The Problem of the Scientization of Fitness Writing

by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist | Jan 20, 2015

What is Scientization?

Scientization has been defined as the application of science to a certain topic. The scientization of politics is the use of statistical tools, psychological and sociological science practices to formalize the presentation and study of politics. Though this term can be used to describe a beneficial process, it is more often used to describe a negative process.

Scientization as a negative is the inappropriate or over-use of technical terms and jargon, the over-complication of simpler phenomena, and the attempt to over-quantify, over-measure, and over-formalize concepts and practices. By far the most common reason to negatively scientize a concept is in the attempt to appear more intelligent, intellectual, and complicated. Since those values and in fact the scientific approach itself tend to be viewed as positives, scientizing a concept tends to attract some attention to it, which is probably the biggest reason some fitness writers continue to use it.

 There are 3 big ways in which scientization rears its ugly head in fitness:

 1.) Over-citation of studies

You can cite 3 literature reviews that cover pretty much all of the citations of a very good lay article. But that doesn't look nearly as cool as 35 citations to individual studies, no matter how scattered, how irrelevant, and how incomplete those studies really are. An even more common and proper method of citation is to cite a textbook. Often the concepts being discussed in general fitness writing are so over-arching and fundamental, only a textbook can really do them justice. There’s no single pubmed article that covers protein metabolism, muscle growth, or overtraining. But a lot of people are just plain old more impressed with pubmed references to a lot of complex and data-heavy research. Authors prone to scientize are often more than happy to give these data-hungry people what they want to see! Just cite some studies on diabetic mutant rats, and that's it, your claims are not only intriguingly complex, but also incredibly well-supported! Good communicators of science cite the textbooks, reviews, and individual studies ONLY AS NEEDED, and in that order. If that T-nation article you read has 30 pubmed references, maybe the author should try to re-submit it to a peer-reviewed journal for formal publication. He probably won’t because journal editors only publish studies that actually make sense, and having dozens of citations alone doesn’t cut it.

 2.) Overuse of technical terms

Perhaps few things are more impressive than using big words. Electroencephalography. Boom. Wow! Impressed? If you speak or write to be understood, you use words that your audience understands. If you speak exclusively to try to impress people, then you use big, super-sciency technical terms. Technical terms are fine in context, but just distract from the message in most other uses. For example, if you want to say that a supplement will get you more jacked, you can say it will grow muscle and prevent muscle loss, or you could say that it increases the local fractional synthetic rate and reduces the local fractional breakdown rate as measured by radioactive leucine labeling. The latter only offers needed information for other scientists interested in replicating your experiments. The former is good for basically everyone else, and is also 50 times more likely to be understood.

 3.) Over-explanation of minimally relevant topics

This one is typically used as a diversion tactic to avoid having to explain, in real world terms, why a certain recommendation is given or idea proposed. If you're talking about why a certain diet you tout enhances long-term insulin sensitivity, you might go into a 3-paragraph description of pancreatic secretions and insulin dynamics. You might even make a longer foray into Glut-4 translocation and local insulin sensitivity differences. What ends up missing in the confusion is any actual justification or explanation as to why YOUR DIET reduces insulin sensitivity. This tactic counts on readers to be so impressed and overwhelmed by the complicated science of insulin dynamics that they let their guard down and sort of let you slide past with the actual controversial claim of substance.

 Why is Scientization Problematic?

 Scientization is problematic because of two main reasons:

 -It blocks communication by making its contents less comprehensible. Lengthy pointless explanations and exotic technical terms make the concepts of the matter harder to understand. 

 -It takes away from actual explanations. Every sentence spend scientizing a concept could instead be spent explaining the concept well. You can leave having read a piece and just sort of feel impressed by it, or you can actually leave with a greater real world and practical understanding of the concepts.

Science is about concepts, not just terms.

The REALLY important stuff in science is the content of the CONCEPTS that comprise it. Science is an interconnected framework of ideas. And understanding those ideas and the connections between them is the very core of knowledge. Some very specific nitty-gritty concepts cannot be described in simple terms, but most of the most important concepts CAN.  It's these simply-described fundamentals that are the real meat and potatoes of science education, and they are the ones that deserve the most attention, not the fancy terms and pathways.

Next time you read a piece of science-based fitness advice, don't be impressed by big words, just big ideas.