The Fitness Skeptic
By Jamie Hale
“Coach Hale why are you so skeptical?” “Why do you have such a negative view of the fitness industry?” “You are so cynical.” I hear these types of questions and statements on a weekly basis. The people that approach me with these statements are almost always supplement salesman, homeopathy practitioners, equipment salesman etc.. Generally, people that do not like to have their authority questioned.
Skeptic or Cynic
Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas. Often people confuse “skeptic” with “cynic.” The Fitness Skeptic (Skeptic is derived from the Greek skeptikos, which means “inquiring” or “to look around) applies reason to any and all ideas promoted by the fitness industry or ideas promoted by anyone making fitnessclaims. The Fitness skeptic (the term Fitness skeptic applies to health, nutrition and supplement claims as well) requires evidence before claims are accepted as fact. It is important to consider who are making the claims, but no matter who makes the claim evidence is required. In reality, the person’s reputation, authority or credentials do not make the claim correct. The evidence determines whether the claim is correct. Skepticism is a method used to question the validity of a particular claim. In it’s simplest form skepticism requires evidence for a claim to be accepted as fact (valid evidence = Primary Research Data, valid evidence doesn’t include “they say” “my instructor says” “the gym staff says” “I have always heard”..).
There are many different aspects of fitness so it becomes obvious that science has not investigated every topic. Many claims are so outlandish and unjustifiable (according to already established scientific facts) they do not warrant scientific investigation. These are the type of claims that violate basic laws of biochemistry, kinesiology, endocrinology and so on. The people that promote these claims generally make up their own terminology and attempt to impress people with fancy words (in many cases words that do not exist or words they cannot accurately define).
What is a cynic? Cynics are distrustful of any advice or information that they do not agree with themselves. Cynics do not accept any claim that challenges their belief system. Recently in an interview I was asked the following:
“W Noble: Do you have any concerns about some people saying this book promotes a cynical approach to the fitness industry?” My answer was:
“Coach Hale: No. The only people that will make this claim are people that are not willing to look at truth and people that promote quack science. Fitness Skepticism (this includes the health, nutrition and supplement industries) is an approach to claims that investigates reason to any and all ideas. Skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a claim might be true. When I say “skeptical,” I mean that I need to see valid evidence before believing a claim. Cynical on the other hand means taking a negative view and not willing to accept valid evidence for the claim. I think skepticism is healthy and should be promoted in all fields.”
Skepticism and Science
Skepticism is a key part of science. Basically, science is a specific way of analyzing information with the goal of testing claims. Giving a precise definition of the scientific method is difficult as there is little consensus in the scientific community as to what that definition is. A Aragon (Girth Control 2007) defines the scientific method as: “systematic process for acquiring new knowledge that uses the basic principle of deductive (and to a lesser extent inductive) reasoning. It’s considered the most rigorous way to elucidate cause and effect, as well as discover and analyze less direct relationships between agents and their associated phenomena.” Deductive reasoning provides comprehensive grounds for its conclusion. Deductive reasoning makes specific predictions and is either valid or invalid. Deductive arguments are generally viewed as the most precise and the most persuasive; they provide conclusive proof of their conclusion. Inductive reasoning forms a hypothesis from drawing general conclusions from a small incomplete amount of specific observations. As I mentioned above if you asked a panel of scientists to define the scientific method you would receive a large array of answers, but I think most would agree on the basic concepts.
The following is an excerpt from Why People Believe Weird Things (Shermer 1997). “Through the scientific method, we may form the following generalizations:
Hypothesis: A testable statement accounting for a set of observations.
Theory: A well-supported and well-tested hypothesis or set of hypotheses.
Fact: A conclusion confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer provisional agreement.”
When using the scientific method one of the primary goals is objectivity. Proper use of the scientific method leads us to rationalism (basing conclusion on intellect, logic and evidence). Relying on science also helps us avoid dogmatism (adherence to doctrine over rational and enlightened inquiry, or basing conclusion on authority rather than evidence). I doubt if there is any industry in the world that has a more dogmatic mind set than the fitness industry.
Thinking Gone Wrong
Why do so many people believe everything they read or hear? One of the key reasons they believe almost everything they hear is that throughout life they have been discouraged from critical thinking. Don’t question authority (so they are told). When we were kids our parents gave us advice and told us what to do. No questions were asked. This continued through out our school years. The formal education system generally discourages critical thinking (process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion). Your teacher said it so it must be right. This cycle continues through out most of our lives. We are constantly exposed to Newspapers, TV, so-called experts and other sources of information that tell use what is right and wrong. The lack of emphasis on critical thinking leads to various problems in the decision making process. These problems make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
Anecdotes are not science
Anecdotes are personal testimonies that support a claim. They are not science. Anecdotal evidence lacks controlled study and generally has many effective variables.
With anecdotal evidence it is impossible to determine what variable is responsible for any differences in performance. A basic example of anecdotal evidence follows:
I supplemented with BCAAs (branch chained amino acids) when I was preparing for my bodybuilding show. I didn’t lose any muscle. Therefore, supplementary BCAAs prevent muscle loss. The bodybuilder also weight trained, supplemented with protein shakes, ate a boatload of whole protein foods (means high levels of BCAAs) and so on. The point is there is no way that it could be accurately determined that the BCAA supplement was the reason the bodybuilder did not lose muscle. This is also an example of confusing correlation with causation.
Scientific Jargon does not make a science
Disguising a diet plan, equipment ad or supplement promotion with scientific jargon to make it sound legit is common. Scientific sounding words impress many people and make the promoters of the products seem intelligent. Don’t be impressed. Look for the evidence. What you will often find are these phrases and words are taken out of context and are sometimes not even definable words. Refer to Knowledge and Nonsense: the science of nutrition and exercise (link) for examples of this pseudoscientificmarketing scheme.
Bold Statements and Bold testimonials
Most the time if sounds to good to be true it is. The same holds true for celebrity testimonials. This does not mean companies that use bold statements and bold testimonials are always being deceitful (but buyer beware). The power of celebrity is evident in society. I have spoke with hundreds of people who buy specific supplements or products because their heroes endorse them. Hero worship causes irrational behavior (spending 300 dollars per month on supplements). The next time you see one of those ridiculous supplement ads or infomercials contact the company and ask them and for some unbiased evidence to support their claims (this doesn’t mean sworn statements from the companies head researcher, anecdotes, or company funded research).
“They say…” or “I have always heard…” and so on. That’s how rumors start. Someone makes a suggestion and the next thing you know it is accepted as fact. What is the basis of these suggestions? Most people accept these rumors having no idea where or why they were started. All they know is “that is what they have always heard”. Something can be repeated one million times and that still doesn’t make it correct.
In science failures are often not reported. But scientists identify failures and this can help them get closer to the truth. Pseudoscientists ignore failures and find a way to justify their failures. They just can’t seem to admit they are wrong. Science progresses and real scientists will often change some of their views over time.
Correlation and causation
Just because two events follow each other in sequence does not mean they are connected causally. Common example: My friend has high insulin levels and my friend is fat. Therefore high insulin levels make my friend fat. When looking at this situation closer my friend also eats above his maintenance level of calories everyday and lives a sedentary lifestyle. Refer to the headings Anecdotes are not science mentioned above for another example.
Using emotive words is one of the key marketing tactics used by the fitness industry. Encouraging words and telling people what they want to hear is one of the key determinants of whether a person or product will be successful in the fitness industry. Common examples: 20 page ad copies with free gift offers, highlighted power emotive words and never before revealed secrets: infomercials featuring people “just like you”
: Easy fast workouts: supplement ads that promise rippling abs and bulging muscles.
This type of marketing strategy almost always means quack.
Ad Hominem means “argument against the man”. This type of argument consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the person making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim. This is common onfitness internet forums. Common examples: “That guy is a total prick I would not listen to anything he said”… or “He is not very strong he shouldn’t be giving strength training advice”. These type of attacks are usually carried out by someone who lacks intelligent debating skills or has absolutely no knowledge of the subject at hand.
Overreliance on authorities
Our culture relies heavily on the advice of authorities especially if these authorities are rich and famous. Someone that is considered an authority should not be given a free pass when it comes to providing evidence for their statements. Consulting with authorities can be useful but it can also be very dangerous if we become to accepting of their statements as absolute fact. The persons credentials (credentials can carry various meanings and whether a credential is relevant or not is completely subjective) per se have no affect on the validity of the statement. Accepting a statement as absolute fact without investigation can lead to accepting a wrong idea just because it was supported by someone we respect (e.g. Pro bodybuilders say using a supplement A is why they are huge so their fans buy a boatload of supplement A ). On the other end rejecting a valid idea by someone who we disrespect could lead to never finding the truth. If you are looking for the real truth you must forget your personal bias towards the claimant.
Another important thing to consider is the seperation of Scientist from Someone With A Scientific Degree. Of cousre, they can be synonymous but they can also be different things. From www.MaxCondition.com Forum “Scientist: One whose activities make use of the scientific method to answer questions regarding the measurable universe. A scientist may be involved in original research (Primary Research), or make use of the results of the research of others (termed Secondary Research).
Many people have scientific degrees but do not actually practice the scientific method. Just because someone has a scientific degree doesn’t mean they are a scientist. The nutrition and exercise industry is full of this type of non-scientist.”
Argumentum ad antiquitatem
Also known as appeal to common practice or or false induction or the “is/ought” fallacy. This is a common logical fallacy in which a idea is deemed correct on the basis that it has a long standing tradition behind it. In other words “This is right because we’ve always done it this way.” Everyone involved with the fitness industry has been exposed to this fallacy. Common example: Boxers have traditionally performed allot of long distance roadwork to optimize their endurance levels. Performing long distance road work must be the best way optimize endurance. Even though boxing relies primarily on the anaerobic energy system and running long distance mainly utilizes the aerobic energy system. Many boxers have never gave an alternative method a try. There are many things people have always done a particualr way. That does not mean that way is the most effective method for achieving the desired outcome. I here this explanation daily “well that’s the way I have always done it”.
Argumentum ad crumenam
This fallacy assumes that people with more money are more than likely right. In the fitness industry people with more money are generally better at marketing and have had a high profile client endorse them. The most knowledgeable people in this industry are generally not the wealthiest. It is hard to sell the truth to the public.
Argumentum ad novitatem
This fallacy occurs when people believe something is better or correct because it is new. Common example: New elliptical machines are a much better piece of equipment than the outdated models. The new machines feature updated state of the art monitors. It is a big fallacy to equate newer with better. But sometimes newer can be better.
Shifting the burden of proof
The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Shifting the burden of proof is the fallacy of putting the burden of proof on the person who denies or questions the claim. The source of the fallacy is the assumption that something is true unless proven otherwise. Shifting the burden of proof is very common in the fitness industry. Thefitness quack often lacks evidence for his/her claim therefore they shift roles and insist that the skeptic disprove their claim.
The Relativist Fallacy is committed when a person rejects a claim by asserting that the claim might be true for others but is not for him/her. Common example: John says: “Look Dave, I read that the fastest way to lose allot of weight is not to eat.” Dave says: “That might be true for other people but I can’t lose weight even if I don’t eat.” Dave’s statement is completely irrational.
I would encourage every fitness professional and practitioner to be skeptical of the plethora of fitness advice they read and hear about. Don’t be afraid to question so-called experts. Once you become a real Fitness Skeptic you will save yourself a bunch of time and a great deal of money.
Aragon A (2007) Girth Control. Alan Aragon.
Labossiere MC (1995) The Nizkor Project Fallacies From
Matthew (1997) Logic and Fallacies Constructing a Logical Argument. From
Noble WS (2007) Knowledge and Nonsense: the science of nutrition and exercise
Shaughnessy JJ, Zechmeister EB (1990) Research Methods in Psychology. McGraw Hill.
Shermer M (1997). Why People Believe Weird Things. Owl Books.
Shermer M (1992-2006). Discover Skepticism. From 1
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