Rest Day Rant: Become a Healthy Skeptic

Posted: September 28, 2012 by Jim in Random Thoughts

Well, since today is a rest day for me, and this weekend will be filled with travel and four Beach Brawl WODs, how about a Friday Special Edition of our Rest Day Rant?!?

Today will be somewhat of a different kind of rant. It would be easy to read this and say, “what does this have to do with me and CrossFit?” Please hear me: this may be one of the most important rants to date. Like the line from the movie 300 says, “This will not be short. You will not enjoy this.” And Tracy, no, this isn’t from Wikipedia. J

Imagine this scenario with me for a moment: you’ve been having headaches. You’ve not been feeling well. Perhaps you visit your family doctor who then refers you to a neurosurgeon.

What if this doctor said the following to you: “I have a gut feeling that you have a tumor somewhere in your brain. I’m not going to waste my time on complicated, yet accurate, tests such as an MRI. I’ve been performing brain surgery for 40 years, so I know a tumor when I see it. So I’m just going to cut open your skull and dig around until I find that sucker.”

How many of you would allow this surgeon to operate on you?

This may sound silly, but often in life, we base important decisions on our feelings, emotions, and past experiences rather than solid, credibly-collected evidence. I love the way Robb Wolf justifies his incredibly detailed descriptions of digestion, fats, etc. in the Paleo Solution:

“I need to answer all the inaccuracies that form the basis of our governmental and academic nutritional recommendations…otherwise you are trading one false god for another.” (p. 113)

Another one of my favorite “thinkers,” Coach Mark Rippetoe, puts it this way:

“You are right to be wary. There is much bullsh@#. Be wary of me too, because I may be wrong. Make up your own mind after you evaluate all the evidence and the logic.”

The reason I go into such detail on not only what we do, but also why we do it, is because I want you to be armed with knowledge, and knowledge is power. I am not interested in whether you “think” or “feel” that you’re getting stronger or leaner: I want to put those beliefs to the test. I want to demonstrate with evidence that you are stronger, faster, learner, better than you were before.

Imagine a world in which critical decisions were not based on feelings or opinions, but objective, credible evidence?

Many of you have probably never heard of Project Follow Through – the largest social experiment ever funded by the United States Government. This was a follow-up project to help bolster Project Head Start, in an attempt to keep low-achieving children from falling further behind their peers in reading and math.

You can Google the actual study, so I won’t bore you with the details. One approach out of many attempted educational strategies worked: ONE. This approach was called Direct Instruction. The evidence was overwhelming. In fact, none of the other approaches yielded positive outcomes. So our government, in its infinite wisdom, endorsed all teaching approaches. Why? Because most teachers didn’t “like” direct instruction. They “felt” it was an infringement on their freedom and creativity as teachers. We see how well this feelings-based decision has benefited our educational system.

The same decision-making strategies are applied to fitness and health. People select programs based on what some self-claimed “expert” tells them, or a friend, or the overweight guy on the health club couch who breaks the club with his coffee consumption. When these decisions are made, rarely do positive results follow.

We should develop a healthy skepticism in our lives. One of the things I appreciate most about Ellen as an Infragilis trainer is that she constantly asks me “why are we doing this?” Or, “what is the reasoning behind this?” Her questions stem from a desire to learn, but they also function to hold me accountable. This isn’t Africa and I’m not Jim Jones touting my own brand of Kool-Aid. The recommendations I make come from the evidence I have evaluated, both in my personal program and with my own clients.

As I told someone this morning, the day I encounter an Athlete who eats exactly how we suggest, sleeps adequately, perfects form, and also applies appropriate intensity to his workouts and shows negative results will be the day I start earnestly re-examining my approach to health and fitness.

So how do we become critical consumers of information? How do we develop a healthy skepticism in life? Here are some steps (and sit down, this will take a while).

What pops into your mind when you think of the word argument?

The word “argument” may make you think of two people shouting at one another, perhaps even throwing pots and pans against the walls as they continue shouting.

Alternatively, you might think of someone trying to persuade you to do something.

However, we use the word in a different way when talking about critical thinking. In this context, an argument consists of an assertion along with empirical evidence and a theoretical explanation for the assertion.

In other words, an argument is a statement describing the world (assertion) along with empirical support (evidence) and theoretical support (explanation) for the statement.

Our lives are full of arguments. In becoming a critical thinker, your first step is to identify the arguments presented to you.

What Are the Parts of an Argument?

An argument generally consists of three parts:

(1)  an assertion is, a general description of the characteristics of one or more things or the relation between two or more things

(2)  empirical evidence-that is, specific observations that support or refute the assertion, and

(3)  theoretical explanation-that is, a hypothesized mechanism or model that logically justifies or refutes the assertion

For example, suppose your friend claims that your university discriminates against unattractive people in its hiring practices. She provides survey results showing that 25% of the people in your state are unattractive but only 2% of the employees at the university are unattractive-attractive. She concludes that personnel interviewers tend to trust and believe attractive job candidates more than unattractive ones.

Ask yourself a few questions about your friend’s argument.  Please take the time to write down an answer to each question, using your own words.

First, what is the assertion?

Second, what is the evidence?

Third, what is the explanation?

In this example, the assertion describes a relationship between two things—(a) degree of attractiveness and (b) probability of being employed by the university. In particular, the assertion is that the less attractive a person is, the less likely he or she is to be hired.

Notice that we have slightly changed your friend’s wording that the university “discriminates against unattractive people in its hiring practices” so that we can focus on relationships between things.

In this example, the supporting empirical evidence is the survey result that 2% of the employees are unattractive but 25% of the people in the state are unattractive.

Finally, the theoretical explanation concerns a mechanism, that is, that personnel interviewers believe attractive candidates more than they believe unattractive ones.

Can you criticize your friend’s argument?

What’s wrong with the assertion?

What’s wrong with the evidence?

What’s wrong with the explanation?

When my psychology students answer these questions, they generate a number of high quality critical answers. For example, a major problem that students often raise about the assertion concerns how to define and measure attractiveness.

Similarly, critical students typically have questions about how the evidence was obtained. For example, was the survey based on samples of workers in the state and samples of university workers who were really representative of those groups? This is an important question!

Finally, in criticizing the explanation, students typically point out that there are alternative theories that could account for the evidence–such as the possibility that when people become competent workers they also tend to make themselves look more attractive by using good grooming and fashion techniques. Another alternative explanation may be that the pool of applicants to the university contains a high percentage of attractive people and a very low percentage of unattractive people. How do your answers compare with these? Listen Infragli…don’t just passively accept what’s pushed on you!

Now, WARNING…DANGER WILL ROBINSON. I’m about to enter into some serious GEEK-SPEAK. Most of you won’t care about this stuff, but I believe it is one of the major reasons most people would buy the Brooklyn Bridge. Most people take absolutely no time trying to understand and critique exactly how presented evidence was collected. Well, here’s your cure for insomnia right now:

Types of Empirical Evidence in Non-Natural Sciences

The term empirical evidence means observable. Empirical evidence is observable data, such as the results of observing a natural setting or a laboratory experiment.

Examples include observing the behavior of children in a classroom or the results of an experiment in which students were taught under two different instructional methods.

Furthermore, it is important to note that you can make observations in these situations without any special abilities. For example, the empirical data collected by one person should be the same as the data collected by another observer looking at the same situation.

Critical thinking involves considering how well the empirical evidence supports the assertion. To do this, you need to understand the kinds of empirical evidence thrown at you.

When you come across empirical evidence, you can ask yourself two questions. First, is the evidence measured in numbers (i.e., quantitative) or in words and pictures (i.e., qualitative)? Second, is the evidence based on observations in a natural setting (i.e., descriptive) or on the results of experiments (i.e., experimental).

In the non-natural (i.e., natural sciences being chemistry, biology, etc.) sciences our major ways to collect empirical evidence are the following.

Quantitative-descriptive evidence. This type of evidence is based on observations of the natural environment that are expressed in numbers, including survey results and regular test scores. For example, a researcher who is investigating social cooperation in learning might observe children in a classroom and count the number of times each student offers help to or asks for help from another student.

Qualitative-descriptive evidence. This type of evidence is based on observations of the natural environment that are not expressed in numbers, including clinical interviews and subject protocols. For example, a researcher might write a descriptive narrative of a child’s social interactions with other students over the course of the school day.

Quantitative-experimental evidence. This type of evidence consists of the results of an experiment that are expressed as numbers. For example, a researcher might arrange one classroom so that children work in small groups and another classroom so that children work as a whole class. This is an experiment because the researcher is actively manipulating the environment, rather than just measuring it in some way. Further, suppose that the researcher counts the number of times each student offers or receives help in each of the two classrooms.

Qualitative-experimental evidence. This type of evidence consists of the results of an experiment that are not expressed as numbers. For example, a researcher may write narrative descriptions of a child who was assigned to a small group and a child who was assigned to a whole-class arrangement.

For example, for each of the following pieces of evidence, what would each one represent if we used either “1” for quantitative- descriptive,   “2” for qualitative-descriptive,  “3” for  quantitative- experimental, or “4” for qualitative-experimental?

___In a Midwestern college, half the students were required to eat each of their meals in cafeterias that were painted “institutional green,” and half were required to eat in cafeterias that were painted in soft pink, turquoise, and peach. Although the food served in the two cafeterias was identical, student ratings of the food in the institutional green cafeteria averaged 2.0, on a scale of I to 5 (with I as worst and 5 as best), whereas student ratings from the pastel cafeteria averaged 4.0.
___An analysis of 100 drivers involved in serious traffic accidents revealed that 25% had recently suffered a financial or personal loss such as a divorce, death of a loved one, or loss of a job.
___In an analysis of his problem-solving behavior for “2 + 4 = ___,”   a first grader reported, “I take one from the 4 and give it to the 2.  Now, I have 3 plus 3, and I know the answer is 6.”

___One student was taught computer programming using the standard manual and another student was taught by allowing lots of hands- on experience. When solving a new programming problem, the traditionally taught student said, “I haven’t had this yet,” whereas the actively taught student said, “This is fun.”

The correct answers for the above items are “3,” “1,” “2,” and “4.” Note that manipulations of the environment that produce evidence are experiments, whereas observations of naturally occurring events are descriptions; also note that when measurements involve numbers, they are quantitative; and when they do not, they are qualitative. When you make decisions about what you are going to do or what you believe, what type of evidence are you using? Are you using any? Think about this carefully.

Everyday people try to sell you something. People are trying to persuade you to do something, vote for their candidate, buy their product, stop doing something, and all sorts of other examples. Are you using critical thinking to make these decisions? More importantly to your health, are you gathering evidence regarding your progress? If not, you may become a slave to your feelings.

Evidence forces us to be honest. Getting in the BodPod forces me to be honest about my diet. Testing for one-rep maxes on lifts forces me to be honest about my strength training. Making a qualitative rating of how I feel post-workout forces me to be honest with how good I’m following my rest and recovery protocols. When I shy away from evidence, then allow Crazy Jim that still resides in my head to become CEO of the crazy committee in my mind. When this happens, I become emotional about my program. Emotional decisions are rarely right decisions.

Okay, I’ve bored you enough for today. I hope at least I’ve motivated you to become a little more skeptical in your daily life.

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