Using Razors to Sort Through Fitness Claims
Occam's Razor, Hitchen's Razor and The Sagan Standard
There are hundreds of diet programs, supplements and pieces of exercise equipment for sale, and they’re all trying to separate you from your money. They do that through slick marketing campaigns that prey on your fears and insecurities. Taking an in-depth look at just one can take hours to comb through all the relevant material.
Fortunately, you can eliminate many of them in minutes by using a series of problem-solving principles. They’re known as razors. These are arguments that help you eliminate or “shave off” suspect things. Here are three of my favorite razors and how I’ve applied them over the years.
The first is Occam’s razor, named after the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham. Friar Ockham stated that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Here’s how it works.
Diets are often promoted with a hook to make them easy to remember. Low-carb diets eliminate high carb foods. There are diets that restrict the color of the foods you can eat and diets based on your blood type.
All of these diets include meal plans and suggestions of what you should eat every day. When you add up the calories, they tend to average 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day. Those numbers are important.
Most people eat at least 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day. If you cut out 1,000 of those calories, you’re going to lose weight. The combination of foods isn’t magic; it’s merely the reduction in calories.
Diet plans don’t succeed because of their unique combinations of food, but rather how they get you to eat less. To prove that their restrictions are somehow superior, they would need to have two groups of people. One eating their unique diet plan and the other eating the exact same number of calories, but include “banned” foods the diet doesn’t allow. If the special diet had better results at the end of the experiment, THEN they can claim to be superior.
The simplest explanation is that diets work because they figure out how to get you to eat less. Not because of their magical food combinations or restrictions.
When evaluating supplements, I like to use Hitchen’s razor, expressed by the writer Christopher Hitchens. It states, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Supplement companies love to use testimonials. Those are claims by people who supposedly used their product and got near-miraculous results. However, testimonials are not evidence; they are simply one person’s opinion.
Evidence is a clinical trial, done over several months or years, with a minimum of 100 people getting the supplement and another group of 100 getting a placebo. Those results are then published after being reviewed by outside experts.
Supplement companies that produce nothing but testimonials are asserting without evidence, so they can be dismissed without evidence.
The Sagan Standard
I like to evaluate exercise equipment using the Sagan Standard. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan said that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Some devices claim they can trim your thighs or build rock hard abs. Many promise these miracles in under 10 minutes a day. However, those claims are extraordinary and here’s why.
You can’t reduce fat in just one place on your body unless you’re undergoing liposuction. You can’t trim your thighs, drop your love handles or eliminate belly fat without losing weight everywhere else. So a device that promises to trim just your thighs is making an extraordinary claim.
You won’t get abs until your body fat is low enough for your abs to show through, no matter how many crunches you do. That means that unless those ab machines help you lose weight, they’re not going to help you sculpt a six-pack.
Demand proof through clinical trials. Those amazing claims need to be backed up with evidence, documented by researchers, that someone like you can get the results that infomercial is promising. Without that extraordinary evidence, don’t give them your money.
Just for fun.
Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Newton's flaming laser sword: If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate.
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