Kicking 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 scepticism. It’s 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 multi-billion-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, bar, 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.
That 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 collectively 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? (J)ust because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s answering your question.”
Indeed, it does not, which is a critical caveat we must remember when assessing data-saturated environments from Facebook likes to climate change debates. A necessary component of the reminder is to ensure we’re asking the most meaningful question in the first place.
The book displays a sense of both fun and humility from the get-go on this point. Early on, Aschwanden uses one of her own lab experiments to raise questions about its unavoidable, albeit surprising, conclusion that drinking beer after a tough race is beneficial to women but not men.
“There was only one problem (with the conclusion): I didn’t believe it. Trust me – I wanted to show that drinking beer was great for runners, really I did. Yet my experience… left me sceptical of our result, and the episode helped me understand and recognize (its) pitfalls...”
Those pitfalls included sample size, timeline, participant bias, overvaluing anecdotal responses, failing to screen for environmental influences, and being too willing to accept data results that might have been caused by entirely unseen factors.
“The bottom line is that science is hard, and sports science especially so” she admits – not an easy confession for someone with a research background and elite athletic status in three different sports.
A necessary admission, nonetheless, as a prelude to her takedown of sports drink mythology (including potentially dangerous myths about the need for excessive hydration), and of our approach to nutrition generally. While there is obviously a great deal of laudable work done in correlating food intake with good health, Aschwanden traces brilliantly how it has become a nexus where “science” is turned into just another helpmate for marketing. The lessons are relatable for those of us who yet bemoan the subordination of democratic politics to a similar humiliating status vis-à-vis slick and savvy marketers.
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 fueled 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 be taken 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.
The point is starkly underscored when Aschwanden discusses not just what we put into our bodies, but equally what we take out of them. Specifically, she relates an episode in which a blood test revealed a particularly concerning marker, which alarmed her until her doctor calmed her fears by pointing out countervailing factors that offset any reason for fear. It’s the whole, not merely the parts, that merit full focus.
Alas, she notes, there is a lot of money to be made in marketing “data” that points in one direction and so produces a stampede for the solution that – Hey! Presto! – the company in question just happens to have handy.
“Tech nerds assume that more information is always better but (those) who practice medicine know information isn’t the same as knowledge…Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured, counts. Marketing (blood) tests to athletes so they can try to ‘improve’ their biomarkers is the sporting equivalent of teaching to the test. Rather than teaching athletes to read their bodies and understand when they’re tired and need rest, these tests draw attention to numbers that may or may not be relevant.”
Clearly, this is not an argument for reading tea leaves instead of empirical data, i.e., for assuming that all forms of information and knowledge are created equal and have the same value. Tossing a chicken’s foot into the air, spinning around three times under a full moon, and shouting “whoop, whoop, whoop” is not an answer to fighting post-workout fatigue, cancer, or environmental degradation. Neither does the answer wholly lie, however, in touting marketing-afflicted “science” as the last best and only means to pursue either personal goals or public democratic policy.
We are hyper-abundant, after all, 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 accomplish that feat.