Hey everyone, Derek here. This week I’m going to go over a few quick tips for how to critically analyze the latest article or blog post you see about fat loss, health, or any other controversial subject so you don't end up looking like me in those pictures!
There is a ton to cover, so I definitely won't get to it all in this post, but hopefully this will give you a good starting point.
I’m going to try to avoid going too deep and stick to simply pointing a few things out with examples, referencing some good articles and letting you examine everything for yourself in more detail.
In the case of managing response to outrageous or fear mongering articles, a bit of awareness and critical thinking is really all you need.
Before reading, please take a minute to check out our About Us and Blog Disclaimers pages to get some context of who we are and what you need to keep in mind while reading our posts. (The Blog Disclaimers Page is especially applicable this week.)
Learning to critically analyze articles as you read them is becoming an essential skill. There are so many extreme articles and blog posts shared on Facebook that it is very easy to become overwhelmed and confused about what the actual truth is.
Instead of throwing your hands up and giving up on being healthy, read on below to get a few tips on how to sort through the mess. By the end of this post you should be able to dismiss about 90% of these seemingly contradictory articles.
Whether it’s Crossfit, vaccinations, veganism, Paleo or any number of other topics there are always a myriad of biased articles from both sides.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have an opinion, I’m just saying that we need to be aware of the bias that comes from having a strong opinion on something. It makes it very hard to look at something objectively. In general if we agree with something we will not subject it to the same scrutiny as something we disagree with.
Below I’ll go over 6 red flags to watch out for when it comes to reading articles and blog posts online. Hopefully you’ll even pick up on a few of my biases!
Once again, I encourage you to check out our blog disclaimers post as there are several points in there that apply very well to this discussion.
Red Flag #1: Biased Language
This can be in the form of insults, condescending language, absolutist statements or emotional manipulation.
Basically, any time someone uses a demeaning term to attack the opposition instead of arguing the facts it should be viewed as a major warning sign. Likewise, when someone triggers your sense of fear, anger or superiority it will be very difficult to continue reading or listening objectively.
Unfortunately, we are just naturally wired to be biased towards things we already agree with and biased against things that disagree with our current beliefs. The more emotional the belief (vaccination, religion, diet, abortion, etc.) the more biased we are likely to be.
With this in mind, we can make efforts to minimize our own bias and be aware of other’s bias when reading and listening to things online. Articles titled “10 Reasons the Paleo Diet Sucks”, “Why All Vegan’s Are Weak” or “Is Your Multi-Vitamin Giving You Cancer?” are generally going to be very difficult to read objectively and often will be full of biased language.
It doesn’t mean the information in the article is useless, but it does mean that you need to take your own bias and the writer’s bias into consideration while reading.
The second that emotion enters the picture is the second that our objectivity gets very, very clouded.
Red Flag #2: The Author Is Attacking Something They haven’t Followed Themselves
This is a major problem when it comes to something popular – everyone wants to have an opinion on it. While it’s great to do research and learn about new things to see if it’s for you, it becomes a problem when you start espousing your thoughts on it when you don’t have a full and detailed understanding of all the nuances.
If you don’t have a detailed understanding either, you are putting full faith in the author to provide accurate and complete information. (Something that is very difficult to do for something you don’t follow.)
As mentioned above, since we are naturally wired to be biased towards things we agree with and away from things we disagree with, writers who do not already agree with a certain diet or practice will have natural blind spots and points of ignorance that are created by their bias.
This article by Ann Marie Michaels of the blog Cheeseslave is a perfect example of this problem. It was written as Paleo was starting to get popular by someone who does not follow Paleo and it attempts to discredit some of the main components of the diet.
If you read just this article, you may come to the conclusion that Paleo is just another fad and really doesn’t have that much evidence behind it. However, it’s not nearly that simple. While some of the points are valid, she misses out on a few of the really crucial reasons why someone might follow a Paleo diet.
First and foremost is the fact that Paleo in it’s truest form is actually more of a health diet than a fat loss diet. This article by Jon of ispeakpaleo.com is a very good analysis of the article above and where it goes wrong.
Essentially, Michaels attacked the ‘fad’ version of the Paleo diet in her post without recognizing that there is a deeper more nuanced version (as espoused by Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Chris Kresser and many others) that addresses many of the objections and questions she raises.
Now, to her credit, Ann Marie Michaels has written a more recent post where she has updated her views on Paleo and it’s clear she now has much more detailed understanding of what Paleo is and what it isn’t and has changed her view accordingly.
Side Note: For that she gets a lot of credit in my books. The ability to change opinion in the face of new evidence (or increased knowledge) rather than dogmatically sticking to a previous view is absolutely critical when it comes to assessing open-mindedness.
Red Flag #3: The Author is someone who has had an extreme experience
Here we have an equally influential source of bias, but from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Where above the writer was guilty of not having enough experience with the subject, in this case the writer actually often has too much information. Often they have gone through something themselves and as a result of the strong experience they have, they naturally are prone to applying the conclusions reached from their own results to everyone else.
Unfortunately we as humans are all very different and have different sensitivities and reactions to anything and everything out there.
If something makes a life changing impact on your life and everyone you interact with, it’s natural to believe that it will make the same difference for everyone else, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. Some people just don’t react the same way.
Given the same evidence, someone who has non-celiac gluten intolerance and has experienced violent diarrhea as a result of gluten exposure is going to be a much stronger proponent of avoiding gluten than someone who hasn’t had an issue with gluten at any point in their life. The gluten intolerance victim will naturally be prone to assuming gluten is harmful for everyone and the non-issue person will naturally be prone to assuming the gluten intolerance is a placebo effect.
This goes for anything. As humans we are naturally passionate about something that has influenced us personally. The most passionate MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) advocates will usually be mothers who have lost a child to drunk driving and the most passionate anti-abuse advocates will be friends of victims or the victims themselves. No matter how wrong we might think drunk driving or abuse is, only personal experience can create that deep and undying passion.
So what do we do with this information? Should it mean that you don’t trust someone who is passionate about a topic? No, I don’t think so. But it might mean that we need to keep the authors bias in mind when reading their arguments in favor of what they are doing and maybe read arguments from someone with an opposite bias with as much of an open mind as possible.
In the end what it comes down to is that personal experience is just yet another source of bias.
Red Flag #4: False Dichotomy and Generalizing of a Group or Topic
I’ve covered this a bit above, but to explain fully, here we are essentially looking for any time options are presented as one or the other when really there is a third alternative or any time something with many variations is painted with broad generalizations.
I wish it wasn’t the case and perhaps this is my own bias coming out, but for whatever reason, pro-vegan articles seem to be especially bad for this. Perhaps it’s the deep emotional reasons for following veganism that cause this bias to persist, but I can’t even count how many times I have seen vegan or vegetarian diets compared to ‘meat heavy diets’ where the example used is essentially a standard American fast food diet without acknowledging the healthier and more environmentally friendly meat consuming diets out there.
They rail against the health impacts of conventional meat, factory farm meat production or the amount of grain used to feed cattle (which I agree with for the most part) and argue that veganism is the only other option for health and the environment. Unfortunately what they fail to mention is that there is a third option: That being humanely raised grass-fed meats.
Not only are they healthier than conventional meat, they’re also much more humanely kept. This article by Whole 9 Life is an excellent discussion of some of the elements of ‘Conscientious Omnivore-ism’. For more on grass-fed meat this series by Chris Kresser is a great primer.
Now to be clear, I know that not all vegan’s are closed minded like this, but these do seem to be the articles that get shared most often and it’s a bit of a pet-peeve of mine when the third option is so obvious.
As for broad generalizations, the Cheeseslave article above demonstrates this nicely. She treats Paleo as one entity instead of addressing the many different versions of Paleo. Yes, some people following Paleo are extremely dogmatic, but for the most part most versions of Paleo are very reasonable and acknowledge shortcomings and areas where more research is needed.
Taking Action: How to Know what to trust
For all of the above red flags, don’t take their presence to mean there is no truth to the statements being made. Simply use it as a notification of bias in both yourself and the author and to put your critical thinking cap on to carefully analyze what is being said.
If it is something you already agree with, make a point of reading something from the other point of view. Make a point of noting certain authors who are commonly biased and dogmatic and others who acknowledge their faults and blind spots and who have a good record of accuracy in your reading experience.
If you do that it will be much easier to dismiss the alarmist posts and you can rest easy knowing that unless you have serious health conditions you’re not going to die from that steak or that piece of bread.
It may not be the best for you, and it is worth researching and experimenting further to determine if it is worth avoiding, but the important thing is that it won’t kill you tomorrow. You don’t need to panic and stress about it right now.
At some point in the future I will go over some tips for how you can proactively analyze actual research studies and give my opinion on the value of scientific research vs. personal experience, but for now check out the article by Jonathan Serfaty that I linked last week.
Enjoy, share on Facebook if you liked it and hit me up on twitter @lftfitness if you have any comments or questions!
P.s. Unfortunately for the next couple of weeks the blog posts will probably be lighter and much shorter as we have a few extra things to take care of over the next month. Eventually we'll get back to normal, but for now we have to prioritize a few other areas of our business.
Each week we'll still share something valuable, but it will be mostly based on things we are currently going through and will be more of a journal format using examples from our own lives every week.