Health documentaries have a knack for rustling Jimmies. The recent and controversial pro-plan documentary on Netflix The Game Changers, was no exception. Typically, I have no qualms (nor interest) in what dietary approach someone adopts, no matter how ill-informed. What I do have issues with is when people masquerade unfounded ideas and project unscientific beliefs to the masses…
I’m no expert on the truth, that’s one hell of a complex topic that is beyond my abilities to discuss. However, I have an interest in learning, knowing more and finding the best quality and acquiring the most objective and accurate understanding of the world. This is why documentaries such as The Game Changers really grind my gears when they misrepresent information and mislead the lay, despite claiming to be “fuelled by the truth”.
These documentaries prey on the vulnerable and attempt to deceive and manipulate the minds of individuals who are desperate to change. seek to manipulate the minds of those not yet equipped to decipher fact from fiction.
When someone isn’t able to critically appraise the information they are presented, they are susceptible to adopting views, opinions and beliefs that are factually incorrect, and that’s a problem.
This article isn’t just another critique or rant on how unscientific the documentary was (yes, it was garbage and unscientific on all fronts) but will instead aim to teach you:
- Why these documentaries are so compelling
- How you can better evaluate information (irrespective of the platform or medium it is presented on); and
- How you can improve your thinking processes and ensure you acquire factually correct information.
I won’t be digging into the documentary in this article. Jackson already did that HERE as did Menno Henselmens HERE and Lyndon will be diving into the environmental and moral claims of vegan diets in our next article.
1. The Belief Spectrum – Eradicating One Dimensional Thinking
It’s normal for people to hold differing beliefs on varying subjects and matters. Some important, some trivial and some more important to a certain individual or group and less important to others.
What we have seen with the release of The Game Changers is a divergence of opinion on the matter of plant-based diets and their impact on health, performance, environment and morality. The documentary and the information presented has stirred much debate in fitness and nutrition circles.
The reason it is so compelling is that nutrition is a topic of interest for the vast majority of the population, especially when it relates to important areas such as health, performance and environment.
It supported many of the pre-existing beliefs held by those already following a vegan, vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian diets which made it highly popular and well supported by these folk. On the other hand, it rustled the Jimmie’s of meat eaters and folk a little more clued into exercise and nutritional sciences, giving it even more air time online.
Humans are designed to think in binary terms – the tendency to split all things into two distinct categories. It simplifies our thinking and often is a more efficient and easier way to view the world. For example, people often think of things as black or white, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy or right or wrong.
Game Changers presented a false dichotomy of dietary choices. They presented nutrition as an either or situation – you either eat plants or you eat a diet comprised solely of meat high in saturated fats and processed sugars.
Something along the lines of the below table.
These are not the only two dietary choices we have on offer and many meat eaters are omnivores or flexitarians…
The problem with this over simplification of diet is that not only are there more choices for diet, but we live in a complex world with many complex issues – nutrition being one of them.
When we adopt a very narrow view of a topic and limit ourselves to an either or situation, we are forced to pick a side. Once we do, we form a belief. Those with similar beliefs then rally together and build a coalition, as do those with conflicting opinions. As a result, tension inevitably arises between the individuals and groups and this ultimately fuels many heated debates…
Enter the pro-plant vs pro-meat war…
A simple step to move away from binary thinking is to perceive a given topic along a spectrum of ideas or beliefs. Instead of perceiving a topic as black or white, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, we must expand the horizons of thinking and interject gradation.
A basic example is changing from good/bad to varying to degrees of ‘good’ as outlined below:
This may seem like a trivial alteration of words, however changing an adjective from a comparativeadjective(comparing two things such as healthy or unhealthy) to superlative adjectives (comparing three or more things such as healthiest àhealthy àless healthy àunhealthy) we can eliminate facile assessments of complex topics.
This simple thinking tool can have a profound affect at how we examine a given phenomenon and allows for degrees and consideration of qualifications, context and caveats.
Sometimes binary thinking can be beneficial, but not in the domain of nutrition and exercise science…
The process we are examining when looking at an ideas/knowledge spectrum is the formation of beliefs. This is a very complex topic and beyond the scope of this article. What I want you all to take from this is that we first need to eradicate binary thinking and transition to spectrum based thinking if we are to engage in critical thinking and thoughtful discourse. Second, the process for belief formation can be thought of as the course we take when trying to answer questions we have and can be mapped on to our spectrum of ideas.
See the image below for a simple representation of the process of belief formation.
As I mentioned, what is often left out of the discussion when evaluating what someone thinks or believes is how someone came to those beliefs. This is a little more complex, but an important part of the discussion. Once we insert this consideration into the belief mix, it quickly turns the spectrum of ideas/beliefs into a two pronged assessment of ‘thinking’.
Let’s now assess varying degrees of ‘thinking’…
The scientist has (by function of the scientific method) a systematic process for gathering, assessing, testing and evaluating ideas. The pseudoscientist (or misinformed) may in fact follow a similar process, but not without logical fallacies or values that aren’t aligned with the truth – perverting the course of acquiring accurate information.
This is why becoming aware of how you think is fundamental.
Knowing what your values are is the first point of call. Second is critically evaluating how you filter through information.
If you are interested in moving closer to the truth and improving your thinking tool set, you must ensure your values align with the truth and commit to a life long journey of refining your thinking processes with the object to not only fend against misinformation, but to develop a robust critical thinking mind.
This of course is only necessary if your objectives are to think more critically and adopt a more accurate view of a given topic.
If not, then don’t bother reading on…
2. The Quest for Truth – Being Skeptical & Detecting BS
In order to progress along the ‘thinking’ ladder towards more scientific thoughts and ideas, it is imperative to recognize the importance of skepticism and how it plays into the acquisition of information and how that information is then filtered into our knowledge bank and belief systems.
As we can see above, being gullible typically means that all information (irrespective of how truthful it is) will pass through the information filter. This isn’t much help to forming accurate beliefs. Being paranoid isn’t useful either. Excessive fear reduces the amount of information that can pass through, despite some of it potentially being truthful.
Being rational and skeptical is the sweet spot for filtering information, and we must strive for this ‘mentality’ on our pursuit of knowledge…
Truth Mountain, Truth Gems, Rocks & Grenades oh my…
A useful metaphor that may help you to understand the process of becoming a better ‘thinker’ is to view your pursuit of knowledge as a quest to the top of a mountain, Truth Mountain. At the apex of truth mountain is factual correctness and opinions, beliefs and ideas that are grounded in scientific consilience – the most likely of accurate world views. Our best tools for a job like this are to be rationally skeptical, incorporate the scientific method and strive for logical and rational thinking.
In order to pass the gates that reside the top of Truth Mountain, you must possess a requisite number of truth gems. Truth gems contain accurate information and you must store them in your belief basket as you make your way to Truth Mountain.
Whilst collecting truth gems along the way is a self-evident goal, there are many challenges ahead.
There are truth rocks scattered everywhere. These rocks are disguised as a truth gem but are not accepted currency at Truth Mountain. Think of these rocks as information that may be factual, but lacking context, nuance or support from a strong body of research. You may want to look at these rocks when you find them as they can teach you a thing or two, but they aren’t as valuable as truth gems.
On your journey you must also be wary of truth grenades. To the untrained eye they look like truth gems, but do not contain accurate information and are instead riddled with BS and misinformation. Once placed into your belief basket, the falsehood they contain will cause blow up in your basket. In a real world sense, such misinformation actually has a slower but equally as detrimental effect on your journey to Truth Mountain. Any ill-informed information or pathological belief slowly erodes away at your intellect.
The objective is simple – collect as many truth gems as possible, observe and investigate truth rocks (but leave them behind) and evade truth grenades at all costs.
As you can now see, there are a number of important skills and tools that must be used throughout this quest in order to successfully reach the pinnacle of Truth Mountain.
You must have a way of detecting the BS contained in truth grenades, the skill to decipher truth gems from truth rocks and also a means for gathering and storing as many truth gems as possible in order to be accepted into truth mountain.
It would be wise to say that a BS detector would be a very useful instrument to identify truth grenades. Additionally, a basket or some other means of collecting truth gems and some intel on how to determine truth gems from truth rocks would be handy.
In reality, these are the cognitive processes that allow you to process and store information.
Back to our quest for truth…
Individuals who are highly gullible will often recklessly venture to Truth Mountain without any detector at all and no basket to collect truth gems. They will pick up truth grenades willy Nilly and have no idea what the difference between a truth gem and truth rock is.
In the fitness and nutrition sphere, we see this all the time with the lay person when they get duped into the latest fad diet the read about in a magazine or follow a workout of a jacked and shredded fitness model. They have no idea what information is good, bad or otherwise and are quick to adopt whatever it is that ‘makes sense’ or is appealing at the time.
On the other hand, those who are paranoid and too cautious on their quest to truth mountain won’t get far. They may spend too long planning their journey, refining their BS detector and configuring the optimal sized basket with little action. Whilst it is safe not to venture into the unknown, their hyper vigilance is disadvantageous to the acquisition of knowledge – they may not be harmed by truth grenades but won’t collect new pieces of valuable evidence.
These folks are generally those who reside in a group or adopt a certain ideology as gospel. They are not willing to hear or listen to new information unless it confirms their bias and are surrounded by other group members who echo their beliefs, further protecting their precious ideals.
Also not ideal…
The Rationally Skeptical
The ideal scenario for those seeking to be triumphant on truth mountain is to be cautious enough to navigate through the challenges ahead, as well as prepared and daring enough to hunt down truth gems – even if it requires tussle with the beast of cognitive dissonance along the way.
This individual is not as common in the fitness industry. In fact, most fitness professionals don’t even possess the judicious and critical mindset required to systematically move closer to the truth. Hopefully however, after this piece many more of you will uncover simple ways to be rationally skeptical crusader of truth.
As we can see, information we possess is not created equal and there are many obstacles we face when pursuing the truth.
So how can we sharpen our BS detector and create a simple process to harvest accurate information?
- Recognising logical fallacies and;
- Identifying true experts…
3. Logical Fallacies
Fallacies are errors in reasoning and undermine the logic of an argument. These arguments are used when a lack of evidence exists to support a contention and are extremely common when individuals peddle poor science and misinformation. Your BS detector must be tuned in to identify such fallacies in someone’s argument to ensure you can evade the BS.
There are many logical fallacies* that exist, but the most commonly used in the fitness arena are outlined below and I have included examples of each that are often used by the pro-plant crowd.
* The summaries of each logical fallacy was derived from this article HERE.
Appeal to Authority: This is a misuse of authority such as citing and relying only authorities and not addressing better evidence or citing irrelevant authorities, poor authorities, or false authorities.
Example: If the best athletes and scientists in the world say plant-based diets are better for performance, they must be.
Slipper Slopes: This is a conclusion based on the premise that if A happens, then eventually through a series of small steps, through B, C,…, X, Y, Z will happen, too, basically equating A and Z. So, if we don’t want Z to occur, A must not be allowed to occur either.
Example: If we stop killing animals for consumption, the entire ecosystem will improve and all animals will live more peaceful and prosperous lives.
Hasty Generalisations: Conclusions based on insufficient or biased evidence.
Example: Even though only a few of the best athletes in the world adopt a plant based diet, I can tell it’s the best diet for all athletes.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc: A conclusion that assumes that if ‘A’ occurred after ‘B’ then ‘B’ must have caused ‘A.’
Example: I gave up meat and my performance and health improved, so the meat was destroying my performance and health.
Genetic Fallacy: This conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of a person, idea, institute, or theory determine its character, nature, or worth.
Example: A vegan or vegetarian nutrition approach is optimal for performance because Gladiators ate a plant centric diet.
Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the writer should prove is validated within the claim.
Example: Unhealthy meat eaters are taking years off their life.
Circular Argument: This restates the argument rather than actually proving it.
Example: Vegans and vegetarians are healthier because they eat more plants and eating plants is healthy.
False Dillema’s:This is a conclusion that oversimplifies the argument by reducing it to only two sides or choices
Example: You can either save the environment and eliminate animal products from your diet or eat animals and destroy mother nature.
Strawman: This move oversimplifies an opponent’s viewpoint and then attacks that hollow argument.
Example: People who eat meat don’t care about animals.
Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than his or her opinions or arguments.
Example: People who eat animal protein have no morals because they murder innocent animals
Bandwagon Fallacy: This is an appeal that presents what most people, or a group of people think, in order to persuade one to think the same way. Getting on the bandwagon is one such instance of an ad populum appeal.
Example: If you care about animal rights, you won’t eat meat.
Moral Equivalence: This fallacy compares minor misdeeds with major atrocities, suggesting that both are equally immoral.
Example: Eating animals is no different to killing humans.
Now that you have at least some idea of the logical fallacies that many use to support their arguments and ideas, hopefully you are now equipped with insights into the common arguments used by pseudoscientists and the intellectually deficient/dishonest.
If you want to learn more about critical thinking, rational scepticism and logical fallacies as they apply to the fitness industry, our Online Mentorship Course For Personal Trainers has an entire module dedicated to teaching you how to be a better thinking.
This next section will cover how you can ensure you are listening to true experts and ensure you have a way to filter through the pretenders and contenders of science communication.
4. Identifying True Experts
I highly recommend you read my good friend and mentor Eric Helms “Determining Who Is and Is Not A Reputable Expert of Exercise and Fitness Science in The Internet Age” article HEREfor a more detailed explanation of the qualities an ‘expert’ should embody. For those who want the cliff notes, I have created a table summarizing the qualities of an expert and pseudo-expert.
The above are the qualities that are evident in true experts and those who are pseudo-experts. If you can surround yourself with true experts and more and more of them over time, the accuracy of the information you will have access too will only increase, leading to a better and better belief system.
I hope you enjoyed this article and it helped you think a little more about how you think and what you can do to enhance your thinking. If you can become more aware the logical fallacies and over time get better at picking them out in someones argument, I guarantee you will be better off. Couple that with a network of true experts and the information you acquire is only going to help your pursuit of truth and propel you towards Truth Mountain.
Stay skeptical folks.