Ah the holidays, when folks experience all the fun and anxiety associated with unrestrained exuberance paired painfully with social obligation and familial tension. Out of this miasma may rise within us a strong desire to take control, to reset, to cleanse or to start afresh. (And to completely mix the metaphor), thus enters the emotional palette-cleansing of New Year’s. We are now freshly at risk for the wiles of charlatans motivated by profits or personal political gain. So, how do we take our newfound inspiration for change and ensure we’re using our limited energies in science and evidence-based directions in order to see personal success rather than yet another post-holiday disappointment?
First, we must understand that science is an interdependent practice, not an individual one. If someone is telling you that ONLY THEY can unlock the wisdom of the scientific process, they are by very nature being unscientific. Science is the accumulated knowledge and experience of literally thousands of data points over hundreds of years. Your aunt who told you she did her own research and that’s why she won’t get vaccinated against COVID fell into this trap and is not doing science. Science isn’t one person drawing their own conclusions or cherry-picking outlier evidence to support their preconceived opinions. Science is taking the accumulation of information over time and seeing what conclusions can be drawn. That isn’t to say sometimes scientific understandings aren’t completely upended, but new positions have to be verified and supported by significant new evidence before that happens. Beware anyone giving health advice who tells you they know better than everyone else.
Along those lines, if someone speaks with absolute authority, walk away, like right now. Science isn’t perfect. It doesn’t aim to be perfect; it aims to be less wrong over time. We often learn more from being wrong than for having our hypotheses confirmed. An evidence-based professional will tell you the degree of certainty they have for a particular opinion, and they will not be equally confident all of the time. In fact, they should be open to the possibility that they are completely wrong on some decisions and should be honest about it. My most-trusted doctors have been those who were willing to tell me that they weren’t sure what was going on and how they arrived at their best guesses to what might be happening and how we might go about moving forward with that uncertainty. Likewise, I don’t trust folks who give fitness or nutrition advice if they have the same answer for everyone. As they pointed out over at Sigma Nutrition a while back, there’s almost no universal nutrition advice beyond eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (and even that advice requires nuance given the elements of privilege that influence our eating decisions). Good advice varies depending on context, and any advice given without those caveats should be treated as suspect.
Just because good advice needs to be put into context, that doesn’t mean there is no truth and all advice is equally valid. Over the last decade, we have witnessed a proliferation of disinformation and misinformation, promoted by social media and the profit-driven algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, and a common refrain from folks holding tight to comfortable lies is to state something like, “well, that’s what I believe.” I went to college in the nineties when post-modernism was all the rage of academics and we were all trained to ask what perspective someone was coming from before we determined the validity of their opinions. I still believe that culture, experience, privilege and perspective matter when considering ideas. The analysis of these perspectives helps us to tease out inevitable bias from scientific pursuits.
At the same time, just because bias is inevitable doesn’t mean every conclusion from science is equally deserving of skepticism. Back to my original point, the strength of science comes from the fact that the information we get comes from the accumulation of data over time–and this process of collecting more and more information works as an immune system to bias. It isn’t a fast process, but it does happen, and responsible researchers are always looking to improve their understandings and to question their biases. Science isn’t perfect, but it is still the best system we have for rooting out the truth.(1) Our impatience with the process does not constitute a reasonable excuse to throw it all out.
If you want to take control, if you are inspired to make big changes, you want advice that actually works. Find evidence-based guidelines and guardrails in order to individualize it to your needs. Put more trust in people who say “it depends” and then work with you to help you troubleshoot your particular needs. I know this can feel less comfortable initially–certainty feels so good. One of the reasons we outsource programming or nutrition advice is because it can feel so complicated, and it can be hard to commit to a plan when we are uncertain about it being effective. But in the long run, a plan designed for you, based on science and not bullshit, will be far more likely to get you to your goals.
Want to get better at recognizing folks with a scientific, evidence-based way of approaching these issues? Start following any of the content creators I highlight here at Progressive Strength. Start noticing how they talk about the evidence before they give advice. It will hone your skills at discerning good information from garbage.
Have thoughts on this post? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, or counter the algorithms making our world a harder place to live in, find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook and join the conversation over there!
(1) For a fascinating discussion of how some of these challenges are being addressed in nutrition science using machine learning, I recommend episode #414 of Sigma Nutrition Radio.