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.
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 often find myself describing science as a limiting factor. The typical lay-view, reinforced by Hollywood, stereotypes scientists as mysterious figures in labcoats handing down edicts the same way a king would hand down laws to his peasants. But it doesn’t quite work that way.
Most fields relevant to us — falling under the considerable umbrella of biology — are descriptive sciences: variable X causes event A, under circumstance Y. We watch it, write it up, and try to figure out what’s going on based on what we already know.
Rayleigh scattering causes the sky to appear blue on cloudless days. That’s the process of descriptive science. Watch a thing happen, and then explain the immediate causes and the circumstances in which it happened. Descriptive science leads to an ever-greater level of detail as causes and effects are established, leading us down the rabbit hole as more questions arise from each answer.
In these fields, published research establishes boundaries. Very rarely do you run into any kind of prescriptive knowledge, the What To Do, step-by-step user-manual kind of knowledge that seems expected by a considerable fraction of gym-goers. You can imagine how these conflicting views create friction between science and practice.
In the softer domains of personal training and S&C coaching, you run into real and very valid criticisms of exercise science research. While there are good points to make regarding validity and generalization — points I often agree with — dismissing research without consideration isn’t helping anyone. I find that to be as unhelpful as the crowd that can’t make any decisions without a Pubmed abstract.
I was recently reminded of one of my favorite articles.
It’s by Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite authors. Mr. Asimov died back in 1992, but occasionally one of his gems will resurface and I’m reminded again why I enjoy his work so much.
This article, titled The Relativity of Wrong, was written to demonstrate a crucial, but still poorly understood, facet of science: the idea that a statement or idea can be less wrong than another. What, you might ask, does this have to do with strength training?
As it turns out, it has plenty to do with it. More specifically, it has plenty to do with the volumes of information (and misinformation) that pervade the industry, and the poor (if any) reasoning ability that comes along with this. Since my schtick in this game involves using principles of logic and critical thinking to tear down idiocy, it’s very relevant.
Mr. Asimov’s frustration and subsequent rebuttal are in many ways parallel to what goes on in the fitness industry.
It’s unfortunate that the mindset that he, and others of his kind, so actively try to discourage is so rampant. It’s not just in the fitness industry; you see this all over. When you can’t even teach science in schools because of superstitious traditions, you’ve got a problem.
With the levels of bro-science and general anti-intellectualism at all time highs, I feel the need to occasionally interject things such as this in order to help chip away at some of the ignorant thinking.