You are often told to “be skeptical” and to “question everything”.
This advice is casually tossed about by scientists, teachers, and in some cases, parents. But it is rarely accompanied by any sort of context or even so much as a definition of skepticism, or a description of the responsibility it entails. Because of this, skepticism, in the true sense of the word, is extremely rare, and in some cases, frowned upon and chastised.
The latter seems to be overwhelmingly common in health and nutrition communities today. Many make a choice to distance themselves from those who “question everything” because they are so vehemently attached to their cherished ideals; in other words, they do not like being challenged. It is uncomfortable to address reality and to come face to face with facts that directly refute your biases. So rather than thinking critically and evolving with the evidence, many turn in the other direction, opting for reassurance over the truth.
Because of this misguided attitude, skepticism is often labeled as hostile, arrogant, strident, and even annoying. Whenever someone proclaims themselves as a “skeptic”, eyes roll. It is true: some self-proclaimed skeptics are just as closed-minded as those they militantly criticize.
However, the blind dismissal and disregard for critical thinking is dangerous, as the acceptance of emotion-based decision making and poorly rationalized beliefs are often the replacement. Unfortunately, in the health and fitness industries, we seem to be moving in this direction.
Nowadays, we judge ideas based on their popularity and their ability to comfort our psyche rather than the significance of the logic and evidence supporting them. We judge experts by their charisma, not by their objective, sober thought processes and their well-reasoned, rational claims.
Many are, in a sense, intoxicated by pseudoscience complete nonsense, leading to the ignorance of objectivity in favor of comforting woo. It is very easy to fall into this trap. It takes time, but we must slowly move back to more solid ground; a rational, sober, objective, critical mindset.
It all starts with education, and education starts with questioning; not just the claims of others, but your own beliefs as well. It is not easy, but developing a rational mindset is the key to asking the right questions and coming to the most logical, evidence-based conclusions. The tips below should provide you with some food for thought.
1. Don’t Succumb to Wishful Thinking
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” – C.S. Lewis
“At the heart of some pseudoscience is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our heart’s desire by just wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes.” – Carl Sagan
Wishful thinking is the antithesis of a rational, critical mindset. Instead of seeing things as they are, wishful thinking encourages us to live on hope and superstition. It leads us to accept the positive, heartwarming ideas while brushing away the negative.
While this may seem like a reassuring and supportive attitude, reliance on wishful thinking works only to make us more ignorant of reality. As a result of this mindset, we become unable to cope with issues that require uncomfortable action to resolve. Wishful thinking encourages us to turn away from our problems, or attempt to weasel around them, instead of addressing them head-on.
In a paper titled “Wishful Thinking Preference,” social psychologist Heather Kappes noted that:
“…fantasies about an idealized future may indeed lead to poor decisions. Such fantasies create a preference for information about pros rather than cons, particularly when people are not yet serious about pursuing the realization of the future.”
And she continues:
“Turning away from contradictory information allows idealized fantasies to be enjoyed untarnished, but may lead to shunning potentially helpful resources for decision making. Simply dreaming it, then, is not the key to making dreams become true.”
The above description is quite similar to the mindset of many “experts” in the health and nutrition industries; they live in a world of fairy tales, completely lost in misinformation and the worst part: they push their ridiculous ideas onto others. The supposed magical properties of low carbohydrate diets, the recently sensationalized dangers of grain consumption, sugar alarmism, the existence of mycotoxins working to make you sick and fat; these are all examples of the fantasy world that modern-day diet gurus inhabit.
As we become engulfed in these sensational ideas, we begin to ignore facts that may not be as exciting, thought-provoking, conspiratorial, or comforting. But, as Aldous Huxley famously wrote, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
For example: Controlled research consistently shows that a caloric deficit is required for weight loss. Somehow, someway, you must, over time, consume less calories than you burn if you wish to lose body fat.
This is not a reassuring idea. Creating a caloric deficit entails two very uncomfortable methods: eating less, and/or moving more. No one wants to eat less. And many either don’t want to move more, or they feel they don’t have the time.
Because of this reluctance to believe or implement methods rooted in evidence, people seek out more comforting solutions. If you demand it, the market will supply it. It is no surprise that products promoting rapid and painless weight loss are amongst the most popular. 21 day detoxes also top the list of bestsellers.
Rather than accepting the harsh reality that we must eventually eat less food, move our bodies more, or both, we seek out the “alternative” solutions that muddy the waters even further, telling us that weight loss can be effortless and quick if you just follow this method or buy this book.
In order to make rational decisions about our health, we must accept reality for what it is; however uncomfortable or disconcerting. If you want to lose weight, you must create a caloric deficit. If you want to build muscle, you must implement progressive overload. And the common denominators in most health and fitness goals: consistency, patience, and hard-work. This is reality.
You can try to avoid reality, you can try to maneuver your way around the facts, but you will simply spin your wheels in the slop that is shady marketing and food fear-mongering until you either come full circle and begin addressing the facts or, as is often the case, become discouraged and give up entirely.
2. Find a Balance Between Wonder and Rigorous Skepticism
“The highest to which man can attain is wonder; and if the prime phenomenon makes him wonder, let him be content; nothing higher can it give him, and nothing further should he seek for behind it; here is the limit.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“By doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.” – Peter Abelard
Of the many false dichotomies purported in today’s illogical society, the black and white thinking regarding skepticism and wonder is certainly one of the most impactful.
Those who are “spiritual” and “New Age” tend to fall easily into nonsense. They lack the ability to think and observe objectively, and as a result, they believe ideas and claims based on emotion rather than evidence or rational thinking.
On the other side, there are those who are skeptical to the point of brash closed-mindedness. They deny novel claims instantly, unwilling to step outside their own box of comfort and security. These people are often grouchy, arrogant, and cynical.
The fringe sides of both mindsets have clear similarities, the main one being the inability to rationally evaluate their own position. Both sides, the skeptic and the “mystic”, can very easily become dogmatic, making their stance just as silly as the ones they criticize.
The key, as with everything else, is balance. We cannot take a black and white stance on an issue with a significant grey area. Doing so causes emotional attachment and delusion. The perfect balance is achieved when we openly accept the possibility of new ideas while simultaneously subjecting them to criticism and questioning. And we cannot be selective with this questioning. We all have beliefs that we cherish and enjoy, but in order to maintain a clear mindset in which we are able to make important decisions about our health and wellbeing, we must question all beliefs equally. Not doing so and latching onto beliefs that we are particularly fond of leads to extreme bias and cognitive dissonance.
Closed-minded skepticism is certainly arrogant and limiting. With the constant advances of evidence and knowledge, this closed-mindedness can prevent us from learning and implementing new, often beneficial, ideas.
But becoming lost in wonder and speculation is dangerous, as you are easily fooled and manipulated. As I just mentioned, evidence evolves rapidly. Sadly, along with this evidence often comes a new breed of nonsense. Just as science evolves, pseudoscience and those pushing it evolve just as readily. If you are not skeptical, if you do not question, you will fall victim to the misleading claims of those marketing their new, innovative, pain-free, effortless solution.
The balance between these two extreme mindsets is the approach that best lends itself to rational thinking.
3. Realize That It Is Okay, and Even Beneficial, to Not Know
“What he does not know seems to increase in geometric progression to what he knows. Steadily he approaches the point where what is unknown is not a mere blank space in a web of words but a window in the mind, a window whose name is not ignorance but wonder.”
We are egotistical creatures.
We don’t like to admit when we are wrong, and we definitely don’t like to concede defeat. Have you ever known you were wrong, yet continued to argue a point anyway, just for the sake of “winning” the argument? Yeah, me too.
While being right and winning petty debates is fun and encouraging, it is also an easy way to fall into conceit.
Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of this many times in the past. Yes, debating people on controversial topics, particularly regarding nutrition and fitness, can be an educational and productive. But, it can also be detrimental and an immense waste of time (especially on the internet).
Constantly arguing and debating can cause us to fall in love with our own point of view. Because we are so focused on what we believe and why it is correct in comparison to the beliefs of others, we limit our ability to expand and grow. Solely focusing on what we know to be true and never venturing out of our comfort zone is not conducive to progression.
Out of all the various applications of critical thinking, the Socratic approach has worked best for me, in practice. In the words of Socrates:
“All I know is that I know nothing.”
Of course, this mindset is not always realistic, as there are many things that we know to be true based on conclusive and overwhelming evidence, but it allows us to approach learning soberly, sans the limiting biases and preconceived ideas.
The opposite of this approach is the aptly titled “confirmation bias“. Instead of openly researching and seeking the answers to a question, many believe they already know the answer; they simply want affirmation and approval.
This is why some ask a question and are offended when people answer in way that goes against what they were expecting. Many don’t ask questions to learn, they ask questions to confirm.
It is important to research, observe, and interact as though our knowledge is limited. If we are certain, we close our minds to new and better ideas. While it may seem to be a negative point of view, admitting that we do not know much can be very liberating. It allows us to approach issues without bias and to remain open to opposing ideas and contradictory beliefs. I personally feel excited about how much I don’t know, as it provides me with motivation to learn and improve on a daily basis.
I want to close this section with an excerpt from an interview with astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson. When asked the questions, “Do you ever get really overwhelmed by the universe? How do you cope with not knowing everything about it?” he responded beautifully:
“The not knowing is the actual attraction of it. So many people only want answers. To be a scientist you have to learn to love the questions. You’ll learn that some of the greatest mysteries of the universe remain unanswered, and that’s the fun part. That’s the part that gets you awake in the morning and running to the office, because there’s a problem awaiting your attention that you might just solve that day. You have to embrace the unknown and embrace your own ignorance.”
Developing a rational and critical mindset takes serious effort.
It is not fun to relentlessly question yourself and others. It is taxing, uncomfortable, and time-consuming. But much like resistance training, constantly questioning and thinking rationally will build a more stable mindset; one less susceptible to ridiculous flimflam.
No one is perfect. We all make mistakes in logic, believe ridiculous ideas, and fall victim to marketing ploys and propaganda. This doesn’t make you a bad person, and when it is all said and done, you will probably remember your mistakes as the main catalyst of your growth.