Trying to figure out what advice to follow in fitness is tricky. Conflicting opinions abound. And attempting to weigh them against one another is an infinite effort. So don’t. Find the argument. Forget the opinion.
Opinion Versus Argument - Section 1
This is a really sticky area for all of us. I see people make this mistake on both sides of a debate on just about anything. And your intellect and education does not shield you from this mistake. Part of the problem is that even really good experts forget that opinion is not argument. An argument stands alone. And it must be taken on its own terms. Opinion can be weighed based on the expertise and motivations of the one saying it. Argument does not rely on anything but it’s own soundness and validity (which is covered below).
To help illustrate, imagine the following:
- The Director of NASA with 40 years of experience in the field and numerous peer-reviewed published papers says, “based on my experience, I must conclude the earth is flat.”
- Your crazy neighbor with an IQ of 80 and history of mental illness says, “if a model’s explanations and predictions are confirmed by repeated and independent observation, it is practical and provisionally true - the spherical model of the earth and Copernican principle make explanations and predictions which are confirmed by repeated and independent observation; therefore, they are practical and provisionally true.”
The expertise of the first and his motivations play into how we should weigh his opinion. The problem is he never presented an argument. There is an implied one we often insert, something along the lines of “if one person’s expertise is high enough, his conclusions are true; my expertise is high enough, therefore, my conclusion is true - and here it is!” This is a question-begging fallacy, of course, and an extremely common one. The implied argument is valid, but unsound. We mistakenly take that implied validity to equate with truth. But the premises are both question-begging and so obviously untrue. There is no level of expertise anyone can achieve which puts her opinions beyond question. Regardless, the expert did not present us with an argument.
In the second example, we have an argument. The person presenting the argument is immaterial to the force of the argument. Its logic is valid. That’s beyond question. If we accept the premises, it is sound. We could disagree over any one part of the premises, and revise until we find a commonly-agreed-upon wording. At that point, all who agree on the premises will end with the same conclusion. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the expertise or field-specific experience of the presenter.
We always hope that field-specific experience will help experts to present better arguments, but there is no guarantee. They could just as easily present increasingly strong-worded opinions, confusing themselves and listeners.
In non-empirical sciences and in vast extrapolations, the layperson is at a disadvantage in grappling with the arguments. They’re very complex and expertise-specific. Often, they require an incredibly good understanding of statistical modeling and the foundational workings of that particular science and its research. However, instead of patiently taking the time to better present the arguments to laypeople, we will demote ourselves to opinion-waving in the form of consensus-brandishing. “Over 90 percent of scientists say X,” we might chirp. That IS meaningful. But it is a much more slippery slope than the person saying it realizes. Instead of presenting argument, you’ve merely stated a bunch of opinions. They’re well-informed opinions. They’re expert opinions. But that is not an argument.
Expert opinion creates a broad backdrop of grey area. This gets particularly difficult when we attempt to hold a claim to the scientific gold standards: falsifiability and predictive power. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter if 100% of scientists believe something which is neither falsifiable nor has predictive power. It’s non-science at that point and devoid of an argument. There MUST be an argument that stands on its own; and, for us to even care about it, there must be a way to falsify it (ie - test it), and it must house a steady stream of specific predictions which came/come true. There are artificial “sciences” on the periphery, which make “PREdictions” AFTER the fact. And the more complex a pseudoscientific model, the more likely it is to descend into the concentric circles of the geocentric model. Supporters, knowing this, get more adamant about presenting opinions instead of arguments.
Sadly, many times in recent history those on the correct side of a debate stop presenting arguments. Their position is right. But their presentation and communication is exactly wrong. Conversely, and even more sadly, the people on the wrong side of the debate may be presenting more arguments than opinions. This lands the debates in odd territory. Right people with wrong debate. And wrong people with right (albeit unsound and invalid) debate. If we can move everyone away from thinking that invoking opinions is an argument, we’ll all do better. It will take patience. Yes, it will take engaging with really dumb arguments. It may require painstakingly walking non-specialists through the process of how some research works. But we have to stop being lazy with defaulting to opinions as a sit-in for arguments. They’re not. And clearly, our avoidance of genuine argumentation has only emboldened ignorant people. Opposition is empowered when we lazily present opinions as some sort of truth trump card.
Look for arguments, not opinions. Evaluate arguments on their own terms. Make arguments great again.
Validity and Soundness - Section 2
One of the layers in helping people with health and fitness is to help with critical thinking and sometimes formal logic. We all constantly make mistakes of equating opinions with arguments, induction with deduction, and then equating validity with soundness. Soon, everyone is talking past one another, including your own internal dialogue disagreeing inside your own head. That’s a lot of distinction to keep in mind. So in this section, just consider validity and soundness.
Whether you are vexed at your own inability to listen to yourself or you’re frustrated that other people just won’t see things your way, you can experience some peace by discovering just where exactly the roads diverge. It could be that both sides are mistaking opinion (even expert opinion) for argument, induction for deduction, statistical trend for known mechanism, and validity for soundness. They are all distinct. But our minds tend to blur the lines.
Consider first a valid but unsound deductive argument:
- Only people who eat too much dietary cholesterol will get heart disease.
- You are a person who eats too much dietary cholesterol.
- therefore, you will get heart disease.
The argument is valid, but unsound. What makes it valid is the construction. The construction is such that as long as the premises are true, the conclusion can’t be untrue. However, that isn’t soundness. An argument is sound only when its premises are true. Oftentimes, we begin with an untrue or at least contentious premise, and present a completely valid argument. People don’t accept the truth value of the conclusion, not because the argument is invalid or because they’re ignorant, stupid or evil, but because WE didn’t begin with an accepted premise.
Consider now a sound, but invalid argument:
- All people with heart disease tend to have had elevated VLDL.
- You have had elevated VLDL.
- therefore, you have heart disease.
Sound; but invalid. Both premises are true. But the conclusion can be false. We only established that people with heart disease tended to once have had VLDL. We did not establish that all people who once had elevated VLDL have heart disease. In fact, this very common mistake is a logical fallacy with a name: affirming the consequent. We took the starting premise (if A, then B), affirmed the consequent (B) in order to conclude with the antecedent (A). Logic forbids this. If you're outside and it's raining (A), you are wet (B). You are wet (B) because you just took a shower inside the house (X), just went swimming (Y), just had a bucket splashed on you (Z), or any number of things which are not (A). If-Then constructions, even when they are totally airtight, do not work backwards in that manner.
Take a moment to reread this. You’ll likely find that the vast majority of super smart arguments are well-intentioned, well-informed, well-thought-out, but both unsound and invalid. That’s to say nothing of the common conflation of opinion with argument (Section 1), induction with deduction (Section 3), and statistical trend with known mechanism (Section 4).
Induction Is Not Deduction - Section 3
There is this thing we often think we’re doing (deductive reasoning) when in fact we’re not. We’re inducing. I see it as a massive problem in why many people can’t seem to figure out their health and fitness. Deduction is clear and may move us toward conclusiveness. Induction is a fallacy.
People usually mix up validity and soundness when engaging with an argument (Section 2). And that’s if they ever actually get to an argument. Most of the time they don’t. They present an opinion, albeit an ostensibly expert or legitimate one (Section 1). On the rare occasion that people arrive at actual arguments, they predominantly conflate trend with mechanisms (Section 4). Closely related to that rational error is another fallacy: the inductive fallacy.
Induction is tempting. As we gather more information, it becomes more tempting. As such, high level experts can be MORE prone to committing this logical error. But there is no point where induction becomes deduction. It is a fool’s hope of taking probability and demanding from probability the characteristic of guarantee.
Example of induction:
- The sun has risen every day this week.
- Therefore, it will rise tomorrow.
The conclusion is true, but NOT because of the flimsy premise, NOT because of probability. There are defined physical laws which make the sunrise what it is: gravitational pull, inertia, rotation of the earth, and so on.
Example of expert induction:
- The sun has risen every day of our peer-reviewed study.
- Therefore, it will rise tomorrow.
The conclusion is true, but NOT because of the rigor of the study cited in the premise. The premise has no bearing on the truth value of the conclusion at all. This construction in the second example is as incorrect as the construction in the first example. Adding research analysis to the credentials of faulty logic does not strengthen assertions. Technically, it worsens them, because it's shrouding the flimsy ideas inside of what appears to be expertise.
The seductiveness of induction is its ability to be right, even though it’s for all the wrong reasons. With humans, this is especially pernicious, because we are subject to suggestibility and self-fulfilling prophecy.
- I’ve always been fat.
- Therefore, I will always be fat.
This is an induction fallacy. It’s blind to mechanism. It’s presented no deductive argument. It’s an opinion wrapped in the appearance of argument. But its conclusion is highly probable, mostly because we fall prey to both familiarity and disempowerment.
Some other common inductive fallacies I encounter:
- My nutrition never gave me bad health before.
- Therefore, my current health issue is unrelated to nutrition.
- My lack of strength training never gave me orthopedic problems before.
- Therefore, my current orthopedic problems aren’t due to lack of strengthening.
- I can’t do that anymore.
- It’s hopeless.
A whole lot of inductive fallacy, opinion and lack of mechanism gets presented as if it carried some sort of value. With regard to people's health and fitness, with the passage of time, they accumulate damage and set in motion changes. THEN, people are keen to focus on that passage of time (ie - "aging") as the type of data-gathering our sunrise scientists performed. They caught a trend and missed the cause. "Getting older" doesn't cause anything. It is simply the passage of time. Different people fill that time in different ways. But just like "the sun rose every day; therefore, it will rise tomorrow", average people end up with a premise which is faulty, flimsy, and/or not at all applicable to the conclusion. "Aging" happens because of accumulated damage. There are ways to avoid damage, slow damage, reverse some damage, get stronger and more resilient such that damage represents a smaller impact, and so on. Defaulting to induction as an impregnable standard of truth is self-defeating and lazy/weak thinking.
A deductive argument will have a premise with which we can all wrestle. One person’s individual expertise doesn’t really pertain. Once we settle on an agreed-upon set of premises, if valid, we all arrive at the conclusion. If sound, we are all right.
Induction does a lot of illusionist-like hand-waving. It can be sophisticated and considerably lengthier than the examples I gave. Any of the non-empirical sciences fall into this trap. That is, if we can’t test it in the now, we don’t have a known mechanism at play, and we have an inductive component in the premises even in a seemingly-deductive argument.
Induction is not deduction.
Correlation Is Not Causation: Trend Is Not Even Close to Mechanism - Section 4
“Heart disease correlates with X.” Fill in the blank. Do you believe that correlation IS causation? Careful. That’s a logical fallacy. Most things which correlate did not cause. Many are incidental, coincidental, or the effect, not the cause.
It crops up everywhere. “The economy does Z.” Fill in the blank. Now, that’s a really big and complex system you’re talking about. There will be a lot of correlations. Which proposed items are and aren’t legitimate causes? Current world leaders? Former world leaders? Old policy? New policy? Anticipated future policy? What if the real mechanisms which drive economy haven’t even been studied yet? What if we haven’t yet verified a mechanism?
We jump. We hurtle ourselves toward a causal conclusion. But look before you leap. Oftentimes relying on the whole payload of logical fallacies covered in Sections 1, 2, and 3, people find that making the wrong causal conclusion "makes perfect sense." They may even call it "common sense." It isn't, of course. It's just so bogged down in logical fallacies and layers of faulty thinking that it becomes difficult for us to wrangle with the upside-down conclusions. Heart disease is a great example wherein trends have told us all the wrong things. Biologists know the mechanisms. The inflammatory processes which lay down atherosclerotic plaque build-up ARE heart disease. Dietary cholesterol and saturated fat have no proven influence on raising the chances of those inflammatory processes. Even endogenous production of cholesterol may simply be the EFFECT of developing heart disease. Why did we ever jump to accept that it would be involved in the CAUSE? Cholesterol has antioxidant properties. It is a precursor to necessary hormones and the construction of cell walls throughout every organ in the body. In chemistry we understand it really well. But we've let faulty logical errors based on statistical trends, induction, and opinion supersede the scientifically-known relationship: a stressed body will develop heart disease; in its effort to manage the stress and mitigate the damage of heart disease it will consequently produce cholesterol to build the various necessary metabolites. How did we ever land at "cholesterol is bad"? Cholesterol just IS. There is no life without cholesterol.
In many statistical studies, there are defined trends. So what? Trend doesn't mean cause. Even if we begin to uncover a possible causal relationship, trend doesn't tell us the direction of the cause. Without a proposed, testable, known mechanism, we have to be very careful. It is just as easy for what we think is an effect to be a cause. And there are all sorts of events which are happening all the time and have little or nothing to do with the trend. They're ancillary, and are neither causes nor effects.
In the study of human health, transforming correlation into causation and presenting trend without mechanism are two practices skating on thin ice. Did you know that 100% of people who sleep in beds end up dying? I guess you better not sleep at all, just to be safe. The price of tea in China went up. I guess that’s the reason why ammunition in America shot up 1,500% in the last four years.
Correlation is not causation. Trend is not even close to mechanism.
If we can apply even the smallest double-check of critical thinking by remembering Sections 1, 2, 3, and 4 above, perhaps we can strive toward a rigor in arguments which is driven by soundness, validity, and solid rationale. We can place opinions where they belong, and recognize trends in proper context. We can leave ideology at the door. We can forget induction when we need to. We can commit to truth instead of popularity or desires. Make arguments great again. For fitness' sake. For health's sake. For society's sake.