This blog post is written just as much as a reminder to myself, as it is a critique of various behaviours in the fitness industry at the moment. I am by no means perfect, and the process of writing this article was a great opportunity to reflect on my own actions, biases and tendencies. The goal of this article was to create awareness around various things that I think can be improved on within the community that we exist in, and not to necessarily point fingers or lay blame on others. I hope I succeeded with that, but I shall let you judge for yourself.
Believe it or not, I am not a fan of #TeamScience.
If you know me, this probably seems like an odd thing for me to say. And if you don’t know me, and really there’s no reason why you should, feel free to read on and find out why…
I love science. I really, really do. I’m actually still genuinely amazed at how infatuated I am by it.
After doing relatively poorly throughout school and my first few (which turned into many) years of university, I am still slightly bewildered when I have a mini out-of-body experience and catch myself sitting at my desk at 8pm on a Saturday night, reading a chemistry textbook for fun. I truly did not predict this is the kind of person that I would become, but I’m more than ok with it. Regardless, science and the acquisition of knowledge, has become one of the most prominent ventures in my life.
So when I say I love science, trust me on that. However, something worth noting is that there are a few different things to “love” about science, and various people like it for different reasons.
For me personally, it’s the process. There is something about the scientific method that soothes me to the core of my soul – it just makes sense. There is a real elegance in its simplicity. However, a simple formula does not always produce a simple answer. Science is not a smooth, predictable and perfectly aligned deductive process. Science is inductive – there are kinks and curves – we make presumptions and predictions, and not all findings make complete sense (yet). Most do though, especially when given enough time and research. Hindsight is 20-20, everything has an explanation and the scientific method helps us ensure that we are, on average, moving progressively closer to the most truthful explanation. That is comforting to me.
But is more than just comfort, science can also be exciting. Watching the development and refinement of a scientific theory is something that rivals a good movie (in my likely rare opinion). Whether it is the modern-day theory of obesity, or pain, or of something less contemporary, such as reading Charles Darwin’s work on how he formulated his theory of incremental genetic-evolution via natural selection. I, and many others, derive so much pleasure from the systematic procedure by which scientists synthesise observations and previously tested hypothesises, into a predictive and verifiable explanation of the natural world. When you read a new research paper, you experience a sense of what it is like to be on the edge of human knowledge for a particular topic. It feels like you’re atop the precipice of understanding, where one more step will take you off the comfort of what is known and result in you falling off in the darkness of the not-yet-understood.
As I said, I fairly dig science.
For others though, it’s the product that science produces. They love how science can inform, improve and strive to optimise our lives. Much of what we have to be thankful for in modern-day life, we owe to scientists of the past. Whether it is medicine, smart phones or microwave popcorn, someone made a breakthrough somewhere and we are now reaping the benefits of it. Mostly without even considering the work that went into it. But hey, that’s just the nature of progress. What used to be exciting is now old-news.
Unfortunately, this is where my starry-eyed scientific mysticism ends.
The Issue With #TeamScience
I now need to express some frustration. There is a certain subsection of science-supporters that really bother me, and it is becoming more and more common in the fitness industry. The issue I have, is with those who are more concerned about fact-dropping and using science as an adversarial tool, in the wrong context.
I say ‘in the wrong context’, because in academia, science can and should be used in an adversarial manner. The reason that science actually generates progress is because of the self-centric and combative nature in which researchers go about it. While it would be lovely to think of scientists as this group of people all working together harmoniously in order to serve the greater good, this is unfortunately not an accurate depiction of reality at all. Which is all the more reason why the invention of science was a stroke of genius. Science uses the inherent limitations of individuals, in both their intentions and their knowledge capacity, for the betterment of the collective.
For the most part, scientists are working on proving themselves right and others wrong. Now, science is by no means a solo effort, it certainly is undertaken in teams, working in a collaborative manner. But in essence, you’re working hard to make sure someone else doesn’t make you look like an idiot, and if you can make an opposing researcher or lab look silly or slow, then that’s all the better for your career.
This culture however, all too frequently leaks out of the confines of academia and into the public sphere.
As things currently stand, it is just another day on the internet when you see individuals arguing, dropping ‘facts’ and ‘truth-bombs’ on their opponent, trying to score notoriety-points for doing so. (I put facts in quotation marks here, as for people that supposedly support the use of science; very few actually understand the probabilistic nature of it and speak as if a few studies provide us with omniscient certainty).
A person doing this in isolation is sad in itself, but the whole #TeamScience movement has taken things to another level. We now see people teaming up and forming what I can only describe as social-media gangs, taking on everyone who doesn’t agree with them and their scientific consensuses. This social media strategy of creating an in-group, then incessantly commenting on and re-sharing everything that other #TeamScience members post is rather off-putting if you ask me. Not to mention that a large portion of it is tainted with the pungent stench of scientific-elitism.
My frustration with this behaviour has been simmering for a while, however it reached boiling point not too long ago, with one frustratingly poor act that I observed.
The context was this:
Member-A of #TeamScience posted a photo of what they considered to be a rather under-informed comment they had received on one of their posts. This comment referred to “perhaps” and “may” as trigger-words and made the point that if something is still uncertain, why do we speak about it?
Now, to the scientifically literate, the issue here is obvious. We cannot be definitively certain of ANYTHING. Both scientists and philosophers have grappled with this issue for hundreds of years. In the mid 1600s, Renee Descartes famously said: “Cogito, ergo sum” which we translate to “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes said this in reference to his uncertainty with the entire world around him. He knew that effectively everything had an element of doubt attached to it, and he wasn’t actually sure, of what he could be sure of. Ultimately, he concluded that he could be certain that he himself existed, as he had the ability to think and experience uncertain thoughts.
However, in news that should not be all that surprising, not everyone is educated on the nature of uncertainty and epistemology (the theory of knowledge and how we come to “know” things). To me at least, this is rather obvious. I have dedicated hours upon hours to reading, watching, listening to, discussing, debating and pondering science and the nature of reality. That doesn’t make me special, but it certainly doesn’t make me the typical person on the Internet. Anyone who has done the same (or even if they haven’t), can likely hazard a pretty comfortable guess that doing so, is in fact, not the norm.
Unfortunately, this is not the conclusion that everyone arrives at.
Enter: Member-B of #TeamScience.
Member-B then proceeded to leave a mocking comment on Member-A’s post, suggesting that this person had clearly never taken “a single science class”. I’m sorry, but I find this to be rather poor conduct. While distasteful comments on social media are almost the rule, rather than the exception, I took particular concern with this post and comment, because of who these individuals are. Both Member-A & B of #TeamScience have grown to prominence in the fitness industry, amassing over 10 thousand followers each by dispelling training/nutrition myths and providing infographic-based education.
To their credit, these individuals are well credentialed, stay within their scope of practise and have provided a lot of value over time. I really don’t want to make this an attack on them, and I do appreciate the work that both of them produce. But I can’t hide the fact that this kind of behaviour irks me, and it has become more than mildly pervasive. I don’t mean to single out this one example, it’s simply an illustration of a problem that’s occurring writ large. It is something that occurs on a frequent basis, done by many different people, and it is detrimental, rather than helpful, in my opinion.
I’m really not sure what kind of response this behaviour aims to produce…
Maybe the individual who left the comment had not actually ever taken a science class. That’s not so hard to imagine… Or maybe they had, but the value of science and probabilistic-thinking had never been effectively communicated to them. They may have had a poor teacher who failed to engage, educate or inspire them… Either way, the individual clearly lacked some fundamental knowledge in this situation, and as a result, ended up being mocked by the (supposedly) intellectually superior.
This is wrong.
As educators, we need to remember that not everyone who has an Instagram account, also has post-graduate education.
Now, let’s not get it twisted. You certainly could make the case that the mocking was at-least somewhat justified. I mean, the individual had gone out of their way to comment in a disapproving manner. Why shouldn’t there be a return of fire? Is it right to expect better behaviour from some people than others? Why just leave it? An eye for an eye… Right?
We must demand a higher standard of those in positions of influence. These people set examples and drive trends. If we don’t hold them to a higher standard, then there is nothing to justify them maintaining that position. Poor behaviour should not be tolerated if you are someone who helps guide and sway the way others think and act.
Thus, my opinion is, if you’re going to adopt the role of science advocate, representing knowledge and progress, then you need to hold yourself to a higher standard than mocking and jeering.
But beyond that, belittling the less informed does absolutely nothing for improving the mind of those who are getting belittled, or for the understanding of those observing. What it does do incredibly well though, is pander to the in-group bias of those on #TeamScience. Which is fine, if you want to use science as a means to popularity gain. However, if you truly do appreciate science and the value it can bring, I would be more concerned with how you can share its value and encourage others to view it a similarly positive manner.
Inevitably, you will encounter many people who do not see things the same way you do. When this happens, don’t try and use scientific facts as a club to beat them into submission with. Reach out, offer them some guidance, try and direct their gaze and show them what you see. Take their hand and place it on the handrail that science provides us all with, show them that it is better than the alternative. Science is the support and sense of direction we can use when we don’t know where we are and it’s too dark to see clearly. Your aim should be to help someone view things more clearly, so they can navigate the terrain more effectively. Not to leave them dripping in metaphorical blood, from your data-driven assault, while you walk away from the scene saying “those are the facts, you can take them or leave them”.
Public intellectuals and science-communicators need to remember that without the public, or people to communicate to, they don’t have much other use. Many should stop trying to win brownie points from those already in agreement with them, drop the #TeamScience membership card and try to understand why others aren’t knocking down the door to join them.
This #TeamScience in-group bias is making a few people forget about the big picture.
Another common way that I see people leveraging in-group bias, is through the use of the word “guru”. Which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, now carries hefty negative connotations in the “evidence-based fitness community”. If a public-educator (consider this to be someone with decent credentials and a somewhat significant following) labels someone as a guru, then their followers instantly disable their critical thinking skills, and accuse the supposed guru of bro-science, quackery and charlatanism, while concurrently worshipping the individual who did the guru-labelling as the saviour from misinformation. And they do it all for the greater good of science and the community, apparently…
If this is actually the intention, then in actual effect, I think this kind of behaviour does next-to-nothing for progressing the laypersons understanding of a topic. Labelling someone as a guru on Instagram is the adult version of giving the bad-guy in cartoons an eye-patch and sharp teeth. You’re taking all the work out it and just telling your audience to jump to a certain conclusion, and a poor one at that. Criticise and dismantle ideas, not people.
These public figures take so much pride in telling their audience not to think dichotomously, and that “the truth is never back and white” or “you shouldn’t think of food as good or bad”. Yet they then go on to show ample capacity for cognitive dissonance when they start labelling other people’s views, or actual people themselves, as a good or bad. An individual and their view, is either accepted or rejected, based on some arbitrary threshold of how well it aligns with the groupthink at that point-in-time. The idea isn’t addressed for its merits and demerits; it’s a black and white, pass or fail test.
This does nothing for helping people to think in a more nuanced manner about a topic. What it does do though, is generate a bunch of comments, likes and re-shares from followers, who already agree and side with that individual and love seeing them shoot someone down with their ‘facts’. Of course people are going to celebrate the destruction of someone who opposes the alliance, and to promote their group as the superior one, encouraging others to join their movement. Whatever it may be that defines their group, and whatever dimension they are apparently superior in.
This brings me to the next issue I want to raise; the notion that having the facts on your side somehow makes you superior. I must have missed that day of “Internet School”, where having the facts and being ‘woke’ allows you to transcend humanity, making you some kind of deity who does not need to concern themselves with the feelings of mere mortals. This culture, in my opinion, is encapsulated by Ben Shapiro’s phrase; “facts don’t care about your feelings”.
But wait! There’s more to it than that…
This quote is not suggesting that you can neglect the feelings of others, and it ends up being incorrectly used as a justification for poor behaviour, permitting people to treat people in ways that was not intended by the original context of the quote. The argument that Mr Shapiro is making with this statement, at least to my understanding, is that you shouldn’t be guided by how you intuitively feel about something when there is evidence to the contrary. Your feelings will not alter the known facts. He is making a case for empirically supported social policies, not ones guided by what ‘seems right’, ‘makes sense’ or ‘feels like the nicer option’, when the evidence indicates otherwise. If the policy has the impact that it is intended to, then the evidence will support that – but intentions alone, are not enough.
To me, this is a reasonable contention. But to understand the point Mr Shapiro is making, you must delve beyond what the quote appears to say prima facie. (Exploring a topic, argument or quote beyond what it appears to be on a superficial level is something that far too few people do, and that’s where the real learning begins, but I digress). While many in the fitness industry may not be familiar with the actual quote, I have no doubt that they’ve encountered the kind of behaviour that it appears to allow. Namely; treating comments and posts on social media, like there isn’t a person on the other side of it, provided you have ‘the facts’ on your side.
This is not how advanced human interaction should be. Where has the civility and respect disappeared to?
I encourage you to consider this: Before ridiculing anyone on social media, think about whether you would do the same to their face. Would you laugh at and belittle someone you didn’t know because they lack understanding on a topic? Or should we continue to encourage (by liking and re-sharing) certain behaviour, such as when someone unleashes a barrage of studies on someone else, but still fails to change their opinion?
Is this really admirable? I don’t think so.
After a while, you see that showering someone with facts is actually pretty easy, and not something to be revered. Once you have spent some time learning how to find and decipher scientific information, arming yourself with an arsenal of evidence is not that hard to do. The challenge is found however, in many other places, like ensuring you understand both sides of the argument. You shouldn’t just go searching for evidence to prove your case. Then, and only then, when you understand both sides of the argument, are you ready for the hardest part of all: bridging the gap between PubMed and the people.
Going straight from facts to people is rash and ineffective. You can’t shove them down someone’s throat and expect them to thank you. You need to know the facts, then temper them against their counter arguments, and then translate the entirety of that information into something teachable and consumable. Then, you’re ready to take it to the people. Anything less and you’re very likely to come up short.
The Old Emotion Versus Reason Problem
Humans are stubborn and irrational creatures – changing someone’s opinion for the better, can take a small miracle. When I say ‘for the better’, I mean, more closely resembling the truth, without the use of deception or logical fallacies. This is hard. More often than not, the truth is somewhat unpleasant and typically contains elements that would be preferable not to believe, so shifting someone’s mind in that direction is tricky. However, many think they are up to the task. They may have spent years at university, or decades time in the trenches, and are ready to bring the absolute truth to the masses.
However, in order for this process to work, there’s an inconvenient hurdle that needs to be, but is rarely considered. This hurdle can be a real thorn in the side of the hyper-rational, science-loving types. The issue is that decision-making is almost wholly based on intuitive, affective and emotional information. Facts alone are not enough. You cannot take someone irrational, pour on facts, and watch them bloom into a beautiful rational flower. Changing someone’s mind takes a holistic approach, concerning both emotions and empirical-evidence. But it’s not even a 50-50 split. Without addressing someone’s mood and their underlying feelings first, you’re not even in the game.
Let me elaborate a little further on how emotions are the gateway to changing someone’s opinion.
While we like to think of ourselves as rational individuals, who arrive at a decision based on a sound reasoning process of calculating the evidence, as I mentioned above, this is not the case. Cognitive science has begun to make that painstakingly clear.
Our brains evaluate things instantaneously, and constantly. Due to this, we effectively decide on something before we are even aware of it… Ever met someone and you didn’t like them the second you saw his or her face, but you had no reason to feel that way? We all have.
Feelings come first, then the “thinking”.
This rapid and unconscious decision-making, based on affective information, occurs out of necessity. Our brains would overheat and spontaneously combust if we were cognitively aware of every factor, in every decision-making process, that we must then deliberate over and decide upon. We simply don’t have the brainpower to satisfy that monumental task. But not only that, we wouldn’t respond to anything fast enough. During times when our chances of survival were a little more questionable, the right decision was the one you came to you the fastest: Throw rock, ask questions later.
Thus, the consciousness that we experience is our brains simplified version of reality around us. This simplification is necessary in order to allow us to focus on the most important things in our environment. So much goes on beneath that surface of our conscious experience that we aren’t aware of, and most of the time, we don’t want to be aware of it. Quite simply, it wouldn’t be helpful to know.
While we have the ability to utilise reason and higher levels of conscious thinking, it is for the most part, used post-hoc. Its primary role is to justify and rationalise our decision to ourselves (and potentially more importantly, others) AFTER a choice has been made. This ability to reason and think about the solution of a problem was likely only attained through our development of language, mostly to serve the purpose of reputation management. Our justification was most important for continued cooperation with others and to avoid social ostracism, than the accuracy of the choice we made. Reputation over truth.
With this we can see that reasoning is mostly a reactive, reputation-preserving endeavour, as opposed to a proactive, truth-seeking endeavour – a skill that we only acquired, after we developed language.
However, throughout our evolutionary history, we haven’t always had language, and the ability to speak and describe things, is a relatively recent trait. But we have always needed to make decisions. This suggest that there is other forms of information that influence our decisions, ones that precede reasoning. And this exactly what we find.
Before I go any further though, test it out for yourself. Without the use of language, try and decide through conscious reasoning, what you’re going to have for dinner, or whether you should see what your ex is up to these days. Or better yet, try an even more rudimentary, two option problem: which is better, pizza or pasta? You’ll find it’s pretty damn hard to reason or justify something is the better option, when the word ‘better’ isn’t available to you.
All of this, and more, is why we are exceptionally prone to the use of flawed heuristics and systematically distorted thinking patterns, known as cognitive biases. Due to a lack of brain space, and time, we lump things into categories, are distrustful of what is new, and make decisions based on readily available affective information, then create the logical rationale as to why afterwards. Reasoning has only emerged rather recently in human history, and thus, our decisions are still are predominated by intuitions and snap-judgments based on things such as familiarity and threat perception.
David Hume summarised this somewhat counterintuitive, emotionally driven component of decision-making when he said, “reason is, and ought only be the slave of the passions”. To speak figuratively, the heart (and gut) decides and the brain justifies. In that order. The conscious, reasoning part of our brain is kind of like your dog if you decided that you were going to take it for a walk to the park, and once you got there, your dog thinks to itself “yep, this is exactly where I decided we would go, I love it here”. It feels like it’s in control, but really it’s just an error of perception.
Examples of how our decisions can be influenced by subtle factors that impact our underlying moods and attitudes, as opposed to logic, are aplenty in the scientific literature. For example, ask people to fill out a questionnaire relating to political issues and they become more conservative when standing near an unpleasant smelling trashcan. Another study showed that if you sneakily prompt bankers to think about banking prior to playing a game, they cheat more often. Whereas labourers who were prompted to think about labouring, didn’t show any change in their level of cheating. Or one that might be well understood by those in the fitness-industry: hunger. The level of leniency a judge shows a defendant, scales almost perfectly with their blood glucose level. Stand in front of a judge right after they’ve had lunch, and you’re likely to walk away with a slap on the wrist. Stand before a judge just before he has lunch, and they’re much more likely to teach you a pretty harsh lesson.
Innumerable other variables beneath the surface of conscious thinking influence our decisions, before we even get the chance to “decide” what we want to do. As we saw above, things that don’t even seem related to what you’re deciding on, can significantly alter your opinion and how receptive you are to various facts. If judges, one of the most respected and foundational elements of our justice system, are susceptible to interpreting the law differently, based on how hangry they are, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’re not as aware of your decisions as you think.
So there we have it. Affective, rather than logical information dominates, at least in regards to response time. Feelings, moods, emotions and intuitions helps inform us on the immediate decisions we must make, but reasoning can help guide and orchestrate our emotional responses over time. So don’t let me mislead you, factual information can be fed back into our intuitions, and our ability to make decisions can improve over time. But this is not always a fast and immediate process.
Hume may have in fact overstepped the mark a little when he described reason as the ‘slave’ of the passions – it’s not a dictatorship. It’s probably best to think about it a little like this. In business, it’s important to be client-focused and address their needs and desires. The saying, “the client is always right” aims to illustrate this point. But it’s not to be taken literally. The client isn’t ALWAYS right, otherwise they wouldn’t pay a cent for the service you are offering. The idea is that you should cater to the clients needs, most of the time, as that will yield better outcomes for your business. Sometimes however, the best move for your business is to oppose the client and refuse to bow to their demands. This is very similar to the relationship that exists between emotion and reason. Emotion is the client, and most of the time, reason caters to their needs, concocting logical justifications post-hoc to rationalise whatever snap-decision was made at the time. However, if you can avoid snap decisions and prolong engagement, then emotion and reason can enter a negotiation. This allows reason to exert more of its power.
Science Communication, A Better Way
This brings me back to my point.
Now that we are aware of the importance of feelings and unconscious information, and that ‘intuitions’ precede ‘intelligence’, I find it hard to believe that the common “BS-destroyer” attitude on social media is actually an effective way to change someone’s mind. Changing someone’s mind involves them letting you into it to begin with. If you’re ridiculing, belittling or acting hostile in any way, people will just lock the door and even the most scientifically sound information will fall on deaf ears. Impressions matter.
Potentially the most famous rationalist, and logical thinker of all time, Sherlock Holmes, once likened the mind to an attic. He advised that you have limited space and you shouldn’t take in every useless fact you hear, or your mind will end up in a clutter. However, the emotions now appear to be the landlord of the property. The only way in to where the facts are kept is with their permission. So let’s reconsider the teams, the arguments and the adversarial nature we go about communicating with people these days. If you find yourself constantly frustrated by talking to people who you disagree with, maybe consider that you’ll encounter less of them, if you start actually changing people’s minds for the better.
This is a really important point, as we rely heavily on other people to help improve our perception of reality. We all fall victim to the bias blind spot. We are adept at highlighting the faults in other peoples thinking, but completely inept at finding the inconsistencies in our own. The improvement of knowledge has a highly social component and we rely heavily on others to fine-tune our thinking (stay tuned for an article by Jacob on this topic in the near future). Hostility is not the answer, hospitality is. And those in positions of influence need to remember this. They are the ones that everyone mirrors their actions on, they lead by example – whether it is a good one or not.
We all must recognise that in order for knowledge to truly disseminate, and break out of echo-chambers and the barriers created by having an in-group, we need to respect one another, and pay particular attention to how someone feels, before we try to change how they think.
This is by no means easy, and is certainly something I need to improve on also. However, as I have requested a higher standard of others, then I encourage anyone reading this to also demand a higher standard from myself. And I will endeavour to live unwaveringly by my own rules.
Without personally knowing many of the people I observe on social media, I would be fairly certain that they would not tease or mock an individual to their face in a public setting, the way they do online. So while this warning is not a new one, it deserves repeating: Be wary of how your behaviour changes due to the anonymity component of social media. I’m not saying social media is bad, I’m saying being rude and obnoxious is bad. This kind of behaviour simply seems to be a bit more frequent on social media platforms.
And on that note, I’ll begin my conclusion. I’ve talked about a lot today and this blog post turned into something much larger and more expansive than I originally planned.
The summary of my points are as follows:
– I’m sceptical that #TeamScience is an overall beneficial thing. Teams in general create divisiveness and one of the major benefits of science is its inclusive nature and how it can be used to benefit us all. Science has been one of the most instrumental tools in all of history to reduce divides between various groups. Drawing a circle around those who prioritise the use of science seems to me to be in flagrant contradiction to the success that science has brought about in helping people expand their moral circle. We need to be wary that the evolutionary process has resulted in brains that are very prone to biased thinking about many things, particularly how we treat people, depending on whether they fall within or outside of the group. We tend to let those in the in-group get away with things they potentially shouldn’t, and we tend to be more hostile to those in the out-group than what we realise. Be wary of this.
– Science communicators, intellectuals, thought-leaders, educators or whatever else you want to call them, need to lead by example and consider the dual-requirements of their role. Many are awesome at this, some are not. Your job is to help change people minds for the better, by communicating little breadcrumbs of scientific information and coaxing them along for the journey. This requires both science AND communication skills (not just science and ranting). Wielding facts like they are a weapon is not your job. You’re not a gladiator. Unless you consider your role to be entertainment based. Which makes me wonder, why did you bother getting a PhD then? You need people’s minds more than they need yours. If a science communicator “drops some facts” in the woods, but the only people there are the ones who already knew said facts, did they really educate? Lead by example, don’t berate people for their opinions. We need to work on reducing divides, not worsening them. Only then will scientific information begin to infiltrate the mainstream.
– Affective, emotional & intuitive senses sets up how we interpret facts and objective information. Successful education addresses how someone feels, then how they think. A failure to address the former, will result in an inability to alter the later.
And with that, I’ll leave you with this…
The science philosopher Karl Popper once said, “No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude”. When you encounter someone like this, your job is not to poke fun or chastise, but to address why they feel that way. Only then can you try to convince them that there is a better way – a more rational way.
But, you’ve been warned. Being rational can easily make you feel righteous, but that doesn’t necessarily always make you right.