A 2014 resolution: More nuance, less extremism

02 Jan 2014 Posted by

Happy New Year everyone!  I hope that 2014 will be full of Personal bests, interesting discoveries and lively debates.  And no doping (as is the case for most New Year hopes, that one is likely to fall by the wayside before month-end).

Below is a post that I actually wrote on the Science of Sport Facebook page on New Year’s Eve, but it seemed appropriate as a first post of 2014, so I have repeated it here, along with one or two expansions.  Apologies for the duplication for those who have read it already.

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A New Year’s Resolution on behalf of sports science

If I might be so brazen, a New Year resolution on behalf of sports science:

Let’s make 2014 the year we stop making broad, over-simplified, black and white, polarized generalizations.

2013 was too full of them – talent vs training, low-carb diets, running shoes, running technique, training methods, causes of obesity and disease, the list goes on. Let’s stop feeding the “simplicity-sells” beast, and start appreciating individual complexity.

We all have different responsibilities:

  • Researchers must work towards understanding that complexity.  This will take a long, long time, but as with most things, it is the journey that adds the value.  The greatest challenge we face in sports science is our current limitation or inability to understand the variability in response to basically every intervention.  Individuals rarely behave as averages, but the majority of research seeks to collect and analyze data in such a way that it is communicated as an average.  This is true for diet, for training responses, for barefoot running, for weight loss, even for doping.  If we can seek to understand the difference between people, 2014 will be a good year.  In this regard, remember always to focus not on confirming what you believe, but on seeking cases that contradict it.  Progress in science comes from disagreement, not just between people (provided its constructive), but when your observations disagree with your world-view.  We could do worse than paying attention to these disagreements.
  • Media must communicate science in a sensible, but entertaining way.  Nuance sells badly, and I appreciate the challenge of writing a captivating headline and simplifying a complex scientific discovery in a way that grabs readers.  After all, it’s a money-game for many, and complex balance is not a great seller.  Resisting black and white interpretations does not necessarily mean being a boring shade of grey, however, and the challenge in 2014 is to discover interest and intrigue in the mystery of individualism!  Emphasize that there are many paths to Destination X, be it weight loss, performance, injury management or any other aspiration.
  • The ‘end-users’ (all of us), must start becoming our own scientists, who understand how to question their results, and learn from their success and failure in a systematic, scientific way.

So, borrow from everyone, but don’t make a the mistake of becoming a believer in A vs B mentality. That’s what sports fans do, and that’s where it’s appropriate. This is not sports, and we cannot be biased fans when it comes to understanding physiology. It’s not a “Go Pats” or “Go Broncos” mindset, one where we follow the Prophet X, whatever he might be peddling as the simple answer to everything.

Leave that behind, and pick up instead nuance, complexity and most important of all, ask as many questions as you think you have answers.

Question your answers in 2014. You’ll end the year a lot wiser than you began it, and I guarantee you’ll be a hell of a lot wiser than if you spend the year simply believe the A vs B brigade of science and media.

Happy New Year, hit 2014 (and the science-prophets) out the park.

Ross

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