Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Introduction to Skeptical Thinking

By Jamie Hale

I recently presented at the Annual JP Fitness Summit in Kansas City. The Summit features some of the top minds in the fitness industry. Topics include any and everything fitness and nutrition related. My presentation addressed a topic that was foreign to the summit. My topic was Fitness Skepticism. How to apply skepticism to the fitness industry? Some of the participants seemed to have a hard time with this line of thought. Skepticism is rarely if ever mentioned in the popular fitness literature. Learning to question and look for evidence could save fitness enthusiasts a great deal of time, money, and embarrassment. When someone like Alan Aragon (nutritionist & author of Girth Control) comes along and destroys your fiction based nutrition protocol you may be a little embarrassed. Especially if you have been working in the industry for a decade.

Before attending the summit I sent my keynotes to a colleague to see if he had any further suggestions on what I should present. He was impressed and told me this information would be excellent to present as an introduction to skepticism to any group not just fitness professionals. Below are my keynotes I used for the presentation.

Seminar Fitness Skepticism: Key Notes

The Fitness Skeptic (Skeptic is derived from the Greek skeptikos, which means "inquiring" or "to look around) applies reason to any and all ideas promoted by the fitness industry or ideas promoted by anyone making fitness claims. Requires evidence before accepting claims. Explain difference between skeptic and cynic.

What is a cynic? Cynics are distrustful of any advice or information that they do not agree with themselves. Cynics do not accept any claim that challenges their belief system. While skeptics are open-minded and try to eliminate personal biases. Cynics Negative views and are not open to evidence that refutes their beliefs. This can lead to dogmatism.

Dogmatism: authoritarian approach to ideas which emphasizes strict adherence to doctrine over rational inquiry. Opposes independent thinking and reason.

The word dogma is derived from a Greek phrase meaning “that which seems to one, opinion or belief”

Skepticism is a key part of science. Science way of thinking, basically way of analyzing information with idea of testing claims. Ideas on science…………
Make use of scientific method

No precise definition for scientific method but in general most agree with the following:
The following is an excerpt from Why People Believe Weird Things (Shermer 1997). “Through the scientific method, we may form the following generalizations:

Hypothesis: A testable statement accounting for a set of observations.

Theory: A well-supported and well-tested hypothesis or set of hypotheses.

Fact: A conclusion confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer provisional agreement.”

Important regarding certainty
NO absolute certainty. Humans are fallible.

R.A Lyttleton (Theoretical Astronomy Pro) suggests bead model of truth
This model depicts a bead on a horizontal wire that can move left or right. A 0 appears on the far left end 1 appears on the far right end.

The 0 corresponds with total disbelief and the 1 corresponds with total belief (absolute certainty).

Bead should never reach the far left or right end. The more that the evidence suggests the belief is true the closer the bead should be to 1. The more unlikely the belief is to be true the closer the bead should be to 0.

Important regarding Theory
To a scientist, the word theory represents that of which he or she is most certain; in everyday language the word implies a guess (not sure).

This often causes confusion for those unfamiliar with science. This confusion leads to the common statement “It’s only a theory.”

Regarding scientist vs. non-scientist
Scientist: One whose activities make use of the scientific method to answer questions regarding the measurable universe. A scientist may be involved in original research (Primary Research), or make use of the results of the research of others (termed Secondary Research.

Scientific degree does not necessarily mean scientist

Thinking gone wrong
Why do we accept so much nonsense in absence of evidence? Define faith

Anecdotes are not science
Scientific Jargon does not make a science
Bold Statements and Bold testimonials
Rumors everywhere
Correlation and causation
Emotive words

How to apply logic
Define logic: Concise English Oxford dictionary: science of reasoning, proof, thinking or inference
Structure of logical argument: 1 or more premises (facts) that argument states to lead to conclusion.
Conclusion to be valid all premises must be true
Conclusion could be true even though is it was invalid
Possible to use incorrect logic to reach a conclusion that happens to be true
Need to identify logical fallacies
Structure of argument
Prm 1: if A=B
Prm 2: and B=C
Logical connection: Then we apply (principle of equivalence)
Conclusion: A=C

Common logical fallacies
Ad hominen
Appeal to authority
Argumentum ad antiquitatem / Appeal to tradition (tradition)
Argumentum ad novitatem / Appeal to Novelty (newer is better)
Shifting the burden of proof (claimant insists you disprove)
Argument from personal incredulity (I can’t explain so it can’t be true)
Inconsistency (sometime scientist sometimes not depends on convenience)
Post-hoc ergo propter (A preceded B, therefore A caused B)
Straw man (arguing against position you created, position ez to argue against)
Cherry picking

Ultimate goal for the skeptic is to see evidence and then evaluate the evidence that supports claim. Evidence stands on it’s own merits.

Considerations when look at evidence refer Alan’s book

Ideological immune system
“In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change” Jay Snelson (social scientist) calls this resistance an ideological immune system. According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become the greater the confidence in their ideologies.

Consequence we build up and “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones.

Sometimes if we have so much vested interest it is hard to change our stance on a subject

Bser or Liar
Harry G Frankfurt (Moral philosopher) distinguishes in book On Bullshit
Fitness industry questions more Bsers or Liars??

Practical skepticism
Can’t be skeptical all the time
Sometimes better to not be vocally skeptical
Refer to Riniolo’s article The Myth of Consistent skepticism

Practicing skeptical thinking
Take something you have always believed and try to look at it from other side. Gather all available data. Try to counterpoint your own belief. If faith based no need

Inconsistent Rationalist???
Rational people normally but touch touch topic rationality gone. Completely irrational with specific topics such as religion, abortion, death penalty, children etc.

One of the key points I wanted to emphasize was it’s alright to be skeptical. I pointed out the difference between a skeptic and a cynic. I also emphasized that the people that like to villanize skeptics are generally the real villains (quackos, charlatans, Type 1 supplement salesman, etc.) I was cut a little short on time (enough sitting it was time to go outside and jump into the Total Hale Workout) so I didn’t get to finish my presentation. I think the discussion proved beneficial for some while others found it useless. I received some positive feedback while also receiving negative feedback.

Practical implications for the skilled skeptic

Realize that the need to believe, and serve others, are basic human needs

In general our expectations pretty much determine what we see and don’t see (magicians take full advantage of this expectation)

Humans lie and they BS (almost always with a vested interest)

Under specific conditions hallucinations may occur in healthy people

For many people that don’t understand specific phenomena they would rather believe something than say they don’t know

Apply skepticism in a very cautious manner to particular subjects e.g. religion, abortion, death penalty etc.

Realize you can’t be skeptical 100% of the time as there are not enough hours in the day

The skilled skeptic must learn when to keep their questions to themselves if not you will have many enemies (be a Practical Skeptic)

The majority of society does not understand science nor are they interested (they want to know what to think not how to think)

Skilled skeptics understand the rules of logic, the principles of experimentation, experimental design and what constitutes scientific evidence

Human beings are fallible and have a need sometimes have a need to be right

Human beings have a strong need for certainty, security and stability

Human beings have strong social needs (although not all human beings)

Human beings have a strong need for simplicity, easily understandable answers to complex questions

Human beings like to feel important

Skilled skeptics do not make judgments based on insufficient evidence

Skilled skeptics realizes there are varying degrees of certainty but no absolute certainty

Skilled skeptics listen to other people’s ideas with an open mind

Skill skeptics understand all knowledge is tentative

Skilled skeptics are aware of their own personal bias, and aware when their skepticism turns to cynicism

Skilled skeptics habitually question their own beliefs and methods that were used to come to those beliefs

Skilled skeptics are educated on research methodology (this means at an advanced level)

Skilled skeptics avoid Hero Worship (e.g. James Randi says or Michael Shermer says, also referred to as Appeal to Authority Fallacy)

Skilled skeptics realize science does not explain everything nor does it claim to

Skilled skeptics do not fall prey to the Translation Fallacy (this fallacy occurs when the subject being discussed cannot be defined. If you can define the word or topic forget about stating your opinion.)

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