The Other Side Of Dogma - Alternative a Euphemism for Untested?

Posted on 21 Jul 2010 17:21

My last post about strength training and nutrition dogma dealt with the downside of the popular and untested beliefs that we cling to in the face of little to no evidence. Even so I pointed out that not all beliefs which appear to be dogmatic are "bad". Well, it just so happens that I think there are worse things than dogma.

The thing is that just because there are beliefs that people in the strength training and nutrition industries believe are not to be disputed does not mean they are wrong. Shouting DOGMA, DOGMA, is not a valid argument. Just because your opponent aligns himself with the popular doctrines does not mean you are correct in your beliefs by default.

Being able to recognize when you or someone else is clinging to dogma is a good thing. But recognizing when dogma has taken the place of critical thought is only the first step.

Alternative Sanctimony

One attitude that irritates me more than most is a "sanctimonious" attitude. Recently on another forum I frequent a new member posted on a very old thread and tried to dismiss the popular opinion expressed in that thread by assigning emotion to those who expressed it. Basically, everything he said was "Vulcan Logic" and everything everyone else said was because he had "hit a nerve". So my reaction was to begin pointing out every logical fallacy this fellow committed. Not because I think that knowing a persons argumentative fallacies or recognizing their cognitive biases wins an argument - it doesn't - but because I wanted to fight fire with fire. You see, those who think themselves to be immune to fallacy are setting themselves up to be taken down by their own logic! Because nobody is immune to fallacy and when a discussion is complex enough you can always find them on both sides!

The claim of dogma is of that vein. The sanctimonious cry of dogma in response to every 'mainstream' belief is not more relevant or justified than to cry crank or zealot. Popular beliefs are not always true. Alternative beliefs, however, are even more likely to be mistaken. When it comes to alternative medicine, for instance, alternative is a euphemism for untested and without credible evidence. Some of the most popular and influential "thinkers" are those who always express "alternative" opinions. They lead people to believe that they are right just by virtue of not being swayed by mainstream beliefs. It is amazing how powerful this is. "Dr" Mercola is considered to have more authority by many than their own doctor. And Dr. Oz, who, frankly, does have more in common with Dorothy's curmudgeonly wizard than with a medical professional, is a trusted household name.

Even a token effort to investigate the information sources of people like Mercola and Oz should persuade most from being a blind follower of the alternative. The problem is most don't bother to check up on their heroes.

Nutritionists a Frequent Target

Let's look at nutrition. Some of the most popular strength coaches around fancy themselves as nutrition experts and yet seem to have little to no knowledge of the subject. For every Jamie Hale, Alan Aragon, or Mark Young there are one hundred others who would profess the same level of expertise. However, what these would-be experts actually express is a contrariness. There is a certain arrogance at work here. Nutritionists are wrong. I know more than nutritionists. Therefore I am a nutrition expert.

Look at the terminology. The word "nutritionist" is the nutrition equivalent of mainstream. All things mainstream are "dogmatic" and therefore wrong. Nutritionists are therefore wrong and by opposing them I am therefore right. So I am a nutrition expert! I'm not making this up. I've seen these very opinions expressed by the likes of Mike Boyle, for instance, who basically declared that all nutritionists are idiots and that he knew more about nutrition than any nutritionist. Boyle even went so far as to claim that Michael Pollen would be a better source of nutrition information than a nutritionist. Which would mean that "The Omnivore's Dilemma" would be a better source than a nutrition textbook since such books are, of course, written by nutritionists.1 Yet Pollen's book is without the slightest scientific merit as far as nutrition goes.

But what's a nutritionist? Well, nutritionist is nothing but a word. Look around and you will find that more people declare nutritionists to be dogmatists than "dietitians" for example. That is because nutritionist, lacking a standardized or "official" definition is a better target. You can have a Ph.D. in biology, for instance, but devote your career to nutrition. You can lack a university degree of any kind and be a great and influential nutritionist. If we were going to pull a definition out of this then I think that one characteristic of a nutritionist would be that he or she spent most of their time studying and consulting about nutrition! So, would you rather take your nutrition advice from someone who specializes in nutrition or someone who arrogantly asserts that he is smarter than these people even though he spends very little of his time actually studying nutrition?

Don't get me wrong. Consulting someone who calls themselves a "nutritionist" might be about as wise as consulting a Saint Bernard about mixing cocktails. That is not the point. The point is that anyone can attack a diverse group of people, lump them into a box, and try to build themselves up in this way. It is a bit ironic that a term which attracts so many unscientific types could be called dogmatic on a whole. They are likely to say all sorts of wacky things, little of which could be viewed as dogmatic. But even if it were dogmatic, that doesn't make it wrong.

The kind of arrogance that leads one to believe that they are superior to nutritionists because of a stereotyped image of nutritionists being dogmatic is the same type of arrogance that leads one to believe that their beliefs are superior owing to the simple fact that they are not popular. Being different does not make us superior or correct and when it comes to science the strength of a theory does not rest on how different it is from other theories!

As you can see from this forum thread on trans fats the high horse attitude that many in the fitness industry bring to health and wellness is not an attitude I appreciate. Many nutrition bloggers seem to think that there is an M.D after their name. This is owed to the increasing medicalization of food and the advent of such notions as the "nutraceutical." As I was writing my responses in that thread I began to wonder if the phrase "that's easy for you to say" wouldn't be a good test for "alternative" opinions. Just how 'invested' is the person in the subject being discussed? Having read one book expressing alternative ideas about nutrition does not give one the stake in nutrition that someone has who has spent their career studying the subject. Likewise, having read a couple of studies related to the subject at hand does not give one the means to cure someone's high blood pressure.

This kind of arrogance leads people to never question their own conclusions no matter how quick they have jumped to them. Even the suggestion that omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have an anti-inflammatory role has lead "experts" to advise arthritis sufferers to ditch their medication and pop fish oil capsules instead. Whereas nobody who was actually invested in these patients would discontinue all medication all at once due to the addition of a dietary supplement.

But it strikes deeper than that. As I point out in the thread, many opinions about nutrition and health coincide with value judgements. I know that "that's easy for you to say" is not a logical argument but when you consider the things that the fitness industry professes to have the answers to you can see how I would ask the question. Many of them are telling you they have the answers that your doctor doesn't. Yet, despite all the criticisms of the medical community, a doctor finds his patient's life in his hands quite often. So when some guy on an internet blog claims to know more than the M.D. maybe you should consider that his investment is likely not much more than a few strokes on a keyboard and some internet browsing! This is not an appeal to authority, although it may seem so at first glance.

I want you to notice that the term I am using, investment has nothing to do with degrees or other authority badges. Time, dedication, passion, experience, research, etc…is what I am talking about. What does it cost the individual to make the statements he or she is making? How does it affect those that seek their expertise? And in this industry, there is one thing I value more than the ability to be right or simply to win arguments: genuine caring about whether what you do helps other people.

Why Is "Nutritionist" a Problem?

The term nutritionist does present a problem. It is non-regulated in much of the U.S., some of Canada, and the U.K. This basically means that anybody can refer to themselves as a nutritionist. And many completely unqualified individuals do so…without even a basic understanding of biological science. So yes, be wary of the term. The comedian Dara O Briain has said that a dietician is to a nutritionist as a dentist is to a "toothyologist," and, to some extent, I agree.

Basic nutrition can just be too boring and mundane to many "nutritionists." There's no money in it. If you want to know why so many nutritionists object to "My Pyramid"2 so passionately, think commercial value. If nutrition came down to simple changes in diet that everyone could easily learn and adapt to then nobody would be getting rich off of so-called nutrition science. Yet even the imperfect "My Pyramid" is infinitely more sound than much of what passes for evidence-based nutrition advice today.

Yet we must think critically about the claims of each individual and not simply decide that nutritionist is synonymous with bad science because the term is abused.

One Sound Argument

It should be clear that the sheer number of people who believe a certain thing does not make it true. But neither does mass appeal make it false. It simply means that the majority accepts a certain view. Only through our own sound thinking and weighing of evidence can we decide for ourselves what to believe while keeping in mind that our knowledge may have evolved the next time you turn around. But remember that it only takes ONE sound argument to derail any view. There is an anecdote about Albert Einstein which says he once made jibes about a book condemning his theory of relativity. Supposedly one hundred Nazi professors contributed to the condemnation in said book. Einstein is reported to have said, "Were I wrong, one professor would have been enough." I think that about sums it up.3

This page created 21 Jul 2010 17:21
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 17:52

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