The Data Dump in Fitness Information: Time to Get Back on Track

Posted on 28 Jan 2013 18:01

By Eric Troy

I've read a couple of journal papers here and there. And I've also published a fair amount of them here on Ground Up Strength, if permission was given to do so. One thing that you may have noticed about journal articles these days is that they are full of tables and supplemental attachments. Some of them useful and essential and some of them ridiculous fluff. You may even have noticed that I routinely leave out many of the tables in these journals. That is because they look particularly useless, adding nothing to the content or readability of the paper and serving only to create noise and distract the reader, taking up his or her precious time.

My son's school science project this year illustrated this nicely. He goes to a great school and he is being taught critical thinking skills and the science instruction is top notch. But a big part of the package he was given was about including tables and graphs, making it seem that science and tables/graphs were almost synonymous. I helped him with his project and we included a graph, even though the graph in no way made the very simple data any easier to understand. It just looked pretty.

For journal papers, when the tables seem particularly important, I include them, but when there are 10 of them I have to say enough is enough. Still, tables are at least more "primary" to the study. What you'll also notice is what is called supplementary information. Files attached, to be downloaded separately. Some papers have so many of these supplementary items, it begins to look like a data dump. Not many readers will comb through reams of supplementary files, especially when a great deal of the information in them is already in the paper.

I thought I was the only one who felt this way but, apparently, at least one journal editor is fed up as well. Christine Borowski, who is the executive editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) published an editorial in the journal about this problem called Enough is Enough, and plans to put a stop to it in her journal.1 I should pay more attention because according to her lots of people are complaining about the "overabundance of supplementary information" in primary research articles. In fact, she says the complaints are at cacophonous levels. The Journal of Neuroscience made a similar announcement regarding supplemental material.2

Data dumping is not only limited to supplementary information in scientific papers. I find it in something I know a lot more about (than I do about scientific papers): articles about fitness, strength training, etc. Now, if this is a problem in research papers written by people with strings of letters after their names, what the heck is it doing in fitness and nutrition articles aimed at lay-people?

What do I define as a data dump in this regard? Reams and reams of non-essential technical information, especially replete with accompanying obtuse technical jargon.

Look, I know my articles are long, sometimes. In fact, they are often over-long. But I don't think you can accuse me of being over-technical or obtuse. I try to thoroughly explain and back up my ideas, and I may sometimes go over-board. Same things with other authors. Even with technical info, you have to ask, is the author just being over-zealous or, and this is the million-dollar question, is it a smoke-screen?

There are so many different kinds of articles with different purposes, all of them under the general fitness umbrella. Or nutrition, as well. The purpose of some articles is to get across technical information. But when it is not, there is one simple question to ask: How essential is all this stuff to the article?

Usually, if you have doubts as to whether there is a purpose to all the 'extra' information thrown into the article, you are on to something. The strength of your reaction to this will probably give you a clue as to whether the author was just being a bit over-enthusiastic, or whether the data dump was a cover operation. Designed to look smart but teaching nothing. Very precise seeming numbers are a big part of this.

Throwing a lot of numbers into a concept that cannot even be precisely measured is not about data. It's about what Charles Seife, in The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, calls "proofiness." Very precise information about areas of human performance? Well, it just doesn't get that precise. Seife calls these mostly made-up numbers Potemkin numbers, which he named after Prince Gregory Potemkin, who, according to legend, duped an empress with an elaborate facade.

Potemkin did not want the Russian empress to know that a certain area in the Crimea was an unpopulated, barren wasteland. He thought that he needed to convince her the area was bustling and thriving. To this end, he basically made what would be, by today's standards, a movie set of a small town, like the ones they make for Westerns. He built wooden frameworks, facades made to look like villages and towns when viewed from a distance. The empress traveled through the area in her fancy carriage and was easily fooled into thinking these were busy towns, full of people. To Seife, Potemkin numbers are just like Potemkin villages: Facades.

And I agree. Look at random through some articles about health or fitness. What you will find is a whole lot of them are absolutely chock full of very precise figures like statistics and other numbers. Look at this example from UNICEF. Now, I certainly support the goals of UNICEF but what you'll notice is that the article is full to the brim with very precise statistics. It's full of proofiness. It is very unlikely that many of the numbers the article claims could be known so precisely. But it doesn't matter, for the reason expressed by the quote from Richard Hofstadter, which Seife uses at the beginning of his introduction:

The American mind seems extremely vulnerable to the belief that any alleged knowledge which can be expressed in figures is in fact as final and exact as the figures in which it is expressed.

- Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life3

What if you asked me how to "get through your sticking point" on bench I told you this: You have to use speed training so that you can learn to accelerate through the sticking point. You need to use exactly 50% of your 1RM on bench for 8 sets of 3.

Don't I sound really smart? Precise numbers like that must have taken a lot of figuring out. Nah, I'm just repeating some crap that someone else made up. Yes, made up. If you tell people the truth, that there is no exact right intensity and exact number of reps and sets that everyone must do to "get through their sticking point," they will simply turn the page. Go to the next article that gives them some exact numbers. Numbers have the ring of not only proofiness, but truthiness. The more precise the formula is that someone feeds you, the more you should suspect them of selling you a bill of goods. So, this is a problem that we as writers have to contend with. But I don't think the solution is to sell out and just make stuff up. Instead, take a bit of time and explain how it all comes together. I can tell you that 5 good guidelines will take a person MUCH further than 2 hard and fast rules. See what I just did there?

Good Will Hunting

Remember the movie Good Will Hunting? When Matt Damon's character Will was being his usual pedantic self, and Robin Williams said to him, "I can't learn anything from you I can't read in some book?" That is the ticket. Assuming you are not reading a reference article (think Wikipedia and the like), when you read a long, long article full of technical mumbo-jumbo, and you end up sitting there scratching your head, thinking 'I didn't learn anything I could not have read in some book or some study, and then I still wouldn't have understood it,' you have just fell victim to the data dump. Now, there are actually a lot of reference articles on GUS, many of them written by me, but even then a data-dump could be a sin, depending on the purpose and target audience. And of course, my audience is not college students, even though, I am honored to say, my articles are sometimes used as reference material by teachers for their students.

Horn tooting done. Once, in another incarnation of my writing career, I had the "opportunity" to look through the "briefs" from a very large corporate lawsuit. A brief is the epitome of oxymoron. Lawyers don't do anything brief. These were printed and bound books many of them over 300 pages long. And there were hundreds of them spanning years for one lawsuit.

The idea, I take it, is that if you want to get your way you state your position in as muddy a way as possible and throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at them.

Also fairly recently Goldman Sachs perpetrated a data dump of this sort that has probably set a record. When asked for information by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission the company dumped over 2.5 billion pages of info (5 terabytes of data) that would, according to a Business Week article, take 159 years to print out on a laser printer. Needless to say the commission wasn't laughing.

So much of the data dump has to do with science and people's perception of it. Science pertaining to fitness and what we actually do on a practical level, do not always coincide. Some authors just either don't get this or willfully ignore it, thinking that biochemistry can explain how a person gets strong better than a well-qualified strength coach with a coherent philosophy of training.

So much more of it has to do with nothing more than pseudo-intellectual posturing. Throwing around high-sounding terms and scholarly sounding ideas without actually saying anything, and that is primarily what I am talking about. I've grown so very weary of the trend toward fitness professionals thinking their job is to impress us with how many studies they read and how they derive so many theories from them. Our job is not to derive theories, our job is to solve problems. We seem to be forgetting that. So many of the people doing this really are the good-guys! They mean so very well but are caught up in this rat-race to prove they are smarter than the average bear. For every choir member who hangs on your every word and tells you how brilliant you are, there are five people out there who get nothing from it because you alienated them at the very beginning by your posturing and intellectualism. Your fellow fitness superstars might be impressed by your data dump, but the people who actually need advice are going to fall victim to misinformation simply because it is presented in a format that makes them feel like it is relevant to them, and that the author cares. So while you think you are saving the world with your knowledge-bombs, in reality, you're adding to the problem by driving away the very people who could benefit most from your sincere desire to help.

I would never want everybody to write like I do, or to a certain style or standard. That is not what I am saying here. What I am saying, instead, is that it is time we all examine our fundamental motivations and remember why we got into this field in the first place.

1. Borowski, Christine. "Enough Is Enough." The Journal of Experimental Medicine 28:7 (2011) JEM. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <>.
2. Maunsell, John, Ed. "Announcement Regarding Supplemental Material." The Journal of Neuroscience. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <>
3. Seife, Charles. Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. New York: Viking, 2010.

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This page created 28 Jan 2013 18:01
Last updated 06 Aug 2016 19:26

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