In 2009, I was a presenter at the JP Fitness Summit in Kansas City. The summit featured some of the top names in the fitness industry. Topics included any and everything fitness and nutrition related.
My presentation addressed a topic that was foreign to many in attendance, “Thinking Skeptically: How to apply skepticism to the fitness industry?” Some of the participants seemed to have a hard time with this line of thought. Skepticism is rarely if ever mentioned in the popular fitness literature.
The basic premise is this: learning to question and look for evidence could save fitness enthusiasts a great deal of time, money, and embarrassment.
Key points from the lecture
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 fitness claims. A skeptic requires evidence before accepting claims.
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. While skeptics are open-minded and try to eliminate personal biases, cynics hold negative views and are not open to evidence that refutes their beliefs. Cynicism often leads to dogmatism.
Dogmatism is an authoritarian approach to ideas which emphasizes strict adherence to doctrine over rational inquiry. It opposes independent thinking and reason.
The word “dogma” is derived from a Greek phrase meaning “that which seems to one, opinion or belief.”
Skepticism is a key part of science.
There is no precise definition for “the scientific method” but in general most agree with the following (excerpted 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.”
There is no absolute certainty. Humans are fallible.
R.A Lyttleton (a theoretical astronomy professor) suggests a “bead model of truth.” This model depicts a bead on a horizontal wire that can move left or right. A 0 appears on the far left end 1 appears on the far right end. The 0 corresponds with total disbelief and the 1 corresponds with total belief (absolute certainty).
The bead should never reach the far left or right end. The more that the evidence suggests the belief is true the closer the bead should be to 1. The more unlikely the belief is to be true the closer the bead should be to 0.
An important note regarding “theory”: To a scientist, the word “theory” represents that of which he or she is most certain; in everyday language the word implies a guess (not sure). This often causes confusion for those unfamiliar with science. This confusion leads to the common statement, “It’s only a theory.”
A note regarding who qualifies as a “scientist”: A scientist is one whose activities employ 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.
Holding a science degree does not necessarily mean one is a scientist or thinks scientifically.
Similarly, being a “fitness expert” does not automatically save you from falling into traps if you don’t apply a healthy dose of skepticism in your approach to the field. Question the value and validity of new equipment, the latest nutrition information, new theories on boosting fitness levels. Think like a good scientist and seek evidence.
Photo by rougenoirphoto, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.