence for this practice. If we accept that the only possible reason for using the practice is to prevent injury (and this may be questionable), then we might also accept that if other alternatives do not produce injury, or even if a more ‘free-style’ technique cannot be predicted to cause injury (more often than you think), then the original technique in question probably doesn’t need to be done, in order to prevent injury.
So, you announce this and what follows is a series of articles and internet discussion, with the contentious and exciting news that a certain beloved practice is not based on evidence. Don’t do this if you want to be evidence-based! Science!
This tends to be more or less where the science stops. Remember what I said above about saying things that don’t change anything? If your theory is “don’t do this because there is no evidence” then what do you propose will happen if people continue to do it? Will anything happen? Do you have a prediction? Will it cause injury?!! That would have to be tested, or backed-up by a lot of careful scientific explanation. Since this doesn’t happen very often, what are we left with? We are left with nothing of much import. We could be entirely justified, unless new information comes forth, in thinking that it makes no difference at all if I don’t use this practice. If I use it, nothing changes. If I don’t use it, guess what? Nothing changes.
An announcement that, if it is true, changes nothing, is hardly something to get precious about. That doesn’t mean it is not worth announcing, but it probably shouldn’t light a fire up under the fitness world’s ass. You can’t even test it because it makes no claims that are testable. There is no set-up for an experiment here because nothing is advanced that says “this or that will happen if you don’t listen to me and you do this other thing instead.” As a matter of fact, the biggest claim I’ve heard is that “if you do this you are not evidence-based.” I’m pretty sure that is not testable, either.
Hell, it doesn’t even say that “not using the standard practice is better.” It doesn’t say it will cause injury. It doesn’t say anything, really, about anything. It just struts and crows. The evidence-based crowd seems to be chock-full of fighting roosters! They strut, they crow, and they make a lot of noise in their fights, but little damage is done to the way of things.
The point is that science does not stop when evidence is found, or not found. It continues and asks questions of the evidence. I’ve seen a lot of methods prescribed based on found evidence, yet NO EVIDENCE that the method is better than existing methods! Many of those who say they practice evidence-based fitness, and perhaps act haughty and superior in the process, fail to provide any evidence that their evidence-based practices are better than any other practice. Their standards of evidence, indeed their very definition of evidence, are different for themselves than it is for those people whose “unscientific and dumbass” methods they frown upon. Let me state this clearly: No matter how much we pay lip service to evidence, there is no evidence that anything called evidence-based practices or fitness are superior to other methods. It is not even clear what evidence-based practice is or is not. Many in the evidence-based “movement” call this kind of statement anti-science or even anti-intellectual. It is anything but. Demanding the same standards of evidence for all parties is anything but unscientific, let alone anti-science!
How do so-called evidence-based trainers react to this? A common defense, according to Jamie Hale, is to state that it is hard or even impossible to measure whether an evidence-based practice is better than standard protocol. His statement on this should serve as an effective call-out to not only those who espouse evidence-based practice, but to anyone who claims that their methods are better simply because they are scientific:
Any of my undergrad students could easily operationalize evidence based fitness, and second if it can’t be measured it is unscientific and a moot point in a scientific discussion. As of now the Evidence based fitness concept is weak, to the point of useless. And, until they move from the ambiguous type definitions they often provide, to operational definitions they should stop the implicit suggestions that they are smarter and that their practices are superior to standard practices. 14Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com
Science demands a lot more. We might ask why the fitness industry seems so enchanted with labels. I’m scientific. I’m evidence-based. I’m this or that. Why? If you are any of those things, your actions should make it shine forth. However, in order to create demand, members of the fitness industry must wield a lot of influence. They must influence you to want to pay for their services, after all. So:
f the Fitness Industry Was Scientific, It Would Not Seek To Pre-Influence People or Use Other Persuasion Tactics (As Much)
Telling people that you are science based, or evidence based is a way of pre-influencing their reaction to what you have to say before you say it. Telling them, for example, that if they want to be evidence based or scientific they will listen to you, is seeking to pre-influence. I’ve also read many appeals to being honest, or showing integrity. Looking at academic writing, the kind of writing you might find in science journals, may illustrate this. Remember how I said, above, that obtuse academic style prose can be hard for even trained academics to understand? And, such writing can be used to confuse people, or, in other words, be a form of bullshit. I’ve written about this many times in the past, but there may be a reason that many academics end up writing in this dry and almost incomprehensible fashion. They, as scientists, for instance, may be very afraid of writing in a way that could get them accused of other types of persuasion than pure reasoning based on relevant information. Many scientists, also, are just taught to write that way.
But the fitness industry might use the same type of writing for the express purpose of influencing you to think about the writer in a certain way. Both parties may seek to persuade, and you usually are quite aware when someone is seeking to persuade you. However, you may not recognize all the different methods of persuasion that are being used. Before I get into this, it may help to define what I mean by persuasion. Persuasion is any communication that attempts to influence you by changing your beliefs, or your attitudes, or even your values.
I have tried to persuade you in this article. But what, exactly, am I trying to persuade you to do? Am I trying to persuade you to buy something? To hire me as a trainer? To believe something? If it is to believe something, then what, exactly do I want you to believe? I’ve tried to give clear reasons as to why I think the fitness industry is not scientific. So, am I trying to convince you that the industry is unscientific? Or, is my message something more? Or something different? This is a very, very long article, so there are actually several core messages contained in it. But teasing out those core messages from all the information and opinion I’ve presented here can be difficult. I’ve presented arguments that seek to convince you of something. What is it? And what counts as an argument versus some other method of persuasion? Can you list out for yourself, in some fashion, the arguments versus other attempts to persuade that have nothing to do with the arguments? Can I?
I submit that much of the scientific fitness community cannot, even in short messages, differentiate between clear scientific thinking, logical argumentation, good reasoning, and other persuasive tactics that are used almost automatically. This does not set the industry apart from any other, of course, but to be scientific, which should also entail sound reasoning, we must try to be aware of the times when we have left behind reason for other ways of convincing which may seek to influence someone via emotional considerations, or, perhaps, by appealing to their value system.
In order to begin writing this section of the article, I did a quick Google search to look for simple examples of persuasion other than information and reason. Of course, I picked the deadlift as my subject. I searched for “How to Deadlift Like a Man.” I found several articles with the phrase “deadlift like a man” in the title, or something to do with a man or being a man, as well as “deadlifting like a BEAST,” “deadlifting like a pro,” and “training like a man.”
You can see why I picked this title. The title itself is an attempt to persuade. Most titles are attempts to persuade — at least to persuade you to read the article. But this particular title appeals to a male’s sense of machismo. Of course, how you use the deadlift depends on your goals. So what is to deadlift like a man? Well, you can make assumptions as to what this means. Getting very strong on the deadlift. So, what is good training for being strong on the deadlift? Does this method have anything to do with being a man, or is it just a rational and clearly-reasoned way to get strong, based on experience, tons of application, and tons of knowledge of the practice of strength training. In other words, is there a difference between the two titles below?
How to Deadlift Like a Man
How to Train the Max Deadlift
There is no difference, but most strength trainees, in my experience will click on the first. And what’s more, they will be more ready to believe the message in the first article, and use those methods. They will be ‘primed’ for convincing by the title. This is a raw attempt to persuade, even before we begin reading, which has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the methods presented. Let’s look at a quote from an article called “9 Reasons why Every Man Should Do More Deadlifts to get Bigger and Stronger,” published here:
When you watch some mind numbing tv while chomping on a bag of chips, do you really believe that your brain needs to produce any testosterone? No, and that’s one of the big reasons why our testosterone levels are completely laughable when compared to what our grandfathers had. Our ancestors did something! Their brain had a reason to produce more testosterone, they needed it! 159 Reasons Why Every Man Should Do More Proper Deadlifts to Get Bigger.” Anabolic Men. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2014. <http://anabolicmen.com/why-all-men-should-deadlift-more/>
The article is trying to convince you, presumably a man, to do deadlifts. This particular passage tries to appeal to your sense of shame. Notice that it presents an extreme dichotomy. Ignoring that your brain doesn’t actually produce any testosterone, either you deadlift and you raise your testosterone (because testosterone is manly), or you sit around in front of the TV munching on chips. A large portion of the audience will not fit this dichotomy. Many readers will be gym goers, or at least partially active. But it doesn’t matter! You don’t have to fit the bill to buy it. That is why persuasion of this kind can be so much more effective. Even if you are a lifter of some kind, but you aren’t doing deadlifts, you can easily tell yourself, “I don’t want to be that guy.” You may not even be aware that it’s working on you!
So, one of the main persuasion tactics in the fitness industry is to appeal to some characteristic that most of us would like to believe we have. A persuasive article of this type will want to put you into a certain box, make you feel like you are part of an exclusive tribe. IF, that is, you buy into what the article is telling you.
Psychologists identify two basic routes of persuasion, central route persuasion, and peripheral route persuasion. Sometimes, these may overlap or mix, but they are two different ways.
When I have tried to use sound arguments and reasoning, I have been using the central route. Basically, this is what we tend to think of when we think of convincing or persuading. What we don’t recognize is when we are really using the central route, and when we are using the peripheral route. Some people are simply more analytical than others. For instance, I have brought up Jamie Hale several times in this article. My main, stated reason for bringing up his name is that he provided helpful contributions to this article, and he discussed the article with me and helped me direct my thought process and keep on track, without which I may not have covered some aspects I see as important. Jamie’s way of writing and communicating is very analytical. Although I am much less analytical, I also try to rely on sound arguments and reason, or, my own cognitive processes. My purpose is to get you to think hard about what I am saying! Then, if you change your mind after having thought on it a lot, that change will likely stick around. Of course, I use other methods of persuasion, as well. Jamie, though, is much more influential than I am, so you could argue (and you’d have the right) that I was “name-dropping” in order to persuade you. That would be the peripheral route. I have used a couple other peripheral tactics, intentionally. I wonder if you picked up on them?
Fitness writers name-drop a lot. What we have to learn to recognize is the difference between name-dropping and what real scientists do when they bring up the work of other scientists. It is absolutely necessary, at times, to refer to the work of others! Sometimes this is done by paraphrasing what they have said, and sometimes by direct quotation. Yet, a true expert can explain the work and conclusions of others, and why that work is valid, without having to use quotes.
When someone’s name is brought up but this brings in no information or does not serve to illuminate the message in any way, this is a case of peripheral persuasion. Just saying something like ‘I spoke to so and so and he likes this idea’ has nothing to do with the soundness of the reasoning presented. They are using that person’s influence, their popularity, your perception of them as an expert, their following, etc. to influence your opinion of what is being said. Even when using quotes, there is a limit to how many quotes are necessary, and articles or other communication that rely too heavily on quotes have also went beyond central persuasion to a peripheral route. You have seen what may seem like a lot of quotes in this article, but you may not realize that at this point, we are nearing 20,000 words, most all of them from yours truly! I’ll let you be the judge as to whether those quotes helped advance my argument.
As a business, the fitness industry will rely on peripheral persuasion as much as it does central persuasion, and probably more. What are other types of peripheral persuasion, besides name-dropping or excessive quoting?
All you have to do to see tons of peripheral persuasion in action is to watch TV commercials or look at billboards and other forms of advertisement. If you’ve ever seen so-called “infomercials” you have seen an attempt to pretend that pure information is being used to advertise a product or service as opposed to peripheral route persuasion.
Watch the video below to see many examples of peripheral persuasion in TV commercials.
If you read a bodybuilding or fitness article that is liberally sprinkled with pictures of heavily muscled men, bikini wearing women, and other images of this type, you are seeing peripheral persuasion. When a personal trainer who specializes in fat loss, or body re-shaping uses many pictures of themselves displaying their thin or chiseled physique: Peripheral persuasion. When scientists use images, they are almost always informational in nature. You probably have never seen a journal paper in which was included a picture of the author in a lab coat standing behind a lectern, or basking in the applause of an enthusiastic audience. In the fitness world, attractive images are not only there to show you that the fitness pro walks the walk; they are also there to trigger positive associations in your thought process. Surely, if the fitness industry were scientific, how its members look would have no bearing on anything! But, of course, as we all know, looks are everything in the fitness industry and we often will dismiss a trainer who doesn’t display the body we expect an expert in exercise or physical performance to display.
One of the most frequently used persuasive tactics in fitness, nutrition, and health information is the arousal of emotions. Fear is one of the most powerful. Right now, there is a great deal of controversy in the fitness world over the fear-mongering tactics of a food blogger called The Food Babe. Yet, many of the fitness pros who are trying to counter her message are not trying to analyze and counter her arguments (and I don’t blame them at all), instead they are expressing outrage or irritation, and in so doing, are trying to incite anger, another effective emotion to bring up when you desire to persuade. We are inundated by messages of fear and anger in the wider fitness and health world.
To be clear, though, not all emotional appeals are negative. Positive emotions can be just as effective! We are also inundated with these kinds of emotional appeals. Inspirational messages are just as powerful as negative ones. Read articles by professional bloggers about ‘how to go viral’ and you’ll probably come across BE INSPIRATIONAL dozens of times. The most shared and passed on messages on the internet are those that use almost purely peripheral persuasion.
Most people will have a strong preference between central and peripheral persuasion. Some people would rather hear strong, well-reasoned arguments and will be more influenced by them, whereas others will be more easily influenced by peripheral cues. Now, we can compare the scientific and academic world with the fitness world directly, and see that they overlap in this regard despite science and reason.
The messages in both science and fitness that are more likely to reach a large audience, is a message that appeals to both types of audiences. Although a scientist might write in a dry, academic, and jargon laden style in a journal, if that same scientist gave a talk to a lay-audience in this style, they might fail miserably. If they were unattractive, they might do even worse. A speaker who uses strong argumentation and clear explanation must also be entertaining, for instance. When it comes to reaching the public, both science and fitness has the same need, and face the same hurdles, in this regard. But the fitness industry is much more successful in getting its messages across than the scientific world, for better or for worse. Many people have argued that science needs to do a better job communicating science to the public. And I would agree. Many fitness writers or professionals (like myself as a writer) are willing to concede that we must separate “pure scientific thinking” from how we get our message across. Some, of course, do a much better job at reaching audiences than I do. The question is whether it is possible to be scientific and persuasive to a wide audience at the same time. It is a balancing act, to be sure. If, as I hope I’ve made clear, the fitness industry was only interested in imparting scientific information, and not concerned with persuading paying customers, it would not be an industry!
The fitness industry is, first and foremost, an industry. It provides a product, or products, and offers this product for sale to consumers. As such, it does not, and cannot, have scientific thinking, and the advancement of scientific ideas, as its priority. Many would do well to separate the terms fitness information and fitness industry in their minds. Pure information about fitness and performance can certainly be scientific. And, even information offered for sale can be! However, the more rigorous the science, the less the sales! An industry would have a hard time creating demand for its products based purely on scientific information, practices, and science based products. As I hope you can see, a fitness industry that was really scientific, would be unrecognizable as the fitness industry! I will further venture that such an industry, if it was based purely on science and critical thought, would do the opposite of industry. It would think itself right out of the business. Ideas that sell rarely bear any resemblance to scientific ideas.
As an industry, the fitness world is too self-absorbed for its members to behave in ways conducive to scientific conduct. It is too self-protective. Its members who claim to be scientific rarely behave in ways that scientists would behave. There is little that resembles peer-review in the fitness world, something that is of central importance to science. In fact, those who are “peers” in the fitness industry do more to protect each other than to review each other’s work. When someone does decide to review, and perhaps refute the work of a peer, instead of a lively scientific debate, we get a petty feud, complete with all the pissing contests you’d expect from a good feud. Clearly it is not about the information, but is about the person presenting the information. In order to be more responsible in its spreading of scientific information, the industry needs to move toward eliminating the personal in evaluating messages and products, with the allowance that it would be impossible to completely eliminate the personal and still sell your services as a fitness professional. The fitness industry is a service oriented one that deals with people, after all, from many different backgrounds and who hold many different attitudes. The industry can become more scientific, but it can never be purely based on science alone.
What passes for scientific or legitimate and reliable information in the fitness world has everything to do with how and by whom the information is presented. Those of us who wish to push science, must not focus on the who, but on the message itself. Science is not personal. There are those who, with the utmost integrity, try to achieve a balance between scientific thinking and sound reasoning, and effective marketing via other routes of persuasion. The effort counts for something, in my mind. There are others who simply use the terms science, skepticism, critical thinking, evidence based fitness as a marketing tactic in itself, bowing to fashion rather than reason. I applaud the former, but condemn the latter.
I’ll leave you with a comment I once made that has to do with claims made by the fitness industry and persuasion. It may serve to kick-start your bullshit meter when confronted with fitness claims: Many times when presented with fitness information, strength training, etc., what is happening is that one individual is trying to persuade us to adopt a certain method or thing, or make a certain change in how we do things.
This person might say that this exercise method or this particular exercise is effective. They are making a claim. A very effective tool is to pinpoint, as soon as possible, 1. What are they trying to sell me? and 2. What claims are they making?
But, for what it is worth, one of the most powerful tools I was ever taught about such claims, was to turn it on its head. When someone is trying to persuade you to make a change and it takes the general form “if you do this, such and such will happen,” ask the question: If I DON’T do this, what will happen?
Why? Because so much of what is presented as fitness information that you NEED TO KNOW, is actually not something you need to know and you are being presented information to solve a problem that you don’t really have. This is part of demand creation in the fitness industry. There are a lot of peripheral tactics and cues to convince you, without you really realizing it, that you need this new thing, or exercise, or method. That one simple question can snap you back to reality.
I’ll conclude with one other thing. This article is over 16,000 words long. For an internet article, that is usually considered over-long. It would have served me better to separate this into an article series and post one article a week. That way, if I hooked a reader or two, I could keep them coming back for more, and enjoy that repeat traffic. Why didn’t I do that?
Resources [ + ]
|1, 14.||↲||Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com|
|2, 12, 13.||↲||Hale, Jamie. “Bad Evidence.” Knowledge Summit. N.p., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. <http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/bad-evidence.html>.|
|3, 4.||↲||Koslowski, Barbara. Theory and Evidence: The Development of Scientific Reasoning. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.|
|5, 6.||↲||Law, Stephen. Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011.|
|7, 8, 9.||↲||Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com|
|10.||↲||Howlett, Peter, and Mary S. Morgan. How Well Do Facts Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.|
|11.||↲||Hale, Jamie. “News.” Max Condition Training and Fitness. Jamie Hale, MaxCondition.com|
|15.||↲||9 Reasons Why Every Man Should Do More Proper Deadlifts to Get Bigger.” Anabolic Men. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2014. <http://anabolicmen.com/why-all-men-should-deadlift-more/>|