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.”