The demand for reason and evidence tends to fluctuate dependent upon the topic.
For instance, because of the ridiculous UFO craze back in the mid 1950’s, most in today’s age abide by Carl Sagan’s moniker when claims of extraterrestrial visitation are made:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
We (speaking generally, of course) don’t accept UFO claims without question.
We expect conclusive evidence before we believe what is, upon further review, typically found to be flawed story-telling, hallucination, trickery, or some combination of the three.
Much like the above example of UFO sightings, we tend to be ruthlessly skeptical regarding claims of alien abduction, ghost-sightings, mind-reading, prophecy, and faith healing.
On the other hand, there are many areas of debate in which we don’t scale our certainty with the validity of the evidence. In other words, we give some ideas a free pass.
Novel and extreme claims about diet and exercise tend to be instances of this “selective rationality.” There are, as you ought to know by now, countless examples of smart individuals who believe demonstrably silly ideas about nutrition and fitness.
It is not crazy to assume that these same people think critically in areas of finance, politics, and safety; yet they have managed to convince themselves of horrible ideas concerning the way one should go about eating and exercising.
Sugar, gluten, legumes, wheat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, processed food, fruit, and meat phobias along with the condemnation of medium intensity cardiovascular exercise or, in the case of Tracy Anderson, heavy weight lifting, are all common examples of blatant idiocy embraced by many today.
The disconnect from reality in the worlds of diet and exercise is troubling, and it is often unrecognizable to the victim of the fallible logic promoted by these popular and unsupportable ideas.
One can only speculate as to why this disconnect occurs, and there doesn’t seem to be a blanket answer that applies to everyone. We all come to conclusions based on our own unique personal experiences, our knowledge base, and our desire to think critically and scour the evidence.
But, in general, there does seem to be one common denominator in the majority of cases: claims about health and nutrition reach an emotional depth that many issues, like UFO controversies, don’t.
When an “expert” claims that our health will suffer if we don’t follow their advice, or that we will lose weight rapidly and achieve optimal health if we do follow their advice, we are more apt to believe on pure emotion. Obviously this mindset is dangerous, and this reasoning has misled many to the nutritional abyss.
This article is a call for equal rationality on all fronts, and it will detail what has proven to be a useful analogy during my trek through the ridiculousness of the fitness and diet industries.
Giving novel and false claims about nutrition a pass is unacceptable, and we need to scale our certainty to the evidence available and not succumb to sensational, yet useless, ideas.
The Surefire Path to Confusion: Accepting Ideas at Face-Value
I like sexy. You probably like sexy as well.
We all, as a matter of fact, like sexy. We are all attracted to external appearance, whether we are speaking in terms of members of the opposite sex, clothes, cell phones, and of course, cars.
This likening to sexiness is not a problem in and of itself; however, there are cases in which we make hasty decisions based on these superficial realities.
But, as I discussed in the introduction, our skepticism tends to fluctuate depending upon the situation. In the case of buying a used car, we tend to express a unique level of skepticism that is often under-utilized in other areas of our lives.
Superficial Appearance vs. “The Big Picture”
It is no secret that the outward appearance of a car has considerable influence on potential buyers. However, especially regarding used cars, external qualities do not reveal the whole “story” and, therefore, are not the sole determinant of the buyer’s decision.
Potential buyers exercise skepticism that should be implemented in all topics of discussion and areas of practice.
They kick the tires; they observe the engine, the transmission, and the mileage. They request a test drive. They ask questions about the origin of the vehicle, previous owners, and past issues that may have an effect on its performance.
They leave no stone unturned.
They don’t use the character of the salesman as a surrogate for belief. Whether or not the salesman seems trustworthy, has a history of reliability, or is a nice guy is not relevant to the validity of testable claims about the car’s reliability and whether or not it is worth the price being offered.
In short, potential used car customers understand that deception is common. They understand the tactics salesmen use to close deals. They recognize that in order to avoid being duped, they must be rational and aware, not succumbing to the temptation presented by a beautiful external appearance.
Empty Claims: Accept, Regurgitate, Repeat
Needless to say, those who fall victim to fad diets and horrible ideas about nutrition don’t often display the levels of skepticism outlined above.
Most ideas are simply adopted and regurgitated without much, if any, critical analysis.
Here’s the typical thought process: An expert presents a controversial idea, and those who trust this expert take his or her word on faith. These claims then vitiate the industry, leading to a larger following and more exposure. And because the claim is repeated ad nauseum over a period of time, it is ultimately thought to be true.
As Thomas Paine points out in his wonderful book The Age of Reason, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
Ponder the success of claims attacking fructose, or gluten, or beans, or legumes.
An authority figure asserts the dangers of consuming sugar, for instance, and this claim is expounded upon, edited, and repeated until it becomes “common knowledge.”
I would argue that the simple lack of questioning has allowed these claims to rise to the top. Some tried to push back, but in the end, those who blindly follow outweigh those who dare to be skeptical.
Below I’m going to detail some of the more recent examples of what are extremely common deceptions in the diet and fitness world and why they are so effective.
Common Examples of “Face Value” Deception
1. More Silly Attacks on Sugar: Add Them to the List
“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” – Bertrand Russell
Yes, I harp on the absurdity of these attacks on sugar on a weekly basis, but apparently my criticisms, and the excellent criticisms by those far more influential than myself, do not dissuade the extremists from peddling their views.
Mark Hyman, my absolute favorite health and nutrition guru and popular anti-sugar opportunist (I hope you’re sensing the sarcasm…), was recently mentioned in an article on AOL.com.
His highlighted claims were as follows:
“Sugar is the new nicotine”, “sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine”, “sugar causes diabetes and obesity”.
So, according to Hyman and many others, it is clear that sugar is drug-like in both its addictiveness and its ability to destroy our health.
False. Here’s why.
The claim that sugar causes diabetes and obesity is context-less (sugar is not inherently fattening, and even when consuming a high sugar diet, if you’re in a caloric deficit, you lose weight), the claim that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine is derived from rodent studies (human studies show no signs of clinical addiction to sugar), and the claim that “sugar is the new nicotine” is not even worth addressing, for obvious reasons. Anyone with an ounce of sense will realize that this is scare-mongering nonsense.
Others echo Hyman’s claims, but his propagation of this extremism is especially troubling.
Hyman is a medical doctor, and it is his responsibility to dispense correct, evidence-based information regarding health, nutrition, and otherwise.
Instead of doing so, he is using his credentials to bolster his ideas and to promote his book which, not coincidentally, is a sugar detox program.
At face value, the fight against sugar consumption seems appealing, logical, and even moral. However, when you dig deeper, you quickly realize it is simply an instance of missing the forest for the trees.
Excess sugar consumption is harmful, yes.
But understand that a big picture approach which addresses the importance of exercise, overall calorie consumption, sleep quality, and micronutrition is far more effective and thorough than an approach than hones in on one food, macronutrient, or ingredient as the lone evil.
Superficially appealing ideas, like the apparent mint condition of the exterior of a used car, never tell the whole story and, more often than not, will lead you in the wrong direction.
2.Bestselling Diet Book Covers
One need only skim the diet book bestseller list on Amazon to recognize the appeal that book covers have on the intended audience.
Just as buying a car based on its external qualities is irresponsible, so is buying into a new diet based on the appearance of the author, sex appeal, the claims made on the front cover, and the promise of quick and easy results.
Note: This is not to say that all diet books with “sexy” covers are bundles of misinformation. I’m simply speaking out against the use of the appearance of the author as motivation to adopt their principles.
3. Bulletproof Coffee: The Jig is Up, Asprey
Much like the anti-sugar pro-Paleo campaigns, the support behind drinking buttered coffee has been unparalleled as of late. But remember, it’s not just any coffee, it’s upgraded, mycotoxin-free coffee.
One is tempted to say: Who cares?
Surprisingly many care; the cult-like obsession will tossing some butter and MCT oil in a cup of coffee and calling it “Bulletproof” is nothing other than insane. Likewise, the claim that the coffee Asprey sells is somehow “upgraded” should be receiving equal ridicule.
Recently, one influential figure in the entertainment sphere who endorsed Asprey’s ideas is now paying the price.
As someone who has fallen for Dave Asprey’s lies in the past, it was very gratifying to hear someone as popular as Joe Rogan call him out on his nonsense on a public platform.
Skip to 2:18:10
Martin Berkan‘s take (entertaining as always):
Props to @JoeRogan for finally calling out Dave Asprey on his nonsense. Bulletproof coffee? More like Bullshit Coffee.
— Martin Berkhan (@Martinberkhan) February 21, 2014
Rogan’s situation personifies the overarching theme of this article: When you accept claims at face value, not only are you deceiving yourself, you run the risk of deceiving others as well
No One is Asking Questions, and the Wrong People are Gaining Popularity
Let’s face it: The real forces of objectivity and science-based information in this industry are overshadowed by those who, either ignorantly or intentionally, deceive others with blatant misinformation.
Think I’m being overly dramatic?
Dave Asprey Twitter followers: ~8,000
Mike Chang (six pack shortcuts) and Tony Horton (P90X) combined Twitter followers: 157,000
(Not that Twitter followers are the best measure of popularity, but it is a point of reference)
Needless to say, these staggering results are a product of the blind acceptance of extreme, untenable ideas.
If the followers of the self-proclaimed gurus were to dig a bit deeper, look at the research, and “check the interior”, they would find that the trustworthy, evidence-based practitioners are not getting the attention they deserve.
How to Avoid Believing Claims at Face-Value
“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.” – Richard Paul
It may seem like a difficult process when explained in words, but in practice, critical thinking is quite simple. It does not require any sort of extraordinary knowledge or experience. You don’t have to be an expert or a scientist to think critically; you just need a simple mindset shift.
And, as you know from my examples above, the price of not thinking critically can be substantial.
The two steps below are the barebones of a critical mindset.
1. “No statement should be believed because it is made by an authority.” – Robert Heinlein
Heinlein knew it, and so did Einstein: “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
Many say to distrust authority; I think this is a shallow recommendation. We should not out-rightly distrust those in a position of authority for the simple fact that they are in a position of authority.
We should, however, apply to their claims the same level of skepticism that we apply to the claims of less credentialed experts and even laypeople.
An experienced, authoritative, tenured used-car salesman is just as likely to deceive you as a novice. This is not to say that one’s credentials are insignificant or irrelevant in terms of overall knowledge, but they should not be the sole basis on which you make any decision or invest in any idea.
2. Initially, Observe a Claim as if it Were Made by Someone You Disagree With
Confirmation bias inevitably drives blind acceptance.
We are more inclined to believe, without inquiry, claims that are made by those we trust or like. Conversely, we are tempted to casually brush aside ideas from those we fundamentally disagree with.
The totality of the evidence available should be the main determinant of the validity of a claim, not the reputation or credentials (as stated above) of the person making the claim.
There are so many conflicting ideas and so much information, and is much easier to mindlessly follow one individual on your pursuit of knowledge. But this mindset breeds confirmation bias and consequently hinders progress.
It is very difficult to do, but attempt to remain open to other points of view, regardless of who is holding them. You can do this by viewing all claims (at least those worth viewing) objectively, using the overall body of evidence as the overriding influence.
3. Kick the Tires
A car may look good on the outside but perform horribly; just as sensational claims about nutrition may sound plausible but, upon deeper investigation, are incoherent.
Take every claim for a “test drive.” Look beyond the superficial. Ask questions. Request evidence. In this context, it is hard (I’m tempted to say impossible) to be too rational.
Of course, there is a negative extreme here; cynicism.
Understand: I’m not proposing that you discount every idea blindly, distrust every authority, and suppress your desire to explore other viewpoints; just that you attempt to strike the balance between open-mindedness and pure skepticism, using rationality and evidence to drive your reasoning.
Critical thinking may seem to be burden.
It is much easier and much less time-consuming to blindly accept claims at face value and move on. However, the consequences for the acceptance of unsupported ideas may be significant.
In this context, the risks of being too rational are quite low compared to the risk of being deceived by misinformation about health, dieting. and exercise. Simple steps can be taken to ensure that you are not misled.
Merely apply the same level of rationality to claims about nutrition and exercise that you would apply when buying a used car. If you’ve never bought a used car, your imagination will suffice.
Kick the tires, check the engine, and don’t fall for the luring qualities of a shiny exterior.
We are no longer living in an age of insufficient information, so it isn’t what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, but, to quote Mark Twain, “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
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