6 Negative Thinking Strategies for Positive B.S. Detection

When fitness professionals ask me about how to detect B.S. claims in the fitness training, nutrition and health field, I tell them to approach these various claims by “thinking negatively.” I tell them that thinking negatively about the various training, health and nutrition claims they hear will be one of the most positively beneficial things they can do because it will 1) Help them to see through the confusion created by conflicting information by 2) Being able to identify the good concepts from the empty claims, which 3) Helps one avoid falling prey to erroneous beliefs and practices that cause us to squander ours and our client’s valuable time and money.

In this post I’m going to provide you with six simple “negative thinking” strategies that will have the immensely positive benefits of helping you to separate the training and nutritional sense from the nonsense.

1. Default to Disbelief

When dealing with the various claims in the fitness, nutrition and health arena, as well as in every other part of our public discourse, the issue is whether we should believe something until it has been shown to be (most likely) false, or whether we should reserve belief until it has been demonstrated to (most likely) be true. I recommend you go with the latter.

In other words, my default position is to reserve belief until a proposition has been demonstrated to (most likely) be true. I feel this is the most reasonable starting point when approaching claims, because if we begin by believing every claim until it’s been shown to (likely) be false, we’re most certainly going to believe mutually contradictory ideas and things that are patently false. And, that’s important because, if you’re anything like me, your goal is to hold as few false beliefs as possible, and as many true beliefs as possible. That’s where being a good skeptic comes in.

You see, what we’re really talking about here by taking the default position of “disbelief” is skepticism.

Contrary to popular misconception, skepticism isn’t cynicism. In fact, it’s the opposite! Skepticism is very optimistic. It’s saying that the real world is interesting enough to want to embrace, and exciting enough to want to be a part of it.  Skepticism is a fuel for life that helps us avoid things that aren’t real. It’s a beacon that helps us see through the fog, and to get past the nonsense that everyday is threatening to waste your time and have you squander your life.

Many view skepticism (i.e., disbelief) as a threat. And, rightly so! It is a threat to much of what people believe, but it’s only a threat to anything that’s irrational; it’s a threat to things that aren’t true. And, that’s great because you shouldn’t want to believe things that aren’t true. So as long as we agree that we should all seek to look for what is (objectively) real, and seek to believe things that are true, you’re on my side.

It’s important to note that to believe things based on insufficient evidence is in one way to express a willingness to believe in anything. Whereas to reject the belief is by no means to profess belief in nothing at all; it’s to profess that one only believes things when provided with sufficient evidence to do so. As Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, discusses in this article, “skeptics believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe.”

Additionally, the only position that leaves one with no cognitive dissonance is disbelief.

2. Begin with the Null Hypothesis

One of my favorite pieces of advice to give to fitness professionals is to “think like a scientist, act like a trainer, and speak like a client.” A big part of thinking negatively is to think like a scientist. And, that’s because a big part of the thinking like scientist is to use the Null Hypothesis as your starting point.

Science begins with the null hypothesis, which assumes that the claim under investigation is not true until demonstrated otherwise.

In other words, you don’t just default to disbelief, you also begin your inquiry with the position of the null hypothesis: that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena, or that a potential medical treatment has no effect. By using the null hypothesis one ensures that the burden of proof remains solely on the person(s) who are asserting a the claim, not on the skeptics to disprove it.

People who make claims will often ask the skeptic “where is your evidence that disproves this claim?” This is a transparent attempt at shifting of the burden of proof. Do not fall for it, and understand what it (usually) means.

By asking this type of question, it demonstrates that the claimer holds the false notion that propositions are automatically true, or at least more likely to be true until they’re disproven. This is patently absurd. The reality is that claims are considered to be (provisionally) true when they have enough positive evidence to support them.

If the claimer is able to reject the null hypothesis, it means they are indeed able to demonstrate positive evidence that there (likely) is a relationship between two measured phenomena or that a potential treatment does have has a measurable effect. However, if the claimer were unable to meet their necessary burden of proof by rejecting the null hypothesis, it wouldn’t be reasonable to believe their claim as (likely) being true.

3. Reject Negative Evidence

As I discussed above, in order for something to successfully reject the null hypothesis, and therefore warrant (provisional) belief that a claim is (likely to be) true, one must provide positive evidence in favor of their claim, not simply provide negative evidence against something else.

For example, brining up the problems with science-based medicine is in no way evidence in favor of any alternative medicine practices. Arguments like this, which are used quite a lot, do absolutely nothing but demonstrate one’s lack of ability to provide positive evidence in favor of their claim.

In other words, one must provide positive evidence in favor of their claim in order to reject the null hypothesis, and to warrant any sort of  (provisional) belief that what they’re claiming is (likely to be) true. Providing negative evidence against competing claims does nothing at all to demonstrate the truth of a claim, therefore it fails to meet it necessary burden of proof. And, when claims fail to meet their necessary burden of proof, the only reasonable position to take on them is disbelief 

4. Assume Ignorance (in yourself and in others)

The other issue when dealing with the various claims in the fitness, nutrition and health field, as well as in every other part of our public discourse, is whether we should assume the person(s) making a claim knows what they’re talking about, or to assume that they’re basing their beliefs and assertions on being unaware of their own ignorance.

I recommend you go with the latter, as it’s far more dangerous to assume people (including yourself) know what they’re talking about, than it is to assume they’re are unaware of their own ignorance, and let them prove you wrong by listening to what they have to say and by politely asking questions. And, this (especially) goes for people in leadership and teaching roles, too!

The claimer can prove you wrong (that they’re unaware of their own ignorance) by being able to produce an argument that is both valid and sound. By valid I mean that their position rests on solid logic, and by sound I mean their proposition is supported by positive evidence.

By using this approach you’ll find that many people are overly generous, because every time they open their mouth they give away their ignorance. And, by holding yourself to this same standard, and by welcoming others to hold you to it as well, you’ll be humbled by having to confront the beliefs that you’re unable to provide valid and sound arguments in order to justify. And, that’s okay! We learn only by allowing our beliefs to be evaluated and scrutinized, and ourselves to be corrected when our beliefs fail to hold up to proper evaluation and scrutiny.

Lets face it, without meeting evaluation and scrutiny, it’s easy for us to hold the delusion that our beliefs are more justified than they really are.

5. Search for Counter-Evidence

Due to the susceptibility everyone human has to Confirmation Bias, which is the fact that we each see a reality that matches our expectations through our tendency to pay attention to information which confirms what we already believe while ignoring information which challenges our preconceived notions, we all will certainly find evidence that continually confirms our current beliefs.

It can appear that it’s being objective by asking oneself questions like, “what evidence is there to support this belief?” But this is illusionary, as the asymmetrical way that question is framed is biased. In that, it directs one’s attention exclusively to the evidence that supports their current belief and away from evidence that might contradict the desired conclusion.

If one truly wishes to have their beliefs lawfully align with objective reality, not just with our selective (i.e., subjective) perceptions of it, than one must make a conscious effort to seek out counter-evidence (e.g., listen to what other experts with differing views have to say, look for scientific evidence that conflicts with you current belief, etc.).

Here’s some great advice from my friend, Greg Nuckols, author of the Strength & Science blog:

“If you want to have justified confidence in your beliefs, don’t just ask yourself why you believe something. Ask yourself what would cause you to no longer believe it, or at least cast doubt upon that belief. Then search for that counter-evidence to the best of your ability, and enlist the assistance of people who hold the opposing belief. If your original belief holds up to that scrutiny, great. If not, you just got the opportunity to rid yourself of a false idea. Either way, you win.”

I’m always seeking counter-evidence because it’s only by not being able to demonstrate that I’m (likely) wrong that gives me the confidence to believe that what I’m doing is (most likely) correct. Not to mention, seeking counter-evidence keeps me always prepared to change your mind when presented with the sufficient evidence to warrant it. And, I welcome discovering instances where I’m wrong because it’s one less false belief I hold and spread around. I’ve even dedicated an entire blog to stuff I was wrong about.

6. Doubt Interpretations of Personal Experiences (your own and those of others)

I love my fellow fitness professionals, but they’re constantly disappointing me in the sense that, more often than not, when I see them get confronted with a body of scientific evidence that collides with their current beliefs about training, nutrition or health – beliefs they’re basing on their personal experiences and the anecdotal experiences of other’s they hold in high regard – they simply dismiss the body of science on the basis that it disagrees with the experiences they and others have had, therefore it must be wrong; it must be flawed.

As someone who promotes the need for skepticism and critical thinking, I certainly wouldn’t ever be disappointed that people don’t just take scientific evidence at face value without looking at the procedures used to perform the studies with a critical eye, in order to see whether it’s reasonable to agree with the researcher’s conclusions. What disappoints me is that so many fitness professionals, and other professional adults, fail to apply these same critical faculties when evaluating the conclusions they themselves have drawn, and the conclusions their colleagues have drawn, from their anecdotal experiences.

Not only is it logically inconsistent to take such an asymmetrical approach to evaluating conclusions, it also extremely arrogant and closed-minded to automatically dismiss any counter (scientific) evidence on the basis that it cannot be correct because it disagrees with the conclusions people have drawn from anecdotal experiences.

In other words, when one automatically dismisses scientific evidence as being “wrong” or “flawed” simply because it collides with the conclusions one holds based purely on the anecdotal experiences they and their colleagues have had, it demonstrates a viewpoint that the conclusions they currently hold cannot be wrong, so any conclusions that disagree with the one(s) they and their colleagues hold, must therefore be wrong.

This view point – the one many trainers, coaches, therapists, and other professional adults unfortunately default to – is closed off to the possibility that they and their colleagues may be misinterpreting the evidence of their own experiences, and therefore could be holding erroneous conclusions. Put simply, if dogmatism were an Olympic sport, this is how our most gifted athletes would appear when they were in peak condition. (<- I stole that line from Sam Harris)

The humble, and open-minded individual, however, when confronted with a body of (scientific) evidence that contradicts the beliefs they hold based on the personal experiences they and their colleagues have had, first considers the possibility that they themselves, along with their colleagues, may have used flawed reasoning or judgment to come to the conclusion they currently hold.

When one has taken the time to learn about human judgment, reasoning, and how we form our beliefs (i.e., social psychology); one discovers the variety of mechanisms, stemming from basic cognitive processes, that often cause all of us to mispercieve, misinterpret and even misremember the evidence of our own experiences. One of these many mechanisms, for example, is the bias towards positive evidence, which is a form of confirmation bias that describes our innate tendency to “detect” relationships (between two variables) that are not there because we overvalue evidence that only confirms a given hypothesis.

I highly recommend this (evidence-based) book as a starting point!

You see, when one is unaware of their innate fallibility of reason and judgment in their everyday life, it’s very easy for one to overvalue the conclusions they and others have drawn from personal experiences. However, when one becomes enlightened to the reality that the mind is a machine for jumping to conclusions, it forces one to understand why scientists are always reminding us “the plural of anecdote is not data.”

Becoming aware of our innate cognitive mechanisms that give rise to erroneous beliefs forces us to the humbling reality that we must doubt the accuracy of the explanations ourselves and others (regardless of their social or intelectual standing) have assigned as “the cause” of our experiences. It also forces us to identify what is a necessary process needed to minimize, if not totally prevent them, and that process is science!

Put simply, the scientific method is the best tool we have for objectively determining which claims are true and which are false (or at least offering probabilities of the likelihood of a claim being true or false).

Sure, like you and I, individual researchers are subjectively biased, but the scientific method is not biased in that manner; it’s an objective process that has built in machinery that teases out individual bias and bad science.

You see, observations gained by using controlled means (i.e., the scientific method) are far more reliable than those gained from using uncontrolled means (i.e., anecdotal experience). “Controlled” doesn’t mean a robotic, artificial setting, as some people mistakenly assert. It simply means, as Albert Einstein said about science, “a refinement of everyday thinking.”

With this reality in mind, when scientific evidence collides with the conclusions practitioners are coming to base on their anecdotes experiences, it’s far more likely that the science is correct, and the practitioners have simply misinterpreted the evidence of their own experience.

Don’t get it twisted, this is not saying that science is always right, nor is this to say that anecdotal experience isn’t important – it is! But we must test experience against the evidence. And, when they don’t line up, the science in no way makes the outcomes we see “in practice” any less real. It just means the explanation(s) we have given as the cause for why we had the experiences are likely wrong. In other words, the effect experienced (likely) wasn’t caused by what we thought.

As a skeptic, I’m not at all beyond using anecdotes. However, what I tend not to do (anymore) is make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about those experiences. I spent several years doing that, and I was wrong each time for doing so. And, I’m wrong on any occasion where I slip up and do it in the future… being human means I will slip up.

Final Words

You can’t be en expert in everything, and the simple fact that people make up new claims everyday assures that we’re going to be confronted with things we don’t know much about. And, that’s no problem, as you don’t have to know about everything. You just have to know how to be a good skeptic, and how to approach claims by thinking like a scientist. And, the six “negative thinking” strategies I’ve provided you above will postively help you to do just that.

The six strategies I’ve shared here certainly don’t guarantee anyone a life that is without mistakes and free from delusion. But they help to become a better skeptic, which puts you in the best possible position to identify and minimize the amount of time, money and energy you waste on unproven claims, bogus beliefs and misperceptions.

If you think you’re immune to the errors in every judgement and reasoning that lead us to false beliefs, it makes you that much more vulnerable to nonsense and delusion. In fact, it’s delusional to think you’re free from failibility and erroneous beliefs.

Lastly, never forget that using these skeptical, critical thinking strategies to separate the sense from the nonsense begins by relentlessly applying them to ourselves, first and foremost!

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