Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Scientific Skepticism

This post is something I've been meaning to write for a while now. I spend a lot of time reading journal articles and other peer reviewed research but I also spend almost an equal amount of time browsing fitness forums and the web pages of other "fitness experts" in the blogosphere. A humorous phenomenon that seems to occur on a daily basis throughout these forums is the trolls showing up in droves to write in angry shout-y caps "SOURCES!?!?!? WHERE ARE YOU EFFING CITATIONS YOU EFFING STUPID IDIOT!?!?!????"

No, but seriously. It gets that bad sometimes.

I've had this conversation with a couple of people in terms of why I don't cite my own sources. I've been trying to come up with an explanation for all of you that doesn't just sound like  intellectualized egotism or some remix of, "well, I don't need sources because I only speak the truth." The problem is there really isn't a better way to say it. A large part of why I don't cite is because I try, to the best of my current ability, to only give you guys the truth. I try to look at both sides of the coin (read my articles on why I both love and at times question Crossfit) and I have no problem retracting a statement or admitting that I was wrong when I come across something that proves it to me. There is, however, a larger reason as well.

This article showed up in one of the forums that I frequent. If you don't feel like reading it, that's cool. It's basically a point-by-point rebuttal to an article about why running is bad for women, which can be found here. If you follow my blog, you know how I feel about long term, steady state cardio. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan. The reason, however, is hardly because it's bad for you. The truth is that if the only reason you're running is for the purpose of fat loss, there are probably significantly more efficient modalities to get you to your goals. I don't run because my current goals are all related to powerlifting. Not only will running not help me get to squatting 405 for 5, it will directly inhibit my progress.

That being said, I have to admit that the first time I read the article on why women shouldn't run, there were some things about it that I bought into. I agree that excessive running in lieu of any other type of training is not the best thing for your body. There's plenty of evidence that it is hard on your joints and your bones. It's also frequently bad for your posture and may cause you to prematurely appear significantly older than you are (although a lot of times this has more to do with constant sun exposure experienced by outdoor runners than a true effect of the exercise itself). The truth, however, is that most of these things can be combatted by a balanced training regimen and running in moderation rather than to an extreme. It's not that running is bad for you, it's that too much running is bad for you. Go figure.

Anyway, the point of me bringing up these articles was not to rehash a conversation on running. Rather, what I want to point out is the main theme of the first article which, from where I'm standing, isn't truly about running either.

We live in the information age. I would love to say that we live in an era where free access to information is abundant but it's way past that. Spending too much time on the web is akin to being water boarded with information. Anyone and everyone with internet access also has access to thousands of informational sources whether they be peer reviewed journals or some know-it-all blogger like me. On the one hand this is great because it expands the discussion of important topics beyond just the realm of academia. You no longer need a PhD to have access to scientific journals or to participate in a conversation on  cellular signaling pathways. Unfortunately the most significant downside of this information age we inhabit is that it seems just about everyone believes that because they're being allowed to participate it means they are qualified to do so. We are rapidly developing armies of arm chair experts who have no understanding or knowledge outside of their internet escapades. This has to stop.

Variety of perspective is absolutely crucial in terms of developing real knowledge. It's always valid to be able to examine a problem or a question from a multitude of viewpoints and attempt to apply more than one mode of thought or scientific paradigm to get answers. This should not be mistaken for saying that even though you never graduated college or even high-school, having spent a thousand hours reading forums means you are just as qualified to evaluate scientific research as someone who has a PhD. You're not, and all of you people need to stop. You're not helping. You're hurting all of us.

When the first article was posted on the forum a funny thing happened. Everybody hopped off the "running is bad" bandwagon and jumped right onto the "author who wrote that article is bad," bandwagon. This was not the author's intent. They say so, right there in their own words. Their intent was to show people that ultimately we all need to be intelligent enough to educate ourselves and draw our own conclusions. You should not accept anything as infallible despite how incredible and accurate aspects of it may be. This should also not be understood to be a blank check that gives all of us the right to decide whatever the hell we want is true. That would also be missing the mark.

The reason I don't cite is actually pretty simple. If I put scientific articles in my blog, would you read the entirety of every one? It's okay, I don't always read the citations and I have a strong educational background in a scientific field. The reason I don't use citations is because they don't carry the validity that the cultural hive-mind seems to have placed in them. The first article I linked to makes an excellent point of saying that simply because a statement is followed by a string of small letters hardly imbues it with any kind of truth or reality. The reason being that scientific papers (with the one LARGE exception of review articles) are extremely specific. There are no papers out there that have deliberately investigated every single effect of running or lifting on the human body over the course of a lifetime. Why? Well, because it would be borderline impossible to conduct such a study. Think about it. You would have to track someone from the moment they were born until the moment they die. You would have to do this for not only one person, but at least thirty or more randomly selected subjects to give your study any remote kind of statistical significance.

Instead, what most authors do is use a biased view to choose the studies they like and then string them together into an argument they think proves whatever it is they are trying to prove. I can tell you scientifically that running will prevent significant muscular hypertrophy from strength training. I can also tell you that the repetitive impact from running can and will frequently lead to impact-related overuse injuries such as joint deterioration and stress fractures. I can put these two things together to make what APPEARS to be a convincing argument that running is not good for you. The problem is that in doing so I am ignoring literally hundreds of articles that extol the benefits of running, from increased aerobic system capacity and cardiovascular health to maintaining lean muscle mass as you age and improving cognitive function.

Starting to see what I'm saying?

The problem with using scientific citations is that frequently the people that are throwing them around are not, themselves, scientists. This may sound elitist but it's not meant to be. It's merely acknowledging that the world of academic science has a language all it's own. If you don't speak the language your interpretation of what they're saying means next to nothing.

Any good scientist will tell you that the significance of a single paper is questionable at best. Just because one paper demonstrated a result does not, as far as the larger body of science is concerned, mean that the study constitutes a scientific fact. All it means is that the results of this study must now be considered as a possibility. It's not until a result has been observed numerous times by multiple different researchers that it starts to become the general consensus. Therein lies the problem.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Fitness is pervaded by snake oil salesmen who will use whatever tricks and arguments they can get their hands on to show you why their particular flavor of snake oil is the best one for the job. As soon as a single study is published that they think may help boost their sales numbers, they're all over it, showing it off to all of their followers and potential customers as inarguable scientific proof that they were right all along.

Right all along. Come on, people. Even Newton wasn't entirely correct. Just ask that Einstein guy, he'll tell you. Newton had it mostly right, but there were some things he didn't get. Hell, even Einstein didn't get everything right.

I'm not telling you all of this to get you to reject science as being useless because it clearly isn't. All good scientists are skeptical until their own personal experience proves something as true or there is a large enough body of evidence that it's not worth debating.

So, again, why don't I use citations? It's simple. I don't have anything to sell you guys. I'm not operating on a financial incentive to get you to believe me over someone else. I'm doing this because I love the subject and I love writing. Frankly, I also probably like most of you guys too, so why would I want to lie to you?

I promise I will always do my best to tell you the truth and to correct myself whenever I'm wrong. If you want me to send you the sources for something feel free to ask and I'll do my best to comply. I apologize if you find this post disheartening or if it sounds like "don't trust anyone because they're all liars." That's not what I'm trying to say. I'm simply emphasizing the following points: Do your research. Consider the sources. Maintain a healthy skepticism until it becomes foolish or fanatical to do so. I will do my best to continue giving you valid, scientifically based opinions and providing you with other sources who are doing the same. Just like the X-Files said, the truth is out there. The thing is it often takes some true effort to find it.

That's all for now kids. Good luck and good lifting.


Oh, and umm. This. Yea. 

Because apparently I'll never learn.

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