Anyone reading this has likely, at some point in their life, heard the terms "propaganda" or "brainwashing" being used, usually with negative connotations. For example, brainwashing is often associated with fringe religious groups, preaching extreme variants on more popularly held beliefs. Propaganda is most often tied to dictatorships, such as the current situation in North Korea. Both of these forms of information distribution are typically considered to be widely skewed and not reliable, sometimes even downright dangerous. Well, that's easy enough to understand when you're listening to a Nazi broadcast from World War 2, but what about the things we see in modern, everyday media?
Image source: Associated Press
The subtle infusion of intentional misinformation into everyday life is astonishingly widespread. I'm not talking about the clear agenda biases you'll find on the top news networks, either. I mean the little things that work their way into daily life on a regular basis, without anyone noticing. Let's start with an example that I feel should be painfully obvious as a dubious source: online forums.
When you visit a forum, the people who are in there chatting and posting information and advice are random internet people. Occasionally you'll see a user who is supposedly an expert or a prominent figure in whatever field to which the forum is targeted, but it's hard to prove an identity on many forums. Right off the bat, forum users should be on their guard. Now, it's true that some or even the majority if the forum users are talking about valid experiences and are passing on advice that has shown them some sort of positive result (or negative, depending on the advice). The issue lies in readers who believe the word of a forum respondent is 100% truth - and I know this happens, because I have many friends who are involved in activities like weightlifting or Crossfit and will argue with me until they turn blue because "I read it on a forum." Nevermind that I'm actively studying exercise science, and researching the actual facts and figures behind common fitness myths and tips. If my friends who are reading these forums put that much blind faith in a stranger without any actual proof, we can only assume the people posting this information on the forums may have had the same blind faith when they received the information they then passed on to the forum readers.
The problem with sources is more than just actual educational basis in fact, though that should obviously be a major factor. There's a lot that can be lost in even the most minor of errors. I have a friend who has been eating herself silly trying to consume 1g of protein for every pound of her body weight - which is way more than is necessary. The prime intake ratio, as published in many exercise science textbooks and scholarly publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association, is actually 1g of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is more like 1g for every few pounds. Even for a professional body builder, research shows the body receives negligible increases in benefits beyond 0.8g of protein per pound (check out this source that cites multiple medical studies on the topic). But my friend saw 1g/lb on a forum, so that MUST be what she should be doing. In this case, it's not exactly dangerous to be eating excessive protein (so far as we know at this time), but the insistence that "the forum said it, it must be true" is frightening when you consider what other information people receive from forums. This particular situation may be as simple a mistake as someone misunderstanding the difference between pounds and kilograms, but even that little mistake in other areas of training can cause huge discrepancies and problems.
I've picked on forums enough, let's turn now to something a little more legitimate: fitness magazines, both online and in print. Have you ever flipped through a fitness magazine and read an article about how great the latest supplement is, only to notice the tiny little print on the corner of the page or at the very end that says "advertisement" even though the article is listed in the legitimate table of contents? That article was likely paid for and written by employees of that supplement's manufacturer. Of course their article is going to make their product seem like all that and a bag of chips; if they said "this product doesn't work" no one would buy it.
I'm sorry to say I have been struggling to find or photograph a good example of this phenomenon on which to elaborate, but just take a look at any "diet" plan that is written about in a fitness magazine - what's the hottest new food fad? Think maybe that food source industry might have rigged it? For those of you who don't think that kind of thing could possibly happen, I definitely DO have an example of this one for you.
As a child, we learned about the Food Pyramid, and the "proper" distribution of foods from each of the categories. The pyramid I was shown had a huge base devoted to the bread group, and suggested up to 11 servings of breads, pastas, and other carb-o-licious foods. As an athlete, being encouraged to eat carbs was nothing new, so the pyramid made sense to me. Years later, we're in the anti-carb ages, and while I think the anti-carb movement is a little overboard, it did make me question why that ol' pyramid had pushed carbs so hard. So I did some research. Turns out, back when the food groups and the Food Pyramid were being created by the government, the health department asked for advice from leaders in various food industries - and of course, each industry had a pretty powerful lobby pushing to have their product promoted as the Pinnacle of Health. The bread industry happened to have the strongest advocates, and became the foundation of a very corrupt Food Pyramid, which was taught in schools as if it were law. The link I provided will take you to what I think is a good summary of a much larger base of research; there's tons of information available about how lobbyists in various parts of the food industry influenced the way food was (and still is) advocated in the name of health. Very interesting stuff, and sometimes a little scary!
This is the bad one - don't follow this example!
So what about scholarly research articles? Widely respected publications (like JAMA, cited above) would seem a much better place to receive your information when trying to figure out how best to nourish your body, train your muscles, or tend to injury. Surely these verified tests must be telling us something we can believe! Truth is, even these "scholarly" articles can be misleading. Remember that fitness magazine example, with paid advertising taking the guise of a regular article instead of a more traditional ad setup? Here's something frightening: scholarly articles are produced by those same people sometimes.
You'll see a scientific study published in a reputable journal, full of "proven facts" about the product, and you'll take it as an unbiased medical trial. But if you look more closely, you'll see that the study was funded by that same manufacturer as the magazine advertisement - and you better believe the scientists receiving that funding did what they had to for their "findings" to support the company signing their paychecks. That's not to say they necessarily falsified their results; more likely they only published certain sample groups, kept their trial subjects limited in ways that would support the findings, or performed some other manipulation of the available data to result in a legitimate-looking study that earned them the highest payout.
Image source: Boundless.com
Bias in scientific reporting isn't an uncommon phenomenon. Sometimes it is necessary to remove outlying data points to make better sense of the data, sometimes the bias comes from self-selection as the respondents aren't always sure what to say or what is relevant to the trials. But there are many times where data is manipulated to support a pre-existing conclusion. This skew might come from selecting only certain types of people to participate in a trial, or from measuring (or even just reporting) metrics that specifically support the conclusion, while ignoring other metrics that might represent negative side effects which would deter a customer from purchasing the product. So while that specially-manufactured superman powder might really make your muscles double in size after three uses, you might not be reading about the side effects test subjects experiences in which their eyelids fell off or their urine turned purple. Obviously these are some extreme and made-up examples, but if the side effects are left out of the study, are you really willing to take the risk? What if the side effect of that powder is that it destroys the lining of your stomach and you end up with severe organ damage? Much less silly than purple urine, and much more dangerous.
So if you can't trust scholarly articles, what CAN you trust? This is where verification of information becomes so very important. The amount of published research on modern exercise science is actually overwhelming. Just because some articles (or forums, or books, or whatever) represent inaccurate information, doesn't mean that EVERY source has an agenda or is perpetuating fitness myths. When you hear something that sounds like it might benefit your life or your workouts or your nutrition or whatever - take it with a grain of salt, do a little homework, and learn to discern fact from sponsored semi-fiction. This is your health and your life on the line, so it's important to both get the right information and to understand it properly. It might take a little extra effort, but trust me - it's way better than that purple urine...
How have fitness myths or misinformation affected your life? Have you ever had a negative experience that could have been solved by a little more research? How about some of these popular fitness myths - have you fallen prey to any of these?