The Confidence of Ignorance

[See parts I, II, and III if you haven’t already.]

The Problem with “Bro-Science”

To watch most internet discussions, you’d think that science was a contest to see who could fish the most abstracts out of Pubmed. In areas as fuzzy as exercise and nutrition, there just isn’t enough research, and what is there doesn’t cover a sufficient breadth, to be the final answer to all our questions. If you eliminate any evidence without a DOI number, you’ve crippled your knowledge base. That’s as shameful as any puffed-up Curl-Bro ranking knowledge by weight class.

The internet has taken to calling “Bro science” on any sort of trial-and-error gym-observations, with unfortunate consequences. It isn’t “Bro science” when someone discovers, through trial and error, what works for their circumstances. If that’s the case, then I have bad news for you: so is most everything we consider foundational in exercise science. If someone has trained with a particular program or a particular style of training, and they’ve genuinely gotten results with it, then that is the end of the argument.

I will add a necessary caveat here: we have to distinguish genuine results from what I call “gym delusions”. A gym delusion happens when someone mistakes, say, feeling winded, or puking, or having sore muscles or a case of rhabdomyolysis for actual long-term results. A gym delusion means that the thing being done isn’t actually leading to measurable results like larger muscles, bigger lifts, or lower body-fat. Thanks to a hyper-active System 1, the immediate feeling is substituting for measurable results.

When a natural-born fitness model of either gender has gym delusions, we see the birth of the real Bro science: “I’m right because I look great”. The delusional training or diet in question isn’t even remotely the reason for their physique, but for a story-craving System 1 it doesn’t matter.

People read this argument and immediately rebut with “genes don’t matter, these people work hard”. I have no doubt of that at all; almost every good athlete I’ve ever known, in any activity, has worked incredibly hard. They’ve also come with the right genes and the right circumstances to allow that hard work to pay off. Pointing out good genes and contingencies of life is not a criticism, and it doesn’t detract from the fact that they work hard; it’s just a fact, and an incredibly important fact when we’re considering what is and isn’t worth doing.

When someone looks good, or is very strong, or whatever else, and they credit that outcome with all the things that didn’t actually lead to it (and downplay all the really important things that did but were out of their control), then we’ve got a myth in play. Buy into that and you’ll do all the “right” things, follow all the rituals and buy all the right powders and pre-workout totems, and get none of the results. It’s a cargo cult made of supplements and uninspired workouts that don’t do anything useful.

The difference in the gym-delusion and the billion-dollar Bro-science industry, and the idea of scientific trial-and-error, isn’t so much what we do but how we treat the findings. Bro-science treats knowledge as a matter of personal authority — where reality must shape itself to what you “know” — rather than testable ideas which you can evaluate on your own.

Most of the relevant science is either a guy in a labcoat watching athletes, or else details; interesting, to be sure, but not quite what we’d call prescriptive information. You aren’t going to build a workout around the phosophrylation of mTOR or the action of calcium ions during myofibril contraction (please don’t).

Most of the things we actually do in exercise and in diet are based on an incomplete scientific picture, which we then assemble into a picture of reality with a lot of educated guesses. That’s how it has to be, and this, too, isn’t terribly troubling, but this is also why we must keep our storyteller brain on a leash: the assembly process is where the defects creep in to the final product.

Even those of you who think you’re “science informed” are constructing a picture of weight-training and nutrition based on partial best-guess information. Your picture is most assuredly subject to the unconscious biases that influence all of us, and is consequently shaped by your own history and experience. As I’ve been arguing this isn’t a problem per se, but it does suggest that the arrogant, self-righteous, and condescending attitude that dominates internet communities probably isn’t the best way to approach the quest for performance-improving knowledge.

Things aren’t always as they seem, and our own emotional attachments to our beliefs are often the biggest obstacle no matter what information we draw upon. For these reasons, I’ve increasingly tried to avoid making judgments without careful deliberation, and I certainly don’t want to take a position because it’s the trendy thing to do.

The Charitable Skeptic

One of the biggest problems with the internet’s culture is the way no one has any time to hear out an opponent. Everything is an instant knee-jerk reaction, and often a jump to the worst-case interpretation of a vague statement.

It’s not that “people are stupid” (no matter how much it seems that way). Too often that line is a substitute for what we really mean: “this person doesn’t agree with me”. Sometimes the disagreements can involve factual details, but a surprising amount are matters of context and perspective — “reason” and “logic” don’t enter into it. The scary part is that even the people we hold up as “smart” — intelligent, well-educated, even thoughtful — are not only capable of all these things, but better at doing it. We like to hold people up on a pedestal, the implication is that we should do no such thing.

No human being is above the biases of his or her own mind, and bringing up “reason” or “critical thinking” in an argument only demonstrates that this point has been missed.

I don’t exclude myself from this. I’m acutely aware that I do all these things, and that unless I constantly remind myself, I’ll fall back into this pattern. It’s a sobering realization, and not an easy thing to correct. I think that the awareness, and striving to constantly remind ourselves, is the best thing any of us can do to work around these limitations.

What I’ve outlined in this series is how, when left to its own devices, your brain will lie to you. Shortcuts, simplifications, and outright fabrications are the path of least resistance for a lazy brain. I maintain that we are all capable of not doing this, but it requires a kind of self-awareness and willingness that a good many folks lack. Like any skill, it takes practice, and you can’t practice a thing if you don’t know it’s there in the first place.

Knowledge of the natural world is there, and a process of science — as a mode of thinking — can, in my thinking, give us all the relevant details to the degree that we need them. This means understanding what science is as a methodology, rather than treating it as a collection of abstracts that you pilfer at your leisure to justify a belief you’ve only arrived at thanks to your peer-group. It means understanding the difference in “truth” and “likelihood”. It means understanding the limitations and distortions built into your own faculties of understanding. It means considering the blind-spots in the knowledge you do have, and making good use of reason to fill them in wherever possible — and concede that you’re guessing when it isn’t.

For those of us just trying to lift some weights and not be fat, this takes away so much pressure. In science you can’t rely on “what I saw” as evidence. The whole point of the scientific method is to distinguish what’s really happening from the influences of our personal biases. Science has to be as objective as possible to rule out the impulses of System 1.

That’s science, though, and the needs of science need not reflect what you do at the gym or in the kitchen. Whereas “a really strong guy I know did it” isn’t sufficient to lay out universal rules for training and eating, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you, personally, from trying it out to see what happens. This is not Bro-science; this is a personal experiment. Just don’t make the mistake of assuming that, because you got results, it must therefore be a universal law of How To Train; humans are too variable for that.

When interpreting science, we have to remain “skeptical”. Being skeptical of the outrageous and unsupported is the foundation of science and arguing with an eye towards learning is how scientific knowledge improves. I’ve got no issue with holding results to a high standard.

But skepticism needs grounding. Do we challenge anything and everything just because we can? Or do we — should we — come into it with preconceptions that lead us to favor some ideas and reject others? Should we not think constructively and work to reconcile the supposed contradictions in conflicting research results?

Without that grounding, you end up with what looks more like mindless questioning just for the sake of questioning; when skepticism is taken to the extreme, nothing can be true. There comes a point where questioning is less about discovering truth and much more about preserving your ego by defending the views in which you are invested. What we don’t want is for scientific discussion to slip into eristics. We need a position to be skeptical from.

Despite the accusations I get as being too “science focused”, I give tremendous weight to the observations of real lifters. There’s a reason I’m so interested in the history of weight training — I think that the “doing”, especially when you look at early to mid-20th century strength athletes, generates a wealth of information; the similarities, the common things that all these lifters and insightful coaches converged upon, establishes a framework. Research then comes along and fills in the rough edges.

I think that bodybuilding — with caveats — is a great place to look for knowledge on building muscle, and this is why I pay attention to what bodybuilders do. I think powerlifting is a great place to look for knowledge on getting stronger, and that’s why I pay attention to what powerlifters do. When I parse a research paper, I take that “real world” position as my default: is this useful, in a pragmatic go-to-the-gym sense? Does it add to the picture? Is there anything here that could make my training more effective?

Usually there isn’t — it’s not every day that you get an Einstein to overthrow Newton — but you never know. I wouldn’t expect fundamentals to change, but then again I certainly got a shock when I discovered that max squats every day was a fine method of training. If new data challenges a long-held assumption, it might be that there’s something you’ve missed. Sometimes you’ll find things that shine a new light on the old picture.

You won’t find that if you’re too busy using “reason” and “being right” to extend any benefit of the doubt.

Take this on-going argument about whether light-load sets to failure can stimulate muscle growth. You can easily mesh these results with a model of muscle hypertrophy that treats growth as a function of tension-time overload. Make the muscle do more work in such a way that recruits and fatigues a wide spectrum of muscle fibers and it grows. This accounts for a tremendous breadth of Things That Work, including meat-and-potatoes “heavy” training and lighter “pumping” work that bodybuilders like. Furthermore, it remains agnostic to any particular mode or method. Heavy works, light works; it’s about getting the muscle to do more work under the right conditions.

I think that’s a good model, in that I can explain it on a biological level and it also accounts for the considerable variation between the training methods of all the Big Bros. But even this a bias — one which I’ve freely admitted and am well aware of, but a bias nevertheless. I could well be drawing a connection where there is none. I don’t think I am, for reasons of the biology involved, but whether this is true (in the scientific sense of being very likely) or just my personal story is not something I can say with certainty.

All I can do is keep experimenting on myself and paying attention to what happens when other people try it.

The only position that makes sense to me any more is charitable skepticism. Keep an open mind, but only as far as there are uncertainties or vague points in the facts or their interpretation. Don’t assume that you’re more reasonable, or even more informed, than the other guy. People might be more clued in than you think, even if they’re saying things which are outrageous at first glance. At least make the attempt to be constructive, rather than aggressively negative.

The last thing you want to do is be arrogant about a point of dogma only to find out that it’s not as certain as you thought. You can be wrong no matter how rational you think you are.

Written by Matt

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7 thoughts on “The Confidence of Ignorance”

  1. Matt, I think you are a zen master of combining exercise science and real life observation. Love your writings, keep it critical. We'll read!

  2. But Stu,

    Post-exercise hormones are a classic example of 1980s USA scientific logic.

    We have an outcome thesis, how does the data fit it.

  3. "We need a position to be skeptical from." – I agree, as long as we are also willing to challenge our own position. Great post.

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