They Are Not Smarter Than You: Facts, Knowledge, and Reasoning Skills

Posted on 18 Aug 2010 22:52

Never assume that your authority figure is smarter than you. I constantly see trainees accepting everything a certain person says because they simply feel that they are not smart enough to apply any thought to it so they must simply absorb it as gospel.

I was looking around for Mel Siff items on the internet and came across Tony Gentilcore’s “Resource Page”. After the entry on Mel Siff’s book “Facts and Fallacies of Fitness” Gentilcore wrote:

“Mel Siff is smarter than you, and here is why. This book will serve as your "ammo" for any nimrod who thinks they know what they’re talking about.”

Now, Gentilcore is just being smarmy as he is apt to do. I mean what do you expect? He’s around 18 or so. But this attitude is a very typical and very real one. Logically if Mel Siff is smarter than you then you cannot hope to understand what he says enough to use it as “ammo”. Since perhaps half of Mel Siff's writings are understandable even to the experienced it is difficult to use much anything of what he says as ammo…especially in those instances where he entered territory that he poorly understood and so obfuscated his way through. Many people complain about the lack of practical conclusion in much of his writing and this is why. There were no conclusions, much of the time, to be made, since there was not much of anything being said. Not that he did not say many brilliant things, in fact, he was great at chopping down the fairy-land trees of some of the humbug wizards in the industry, and I admire and respect him for it. But he also overstepped himself just as often. So the real message here seems to be the typical one. Memorize and regurgitate everything he says to the “nimrod" you disagree with. The nimrod may well be wrong but if he takes the time to frame his arguments based on his best knowledge and critical thinking while you just repeat "facts" you’ve read…guess who is smarter? I’ll give you a hint…it ain’t you.

Facts and Knowledge

So, the key words in that last paragraph are "facts" and "knowledge". They are not the same thing. There is an easy way to instantly differentiate the two. Facts don't change very often; knowledge does.

The fact is that many people who would like to frame themselves as experts read books such as Supertraining and Science of Practice of Strength Training and then water it down and regurgitate isolated bits of it without any real understanding of the material. They have the books yet they are still nimrods. These books are meant to be interpreted. Books are instruments of knowledge not knowledge itself! These people have misunderstood the difference between data, facts, "truth" and knowledge.

I'm going to construct (fancy for "make up") a scenario to illustrate the difference between fact and knowledge. A big thanks to John Denker's "Truth in Contrast to Knowledge" for helping me make this up. I will start with a fact:

  • The biceps brachii muscle is a flexor of the elbow joint.

That, folks, is a fact. I can state without any reasonable degree of doubt that the biceps flexes the elbow joint and that this has been "true" for thousands of years. This fact did not come about when the elbow-flexor-discovery man found out that the biceps brachii flexed the elbow. It was a fact way before that and will continue to be a fact while the elbow flexor guy rests in eternal peace, for ever and ever, amen.

Let's assume that lots of people have checked and rechecked, verified and re-verified the findings of the elbow-flexor-discovery man and that it has been observed in many different circumstances that the biceps flexes the elbow. We hold it as fact. The fact hasn't changed. When this fact was discovered, however, our knowledge changed and as a result most beginning strength trainees know the fact that the biceps flexes their elbow. Or they darn well should know it! But even if only I knew this it would still be fact. Fact is, after all, fact.

So being aware of certain facts is part of our knowledge. But knowledge itself is much more far-reaching than a simple awareness of isolated facts. So let's look at knowledge. We can make different statements about the biceps brachii muscle based on the given fact:

  • The biceps brachii is an elbow flexor
  • Many people have observed that the biceps brachii flexes the elbow
  • The biceps brachii only flexes the elbow
  • At least one of the functions of the biceps brachii is flexion of the elbow joint
  • when someone does a dumbbell curl they will use the biceps brachii to flex the elbow

We've covered the first statement. It's a pretty good statement. The second as well. The third statement though is absolutely false. It sounds good to most people because it is so darn exact. However, we cannot conclude that the the only function of the biceps brachii is elbow flexion. Our knowledge of the facts cannot lead us to that conclusion (in this scenario). The first statement we can go around saying all the time and therefore make an assertion without any fear that next year we will turn out to be wrong and so have our career go down the drain.

The fourth statement is wishy-washy. Who likes a wishy-washy statement? Well, the person who wants to make use of valid reasoning and use of data should like a such a statement when it doesn't go too far like statement three does. In fact, of all five statements, statement number four is the most "scientific".

The fifth statement must be valid though, right? Wrong. First of all, we've assumed that a dumbbell curl is elbow flexion against resistance. We don't need to argue that. However, based on the simple fact that the biceps brachii is a known flexor of the elbow joint we cannot conclude that everyone who does a dumbbell curl will use the bicpes brachii to accomplish the movement. Could it be that there are other elbow flexors? If a person's biceps were destroyed or paralyzed could they still flex the elbow and thus perform a curl exercise? We don't know because we don't have enough data. We lack the facts. So we cannot assert that statement five is "true".

So part of knowledge is recognizing the limitations of facts. Let's say we want to know about statement five. It's not so easy. In fact, it is downright difficult to ascertain the validity of that statement. You've got figure out a whole lot of other things about how the muscles and movements work and how they are controlled by the nervous system.

Is there more than one flexor of the elbow? Do these muscles work together? If so, can one muscle be "left out"? Also, if one muscle is paralyzed, can another muscle "take its place? Or, if not, can remaining muscles be "re-educated" in some way to perform the movement? In short, can we say that EVERYBODY will use their biceps brachii if they perform a dumbbell curl? We cannot. Based on the one isolated fact that the biceps is an elbow flexor we cannot hold statement five as valid. We even lack data to make it reasonably less precise and so make it more valid.

Before we move on, note: The biceps brachii is not a pure elbow flexor. It is also a lso a strong supinator of the forearm, a weak flexor of the shoulder joint, and a shoulder stabilizer, along with other lesser roles. read more about the biceps.


However, we could hypothesize statement five. If the statement is a hypothesis we are not saying it's true, we are saying that maybe it's true. Maybe it's not. We could even say, "it's probably true", and as long as we don't get precious about it it's still a hypothesis.

We want to avoid getting attached to our ideas. So a great way to handle statement five would be to immediately go and look for something that will make it invalid. Proving it would be very difficult indeed. But invalidating it in a way that it will never be an absolute assertion is easier. We could do research to look for well-documented cases, for instance, of the results of paralyzed biceps brachii (and perhaps associated muscles) and the effects this has on flexion of the elbow. We may find case studies. Even one well-documented case study, no matter how exceptional it may prove to be, is enough to disprove the hypothesis. Enough to make us abandon the general statement as it stands. By doing this we've also countered the oft-repeated assertion that 'case studies are useless'. See, science isn't so mysterious after all.

On the other hand, perhaps a friend of ours tells us a story about his cousin Bob and how Bob lost the use of his biceps brachii but was able to, after a time, bend his elbow to some useful extent and even curl a dumbbell. This is anecdotal evidence. We cannot rely on this story. However, even this anecdotal evidence may encourage us to keep looking. After all, even though anecdotal evidence is unreliable it is not always "false". We keep looking and we find several well-documented cases of people with a paralyzed biceps brachii who were able to regain elbow flexion. We could be reasonably sure that our hypothesis "when someone does a dumbbell curl they will use the biceps brachii to flex the elbow" is false. If you have a whole group of hypotheses related to the role of the biceps brachii in elbow flexion you may choose to remove this particular one.

But let's say we don't go around constructing hypothesis packages. We just wanted to see if that one statement was unreasonable, as we suspected it probably was. We've still begun to use so-called scientific-method. What's more, we simply used a bit of reasoning and research. We didn't set up an experiment and we wouldn't have the means or the know-how to do so if we wanted to.

"The" Scientific Method

Now let's move on to another very likely scenario that goes on in fitness, bodybuilding, strength training and related forums every single day. We have abandoned the first scenario where we knew hardly anything about the biceps. But we still remember that we were able to discount statement five as being a valid assertion. Somebody states in a thread about dumbbell curls that dumbbell curls ALWAYS use the biceps brachii. You respond and say that it is unreasonable to assume that a dumbbell curl must always use the biceps brachii and it would be more appropriate to say that "the large majority of the time, a dumbbell curl will use the biceps brachii", or something like that.

Of course, you wouldn't really make such a nit-picking statement but in the spirit of science, you decide to nitpick a little. The original poster responds to you by saying, "prove it, where are the studies?", Which is the number one "unscientific" response you will get to anything that has any claim to being a scientific assertion on a forum.

The poster has made the classic mistake of assuming that science is about studies being done to 'prove' things. When you say that his assertion is unreasonable you've hinted that you can disprove it. OR, cast serious doubt on its validity. You've done the research. However, you have not experimented, or designed and executed some perfect example of the 'scientific method'. Yet you have engaged in science. The idea that research is something distinct from science is one of the most destructive ideas to real science out there. A huge number of the thousands of scientific journals have the word 'research' in their name for a reason.

Your study of the literature to find examples that would serve to disprove a statement was research. Research is gathering information. The science is the "knowledge" that is gained from research. Observing, experimenting, gathering data, analyzing data and studying literature are all research. What is science?

Science is knowledge. That is science is scientific knowledge itself. It is also a method or way of going about gaining knowledge. These are not the same thing but together they fall under the umbrella of the thing which we call "science". However, those who would like to confuse and befuddle us will insist that 'science is not a thing'. They would like you to buy the notion that the "act of carrying out science" is what science is. Others just like to say that science is a "method". Which is, of course, a thing.

We may say that biology, for example, is "a science". We may also say that science is a "method of attaining knowledge". So biology is a topic we gather knowledge about but science itself is not the same thing as the areas it covers. However, since those who argue this use words like "knowledge" and "physical world", they are hopelessly confusing everyone who would like to learn stuff. The only people who are not confused are scientists because scientists don't walk around concerning themselves with "what is science?".

Since knowledge and the physical world cannot be placed into discrete little packages the very statement that "biology is a science" but "not science itself because science is a method" is one of those have your cake and eat it too moments. It's "a science" but it is not "science". To avoid such pretentious clap-trap, how about we say that biology is a category of science and that science is a way of gathering, organizing, and categorizing knowledge of the physical world.

Unfortunately, it has become in vogue to invoke the so-called 'scientific method' as being the same thing as 'science' and the strict definition of it. And while modern science uses much more rigid principles than the science of ancient times, that does not mean that science can be boiled down to a static cookbook recipe and that this recipe is the scientific method. The purveyors of such nonsense wish simply to pretend that they own the cookbook and you do not. When in fact there are many ways of gaining knowledge…it's just that some are better than others. In other words, they are saying that science is an activity and that by extension, only those with the cookbook can do it. While this may be a perfectly acceptable way to view science, it has no claim to being the only way to view it. There are many rules as to what science is NOT but there are few hard and fast rules as to what science is. That is, the more we try to rigidly define science so that we can lay claim to it while excluding others, the more we muddy it. Every day, as a result, discussions on those forums I mentioned devolve from the discussion of science to the discussion of what science is or is not.

Do not take discussions about "the" scientific method seriously. There is not one "method" to science so if we take the term seriously we really don't get science. Knowledge can be gained in many ways and by many paths. "The" scientific method is as literal as "the" strength training method. Which is to say there is really no such "actual" thing.

"It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it."
- Percy by Percy W. Bridgman (From: Reflections of a Physicist, 1955)

We can say that knowledge and science is not simply absorbing pieces of information and then regurgitating it to beat down some "nimrod" you suspect to be engaging in "broscience". But the constant argument over science may just be putting the cart before the horse. The average student of strength training need not be armed with prodigious and complex knowledge in order to learn about strength training and be successful in doing it. And even those with prodigious knowledge will admit that their knowledge is, and will remain, woefully incomplete.

What you must not do though is fall prey to the feeling that since "science" is too complex and since the answers provided are not always concrete, then there is no use in bothering. I guarantee that even if you don't find the answers you are looking for you will find a lot of other things! And sometimes the answer is no answer. That's okay too.

We found a pretty good answer to our dumbbell curl question. So what is it that made that whole inquiry scientific as opposed to "following the scientific method" or any of the more pretentious ways to view science? We can list a few things about it:

The hypothesis was testable or checkable in some way.

For some statement to be a valid hypothesis it MUST be testable or checkable! This is one of easiest ways to distinguish science from nonscience. If there is no hope of ever being able to test something then it is not scientific.

This doesn't mean we experimented or went out and tried to directly observe people with paralyzed biceps. It means we simply looked for cases to disprove the hypothesis. That's checking. We just were able to do a lot less checking because we already suspected the statement was too general to be useful. It's very hard to PROVE a general statement but to disprove one can be a very simple and straightforward process

We had preconceptions going in.

People often think that it is unscientific to preconceive. That is because they confuse preconceptions with bias. How can one not preconceive? It is actually more scientific of us to use our reasoning skills to give us clues as to the direction our research should take! Without "preconception" we'd be stuck on this simple problem for a lot longer than should be necessary. It's okay to preconceive because we have to conceive of a plan. That does not mean we will invent data when are preconceptions do not match our findings. We simply must not cling to our preconceptions for too long as they lead us down blind alleys. Science isn't about casting about blindly without a hint as to what you are doing.

We didn't use a cookbook "method"

We let the problem itself and our knowledge of the interconnected details lead us in the right direction. It would have been "unscientific" to simply take the statement at face value and scour Pubmed looking for "proof" of it! This would have been what is called cherry-picking and it is the way most people work.

We had a question and we LOOKED FOR AN ANSWER.

That is science. There are plenty of people that will try to tell you that it's not science, it's research. So it is!

The point is that science is the business of looking for the answers to questions. Endless discussions about what science is are not helpful because science is not like a horses mouth. That is, you can engage in endless debate about how many teeth a horse has, as scholastic monks of legend were once said to do, but the best way to find out is to go up to a horse, open up his mouth, and count his teeth. At no point will we be able to look science in the mouth. We used logical thinking. Or, better yet, we used what is nowadays called 'critical thinking'.

Arguments versus Assertions

How was what we did, in our scenario "logic" as opposed to many of the shenanigans people get up to on the net these days. Such as "drinking a gallon of milk a day will get you jacked"?

Well, that statement about milk is an assertion. Much like our assertion that the biceps brachii is a flexor of the elbow. The difference is that the milk drinking assertion will make you look like an idiot and the biceps assertion will serve you very well, with no decoration or qualification unless asked for. Assertions are different from arguments. Many pseudo authoritarian types go around making a whole lot of assertions but make very few arguments.

I used the word argument at the beginning of this post: "Logically if Mel Siff is smarter than you then you cannot hope to understand what he says enough to use it as “ammo”. So the real message here seems to be the typical one. Memorize and regurgitate everything he says to the “nimrod” you disagree with. The “nimrod” may well be wrong but if he takes the time to frame his arguments based on his best knowledge and critical thinking while you just repeat "facts" you’ve read…guess who is smarter? I’ll give you a hint…it ain’t you."

Going around quoting Mel Siff is simply making assertions of a type. That does not make you smarter than someone else. I am ASSERTING then, that taking the time to frame good arguments is smarter than just reading and regurgitating books. So what in the world is the difference between an argument and an assertion? An argument is a series of statements all connected up together so that you can come to a valid conclusion.

We can rest assured that nobody has ever constructed a logical argument around the proposition that "a gallon of milk a day makes you jacked". While deciding how to research our hypothesis about dumbbell curls and the biceps muscle, we used arguments without even having to think them out or write them down. Making arguments is part of logical reasoning. And we used logical reasoning to direct our inquiry. To be more specific, I'll construct an argument after the fact (yep, you can do that to, it's allowed). But first I have to explain the process.

An argument consists of propositions. These propositions are declarations or assertions and are called premises. The premises are used to come up with a conclusion. I am only concerned here with deductive arguments. In a deductive argument the conclusion is logically entailed by the premises. That is, the conclusion logically follows from the premises and if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true. However, and this is a big however, arguments do not have to be 'true', so when I say, "if the premises are true" I mean that should we assume that the premises are true. In this way, arguments are not said to be true or false but to be valid or invalid. All the premises can be untrue and the conclusion can be untrue but as long as the conclusion follows logically from the premises the argument is valid. So an argument is a form of reasoning.

Inductive Arguments

Before I go on, in the interest of thoroughness, the other type of argument that I hinted at above is an inductive argument. Inductive arguments are not a great way of making a point but we use inductive thinking all the time. In fact, the legendary fictional detective Sherlock Holmes actually relied on inductive reasoning to solve his cases, despite Arthur Conan Doyle's mistakenly calling it deductive reasoning; a mistake that has been perpetuated by the many movie and television adaptations. Inductive reasoning is not as useful as deductive reasoning but it is not entirely useless for everyday decision making. However, for critical thinking, it is much more difficult to pin down just what a good inductive argument is and whether it is useful at all. A great example of an inductive argument comes from Bill Philips and Michael D'Orso in "Body for Life":

"Dumbbell training is inherently safe. I've never observed a torn muscle or any other serious injury resulting from the proper use of dumbbells."1

It so happens that this inductive argument is an absurd statement but it's still an inductive argument. Maybe a better one:

"When I deadlift I pay the utmost attention to quality. I constantly check my form. I have performed the deadlift thousands of times and I have very precise ways with which to progress the lift, warm up to the lift, and cycle the lift. Out of hundreds and hundreds of deadlift sessions, I have only been injured once and this was due to a pre-existing back injury and not directly caused by the deadlift. I think it is improbable, therefore, that I will be injured when I deadlift today."

That is an inductive argument. I haven't even tried to say that it is "true" only that I am reasonably sure that it is probably true. One feature that makes inductive arguments much different from deductive arguments is that inductive arguments can be improved by more premises. If I were to add that I was only using half my one repetition maximum and that I was sticking to sets of 3 with that weight I could state with even more confidence that I probably will not be injured. I'd also be wasting my time but you get the point…

Using this inductive argument to come to the conclusion that I can safely perform my deadlifts is entirely rational. A confusing feature of logical thought is the difference between that which is rational and that which is not. Sometimes, an inductive argument is the more rational argument since it is more useful to the context and to our goals.1 It would be irrational to assume that we could ever deduce complete safety while performing heavy lifts! Here, I have used my current knowledge, observations, and what has come before, to make a conclusion. This conclusion is a conjecture. With inductive reasoning, the more data we have, the better our conclusion.

A great way to understand this is for me to give you a pattern of letters and ask you what comes next:


Based on this pattern, an "educated guess" may lead you to conclude that A comes next, because A repeats at the beginning, so there is at least some chance that it is about to repeat again. So, see, here we are not making the only possible conclusion, which is what we do with deductive reasoning, we are making the best conclusion we can based on the amount of data we have, which is very limited. It is likely that B or C or even some other letter will come next, but to conclude another letter would be a random guess.

Deductive Arguments

So inductive reasoning is not useless and if you are not willing to accept the need for some inductive reasoning then you may as well not train. Because when it comes to things like injuries and safety, most all arguments are inductive! Get used to it or don't bother. It would be nice if the practice of resistance training was so pat and neat that safety could consist solely of this type of argument:

1. Dropping heavy things on your foot will injure your foot

2. Forty Five pound weight plates are heavy.

Therefore, if you drop a 45'r on your foot you will injure your foot

That is a deductive argument. It does not even need to be for sure true that if you drop a heavy thing on your foot it will get injured. It is only necessary that the conclusion is necessitated by the premises and in this case, it is. Therefore this is a valid argument. And it's probably a true one as well! You could use the scientific method to test it out. Let me know.

I said before that we used deductive arguments to help direct our inquiry into the dumbbell curl biceps question. Remember, this is just a scenario that I have made up, therefore I am making up the arguments as the type of reasoning that might have occurred. This does not mean you are confined to certain arguments. We may have used different reasoning and therefore different arguments had we both been trying to solve the same problem.

We started with a hypothesis, or statement, or whatever you want to call it, that we wanted to be able to discard because we suspected it was an unreasonable statement: "When someone does a dumbbell curl they will use the biceps brachii to flex the elbow."

The reason we thought the statement was unreasonable was that we found it to be too general. The reason we found it to be too general is that of our knowledge that elbow flexion, like most movements, is not confined to only one muscle. Therefore we used deductive reasoning to lead us to the conclusion that the statement was too general. Although we didn't think them out or write them down, we can think about the form those deductive arguments might have taken, as a thinking exercise. Then the conclusions themselves become the premises that lead us to our conclusion about the original statement. One such argument may be something like this:

1. If biceps brachii is but one flexor of the elbow joint, and

2. There are several other muscles which flex the elbow such as the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles and

3. Muscles that serve the same function around a joint can substitute for other muscles which serve that function then

The statement that a dumbbell curl always uses the biceps brachii cannot be said to be certain.

Remember that our premises need not be true. In this argument the first two premises are true and the third one is "maybe true" but would need a whole other investigation to determine. But based on the three premises, the conclusion MUST follow. That is exactly the kind of thinking that would lead us to question the statement about curls and then go actively look for instances that support our proposition that it is an unreasonable statement because it is too general and absolute.

I chose the third premise for a reason, as it represents the kind of red herring that many of the people you will encounter use to play at science and logic without really understanding it. There is a very good chance that if you presented the above argument to a person to explain how you decided to disprove the dumbbell curl statement, your subsequent disproof would be ignored and instead you will be asked to "prove" statement three. When, in fact, statement three has nothing to do with your disproof of the original statement but is only part of a set of premises you used to bring you to conceive that the dumbbell curl statement was a little dumb.

Red Herrings and Raising the Bar

Upon explaining this, painstakingly, to your respondent, you are told, "how can you ignore muscle substitution? Are you saying it's unimportant? How can you call yourself a strength trainer when you don't even think it's important to discuss muscle substitution?" This very common argumentative fallacy, which is called a red herring, is a grown up version of the thing you used to do to your teacher when you distracted her with irrelevant questions until the bell rung. On the internet, this type of misdirection is the most common tactic used by those who which to play at science but lack the critical thinking skills to uphold their assertions.

Red Herrings often give way to "raising the bar" which I usually call "moving the goal posts" or "piling on the problems." This is especially juicy because of the differences between an argument and an explanation. The reason you told about the argument you used to direct your inquiry was not to make an argument but to offer an explanation. While an argument is a set of statements used as evidence to support the (logical) conclusion, an explanation is an attempt to make something comprehensible. It is about the why's and wherefore's. In this instance, I described the argument that I used in order to show the operation or circumstances that led me to my investigation. Often times when we make explanations we are treated as if we are making arguments.

A practical piece of advice. When someone throws you these red herrings. Explain to them, that you think it is a red herring and invite them to illustrate how it figures into the conversation. They will likely dig themselves into such a hole you can just sit back and watch the show.

Arguments versus Explanations

There can be much overlap between argument and explanation. Both are rationales. We are attempting to describe the logic behind the things we reason out. The main difference between an argument and an explanation is that while an argument uses premises to support a conclusion in an explanation the conclusion is treated as already accepted and we are trying to explain why or how the "fact" of the conclusion exists. Arguments can be a part of an explanation, of course.

These things are much easier in subjects such as physics when there are very well established physical "laws" or principles. In training for muscular strength and performance, however, there are very few such easily applicable and dependable rules! Good "theories" for strength training would be "risky" theories. As we shall see, most of the granddaddy laws involve very little risk and there is no "case" which cannot be interpreted to fit them.

We Are All Scientists

As R. Barker Bausell asserts in Snake Oil Science, "We are all scientists." That, in a nutshell, is the message here. Frankly, those that would like to take ownership of "science" and hold it over the rest of us mere human's heads just aren't getting science. We as humans are born scientists. It's how we became what we are. We go through life making causal inferences. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. But that doesn't separate us from "real" scientists. We simply aren't content with accepting our fate. We see a problem and we look for a solution. Sometimes those solutions are based on cognitive traps and loopholes to sound thinking and sometimes, especially the ones that take a while to evolve, are right on the money. If there is a process to it then it is the simple act of asking the question "Why?"

See related article What if the Fitness Industry Really Was Scientific?

1. "Deduction and Induction." Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic. Web. 18 Aug. 2010. <>. : full source reference

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This page created 18 Aug 2010 22:52
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 18:14

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