Cranks and Crackpots in Strength Training and Beyond

Posted on 21 Mar 2011 22:55

I got to thinking about familiar seeming strength training concepts when a new member came on the forum to introduce himself. He was saying that the concept of the "relative max" from the Singles Scene seemed oddly familiar and reminded him of concepts from Bulgarian weightlifting training. I don't know much about Bulgarian training but I thought, well good. After all I didn't invent it and I can't have been the only person to understand its importance. That would not be good, you see. That would be bad. Because if I'm the ONLY person to actually think a certain concept is really important, it probably isn't. Because I ain't that smart. I'm average at best, although I do strive to do above average work.

Yes, Newton "discovered" gravity but he wasn't the first person to notice that apples fall from trees and that something important must be at work there. Yes, yes, yes, I realize that the apple falling on Newton's head is probably a myth.

But what does it have to do with cranks? Well, whenever there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty the cranks rise up and begin to rule. If it seems like I am taking potshots, well, some people just have it coming. Cranks can be among the most charismatic and convincing of people for those unprepared to see through them. This is a GREAT time for those like Mercola and notable others who would use our worries and doubts to delude us into thinking that they know things that simply aren't known. There are whole organizations devoted to proving that vaccinations cause autism and that they are dangerous despite their overwhelming success in controlling human disease and the recent revelation that the landmark study that started the whole vaccination/autism debacle was a piece of crapola.

It's about belief. Some, especially many complementary and alternative medicine proponents, place more importance on their beliefs than on evidence. This does not make one a crank but it is one mark of someone with crank potential. However, there is a difference between someone who, because of a heartfelt desire to help others uses alternative therapies that they truly believe in and someone who tries to shove those therapies down everyone's throat by instilling unreasonable and unfounded fears in them.

Why instill fear of that kind in people? So you can turn around and allay their fears with all your wonderful answers and miracle cures.

The problem is that the public looks to science for 'answers' and gets more questions. Enter the truthsayer in possession of "real answers" and we have a savior. These people take advantage of the fact that the public largely misunderstands how science works.

Cranks would have true science brushed aside, ridiculed, and persecuted, and whenever they get the chance they do just that. Ironically while complaining of persecution and conspiracies against them and their beliefs. In fact, the claim of persecution by unknown and mysterious entities such as "the government" is one big sign of a crank and the internet is a crank paradise because these claims can be propagated at the speed of light.

First, I want to tell you why I am using the word crank instead of quack. Quack refers to doctors. Crank usually refers to scientists. Here, I mean those people who use science or the appearance of science to manipulate people and commit fraud against consumers. All these things refer to quacks as well and there is no real need for any distinction. The word crackpot has more connotation of being foolish or basically a lunatic, but many of these things apply to them as well. These are just slang terms and it doesn't matter which one we use, nor should we take them too seriously or get caught up in semantics. The idea is to learn to identify BS and pseudoscience. Here are some of the standard rules for identifying cranks, quacks, whatever:

  • They make claims that people want to hear but are too good to be true.
  • They always put down just about every established convention including medicine, the food supply, science, government, universities, just about anything that is "big" and authoritative. They then present completely unproven alternatives to these things they say are evil and dangerous.
  • They use case histories, testimonials, and subjective means to justify their claims.

So, those are the short rules. Now, I want to outline some of the broader hallmarks of cranks and crackpots as I see it, and the difference between how they operate versus how true science operates. Pseudoscience can be difficult to recognize in the hands of someone who knows just how to present it. Especially since they have such conviction. And THAT leads us to the first point:

1. Conviction Wins Over Doubt.

Many times when we see a fair and balanced view taken from a scientific standpoint and compare that with a view that is CERTAIN and CONFIDENT we take this as a sign of expertise and knowledge.

Being certain and confident in one's beliefs simply means one is certain and confident. Nothing else! People can believe, to the very core of their being, quite ridiculous things. They may believe that homeopathy is real and that an ionic bracelet will cure rheumatism. They may present these beliefs with complete conviction. Belief and conviction is not a sign of truth.

I cannot count how many times someone has pointed out to me that I said something slightly different than I said at some other point in time. Contradicted myself in some small way. NO. I am not contradicting myself. I am correcting myself. And I'll do it again, and again. As Adam Savage is fond of saying: "Failure is always an option!" A person who never wavers in their conviction is a person who has stopped correcting themselves or failed to ever think critically in the first place.

2. NO Evidence Leads to Non-Parsimonious Conclusions, or, NOT KNOWING is OKAY Sometimes.

Ever hear of Occam's Razor? Nowadays it's also known as the "law of parsimony" and it means, in effect, that when we have competing explanations for some phenomenon, we should tend toward the one which posits the least. This means basically that we should tend toward the theory that depends on the least assumptions. Cranks tend toward the opposite. When it comes to medicine a crank would rather assume all sorts of physiological phenomenon that we have no basis for in science. The more complex and mysterious the better. And they always know, beyond any doubt, that these phenomena are real, despite absolutely no way to observe or measure them.

moon landing was not a hoax

Beliefs that the moon landing was a hoax fit pretty much
all the points in this article. This is actually a "non-parsimonious"
conclusion. Those who have read a wikipedia article on
light and shadows seed evidence of a sound stage. This
rush to understanding pervades today's society.

moon landing was not a hoax

Beliefs that the moon landing was a hoax fit pretty much
all the points in this article. This is actually a "non-parsimonious"
conclusion. Those who have read a wikipedia article on
light and shadows seed evidence of a sound stage. This
rush to understanding pervades today's society.

Does this kind of thing happen in fitness and strength training? Constantly! They are just harder for the average person, without any specific education in the physiology behind strength and fitness, to recognize. See, if I told you that acupuncture works because the needles manipulate invisible channels or meridians through which qui flows, you probably know that we are getting into some less than scientific territory and you don't have to be told that these mysterious meridians and the energy which flows through them have never been directly observed, measured, or shown to exist in any practical way. You may still choose to believe in it despite the lack of evidence but that is an indication of your thought process more than anything else.

But physiology is not always so cut and dry. You know there are no mysterious energy pathways in your body but you may think that a "myostatin inhibitor" will work by turning off the production of this protein that is blocking your muscle growth. Myostatin after all, is a real protein. And a pill that could block its action sounds like something that biochemical science should be able to produce. After all, we have a pill for every conceivable thing these days. And the ads for this product reference a scientific study. You may not realize that you yourself are not a transgenic mice with muscular dystrophy. And you may not easily recognize that a bit of blue green algae in a pill will not blow up your muscles…that is, if the ad hits you with enough scientific sounding jargon.

And that's the problem. Alternative medicine and therapy don't rely on much scientific jargon, except for some of the naturopaths who like to pretend to be interested in "double blind placebo controlled studies" but primarily rely on anecdotal claims replete with placebo effects.

But back to "not knowing". Not knowing is one difference between science and pseudoscience. Science claims no absolute truths. Read that sentence again and really take it to heart. Science would tend toward the most parsimonious explanation until more complex ones come to light. Science assumes that somewhere out there is an absolute correct answer to most questions, but it does not claim to always have them.

It's not about truth but is about evidence. In contrast cranks constantly speak of truth. Usually the 'truths' they speak are ones that they don't want you to know. You'll notice that a huge percentage of online articles about fitness, nutrition, exercise, strength training, etc. have the words "truth about" in the title. I always consider these articles suspect until proven otherwise!

A big fallacious argument that cranks often use goes something like this: "Since there is no good evidence to show such and such a thing, you may as well except my conclusions on this subject." This is called an appeal to ignorance and it is the champion of cranks everywhere. The idea is to point to the lack of answers in the scientific establishment as evidence that the establishment is backwards, pigheaded, and just plain dumb.

Lack of evidence to support any particular conclusions means simply that no conclusions should be drawn (yet) or, as said before, the most parsimonious conclusion should be drawn…which is the one based on the least assumptions.

Lack of evidence is not an excuse to invent fantastic theories based on nothing but thin air. It is also not an opportunity to prove your genius by coming up with answers that are impossible to back up. Sometimes, the most intelligent answer to a question is I don't know.

But as far as the crank is concerned the evidence is always clear, and the establishment is suppressing it or denying it. THE ESTABLISHMENT is simply the club that they belong to. And 'they' are anybody who tries to point out the flaws, or usually the ridiculousness, of a crank's claims. The establishment, says the crank, is trying to suppress true science.

I've even read of cranks accusing "establishment science" of being the true purveyors of pseudoscience simply because they were not open-minded enough to accept his claims. The idea that science is about being open-minded and that all arguments, even patently ridiculous ones, should be equally weighed and considered is a frequent crank idea. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, "One should have an open mind; but not so open your brains fall out!"

3. Cranks Think BIG!

For example, a nutrition or health crank will never tell you that he discovered some small thing about nutrition. He will have turned nutrition on its head and rewrote the laws of thermodynamics in the process. Everybody that came before was misguided and wrong. He alone can see the answers.

By the same token, when they go on the attack they tend to attack the big names. A crank would never bother to dispute the theories of some obscure physicist laboring in an unknown University when he can attack Einstein.

In the nutrition and health world there are a lot of what I call "semi-cranks." They lack the lone-wolf attitude of the true crank but have crank tendencies. Some of these further buck the crank archetype by partnering up with others (I'll get to that). What these semi-cranks tend to do is grab on to emerging science like a drowning man grabs on to a rope. Despite the very important difference between emerging science and consensus science they decide that suddenly, here are the answers. They proceed to pick and choose data and, wala, we have a new health book promising the secret to prolonged life, clear skin, and maybe even abs of steel. So there is one rule of crank-hood they don't break..they think big.

4. Cranks Don't Play Well With Others, Especially the "Establishment"

Now, my experience with cranks is mostly with the alternative medicine crowd and similar such things. But wait! Cranks don't mingle! There is no 'crowd' and you will never see a crank talk about the great work of his fellow crank! The opposite of scientists which constantly refer to each other and communicate and compare findings.

Other scientists who criticize their work are "establishment scientists", as mentioned above, which means they are part of a system of institutionalized knowledge that precludes open-mindedness and is, to a crank, the definition of pseudoscience. The crank is a Maverick. A Lone-Wolf and a Free Thinker. They "thumb their nose at the establishment."

5. They are Smarter than You

Because you can't understand them, see? Of course, they are not really smarter than you they just aren't understandable because they obfuscate and BS their way through the world. Cranks are geniuses.

6. They aren't Zealots or fanatics

There is a very important distinction here that even the dictionaries seem to miss. Cranks wholeheartedly believe things that almost everybody else (relatively speaking) believe to be false. I.E. the majority of people believe the opposite. So remember that the important distinction between a crank and a zealot is that a crank, as I stated above, tends to be a lone wolf. Fanatics, on the other hand, have large numbers!

You will actually find people so "devoted" to one cause or idea that they border on fanaticism publishing in scientific journals. Journals that nobody ever heard and that have the publishing standards of However, a crank with co-authors? Not a crank! The nature of crank-hood is to be too darn smart to share space with another person. No, I don't take impact factor seriously, I was being facetious. I.E. it would stand to reason that a journal nobody ever heard of…


Everything is urgent to a crank. Their ideas need to be accepted now! Before something bad happens! If Mercola sends you a newsletter about some green powder supplement you just better believe that it is of the utmost importance that you begin taking this supplement now so as to rid your body of all those toxins that are killing you. Oh, and to "boost your immune system" and "energize your health." Do it now! And I mean, now, now, now. This is the most important email about your health you will ever receive and you must act quickly!

I think you get the point. And ignore the footnotes.

8. They Cannot Recognize Their Own Limitations or Incompetence

I could go on and on but I'm stopping here with number eight which I've saved for last because it is perhaps the most important part. This not only affects cranks but it is an important ingredient in the recipe for one. People who don't know what they are doing tend not to know they don't know what they are doing.

Here is the problem with having unlimited belief in your own abilities yet being incompetent: You come up with crazy stuff and then lack the ability to ever realize it's crazy. In fact, you lack the ability to even recognize true competence in any form.

Now some of that may seem obvious. It's not, though. Everyone can, at times, come to erroneous conclusions. I do it often, in fact. I'm not a genius. But I pride myself on recognizing those errors sooner or later. One of the coolest papers ever written on this subject is "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" by Justin KRUGER and David DUNNING in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999.

In it they talk about metacognition, metamemory, meta-comprehension, or self-monitoring: all of which refer to the ability to know how well we are doing. Basically, the very skills that make one good at what he or she does tend to also make them good at understanding how well they are performing. Cranks tend to have a double burden, then. They can't do it nor can they recognize what it means to be unable to do it! Lacking the ability to monitor and judge your own thought process is a huge problem if you want to be good at what you do.1

The paper's authors reported that average people tended to self-report themselves as above average. Since above I reported myself as average I hope that doesn't mean I'm actually below average! See, I don't really believe I'm average I just refuse to play by Randtardian rules1. Anyway, the good news for most of us is that practicing, learning, gaining experience, and being mentored at what we do tends to solve the problem. That is, as we get better at "doing it" we get better at recognizing when we are doing it well and when we are falling short. We also become better at recognizing this in others. Cranks, however, already having unlimited faith in their infallibility, never get there. They are stuck in a cycle of pseudo-accomplishment and incompetence. They cannot see their own inability nor can the see what true ability looks like in others.

To be honest, despite the subject of this letter, the fitness, bodybuilding, and strength world probably has more zealots or at least semi-zealots than true cranks. However, I could name some names in the fitness world but I'm not sure if you can get sued for calling someone a crank. I am allowed to call people dumbasses, though, apparently. Anyway, the alternative health world abounds with cranks. Alternative, after all, fits in perfectly with crankhoodedness.

To relate this all back to the forum post I was telling you about, the relative max, and how that may be similar to Bulgarian training concepts (which I can't confirm or deny), we've been accused of "reinventing the wheel" at GUS before. Our reply to this was something along the lines of "What do you expect us to do? Invent a feasible personal jetpack, Buck Rogers style?" Reinventing the wheel is EXACTLY what teaching is, folks! Or re-explaining it, re-shuffling it, etc. The idea is to take the wheel as a concept and make it better. Improve it. The essence of a wheel can't be bettered. It's round and it rolls. The wheel may be replaced someday, but no time soon.

The stuff that really SELLS in the fitness industry is the stuff that claims to be a replacement for the wheel. These are the guys that tell you "I have a secret that nobody else has EVER thought of. Everybody else is spinning their wheels and I alone have jet power!" You know the stuff, it usually has the word "insider" and "secret" in the title. And the guy hawking it usually describes himself as 'maverick' or something like that.

Despite All This Cranks Aren't the Biggest Problem

Now I've gone through all this trouble to preach about cranks and now I turn around and tell you that they aren't the biggest problem? Well, let me preface this, then, by saying that cranks are a HUGE problem because they can have a profound and powerful influence on many people and thereby do a great deal of harm. See, the problem is the people that really need help and turn to the snake oil these cranks are selling are the people who stand to be harmed the most.

It is not the people who, having already lived a longer lifetime than their ancestors even thought were possible and now have the time and luxury to sit around dwelling on their every discomfort, feeling that they really shouldn't ever have to suffer an ache or a pain without some medicine or therapy to relieve it. Those people are mostly only injured in the wallet. It's the people who, having a serious illness for which there do exist many scientifically proven treatments, turn to these snake oil salesmen instead. At risk of their life.

1. Kruger, Justin, and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77.6 (1999): 1121-134.

This page created 21 Mar 2011 22:55
Last updated 19 May 2019 20:11

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