The invaluable power of healthy skepticism

Usain Bolt
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Peter StocklandKicking off her wonderful book from earlier this year, Christie Aschwanden asks a seven-word question that might help us recover some sanity for our hyper-affluent, marketing-mad society.

“Do any of these products actually work?” Aschwanden asks in the introduction of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery.

By the time she wraps up her conclusion 200-plus pages later, she has taught us – or at least reminded us of – the simple, invaluable power inherent in healthy, balanced skepticism.

It’s an invigoration all of us as individuals and citizens, not just as athletes, can dig deep for whenever our imaginations are fired by, or we find ourselves drooling in front of, the next big single-solution panacea to everything ostensibly wrong with our worlds.

Good to Go’s primary game story is the gamut of gadgets and gizmos and gunk and gotta-haves that in recent years transformed mere post-workout rest periods into the multibillion-dollar training recovery industry.

Super-elite level professional athletes down to everyday amateur exercisers, she writes, will now open their wallets and happily dump out their shekels for all manner of “goods and services ranging from drinks, bars, and protein shakes to compression clothing, foam rollers, ice packs, cryotherapy, massage, laser therapy, electrical muscle stimulators, saunas, float tanks, meditation videos, sleep trackers” and much, much, madly much more.

This will recommend it as a great book for the workout warriors and athletes on a Christmas gift list.

Aschwanden quickly swings the book’s dynamic of interest away from the sports-specific to questions that should concern us in our working lives, as parents, as students, as media consumers, and as denizens of the most abundant yet sustainability-challenged epoch in history.

She sets the questions out in a chapter called Just-So Science.

“I discovered that it’s not enough to ask, ‘Does this thing work?’ First, you have to start with more fundamental questions: How would we know if it’s working? What are the benefits this gizmo or ritual is supposed to deliver, and how would we measure them? If the proof is coming from something measured in a lab, how do those numbers translate into meaningful differences in real life? … Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s answering your question.”

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While there’s obviously a great deal of laudable work done in correlating food intake with good health, for example, Aschwanden traces brilliantly how it has become a nexus where ‘science’ is turned into just another helpmate for marketing.

A rib-tickling example is her citation of how all the “nutritional science” product claims behind purported improvements for athletic performance can’t explain how sprinter Usain Bolt became the fastest human being ever by eating – wait for it – Chicken McNuggets. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bolt couldn’t stand or stomach the official food so he began frequenting the McDonald’s in the athletes’ village.

“Those nuggets of deep-fried chicken parts fuelled performances that earned him three gold medals. He would go on to replicate his three golds at the 2012 Olympics in London, and then again at the 2016 Rio Games, where he was photographed chowing down on chicken nuggets once more.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should all race off to Mickey D’s in hopes of running 100 metres in Bolt’s record-shattering time of 9.58 seconds. As Aschwanden shows, that’s exactly the marketing-fed mental error that leads us, in all walks of life, to expect some golden single thing will deliver what we most desire right now.

The point to take home is that there are so many variables at work in the various circumstances we encounter – inside and outside sports – that the wise course is to consider probabilities in combination and apply a blend of judgment and experience to any given set of circumstances.

We are hyper-abundant in both material and intellectual gizmos sold to us as the fruits of the finest science. We will be good, or at least better prepared, to go when we learn to discern by always asking: How does this work? And the even more vital variant: Is this true?

In a world overrun by all manner of political, social, cultural, recreational and spiritual gimmickry, recovering the strength to ask that most fundamental of questions should reinvigorate us all. Good to Go goes a long, long way to accomplishing that feat.

Peter Stockland is publisher of and senior writer at the think-tank Cardus.

Peter is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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By Cardus

Cardus is a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. It works to enrich and challenge public debate through research, events, and publications.

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