Thursday, October 29, 2009

Folk Wisdom and the Nonmonotonicity of Exercise Science

They say coaching is as much an art as a science. Equally true: science is as much an art as a science.

Headlines reporting scientific "discoveries" nearly always target received wisdom. Thus, what is "scientific" one day is "unscientific" the next.

The question of how you should update your beliefs in the midst of this torrent of incoming data is one that science itself neglects.

Just ask yourself what is, and was, the "scientific" take on the following?
  • Low fat vs. low carb.
  • Meat
  • Fiber and cancer
  • Saturated fat
  • Megadoses of vitamins
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Fish (mercury vs. omega 3)
  • Lactic acid
  • Intensity vs. volume
  • Weight training for cycling
  • Drinking water beyond thirst
  • Stretching
  • Antioxidants after workouts
Basing your life on the science section of the Post or the New York Times, you'd be radically unstable and constantly disappointed.

In part, this happens because journalism and academic research both reward novelty above all else. To interest your reader or impress a tenure committee, you must say something they don't already know. Or, as the scientists would put it, you need to trigger a dopamine release to generate salience. This crowd gets off on intros that go like: "For generations, people have thought X, but emerging research actually indicates that X is totally mistaken."

(Yes, I know there's also a lot of journalism and a lot of science devoted to confirming common sense. This is the sort of thing that comes in for a beating by political commentators. "Hey we already know that straight men have messier apartments than women, you idiots! I can't believe you spent my tax dollars proving that!")

Things are worse in nutrition because of industry's influence there. Let me cite just one recent case: Fruit Loops was labeled a health food by a committee that included the Dean of Tufts' school of nutrition. Um...

But even the exercise advice flip flops worse than John Kerry on the wisdom of a military engagement.

Nonmonotonicity and Truth

There's a term for this: nonmonotonicity.

If P entails Q, then P and anything else also entails Q. So entailment is monotonic.

But consider:
If you put sugar in my coffee, I'll like it.
(ok, looking true...)
If you put sugar and motor oil in my coffee, I'll like it.
Unlike entailment, the ordinary English "if... then..." is NONmonotonic. Flip floppy.

The flip flopping can go on forever and ever too. Consider:
If Smith is a banker, then Smith is wealthy.

If Smith is a banker who has recently declared bankruptcy, he's not wealthy.

If Smith is a banker who's recently declared bankruptcy in Florida where he's allowed to keep his 10 million dollar home, he's still wealthy.

If Smith is a banker who's recently declared bankruptcy in Florida where he's allowed to keep his 10 million dollar home, but is also under investigation for fraud by the government, he's not wealthy.

If Smith is a banker who's recently declared bankruptcy in Florida where he's
allowed to keep his 10 million dollar home, but is also under investigation for fraud by the government, but also has the top defense lawyer in the country, he's wealthy.

There's no logical requirement for a stopping point.

Think of Thomson's Lamp. It gets turned on at 1 second, turned off at 1 1/2 seconds, turned on at 1 3/4 seconds, etc. Is the lamp on or off after 2 seconds?

The answer is... it's not defined. Nothing we've said about the series settles it one way or the other. The series is, as they say, divergent.

If the process of scientific discovery is divergent, like Thomson's Lamp, then that is trouble for the great American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, and his definition of truth. Peirce said truth is the limit of scientific inquiry, i.e., where science would eventually stand. But if science is divergent, there is no endpoint, no last discovery in the series of scientific discoveries, and therefore no truth.

I doubt very much that science in general, or exercise science in particular, is divergent. We've seen convergence on a lot of issues already, and are likely to see more. But many, many things are still up in the air; these are constant reminders of nonmonotonicity.


Ok, so if you can't live and die by the latest Gina Kolata debunking, what are you supposed to do?

Well, to each his own, but I'd take the accumulated decades, even centuries, of folk wisdom into account when you're evaluating the latest "scientific" stuff. Go ahead and drag your heels a little and don't let anyone make you feel guilty about it.

Of course, by foregoing the latest in trendy training methods, you may miss out on the possible advantages gained by an early adopter. But you also won't get stuck with a buggy new protocol that looks great on paper, but doesn't actually work. Exactly how to strike that balance depends on your appetite for risk.

All of this is reason to hire a coach if you can afford it.

Choose a coach who understands your epistemic risk profile, who is experienced, wise, and follows the latest advances, but does not adopt them prematurely. Let your coach do the dirty work of collecting the knowledge, weighing the science, and turning it into practical steps for you to undertake.

Something I've seen in all of the training and coaching books I've read is a measure of the total stressors in your life, with physical exertion being just one of those, and others being social pressures, work stressors, family obligations and the like. There's only so much stress you can take, as an organism; exceeding that amount pushes you into illness.

I would add to the standard list that for someone like me, someone deeply curious about the science, there's a special category of sorting through all of the science and drawing up a plan. That is a stressor, and like all of life's others, directly trades off against my potential training load.

I'd love to outsource it to a coach.

A senior member of our team who fits the profile above has taken up coaching. I'd hire him if I were going to be around this winter, but alas, I'll have to muddle through on my own in England.


Peter cannell said...

+1....good comments re coaching and stressors.

qualia said...

Well, YOU manage it somehow, so maybe not!

Chuck Wagon said...

If someone from Tufts said it, believe it.

Calvini said...

Jonathan certainly deserves a try. He's worked at it and he knows what he's talking about. Plus, every time he goes on a team ride you get face time, no extra cost :).

T said...

Find Flavio in Oxford. He has a Café. He almost had the '84 Giro KOA. Taught me much about racing. He's a legend.