Do you need more convincing about the value of skepticism? I can understand if you do. Skepticism and even bullshit-detecting can seem so negative. Skeptics are often seen as viewing everything with negativity and as being contrarians. I have certainly been accused of this when I pointed out bullshit to an enthusiastic crowd. So, what if I told you that a healthy dose of skepticism will help you achieve your goals faster?
Learning about fitness and achieving your fitness and health goals, which should include your mental health, as quickly as possible, is not just about doing things physically. It’s about learning. Therefore, the title of this section is not random. I have been asked this question many times. Usually, it’s about strength training. What do I read to learn about strength training is a loaded question. Sure, I could provide a list of useful books and articles, but that is not ‘teaching a man to fish.’ The question I must ask is, would you be immune to the unuseful. If I tell you what to read but you are still left fending for yourself in treacherous waters, doomed to spend years being taken in by bullshit before you finally “learn” what it is you set out to learn, what good have I done you?
Is it true that most anti-vaxxers understand science and know better but simply have an agenda?
I’ve come across this myth many times. Many people assert that some, if not most, anti-vaxxers have an agenda and actually know better, but do it anyway for their own selfish reasons. The idea that anyone you oppose must have a personal agenda is in itself silly. Pro-science people do not like it very much when they are accused of being shills, yet fail to recognize that they do the very same thing.
However, let’s say that some folks who are against vaccination actually do have some kind of self-interest in mind and are trying to manipulate others into not vaccinating for nefarious reasons. Sometimes they do this in what seems like very sophisticated ways and are very successful doing it. If they are successful in reaching and persuading people, they must be very intelligent, and very good thinkers. They must understand the science!
It does not follow. Many people are “selfish thinkers.” They use their thinking skills only for selfish pursuits. They use their understanding of dirty tricks and manipulation to mislead people. There is no reason whatsoever to think that someone needs a broad understanding of scientific thinking to do this. They do not even need to be highly skilled critical thinkers. In fact, it is generally recognized that such thinkers are ‘stuck’ in an early stage of critical thinking development.
This notion, that success at anything means you are a good thinker, is entirely erroneous. Look at most political races and you’ll see the error.
Some of the biggest names in fitness, especially on the internet, earned their reputations by being able to spot fitness (and fat loss) bullshit and quickly explain why it is bullshit. They then are able to simplify matters, presenting their audience with a big-picture prescription that cuts through all the crap. There is a little secret involved.
First, a must point out that a persistent myth about critical thinking is that if you can think critically about one subject, you can automatically apply those skills to other subjects.
For example, if you can think critically about nutrition, you can also think critically about disease processes and medicine. If you can think critically about the causes of the Second World War, then you can apply those same skills to the Middle East situation.
Is our background knowledge tied to our critical thinking skills? Yes, but our minds are not like computers. Just because you can apply an ‘operation’ to one domain does not mean you can apply that same operation to another domain. To fully analyze any piece of information, you need to possess more than average knowledge of the pertinent domain. At the same time, critical thinking skills must be learned and practiced as their own parallel goal.
This leads people to assume that they will never be able to apply these skills to a broad range of domains unless they first acquire extensive knowledge. It seems like a never-ending challenge. You have to become a great critical thinker, and you have to learn a lot about everything. To put this simply: How can you recognize bullshit when you don’t know enough about the domains and subjects you question?
Well, what you’ll find is that the more skilled you become at critical thinking, the less background knowledge you will need to recognize faulty reasoning and bullshit. Bullshit tends to hide in plain sight.
While some of your favorite fitness gurus may have a great deal of knowledge about exercise science, physiology, etc., once you learn to recognize BS you only need a basic knowledge of the pertinent domain to spot it!
You’ll even learn to be less impressed by a fitness pro’s display of knowledge. I’ve often made fun of fitness pros and their “knowledge bombs.” There is a reason that Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci are immortal. Their contribution went very much beyond what they “knew.” We should not make a hero out of someone for simply displaying knowledge.
“My new diet is unsurpassed in its weight loss results.” Doesn’t that sound impressive? Here is another example: “My new strength training program is unsurpassed in its ability to cause quick and substantial gains in muscular strength.” Most people see “unsurpassed” as meaning the same as “unequaled.” In other words, the weight loss diet claim will likely be interpreted as meaning that no other diet provides results as good as this diet. And, the strength program claim will likely be interpreted to mean that no other program will get you as strong as quickly.
However, in both cases, the claims can also be interpreted as saying that they are only as good as any existing alternative. Merriam-Webster defines the term unsurpassed as “having no equal or rival for excellence or desirability” or “of the very best kind.” The second definition is the one I’m relying on to make my claim. It means that other methods or products are not better than this method or product. If my product is at least as good as the alternative and one of the best of products available I can use a powerful word like unsurpassed to imply that it is significantly better than the alternatives, without actually lying. This is an example of a misleading but literally true claim in fitness and health advertising.
In 1956, Benjamin Bloom, together with Max Englehart, Edward Furst, Walter Hill, and David Krathwohl published a framework for categorizing educational goals called the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This came to be known as Bloom’s Taxonomy.
The pyramid diagram, courtesy of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching 1Mcdaniel, Rhett. “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University, 13 Aug. 2018, cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/., represents this taxonomy. Each lower level is necessary before the level above it can be developed. Notice that knowledge and comprehension are the lower levels.
Apparently, Bloom thought there was more to educational goals, and to thinking in general than knowledge and comprehension. Bloom’s Taxonomy can be applied to the cognitive domain, where knowledge (specifics, terminology, facts, etc.) is followed by comprehension, application, analysis, and synthesis, and evaluation.
Therefore, even if you consider yourself a beginner in fitness, strength training, muscle building, nutrition, etc. developing your bullshit detector now gives you a great advantage. By so doing, you will begin to gain critical thinking skills and will be better able to go beyond many so-called fitness pros, who never made it past the first level of the pyramid: remember (and regurgitate). You will learn to understand, and, most important for any pursuit, to apply. One day, you may find yourself with no need for pseudo-professionals or genuine ones.
As daunting as all this may seem, and it can be, those fitness pros with a finely honed bullshit detector don’t have to spend hours analyzing information to separate the BS from the relevant and factual. They can spot bullshit a mile away! Almost at a glance, they can detect when bullshit is at work and quickly find the central theme, understanding almost intuitively what is at work and how the author of this misinformation is confused or, worse, deceptive. Not only does this allow them to explain to their followers whether a certain source is good or bad, bullshit or the real deal, but they can learn and grow faster. They can quickly, as it were, separate the wheat from the chaff. Becoming more like them can mean:
- You don’t waste time
- You don’t hurt yourself
- You use your energy to work towards your actual goals
In other words, learning to shield yourself from bullshit is not just about what not to do, but about quickly discovering what you should do!
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you.
With that in mind, I’ll begin with one of the most prevalent sources of bullshit in fitness, nutrition, and wellness. Articles making assertions based on the results of single studies.
Resources [ + ]
|1.||↲||Mcdaniel, Rhett. “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University, 13 Aug. 2018, cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/.|