This whole piece is a fantastic discussion of contemporary issues in separating science from pseudoscience, and why we should all have a little more ‘epistemic humility’ about what we consider true and factual.
Earlier today I was pointed to an article by Nassim Taleb on volatility and uncertainty. Regulars will recall that randomness, uncertainty, and variability have been topics of fascination for me lately. Taleb has been key in making these tumblers fall into place, largely thanks to The Black Swan.
Taleb’s discussion of uncertainty, of his ‘negative epistemology’, resonated with me, not least of which because it unmasked the appearance of certainty and control that pervades our comfy first-world lives. As I’ve related lately, I think this illusion extends to fitness communities on a deep level. The resulting obsession with analysis creates a mess: dichotomies between “bro” and “science”, overwhelming neuroses about squat form and diet macros and who even knows what else I don’t see since I quit reading forums and Reddit.
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.
It’s All So Fuzzy
Let’s take the question of muscle and what makes it grow. We can answer this question fairly well with some simple observations. Namely, you can go to any gym and you’ll notice that the people with well-developed muscles all tend to lift weights. That’s an anecdotal observation, but fortunately various research studies, both observational studies watching athletes and more direct interventions in the lab, have validated this “no kidding” conclusion.
We’ve got a lot of data that tells us yes, lifting weights makes your muscles grow. That’s an objective fact, in as much as we can ever define objective facts about exercise. If you want to get bigger, you pick up a barbell, or a dumbbell, or at least go to a cable station. You wouldn’t want to start running 10 miles a day. Extremes like this are easy to pick out — and they often tell us nothing interesting.
We turn to science in hopes of more detail. Case in point: it’s more or less true that all the people with big muscles lift weights, so we have that, but notice that little Jimmy also lifts weights and he doesn’t have big muscles. There’s obviously a relationship between “big muscles” and “lifts weights”, but the opposite — that all people who lift weights get big muscles — doesn’t hold true. We’re missing something.
[If you’re just finding this post, I’d suggest reading Two Minds and a Flame War for the first part of this series.] Defending the Hive Some of you will have undoubtedly noticed that I like to be contradictory and maybe even inflammatory at times. There’s a reason for this. I’m finding myself increasingly bothered by … Read more
I’m fascinated by the human mind. The mind, such as there is a thing we can refer to with that word, is where all the interesting things about humankind go on. It’s also poorly understood, even by the legions of bright people who have studied and reflected upon it for thousands of years.
Vagueness aside, you’ll notice that we’ve got a Pretty Good intuitive grasp of thoughts and sensations, such that we can communicate reasonably well most of the time. The fact that you can read my words and (hopefully) understand what I want to convey attests to that. Sometimes, Pretty Good is good enough.
Knowing how people operate is a crucial skill in any instance that involves other people. Case in point, fitness training and nutrition. These fields are applied science, and on paper at least we should be able to craft perfect workout programs and diets — at least, you’d think that according to much of the internet.
Often, though — likely more than not — these perfection-seeking schemes fail. Why can’t people just do what we know is right? Why do all these pig-headed people disagree with my perfectly-designed workout? Why do people not eat according to these scientifically-derived principles that ensure success?