Fitness Bullshit and Philosophy: A Fool-Proof Recipe!

Posted on 03 Dec 2014 19:58

See also What if the Fitness Industry Really Was Scientific?

I recently began saying, or repeating, as is my fashion, that "fitness philosophers" do not often seem to care too much about what is good, only what sounds good. That is a bold, and probably insulting, statement, to some of my friends who are caught up in the world of philosophy, I know. Then, I began reading a book about bullshit. It is not the first book I've perused on the subject of bullshit, and it probably won't be the last. I'll bet that not many people realize that there is serious thought, some of it quite philosophical, about bullshit in the academic world.

This particular book, though, is not just about bullshit, it is about philosophy. Of course, it was philosophers who first began considering "bullshit" as something to actually…consider. Ironic when it is sometimes so hard to tell the difference between bullshit and philosophy, which is exactly what this book is about.

When I came upon it, and I'm sure many of you who know me will understand why, I couldn't resist it. It is Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time. I want to talk about some of my thoughts related to certain passages, particularly in Chapter 7, written by Cornelias de Waal, and my thoughts in general, but there is much more to enlighten in this book, so check it out. The following passage hits a little too close to home!

In bullshitting claims are made, judgments cast, arguments presented, all with the unbearable lightness of those who are free of any responsibility or commitment, even if it is a freedom that is rooted in a profound sense of impotence or insecurity.

A lack of faith in genuine inquiry, intellectual laziness, being forced to speak on issues one knows too little about, all contribute to a culture of bullshitting. And it is a culture that can very well feed on itself. Bullshitting invariably invites more of it. It would be a mistake, however, to limit one's search for bullshitting only to spent scientists, oily politicians, or sick marketers. When philosophy itself is boldly identified, per Richard Rorty, with "carrying on the conversation" and truth is defined as "what your peers will let you get away with," even the perennial search for wisdom is being reduced to mere bullshitting.1

Directing the Conversation

Sometimes, in fitness conversations, "carrying on the conversation" is actually trying to direct the outcome of the conversation. This is a certain brand of bullshit that is often identified, in a joking way, as trolling, but it is anything but funny. Be on the lookout for this behavior. This tends to happen when members of a certain in-group, seeking to defend the status quo of the group, pop into internet conversations and make comments not designed to carry on the conversation, but to stop the momentum of the conversation and re-direct it back to a desirable direction.

A great example of this in the fitness world? Well, it doesn't even have to be a nasty comment, though this is often what happens. It may well be a plea for "positivity." This particular brand of bullshit is conspicuous in that it almost always involves someone pretending to be a neutral party, but who is anything but neutral.

Why can't we all get alone? Why is this conversation so long? There is no use in getting upset. Fitness pros need to find common ground, not engage in petty disputes.

I make a special case of this brand of bullshitting, because, you will notice that it is a "philosophical means" of re-directing a conversation, vy a commenter wearing the guise of the enlightened. It is a form of bullshit, and in line with the need of the bullshitter not to inform but to control the flow of a conversation to his or her own agenda. I have been told that we all seek to control the direction of a conversation, a view-point that can be refuted by pointing out that there is a big difference between refutation and redirection. One seeks to challenge, the other seeks to take the teeth out of conversation, and render the challenge harmless, without offering any real challenge of its own. It is about like saying you are going to wrestle a tiger, but instead, shooting it with a tranquilizer dart and removing its teeth and claws, before announcing "the tiger is defeated."

Bullshit, of course, takes many other forms, and not all of it uses such positive seeming tactics.


Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time
From the publisher: Popular interest in bullshit — and its near relative, truthiness — is at an all-time high, but the subject has a rich philosophical history, with Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Kant all weighing in on the matter. Here, contemporary philosophers reflect on bullshit from epistemological, ethical, metaphysical, historical, and political points of view. Tackling questions including what is bullshit, what does it do, is it a passing fad, and can it ever be eliminated, the book is a guide and resource for the many who find bullshit worth pondering.

What Sounds Good IS Good

Everyday, I see "fitness philosophers" pretending to search for answers that they really don't give a shit about. They are replacing a genuine spirit of inquiry with a self-delusional search for 'what sounds good.'

I submit that when a "thinker" is willing to seamlessly blend grand-sounding philosophical bullshit with honest scientific thought, he or she is showing a profound lack of respect for those with which they are communicating. Being too busy showing others how beautiful your mind is, and blurting out the first crap that pops into your head, is nothing but a recipe for more bullshit philosophy: Backpedaling will take up more of your time than an honest reasoning session would have.

Bullshitting about Bullshitting

In the book, the authors mention bullshitting about bullshitting. This is something that is on my radar, and it may not be easily recognizable. This week, I have seen articles popping up about foam rolling being useless, and diaphragmatic breathing perhaps being a "waste of time." We also routinely see good science being bullshitted away by bullshitting about the bullshitting! In fact, I must be constantly aware of becoming a professional "bullshit detector," which so easily glides to becoming a bullshitter about bullshitting.

But, what am I talking about, here? It is as simple as reacting to the bullshit way in which things are presented, overstated, sensationalized, etc. without a moment's thought to the actual content of the practice, message, or science. Just because some folks turned foam rolling into an opportunity to make big bucks on eBooks nobody needed and just because some folks say that breathing exercises are a cure-all, does not mean that these things are never useful. Reacting to the bullshit, instead of an honest inquiry into the pros and cons of the practice, is a form of bullshitting about bullshitting!

Making fun of Swiss balls is bullshitting. They are inanimate objects that cannot defend themselves. Instead, an honest scientific mindset would have you go after the claimant. Anything else is pretense.

The Perpetual Motion Commotion

Let me explain this in another light. I sometimes call this, in my head, the perpetual motion commotion. We have heard, countless times that fitness fads come around in a pendulum fashion. First we over-react to the practice, which becomes a fad because it is sensationalized, then we over-react to the sensational claims. Somewhere in there the actual advantages, or lack thereof, of the original practice get lost. We are talking about bullshit instead of talking about the substance of the practice! That is fine and dandy, as long as you actually do get back to the substance, but we do not! Instead, we just come right back around again..the pendulum swings back as the backlash begets its own backlash.

The perpetual motion commotion is something that explains, in my mind, part of the confusion that the fitness world has about science and scientific claims. The mistake is thinking that all sensational and crazy-ass sounding claims are similar to claims of discovering a source of perpetual motion. Such a device is deemed impossible because it violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This is often described as the law of "you can't get something for nothing." So, in other words, those claiming to have licked the science behind such a device are not making bullshit claims about real science, they are making bullshit claims about fake science.

This situation is not the norm. String theory, for instance is a real theory and lots of theoretical physicists are working on it. If a physicist comes along and starts making ridiculous statements about string theory, and spouting nonsense theories based on it, the physics world doesn't say to each other "Wow, string theory is bullshit."

But this is exactly what happens in fitness all the time. We replace the science with the claimant. When it is the messenger who is messing things up, the correct response is to get a better messenger, not to assume that the original message is complete bullshit. It may well be, but you have to actually find out for yourself.

The Intention

Still, it is true, that the way we go about trying to figure out new things, using creative thought processes, can look a lot like bullshitting. The authors reveal what I think is a crucial difference: Intention. Bullshitters are not really TRYING to figure anything out. Bullshitters do not care at all whether what they say makes any sense. And if it does occasionally make sense, it is a lucky accident.

Maybe I should be more blunt, more clear: Bullshitters have no investment in the subjects they talk about. The don't care about it. What they DO care about, is our investment. They care that we care about it.

The Blue Collar Job That Thinks it is White Collar

What is the biggest factor that is creating a crowd of bullshitters in the fitness industry? I would be bullshitting if I pretended to know! But, I've often said that the fitness industry is just too precious for its own good. Personal training is a blue collar job that thinks it is white collar. If you cannot accept your role and the reality that you are not a physical therapist, dietician, mental health counselor, biomechanics professor, or DOCTOR, then you are much more easily drawn to bullshitting.

Saying that personal training is a blue collar job does not mean it is not a highly skilled one. It also does not mean that it cannot be a high paid one. However, it is not an academic one. According to Forbes2, some of the highest paying blue collar jobs in America are:

Elevator installers and repairers: Now, don't you want the guy who installed and/or repaired the elevator you ride in to be top-notch? To be NOT a bullshitter? To stick with what he knows best and not come up with "the ultimate theory of elevators?"

Electrical and Electronics Repairers, Powerhouse, Substation, and Relay: I dare say I like my electricity and electrical stuff. These guys do stuff that may as well be magic, as far as I'm concerned. Yet, they cannot afford to bullshit about their abilities, as that bullshit will out as soon as the power goes out. Same things goes for electrical and power-line installers and repairers.

We could keep going. Commercial divers. There is no room for error, there. Aircraft mechanics? Yep, you do NOT want a tweaker working on your airplane.

So, what is the difference between personal training the blue collar profession and all these, or many other highly skilled professions?

Does it Work?

It is as simple as something working or not working! In all these professions, what you build or fix either works or doesn't work. There is no gray area. There is no room for bullshit. Something that is slapped together by duct-tape and a prayer will eventually fail at a crucial moment, and bang, the shit hits the fan.

The things that are genuinely a part of these other professions are obvious. We know when an aircraft mechanic is not talking about repairing airplanes! We know when he is talking about domains of which he has no first-hand knowledge. Since these things really do not matter so much to him, and since he does not really think that what he says about them makes any difference to anybody, he feels no real aversion to the occasional bullshit session.

But fitness is not aircraft maintenance. In fitness, we can often paint our own picture. We can draw in or take out elements that do not interest us, or that we deem to be more important or less important. We can elevate ourselves by pretending that concepts that are not really a part of what we do are of central importance. The other day I saw Dr. Oz say to a lady having trouble with binge eating, "I'm going to stop being a doctor now and talk to you from the perspective of someone who deals with the minds of people." Dr. Oz has absolutely no ground to claim that he has any qualification in the realm of mental health counseling. Yet, most of his audience will NOT really know this. They will accept that he is a person who routinely "deals with the mind" instead of just the body.

Well, the exact same thing is true of fitness professionals. We can bullshit about our abilities and expertize almost without consequence. In fact, as long as our peers do not call us out, it is unlikely that anybody else will. People do not need to know a lot about electricity to know that an electrician cannot repair an airplane.

A Society of Experts

Added to this reality is a social pressure that has never existed as strongly as it does now, the pressure to be able to instantly speak on many issues:

Within a liberal democratic society…every individual is expected to be a responsible citizen who is able to instantly voice an opinion on countless pertinent and not so pertinent issues. The expectation goes back to the Cartesian rejection of authority and the Enlightenment's appeal that everyone should think for himself. However, when the situation is such that one is forced, or conditioned, to speak with conviction on many issues one knows little about, one will be unable to always speak from a genuine desire to find true answers. For one thing, there simply isn't the time….1

There simply isn't the time. You do NOT have time to be the best trainer you can be and be a professional philosopher, a fitness scientist, a physiologist, a physical therapist, a psychologist, a dietician, a food expert, a self-defense expert, a marketing expert, or anything else with which the fitness industry routinely gets involved. Being able to incorporate learning from any one of these disciplines in your practice is one thing, being able to authoritatively speak on them, and to, in fact, practice them, is just not realistic. You will be damned-near forced to bullshit. And, since, when it comes down to it, you have no real connection with most of these things, you simply will not be very motivated to find real answers.

Learning Takes Direction, Intent, and Investment

Constantly, I am told by trainers that they are reading about this or that. Often they explain this to me with so much unrecognizable jargon that I have to wonder how they learned it all so quickly. After all, using esoteric technical jargon should usually mean you have a thorough understanding of the subject-matter. Then, what follows is more incompressible bullshit. Truly, they read about it, perhaps for a few hours, then they repeat what they read. But when I ask questions, the answers are just as unclear.

Then I ask something that seems to get everyone's dander up. Why are you reading about this stuff? I ask this especially when someone is reading about psychology today but yesterday they were knee-deep in functional mobility or some such. The question why is insulting, because it implies that perhaps they do not know why they are reading it, or they have no good reason to be reading it. Often, they do not. They have no strategy, no problem to solve, no burning questions they want to answer.

No Questions

Starting with no questions is often the road to bullshit. Because you have no problem to solve, you have no real need. No real need may mean that you stop short of any true inquiry; any true understanding. You simply sponge up a bunch of unrelated info, and then spew it all forth in a fount of bullshit. There is no better font from which we can give people a thorough wetting down than philosophy. Fitness philosophers, today, are the antithesis of the fitness scientists. While fitness scientists often bullshit by claiming to have final evidence when, in fact, they have no evidence, fitness philosophers bullshit by continually refusing to be clear about what anything said means. They will not "get to the bottom of things" and accept the consequences of their or anyone else's utterances. In other words, they muddy the truth and their hope is that people will be so caught up in truth-gathering that they eagerly accept this as an honest discourse about the truth.

It is as simple of saying "look here, I am thinking so hard about truth," instead of laying things on the table and saying "here is the difference between what is true and what is false." The bullshitter, whether philosophical or scientific, needs you to want to follow along, as the authors reveal when they say "Bullshitters need us, but we don't need them."

Bullshitters Do Not Care About What Is True

Think about it. If bullshitters really don't care about what is true and what is false, but WE do, then bullshitters have to pretend to care about what WE care about. So, bullshitters need to pretend to care about the truth. This is exactly why so many "philosophers" go on about the nature of truth! They love to go on about the difference, in nonspecific terms, between what is true and what is false, without ever being clear on what it is they think is true! It is easy to fight this, and deflate the bullshit before it gains any ground. We just need to be clear that it is not our mission to uncover the difference between truth and falsity but to seek clarity and understanding. We aren't seeking the difference, we are seeking the truth!

Regardless of mine or anyone else's effort to speak against it, though, bullshit philosophy and fitness are two ingredients that equal a fool-proof recipe, if your mission is to gather deluded followers and perhaps, cash in on meaningless esoteric gobbledygook, or simply to elevate your status in the fitness world by appearing to be a deep thinker. Bullshit, philosophy, and fitness: It works! But for whom?

Blaming the Victim

Everyday, people are taken in by bullshit. I am, you are, everybody is. At least for a moment or two. Sometimes, we are taken in completely. Bullshit is not always so easy to detect and we may not be that invested in the domain. Often, however, we are told that the victims of bullshit deserve their fate. We are told there is an art, even a science, to bullshit. I have been informed that clever marketing, is a "science," in fact. Bullshit has an end goal, and bullshitters do the job. Do the means justify the ends, and if we are stupid enough to be taken in by it, does this mean that the bullshitters are worthy of applause and the victims are worthy of disdain? Well, that depends on whether we see bullshitting as a form of lying. I do. Replace the word bullshitter with liar, and your attitude may change. Of course not all bullshit is created equal. There is little bullshit and there is big bullshit. Ah, now, lets consider this!

When do you call someone out on bullshit? Is it when you care about the subject? When it means something to you? When you are invested in it? Certainly! When do you ignore it and count it as unimportant? Easy answer, no? Bullshit is important to us when it is important, and when it is not, suddenly we blame the victims! Yet, for any domain, there is someone who is invested in that domain. Think about that the next time you "blame the victim."

1. Hardcastle, Gary L., and George A. Reisch. "Chapter 7: The Importance of Being Earnest: A Pragmatic Approach to Bullshitting." Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2006. 109-11.
2. "20 High-Paying Blue-Collar Jobs." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. <>.

This page created 03 Dec 2014 19:58
Last updated 22 Feb 2017 15:58

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