Matt Perryman over at Myosynthesis has been running an incredibly interesting series (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV) that he completed this week. The series dwells on some of his views on skepticism, scientific thinking and reductionism in fitness circles. I felt like taking a stab at the topic myself.
Reliance on abstracts
The problem to me isn’t the fact that science is used as a tool, but rather the reverence for, and certainty given to, the findings of published research with no further context.
When I started getting into fitness and nutrition research, I found it very hard to digest abstracts as is. Yet they were, and still are, thrown around as a form of justification. I was lucky enough to stumble on Alan Aragon who took the time to dissect and digest some of the relevant literature and explain it simply. It eventually spawned AARR which I have subscribed to for a few years now.
Abstracts are meant as summaries only. You miss out on a lot of information if you consider them as is. You can miss fundamental issues with the research itself such poor methodology which can range from how you perform your tests to the population used (e.g. using athletes from research meant for the general population). Commonly, you can also run into conflict of interests especially in nutrition research where the supplement company are funding their own research.
Let us remember what science is about
I won’t say too much about this here as I’ve previously written about complexity, but it’s helpful to think of your body as more like the weather than a precision-engineered mechanical device.
The scientific method is meant to assess cause and effect in a controlled environment. While sports and nutrition research try with various degrees of success to do so, it is currently not an exact science at the same level physics or chemistry. That is why having context is critical because it is what allows you to judge the relevancy of the findings and ultimately their application.
A case for engineering
Engineering is the discipline, skill, and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes.
I am an engineer by trade and what made me passionate about it was that you are converting theoretical knowledge into something that can be applied in a very pragmatic way. While I wouldn’t say we need a “Fitness Engineering” discipline (We have biomedical after all). There is surprisingly little done to “translate” the increasing body of exercise, sports, nutrition and psychology research and applying them in a practical way. It also doesn’t seem to occur in people’s mind that this could (or maybe should) be done or this is possible.
It’s not impossible either. Arthur Jones was able to do it when he invented the modern exercise machine. However, there’s been little else since then and most of it has been gimmicks. One of the reasons I really liked the 4-hour body by Tim Ferris was that, regardless if you agreed with his conclusions or what he had done, it was the first real attempt I had seen to take nutrition and exercise research and develop it into a practical framework of use for everyone.
It is getting better
Regardless of these issues, there are more and more people who take an interest in all of this and that is good for us all. We need more people looking into the science and how to apply it.
That is how progress happens.