The real reason Tracy, Jillian, Oz, Oprah, Selter, Mercola, and Food Babe are winning the information game

Why This Matters

Want to influence someone to see the light? First, understand how they obtain and process information. Reading this could be a game-changer.

[Read Time: 11 minutes]


As a trainer, I choke upon hearing some of the stuff people spew about fitness and nutrition. Yeah, I can get indignant like it’s nobody’s business. The people I named in the title of this post have columns, talk shows, magazines, and full-page spreads. They have hundreds of people in their gyms and buying their supplements. Their word is more respected than science.

I have done my share of indignant.

Until fairly recently.

I decided to stop railing against the fitness messages of others and arguing against their methods for one simple reason.

It doesn’t do anything. You never convince anyone who is not ready to be convinced on some level. You also do a disservice to the profession at large.

But why?

Disclaimer: There is a grey area that inevitably gets brought up about speaking up on blatant misinformation, stirring up outcry over those who publicly denounce science in their approaches, or who generate baseless fearmongering, and don’t even have credentials to do so. This post is not about laying low and being the fitness martyr. Not at all. I think there is a difference between speaking up productively (which I see many of my colleagues do) and engaging in pointless blogging, discussions, threads, and spending a lot of time saying why someone is wrong and arguing against certain “methods” because they aren’t yours (which I see many of my colleagues do, and I have done as well). Wrong is very subjective anyway, but that’s another discussion. I will never shy away from pointing out misinformation when appropriate. But my approach, tactics, and the value I place on doing so has changed. Online is also a bit of a crazy scene sometimes. There are clear trolls, and they don’t concern me. 

This post itself is probably one of the biggest about-faces I have done, given my personality. For awhile, the concept grated on me a bit. It seemed kind of defeatist or dishonorable. Boy, was I wrong. I definitely trend more toward wanting to be the excited and honorable white knight, riding off to rescue your muscle cells from catabolism or lack of carbs or the evils of Tracy Anderson!

Yet, that approach is rarely successful, and largely useless. So why are we putting time and energy into it? It was also a bit hypocritical, given that I hadn’t always known about some of things I do now.

“What Joy? What are you saying? But look at what they say about this this and this … Look how they claim this does this, and how they butcher exercise science, or mutilate the sanctity of physiology.”

“Are you saying that’s right? How could you say their advice isn’t dangerous/bad/wrong/horrible/cancer-inducing (no wait, that’s carbs)?”

 

Because it’s not really. Has anyone died from green coffee bean pills for fat loss. What about from lifting only 3 lbs? Has low-carb started wars?

Are *their* claims fraudulent? Sure. Sometimes. But sometimes there’s some truth cleverly mixed in.

Do they lack context? Definitely.

Are they insufferably reductionist? For sure.

Are they evidence-based? Usually not.

Do they piss all good trainers off? Duh.

Is their advice attractive? Clearly.

Does it work? For some, of course. It might stop working, or not deliver the magical results promised, but it often does work by getting someone to make some healthier choices and get them off their bum.

But it’s not their advice we need to worry about too much. Here’s why: While their advice might suck to us, it’s rarely dangerous. At best, it is better than nothing and actually helps someone do something; at worst, it’s a complete lie and frustrating. Sometimes, it is even close to being labeled dangerous (think irresponsible coaches, or fanatical naturalists).

But what’s really dangerous is that people don’t have anything to compare it to.

What they see is all there is.

This is a concept from the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He says:

“(There is ) remarkable assymmetry between the ways our mind treats information that is currently available and information we do not have. … Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously  from memory might as well not exist. … (We) construct the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (CANNOT) allow for information it does not have.”

picthnkingfast

Read that again.

This is a very powerful thing to understand: We cannot take into account information we do not have, and ideas we have not been exposed to!

Who has the biggest audience? Who do you see most of? Who gets talked about? Those people in my title aren’t what we need to be scared of. We need to be scared of the fact that they are the only ones some people know of! That is the danger – not their lukewarm information.

This is the power of a big reach. And it’s important to take it seriously, because what an individual sees is all there is. Their world is made up of the information in it. Want to change their world? Change what they see. Not simple at all, I know.

Take an audience member from an Oprah show, for instance. Chances are you wouldn’t get someone who’s a complete moron (though you’d have to allow for that chance). They probably are a normal person, with reasonable intelligence, who is willing to or thinks they can decide rationally when presented information (to a degree). They want information to stay in “good health,” and they actively seek it out. They want better knees, a better sex life, to pass their yearly physical, and pick up their kids. Maybe they want to run a couple of 5Ks.  They don’t want to think that heart disease and osteoporosis are in their future, but it almost seems inevitable with what they see around them. They know that eating healthy and exercising are the right things to do, so they buy vitamins, flax seeds, and fish oil. They check for breast and colon cancer and buy the lower sugar cookies. Their weight goes up steadily in their middle age, and they stop moving around as much. They take several medications and see a therapist for their bum shoulder. They buy a treadmill or elliptical, with the intention to use it … sometime. Won’t it just sitting there motivate them? Or the cost of it motivate them to use their investment?

They aim to take care of their health, and all their decisions are based on what they know to be “good information.” What they see is all there is: TV, Prevention magazine, Fox News, Oprah magazine, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the trainer at Goodlife, and Planet Fitness.

Strength training? Energy equation? High intensity exercise? Carbs are OK? No dieting? Meditation?

Do they hear of that a lot? Probably not.

But anyone can find *good* information right? It’s right there on the Internet!

Yet why is it never that simple?

I mean, it’s true. You can Google anything. How does one define good? How do they filter it?

“We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgement is missing – what we see is all there is.” 

People don’t inherently know that the information they have is not the best. Or incomplete. Or less than optimal. You can’t account for information you don’t have. Even when getting sub-par results, when we look around at what the majority sees, learns, does, perpetuates – it’s not very encouraging, right?

When making a judgement, we often forget to think about the pieces we are missing, and we just work with what we have. This is OK.  This seems like a such a vague concept, but in my opinion, it encompasses what we mean when we say “keep learning.” Being open to learning means taking this concept to heart. Know that you are limited by your view of the world and the information contained in it. How can we pass that on to those we want to influence?

How would you know if Alan Aragon is more useful than Dr. Mercola? Does popular fitness information encourage critical thinking, scientific literacy, and sound reasoning? Not if you are getting it from the people in the title.

Ask: What would I (they) need to know before I (they) have formed an opinion about the quality of someone’s information?

As a coach, we are in a better place to ask that for someone and help lead them successfully to answers, because we see more of the bigger picture.

Dan Pfaff, one of the coaches at the World Athletics Center said that one of his recommendations for beginner coaches was to read, experience, and learn widely; different methods, coaches, and philosophies. That wide base allows you narrow down your approach better and learn how to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” (That Bible analogy just fit perfectly.) Expose yourself to a lot.

In this era of information overload, this can seem counterintuitive sometimes because there IS so much (be sure to read the next post about scientific thinking).

The second part to influencing someone’s belief or education on a topic is evident in this quote:

“Understanding a statement must begin with an attempt to believe it: you must first know what the idea would mean if it were true. Only then can you decide to UNbelieve it.” 

(This is also a sacred sentence if you plan on debating. First make sure you understand the other persons stance correctly.)

When challenging someone’s “story” of their world and the information they have used to make it coherent to them (it’s genetics, it’s GMO’s, its lack of time, it’s carbs, its poverty, it’s Monsanto, it’s vaccines, it’s chemicals), first engage them on a level that allows UNbelief to eventually be possible. And to do that, you need to understand how their belief was created, and where they got the information from. Why it seems to make sense to them, and how easy it is for them to connect the dots, even when those connections (correlations) are not part of the cause, or only a very small part. You have to account for information that is unavailable to them.

In this age of information overload, you also have to account for a lack of understanding of how to evaluate information. So just more information or exposure to it, is just part of it.

Unless you can get someone to question, wonder, or doubt, you will not be successful in allowing them to eventually consider an alternate theory.

Exposure and suggestion (plant a mind virus) allows for comparison and doubt, which lead to questions, insecurity, and curiosity, which encourage research and discussion and can then lead to growth and change.

It’s uncomfortable to think that we don’t know what we don’t know. People will cling strongly to that which they FEEL they know, especially when challenged on a belief. Challenging beliefs should happen, and we need those who are willing to challenge (remember my disclaimer please). Having a belief challenged is uncomfortable and creates a lot of resistance – and often alienation from the very people we want to influence. Maybe it’s often because we don’t give enough consideration to the fact that  what they see is all there is. We can be trying to shove more in their “view,” but we do so in a way that fails to be effective.

What’s the first step to influencing someone? Understand and appreciate their world. Know where they are coming from.

piccoachingtalk

People WANT explanations. They WANT information for why their world is the way it is. They are looking to be secure in what they know. In the absence of a way to compare and evaluate information or practice in doing so, those messages that appeal to our emotions, senses, desires, and insecurities are most attractive to us. This is why talk shows, diet promises, fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and sensationalism are appealing.

They attract us on a emotional level and encourage us to form a coherent story and connect the dots to come up with an explanation and story for our fitness or health, or lack thereof.

Why am I fat?

Why am I unhealthy?

Why am I aching?

Why am I not making progress?

Why am I in pain?

Why is obesity rising?

Why am I unfit? 

What can those who care about the quality of information do?

1.) People look for information on topics they care about. Are you addressing those topics?

Maybe one lesson we can take from the Food Babe is that she hit on a topic that a lot of people are really concerned about: where our food comes from and what’s in it. Processed food, massive grocery chains, and huge agriculture companies are a relatively modern concern, and people don’t know what to think! Conspiracy theories are rampant. New stories are alarming. Obesity and disease rates are alarming. There are plenty of dots to connect, especially when someone does it for you. It can sound perfectly logical and be perfectly wrong.

James Fell writes articles that are humorous but accurate and evidence-based, and he addresses popular themes when they arise. Maybe that’s not your niche, but I am glad I can link him. He addresses topics that are at the forefront of “what we see,” like the Food Babe debate.

People want to know about supplements, herbal cures, etc. Examine.com has done a great job of providing a evidence-based resource that is gaining popularity and credibility. They are building an influence that could combat Mercola!

What about the whole argument that science often doesn’t seem to make sense. Are we helping put out information about scientific literacy to combat those who clamour for everyone to ignore “studies” and claim that “science is always contradictory”? Alan Aragon, Greg Nuckols, and Jamie Hale do a great job of that.

Jen Sinkler has a new Women’s Health online column, and Mark Fisher Fitness is taking over New York! Both are examples of fitness professionals with a great message (evidence-based, bullshit free) gaining popularity.

2.) Think critically yourself, and be ready to build that quality in your clients. Don’t stoop to the same levels in your arguments. Practice negative capability, the ability to distance yourself emotionally from information and opinions.

3.) Are we putting out evidence-based information that can act as a comparison? No matter what your niche, are you someone “better” to compare to?

When I first came across Martin Berkhan’s blog and read his nutrition information, the one thing that hooked me was that it was the first time someone was explaining the science of nutrition clearly, with lots of links and citations. Suddenly, I had a higher standard to compare to! I wasn’t prepared to understand and dissect all that info, but it was the start. My eyes were opened. Plenty of other sites do this by linking studies, so I agree that this is not the be-all-end-all. There is no one right answer, but a repeated comment I have gotten from clients is that they appreciate my openness, my willingness to share where I get my information, what it’s based on, and explain why certain ideas or concepts are not evidence-based.

There will always be people who blatantly wish to stay blind to learning, growing or improving. Forget about them. You can’t touch them anyway. Don’t fight that battle to the detriment of others who do need you in the fitness arena.

If we want to whine about the media and those we see get all the press, we can. But as far as I know, it’s not going away. I don’t watch TV. I got rid of Netflix, but I am on Facebook quite frequently. Almost no one is immune to the reaches of the media, and certainly not our clients on this side of the world. The media is where many people get their information from. If we want good information to be more normal, and more pervasive, we should work harder to contributing to it’s circulation and popularity. Both through social media and in-person.

Lastly:

3.) Are we engaging people on a level that allows for growth?

If we don’t respect the process of how UNbelief can happen, then we waste a lot of time trying to change beliefs and not getting anywhere. Expose, question, tickle curiosity.

I guess the best thing you can ever do is make someone wonder and then be ready to help guide them.

Compare, wonder, grow. But none of this is useful if you as the trainer or coach don’t stay true to what makes you better in the first place than all those people I listed: stay evidence-based, outcome-driven, and open to learning.

We all know that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know. And that’s OK, albeit a bit scary. Once you realize how little you know, it’s less secure to put yourself out there, and you certainly have to be more careful about black and white statements, useless negativity and “claiming.” But it’s worth it.

It’s worth it in terms of being better. Better at what you do.

Thanks for reading about my personal lesson.

Contribute to someone’s wonder, because: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
― Socrates

P.S. A friend gave me some good feedback on this topic that I felt was worthy to share. I have a couple of friends who think even bigger picture than me (that’s part of why I like them). He said we need to put more work into “what these people are doing to build platforms and doing it with quality information.” I agree. Why does shit content proliferate and good content die? This is something more of us need to figure out. I think Mark Fisher Fitness is at the forefront of this idea. Jahed Momand talked about it as well in an interview with Evil Sugar Radio. Who are we competing against? It’s not just the names I mentioned, its a host of social and economical variables too. It boggles my mind to think about it! So I’ll leave it off here. To be continued…

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Comments

  1. JC Carter says:

    Ur article is wrong, which makes you wrong.

    k

    thnx

    and sorry for ur lots

  2. Johnathan says:

    Great points!! Loved it!! You’re absolutely right. I called out Doctor Oz last week with a group and the girl managed to bring him up in conversation incorrectly after that a few times.. The information wasn’t all wrong, but I didn’t really know how to point it out to her.

    This post rings so true. Thanks for writing it. Love the image on judging wish people understood that more.

  3. Joy, a great post. You and your cohort’s crusade is admirable. I have gained many great ‘ aha’ moments by reading your posts and of others you’ve mentioned. I’m grateful that there are just as many sound, evidence based information out there, like yours and other’s you’ve mentioned to counter balance the rampant misinformation available.

  4. Wow! A great lesson in logic. I’m printing this out. This made me realize that I have to take more responsibility for my writing and more empathic when I’m dealing with people who were only given the option to take the Blue Pill. Thank you.

  5. Hi Joy,
    This is a fantastic article! Thank you for summing up all of the incoherent thoughts that have been bubbling in my head lately. I believe that this “counter platform” needs to be the mission for anyone interested in building a better future (not just fitness but let’s start there). Keep up the great work!
    Scott

  6. Great article. This is right on point. A lot of my friends started CrossFit (and no, this is not anti-CrossFit) a few years ago and when they would ask what I thought, I would usually say something to the effect of, “It’s great you’re being active and lifting, sprinting etc. But from a programming standpoint I’m not a fan”.

    And they always wanted to argue about the “efficiency” of the programming and the virtues of a Paleo and Gluten free diet. Essentially regurgitating what they read on CrossFit.com, in the CrossFit Journal or saw on a CrossFit YouTube video. Basically, they lived in an echo chamber. There was never a competing voice and argument.

    It didn’t matter what argument I presented, they’d never been exposed to anything other than CrossFit (and the big box bi’s tri’s and jog on the treadmill and we know how well that goes for most). Basically, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Like you said, “we cannot take into account information we do not have, and ideas we have not been exposed to!”

    Again, no bagging on CrossFit, you could insert a new training methodology every 5 years here.

    • Hahah Roy, I was the same way when I first started Crossfit. Friends would tell me how it was “just exercise”, and I would feel the need to preach 😉
      You know the joke about what’s worse than a crying baby on a plane? A Crossfitter talking about Crossfit. Hahaha. I’m not bashing it either. Crossfit gets used as an example mainly because it was built off of one man’s ideas, so it can be used frequently. But, as with all revolutions it has served an immense purpose to “fitness” and has inspired both extreme hate and love.

  7. Josh Lucas says:

    I love when I read something that completely changes my views and thoughts. I was creeping towards many of these points on my own but I could have never in a million years pulled it all together and written something so perfect. Not to mention the presentation of the material was done so well that it was easy to absorb immediately. Thanks for writing

  8. Not all ideas deserve to be respected; some deserve to be laughed at. I get the overall tone of the piece, but I am furious the anti-vaxx/alt med crowd have been placated by the ‘both sides of the issue’ canard. There isn’t both sides in this any more than there is in creationism v. evolution: one is based on evidence, one is demonstrably false.
    And when a guy like Paul Chek can get rich peddling absolute unscientific tripe, it makes the fitness ‘community’ look like idiots…

    • P, I get your frustration a TON. It has gnawed at my mind, that people can throw back the “its what works for me” or change this type of argument and use it in the same way. I was on the other end too, and I can tell you about what I thought, and how I saw things from “the other side” hahah. But….that’s reality. Bulldozing someone’s belief head on rarely works! You can’t sell change to people who don’t want it. So more energy into different approaches is better warranted no, since we know the one that doesn’t work, but is emotionally draining? One of the best ways to make a distinction between shit or not, someone can see what information stands up under rigorous inquiry.Those that dismiss ANY examination of the supporting pillars of their arguments, have lost already. That’s why debate and discussion is valuable. Unfortunately it’s rare to find quality debate.

  9. While I agree with your article 100%, I feel like a better approach would be to “meet people where they are.” I don’t think it’s safe to assume that you need to teach people how to evaluate information. I suggest assessing each client’s cognitive schema individually and then finding out how you can be a part of it.

  10. Joy, this is my first time reading one of your articles. I came across it in a share via Mark Fisher’s facebook page. I was reading through your blog thinking, “Yes! Exactly! Wow, spot on! Right?! That, that too!” When I got to the end, I was struck by your question, “Why does shit content proliferate and good content die?” One reason that I have noticed is that most of the people delivering the good content are scientists and most of the people producing shit content are great at marketing. I was in acting school with Mark. I spent 10 years working in that industry before switching full time to health coaching and training. I am notably better at teaching to, presenting to, and understanding my clients than many of my health and wellness peers. But there aren’t many of us out there who can both stand in front of a crowd and understand what makes them tick, then deliver great, evidence-based content in a relate-able, relevant, and easy-to-understand way. Maybe it boils down to the simplicity of WHO has the information.

    Plus, as a person who does thrive on evidence-based material, it can be very unnerving to put yourself out there in any sort of definitive way. One thing those of us who take the time to read scientific materials know is that, at some point, you’re going to have to take back something you said. This is a very confidence-rocking fact. Personally, I’ve had a kick-ass book proposal 90% complete for about 3 years. It’s sitting useless on my computer. But putting it out there means running the risk of being wrong. And that is terrifying. That said… I think you’ve just convinced me that it’s necessary to take that risk. So… Word. Thanks. Gracias. F*ck yeah. Onwards and upwards.

    • Laura, thank you for your comment! You put my thoughts into words, and I think you nailed the conundrum on the head. Being public means dealing with being wrong on a much larger scale. It’s tough eh. I’m going to share your comment to generate some further discussion.

    • Wait….is your name REALLY Laura Ingalls????

  11. Joy,

    Great article! I found it through Alan Aragon’s post on FB.

    -Bryce

  12. Gretchen Moran says:

    I have followed Dr. Mercola for a few years now and I’ve learned to take his information with a grain of salt. A lot of info he has to share has some merit, though often followed by advertising to buy his latest and greatest supplement. I don’t believe that instilling fear is the way to change anyone’s mind, which is a tactic he uses quite often. I appreciate your insight and look forward to following you.

  13. I don’t know, it seems to me this article was written from a pretty narrow point of view when it’s fully digested. Lumping Dr. Mercola and FoodBabe into the same category as Opera is quite a stretch if you ask me and is a pretty good indication you don’t really get into the nuts and bolts of what these people are offering. At least FoodBabe is LOOKING for evidence where previously there WASN’T any. I’ve been in the fitness industry for 26 years and I can honestly say there are for more “fitness” people who don’t know anything about health, than “health” people who don’t know anything about fitness. Looking at it from a different angle, the fitness industry has for decades come up with BS science to sell supplements or the latest workout trend. Later on it’s discovered the “science” was either extremely faulty or backed by financial interests to support a claim so people would buy more things they don’t need. This is not a balanced article at all. You’re basically saying “be open minded and question everything” while completely ignoring the total and complete level of ignorance so often found in the fitness industry. As if everything is just calories and macros.

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