Argumentum Ad Populum

“Respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality” - Frank Herbert

 

Argumentum Ad Populum- “A proposition that is claimed to be true or good solely because a majority or many people believe so”

 

Argumentum ad populum is a logical fallacy of argumentation, that sees an individual muddy the waters in understanding the difference between justification of an idea/methodology/hypothesis etc. & the wide spread acceptance of a belief by a group of people.  In the fitness realm, this comes in the form of us believing that what we see & hear most often, is akin to fact/truth. There is a clear issue here, the fact that something is popular or commonly purported, only ever elucidates us to that very fact, that it is common or popular. As such, popular beliefs can only ever be inductive in nature, obtaining the potential to be true, with a certain amount of probability attached to any single piece of information, but popular belief alone can never be deductive.

 

 There are some benefits, to be discussed, of looking at common practice, & popular beliefs, to help determine what our best course of action is in training, nutrition or both. This means that we needn’t mix it in with the justification of a belief, or at the same time throw the baby out with the bath water, & ignore everything that is said by more than one person for risk of unjust value being placed on an idea.

 

Further more, argumentum ad populum can take the form of appeal to authority, when the appeal to beliefs, are of a group of ‘experts’, or ‘expert’ in the singular. In this circumstance, the popular notions are made by individuals that are held high in regard in respect to a particular field of study. This can make this fallacy particularly tricky to navigate, especially so for those with less time, energy or desire to further enhance their knowledge within a field. I also think that this is where appeal to the popular can be most damaging, & I think that this is where the most responsibility should be taken to provide unbiased information that is based on evidence. I think there is also responsibility for these experts to purvey & discuss the topic in a way that involves as little confusion & misleading as possible. 

 

As with most things, thinking critically is of vast importance & is essentially being freed from the bounds of the natural tendency for human beings to be highly irrational creatures (I think the wording is very germane in this situation, as to me, knowledge & understanding are the things that free most people & allow them to act on their intentions). In many cases, the ability to think critically is more important than attaining any piece of knowledge, either in the singular or plural. Without the ability to think critically, this knowledge lays essentially useless, filling space up in your brain that could otherwise be used more effectively.

 

There are plenty of examples of where previously held beliefs have been debunked, & replaced with newer, more evidence based understandings, that bring us closer to the truth of the matter, some include (but are not limited to):

 

·     The mechanisms of Hypertrophy– Since the seminal paper by Schoenfeld was released in 2010, there has been much debate around whether mechanistically muscle damage &/or metabolic stress are true mechanisms of hypertrophy. It seems likely that they are either epi-phenomenon (a bi-product of) high levels of mechanical tension or precursors to high levels of mechanical tensions (metabolic stress). Whilst this is still up for debate, from 2010-17 it was something that went unquestioned in most popular circles.

 

·     Training to failure to maximise muscle gain– This was something that didn’t necessarily come from authority as such, in terms of individuals at the forefront of research in the area, but came from popular figures in the world of bodybuilding like Dorian Yates, Tom Platz, Mike Mentzer & so on. No matter whether the protocol was high volume, low volume, high frequency or low frequency, the aim for each set was to take it as far as they could for these individuals. For whatever reason, it worked, & developed some of the best physiques the world has ever seen. As a result of this, training to failure was something that became non-negotiable in training (including my own back in the earlier days). Unfortunately, for those less gifted in genetics, recovery resources & drugs, in many cases this led to injury, frustration & burn out. Whilst training to failure is not bad, it should be used contextually, with the understanding that it is not necessaryto maximise muscular gains (most likely) or strength gains.

 

·     Meal timing for fat loss– Not but 5 years ago would the clock strike 6pm, & we would all put down our bowls of porridge, throw away our pieces of fruit & spit up the sweet potato still being broken down in our mouths. Whilst the fact that meal timing plays very little role, outside of adherence, in the pursuit of fat loss has been known for some time, it is something that has only become popular consensus over the past couple of years (with some even still practicing as though it weren’t true). This is a perfect example of how popular belief can mask clear evidence, clear evidence that shows a high likelihood that WHEN we eat our food is of little difference to our fat loss goals. 

 

Whilst these are some specific examples within the context of fitness, this issue can arise in many different contexts. As mentioned previously, human beings are not rational by nature. Likely because our society has moved so quickly, that actions/instincts that were useful evolutionarily 100-1000 years prior, still exist to this day. They still exist even thought objectively we have all we need to survive & thrive. In spite of this there still seems to be this subjective need to fulfil these evolutionary instincts that are somewhat written into our genus (although current culture looks to take advantage of this).

 

Thought experiment:

 

Would you agree with me in saying that because millions of people smoke cigarettes, that it must be a healthy pastime & something we should all partake in to live a long & healthy life?

                                                                                    

I hope not.

 

It seems as a default, that we believe that all humans think critically about all areas of their lives. This is not true & another sign of the irrationality of our species. We also seem to inherently believe, that human beings constantly analyse & re-evaluate all modes of acting, towards a destination of optimising our lives. This is also not true.

 

There are clear issues with ones inability to think outside of popular consensus. Firstly, depending on the origin of an idea/belief, we may never know if this idea was spread with an ulterior motive attached. Did the individual hold great stake in the idea? Would it bring them fame & fortune to see it rise to the top? Do they have something against opposing ideas based on their life/family experience? These are all realistic things that occur commonly within fitness. Most if not all human ideas will have some form of bias attached, with differing origins depending on the bias. Bias can even be a known or unknown variable. Some people know they have a bias towards a certain idea, & others don’t. Although it is unlikely to find someone that is completely free of bias (bias is likely something that makes us feel safe & secure in our thinking) try to find ideas that are born of the most balanced view of situation as is possible.

 

Another issue is the way that the appeal to popularity switches off critical thinking. This one seems obvious to me, if we can find an expert or group of people saying one thing, it saves us time & energy researching the topic, as well as thinking deeply about it & analysing the pieces to get a congruent picture of what’s going on. We can use their conclusion to both save time & effort, as well as have a ‘tribe’ to be a part of, & protect us from those that disagree & put us in the position in which we need to defend an idea we don’t really understand. This makes a lot of sense evolutionarily, we want to survive. Knowledge & security are two big parts of that. It is easy for our thinking to default in this way. This unfortunately doesn’t leave room for critical thinking. 

 

Critical thinking is the objective analysis of a bunch of information that allows you to create a balanced view of any situation (based on what you currently know & how you sew ideas together). As critical thinking is objective in nature, it must avoid emotion & influence from areas that don’t productively contribute to its pursuits. We must avoid lots of logical fallacies, that even some of the greatest individuals of our time succumb to.

 

 One of the most important reasons that more people should think objectively is for the very fact that everyone’s process of knitting ideas together, is inherently unique & leads to differing ends. The fact that everyone will look at things through a slightly different lense, with a slightly different thought pattern & way of sewing the information together, means that we attain potentially 100’s, if not 1000’s of slightly different views upon a situation. What this allows for is all interested parties to get a better view of all of possible views of the situation, to allow them to come to a more well rounded conclusion. This should allow us to hopefully come closer to a consistent consensus, that is more factual than it would have been otherwise.

 

For this reason, critical thinking is not just important on the individual level, it is important within the whole population involved. The saying goes that many hands make light work, in the same way that many viewpoints create a clearer picture. Compare synergising the view of 1-10 people to that of 1000’s. There can be no contest here. We need to make sure that we are all thinking critically so our field can continue to advance, & not get stuck in the thought processes that have reverberated the echo chamber for years gone by.

 

Another area where lack of critical thinking can become an issue, is when we are choosing ‘who to believe’. Often individuals will search the interwebs in the pursuit of new knowledge, only to look for articles & ideas that fit their own bias (confirmation bias). We often times overlook flaws in our own thinking & choices, at times we avoid addressing them entirely. This can cause groups of individuals/’gurus’ to gain lots of traction, only for the reason that more people resonate with what they are saying. This is either because it ‘seems’ more plausible on the surface, that it is more complicated, & thus must be the best answer, or that they just like the face in front of the idea more than the next guy. 

 

Making decisions based on confirmation bias, &/or because we resonate with someone is a poor way of furthering our knowledge & practice. We need to again look at things critically (for more on the topic google search “Critical Thinking: What is it good for? (in fact what is it)” By Howard Gabennesch). 

 

Creating objective view points on situations can allow us to quieten ancestral drives to think certain ways & do certain things, things that no longer serve our means or are necessary to function & thrive in our current climate. Whilst appealing to the popular can have its uses, it can only ever serve as a starting point for further analysis. We need not believe someone because of their charm or manor (the halo effect). To do so is give someone power & social ranking for no other reason than how they were born. We should rank individuals based on competence, & in the realm of knowledge attainment the highest ticket item is critical thinking, so those that think critically & objectively, are the ones that we should put up on pedestals, not those abusing gods given talent for their own gain.

 

The last & most obvious issue is that we can extrapolate hypothesis as theory. This is an issue especially in the fitness realm as the hypothesis is usually something we do to, or with our physical bodies. At best, misinformation is ineffective & may just cause some psychological stress & frustration. At its worst, it can do serious long term damage to our health & even end in fatality (see ‘alkaline diet man’). This becomes an even worse issue if fitness is our career & we train/coach individuals for a living. As a coach, there is a certain amount of responsibility to first do no harm, but the success of your career will lay on whether you can give the client the results that they can expect to achieve. With ineffective methods & information, this becomes even harder than it already is, & can cost you your clients, & your career. When it comes to becoming educated enough to flourish in the fitness industry, it is especially important that you seek out information only from the most evidence based sources, that synthesize their information via critical thinking, into actionable methodologies. 

 

Appealing to popular belief is not all doom & gloom. It can be used effectively as a point of reference, a place to start off your thought processes to learn more about a topic. Whether I like it or not, popular beliefs usually have some truths woven into their structure. The proponents either knowingly or unknowingly are manipulating variables outside of those they think they are. They create the desired results, but from a slightly different means than they thought or was expected. Take ‘clean eating’ for example in bodybuilders, as it is the simplest & most common in our industry. Eating ‘clean’ is an easy way to manage hunger, maintain micronutrient density & create consistency for measurements sake during a period of hypocaloric dieting. In fact just eating ‘clean’ makes it hard to over consume calories in many cases (not impossible). What is not purveyed is the fact that the driving force behind the results is the caloric deficit, & that ‘clean eating’ is just the vehicle used to reach a destination. In the same way, we can look at popular beliefs & their success rate to give us an idea where to start, but we must try to unweave what is really going on, & what mechanistically is causing the results we see in front of us. 

 

What do individuals do that don’t have the time & effort available to research areas relating to fitness? First off, in this circumstance we must accept the trade-offs here, that is a degree of uncertainty in our practice. This is unavoidable, & something we need to accept if we are going to make any head way. Once we have accepted this idea, we need to search for experts in our given field, that are what we called evidence based (more on this via link - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9190027). These individuals must be interested in objectivity. They must value & acquire empirical data. They must have experience in applying the methodologies of training & nutrition for some time span to understand their practical implications. They must also have worked with others to understand how different individuals respond both physiologically & psychologically to any given protocol. Most importantly, they must hold no allegiance to any single methodology, or any single idea. There understanding must be fluid & pliable, it must be able to move as science allows us to. They must be able to quieten their natural drives to be irrational, enough to be able to appropriately analyse & synthesise information into actionable items. In an ideal situation, we would look at multiple experts that embody these attributes, & look at what things they agree on as central tenets. They may vary in their application of principles, but their principles will likely be aligned in some ways, although sometimes misrepresented due to semantic issues. 

 

To round off this article, we should never use popular belief as justification or deductive evidence that something is effective &/or factual. There are many downsides to this mode of thinking, & it is something that is all too common & all too easy to fall back on. If you are truly interested in understanding a topic, it will take time & effort to accrue the base information, as well as the practical knowledge needed to arrange the empirical evidence into actionable steps that have value in the real world. This pursuit is worthwhile, but if it is something that is not realistic or valuable to you, I recommend aligning yourself with those individuals that are evidence based & that value objective data & clinical reasoning. Critical thinking is the only road to progressively understanding any field, & it should be something we embody & apply to any field of interest.

 

Three men make a tiger

 

-      Chinese Proverb

 

Thank you for reading this far & I hope this was an informative piece for you.

Aaron Brown