Science based thinking – Truth or narrow-mindedness?

Some will say that everything we do in the world of sports (or nutrition, medicine and more) has to be evidence based and supported by valid, large scale research. Others will say “fuck studies, personal experience says way more”. Although the latter train of thought is understandable (and I tend to lean towards it at times), there is one problem with it that many people don’t seem to understand. You cannot just extrapolate anecdotal ‘evidence’ to a group of people.

Example:
Jack says “I started losing weight when I started eating lots of strawberries.” and as a result, starts telling people who want to lose weight that they should eat truckloads of strawberries. Other people start eating lots of strawberries but they don’t lose weight at all.

What went wrong here? Two things happened at the same time and Jack gave a wrong interpretation to it. What Jack failed to understand was that the strawberries didn’t cause any weight loss – the fact that he substituted strawberries for calorie-dense snacks like cupcakes and peanut butter sandwiches caused weight loss. He created a shortage of calories without realizing it. This is why scientific principles are important, to gather data and attach proper conclusions to it. If Jack wanted to give people proper advice, he would have done well to ask himself a few things like;

  • How does weight loss work?
  • Have there been other people that lost weight by eating strawberries?
  • What weight loss related mechanism could be influenced by eating strawberries?
  • What other factors could have caused my weight loss?
  • Etc.

And there would be some testing, followed by larger scale testing, and at some point the conclusion would be drawn that ‘substituting low-calorie foods for calorie-dense foods will lower caloric intake, which may lead to a caloric deficit, which in turn will lead to weight loss’.

That is why science is important, even though Jack’s results and methods are fine – for his particular situation.

 

WHAT THE FUCK SCIENCE
WHAT THE FUCK SCIENCE

 

“But science is skewed, invalid, doesn’t take factor X into account, is corrupted, isn’t applicable to real life, blahblah.”
Many people fail to understand that ‘science’ is not just some study. It’s a concept with a bunch of principles to get as close to the truth as we possibly can – even if it’s just an approximation of the truth and even if it’s ever changing because of new research methods or bigger, better studies. It’s true that one study may not be applicable to real life, another might be biased because of corporate funding and another might not take important factors into account. That is the reason why scientists have to keep each other in check, every study must be placed in the proper context and we always need a healthy dose of both scepticism and open-mindedness. We also need to stab internet journalists who take studies or statements out of context and try to be sensational by claiming that ‘chocolate is superfood’ and ‘high protein diets cause cancer’. They’re really not helping science nor the layperson trying to learn more about a certain subject.

I see sort of an anti-science stance among many people who believe that ‘natural is better’ and ‘we should do everything like we did at the dawn of mankind’ (back when we didn’t grow older than 35), despite the fact that natural is not a synonym for good/bad/healthy/unhealthy or whatever. This is slightly disturbing because these people might be spreading (mis)information that is potentially harmful. One example would be that people refuse to have their kids vaccinated, which has lead to some outbreaks of diseases that are otherwise hardly present in Western countries. People seem to forget that we are dependent on science -which could be considered ‘unnatural’ I guess- for a better understanding of everything in this world, and through that, technological progress. Medicine, aerodynamics, psychology and sports performance are just a few of many fields where we have progressed greatly through science.

However, like I said before, I tend to lean to ‘what works for a person’. I just don’t recommend things that are unsupported by science to clients or other people unless I explicitly state that it’s unsupported by science but that it MAY offer some benefits. If something works for me, I’ll do it despite what research says, even if it’s just a placebo effect, even if I’m just misinterpreting some mechanism behind the thing I do and even if the results are coming from a behavioral aspect rather than a physiological one. Still, in these matters I am cautious with what I recommend to others.

A few examples:

I occasionally use tiger balm when my muscles are tight or sore. It has been suggested that tiger balm doesn’t do much by itself, but that the massaging motion used when applying tiger balm is the thing that helps blood flow and relaxation. I frankly have no idea, but I was raised with the idea of using tiger balm or shiling oil whenever something hurts (Asian dad, that’s why) so as long as it feels good, I’ll do it.

When a common cold is starting, supposedly you can take a large dose of a zinc supplement and the symptoms will be less severe than normally. Some research has been done on this but it wasn’t very conclusive and it leaned towards ‘stop wasting your time with supplements and just be sick’. I did try it however (120-200mg of zinc spread out over two days, whereas I weigh 85kg/190lbs to 95kg/210 lbs) when my throat was sore a long time ago and I felt fine after half a day, contrary to normal colds where I would have a sore throat for 1-4 days followed by a few days of having a stuffy nose. A sore throat is always the first sign of common cold with me so whenever I feel it coming, I take a load of zinc and it seems to work everytime. I do not know if that is coincidence or there is another factor at play that I don’t know of, so I wouldn’t recommend this as some magical cure for the common cold or whatever, but I’ll use this trick myself anyway and I’ll tell people about it, at the same time recommending that they stay sceptical.

 

Me doing a back bridge. Disclaimer: Any suspicious shape or bulge is solely the result of me wearing comfortable pants. I don't get excited over doing a back bridge.
Me doing a back bridge. Disclaimer: Any suspicious shape or bulge is solely the result of me wearing remarkably comfortable pants. I don’t get excited over doing a back bridge.

 

As far as I know, the back bridge is not a very common exercise in strength training. Some calisthenics coaches like Paul Wade and Al Kavadlo swear by it, but otherwise it’s usually considered an advanced gymnastics exercise with little use outside of gymnastics. I’ve never heard of any decent science to back up any benefits of the back bridge either. A few years ago, I taught myself the back bridge out of curiosity and was amazed at how nice it felt. It was a strange sort of exertion and relaxation at the same time and my back always felt awesome afterwards. I recently read up a bit on breathing exercises for relaxation through Elliot Hulse who wrote a lot on bio-energetics and other weird stuff, and I decided to mess around with it a bit. Long story short: Back bridges with long, deep breaths feel amazing. Are there legit risks involved in back bridges? Yes, so don’t be an idiot. Read up on it and decide for yourself whether you should be doing them or not.

So should we disregard personal experience in favor of science? Hell no. Nor should we bash on science just because we’re too proud to admit that we might be proved wrong by science. I believe both have their place, and common sense is a powerful tool in using both to your advantage.

If only common sense were a little more common.

 

 “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.” – Dara Ó Briain