Misinformation is everywhere. It affects how we think, how we behave, and the decisions we make. Nowhere is this truer than in the global health and fitness industry. Worth over $4 trillion, the industry has expanded rapidly, far outstripping the capacity of government agencies to regulate the market. Consequently, we are inundated with commercial products and services claiming to improve health, performance, and facilitate recovery. Some are based on science, most are not. In fact, many are sold on baseless or exaggerated claims and feigned scientific legitimacy (1) (i.e., pseudoscience).
Pseudoscience in your practise
The implications may be profound. Practices like alternative medicines have the potential to cause direct harm. And because they hinge on placebo (imagined) effects, they tend to exhibit a very poor risk-to-benefit ratio. Many other commercial interventions are also harming population health and undermining initiatives aimed at evoking long-term behavior change. Accomplishing any meaningful health and wellness outcome—be it losing weight, improving cardiovascular health, or improving sports performance—requires long-term planning, good reasoning skills, and the ability to commit time and effort to the cause. But health and wellness marketing centers on the promotion of short-term, quick-fix interventions, exploiting something I’ve referred to as the “quick fix fallacy.” As an example, consider the commercial weight loss industry which has estimated annual revenues exceeding $150 billion in the US and Europe. The industry hinges on the sale of ineffective fad diets and weight loss supplements. Rather than evoking long-term weight loss, such interventions result in chronic weight loss and regain (3), a phenomenon called “yo-yo dieting,” that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, life dissatisfaction, and psychopathology (e.g., binge eating, food restriction, anxiety, depression, and sleep disruption). This is just one example of how investing resources in ineffective (unproven) health and wellness practices is harming population health and undermining initiatives typically recommended by health, exercise, and nutrition professionals, thereby impeding their ability to do their jobs.
There is an alternative to this harmful, “quick fix” health and wellness paradigm. In his essay Mysticism and Logic, Welsh philosopher Bertrand Russel described how “instinct, like all human faculties, is liable to error,” suggesting that we can tame instinct and intuition using intellect. In the present context, intellect manifests as scientific skepticism (1), underpinned by critical thinking. This is to judge claims based on objective, empirical evidence, and to ask the important questions to discern an “objective truth.” Doing this depends on how well we understand and mitigate our biases; how well we understand and prioritize the scientific method above the conclusions we subconsciously desire; and the depth and reach of our scientific, media, and social media literacy. Importantly, we don‘t have these skills ingrained. One cannot decide to be a “clear and rational thinker” any more than one can decide to speak a foreign language or play a musical instrument. It requires diligent study, and practice to develop and refine.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources, several of them essential, that can be used to sharpen critical faculties. These include books (e.g., Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, James Randi’s Flim Flam, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science); magazines (Skeptical Inquirer, The Skeptic, Free Inquiry); lectures (by Steven Novella, Susan Blackmore, Stephen Jay Gould); podcasts (The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe; Geologic; Body of Evidence; Point of Inquiry); and debates (those pitting theology against secularism usually offer lucid examples of good and bad logical construct). Engaging in skeptical discussions with friends and colleagues is another practical way to identify and mitigate weaknesses in forming reasonable arguments. Once acquired, critical thinking skills will last a lifetime, and can be taught to clients and patients to reduce their dependence on ineffective quick fixes.
So, how can we promote science?
Science has rendered many fanciful gadgets and “snake oils” obsolete, confining them to the history books. But these products have been replaced by the nostrums of today—the alternative therapies, fad diets, and ineffective supplements. In fact, pseudoscience now thrives in commercial culture and wherever critical faculties are blunt. Much of the proliferation of pseudoscience has been compounded by social media where “fake news” spreads further and deeper than the truth in all categories (4). Scientific skepticism and critical thinking, with its emphasis on process and objectivity, ethics and humility, is a viable solution, but only if we work to understand its principles and implement them into professional practice. Only by having the courage to confront health and wellness pseudoscience will we alter the paradigm and reverse the current emphasis on marketing over science.
Tiller NB, Phillips SM. How Skepticism (not Cynicism) Can Raise Scientific Standards and Reform the Health and Wellness Industry. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2023 Mar 30;33(3):174-178. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2023-0037.
Dulloo AG, Montani JP. Pathways from dieting to weight regain, to obesity and to the metabolic syndrome: an overview. Obes Rev. 2015 Feb;16 Suppl 1:1-6. doi: 10.1111/obr.12250.
Vosoughi S, Roy D, Aral S. The spread of true and false news online. Science. 2018 Mar 9;359(6380):1146-1151. doi: 10.1126/science.aap9559.