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Getting the Facts: How to spot bad information

Athletic performance relies heavily on the continuing advancement of our scientific understanding of physiology. Without science we would still be relying on outdated and at times dangerous training methods. Our understanding of how heart rate is affected by physical activity or how aerobic capacity correlates to a number in watts has greatly improved training techniques and training plan development for both coaches and athletes. Unfortunately we live in a world where there is a growing mistrust of science and expert opinion. Climate change denial, anti-vax movements, mistrust of doctors and modern medicine; growth of fake news sites; these are all side effects of this mistrust. Unfortunately, the world of sport has not been immune to this phenomenon. The internet allows everyone to share their ideas and opinions, some of which are good, many of which are bad. It’s important that we all develop skills to spot bad information and be aware of reliable resources that we can use to fact-check claims for validity. We’re not all scientists or have academic backgrounds in science but that doesn’t mean we can’t be well-informed and arm ourselves with the tools necessary to spot bad science. Critical thinking is a necessary skill in the age of infinite information. So let’s look at some of the ways we can separate the wheat from the chafe.

Sourcing Information

When you type something into a search engine you’re going to wind up with pages on pages of results. There’s no way of knowing which results are going to provide you with solid and useful information unless you already have a good idea of which websites are good and bad. Unfortunately there is no such master list so it’s best to check multiple pages and look for clues. You can tell a lot about a website just by looking its layout. Is it full of ads? Are there pop-ups? Do you have to constantly click through pages to continue reading information or is the entire article available on a single page? Just because a site has lots of ads doesn’t mean the information on the site is bad, but it might mean that there is greater emphasis on selling products than providing good information. Be wary, too, of articles that ask you to purchase an eBook or some other package to find out more about the topic. We all want to be compensated for the time we spend developing useful resources but if the main concern is selling goods, we should be skeptical of the intent. At HPP, we’d certainly love everyone who reads this article to want to sign up for our coaching services but we also recognize that the vast majority of you will take what you need from our articles and move on. And that’s okay. Our primary concern is giving athletes the resources to perform better and realize their goals.

Gimmicks and Quick Fixes

Be mindful of any article that offers X number of easy steps to lose weight/increase performance/etc. There is no trick or shortcut when it comes to fitness, health, and performance. An example of a website with valuable information on weight loss (for example) is one that starts by explaining how fat is stored in the body, the factors that contribute to weight gain, and how you can take manageable steps to change your habits and improve your ability to lose weight. In extreme cases, a complete overhaul of lifestyle and nutrition may be required to lose weight, but in general a good weight loss program will fit into your current lifestyle and encourage you to make small manageable changes in your diet and habits. It doesn’t require you to buy special meal plans, drink mixes, or other proprietary supplements. You can lose weight perfectly fine with what you get at the grocery store.

Scientific Studies

The backbone any good claim is supporting evidence. Anyone who has the misfortune of writing a research paper knows that without proper citations and sourcing, you will not receive a passing grade and your paper will probably convince no one of your conclusion no matter how well argued it may be. This doesn’t mean that in the world of online information every claim and piece of information needs to be sourced in order to be valid. Plenty of bad resources will cite information. The trick is to know whether an article uses sources honestly and accurately. You can read the abstract of many scientific studies and they will say things like, “the results showed that an increase in x resulted in y.” But this doesn’t always get to the core of the results of the study. We often see headlines like, “Study shows that Bananas can prevent certain types of cancer.” What the article often fails to mention is that the study was done on mice and there was only a correlation between banana consumption and cancer rather than bananas actually preventing cancer.

When it comes to fitness related studies, we have to be mindful of the statistical significance of results. Think about cycling performance. Some people are better at sprinting, some better at time trialing, some at the kilo. When a study is done that shows that sweet spot training, for example, can increase aerobic capacity by up to 5% in an 8 week period, we need to be mindful of what the actual results were. If there were 10 people in the study and 5 of them showed a 10% increase in aerobic capacity while the other 5 showed no change, the statistics show an average of 5% increase for all participants. In reality, the results showed that this type of training has a great effect on some people and no effect on others. This is only an example of course.

There is no way of knowing what the results of a study actually say without reading the study in its entirety. This is often unrealistic for the average person due to the fact that there may be barriers to access to the journal the study is published in and also because of the extensive use of technical jargon. We must rely on how websites that use these studies as sources present the results. Do they simply state the results without context or further analysis of the actual data? Did it summarize the testing protocol or list the inherent limitations of the study? Sometimes it’s also unrealistic to expect every passing mention of a study to list these things and it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the resource if it doesn’t. The important thing to take away is that we should never take the mention of results in scientific studies as concrete facts if we aren’t privy to the context and protocol of the study. But neither should we disregard them. Science is a fluid and ever changing process. We learn new things and we adapt our knowledge. Science can only give us our best understanding of the universe to-date. Something that was valid 30 years ago might not be valid today.

Developing Your Own Conclusions

Blind mistrust of science is just as unhealthy as blindly following the authority of any resource. Some are more credible than others and we need to develop the skills and tools to determine what credible sources look like. When you do research don’t look for articles that support the opinion you already have. Look at both sides, be honest with yourself and question whether you hold a certain opinion about some aspect of fitness, weight loss, or training because that’s what you want to believe, or because it had the most compelling evidence supporting it. Just as science is constantly putting itself through scrutiny to further its understanding the universe and everything in it, we should be constantly updating our own knowledge. A former professor used to use the phrase, “inference to best explanation.” What we believe might not always be correct and it certainly isn’t timeless, but it should be the most accurate opinion we can form from the most reliable sources we can find.

If you have any questions about this article or want to learn more send an email to info@humanpowerperformance.com

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