Pseudoscience is common among elite athletes outside of the Olympics too…and it makes me furious.


The many stories yesterday featuring Olympians appearing with cupping marks on their skin have brought renewed attention to pseudoscience in sports. Cupping, which involves putting a hot jar onto the skin, forming a suction that “draws out” toxins or unblocks energy meridians or something like that, might seem like a relatively benign form of pseudoscience, but it can be quite harmful.  Orac has a great post (complete with a gruesome photo) describing the harms of this particular practice:

Cupping is nothing more than an ancient medical practice based on a prescientific understanding of the body and disease, much like bloodletting and treatments based on the four humors. As the case of Lin Lin shows, it’s all risk for no benefit. It has no place in modern medicine, or at least shouldn’t.

I’m completely unsurprised to find that pseudoscience is common among the elite athletes competing in the Olympics. I’ve seen similar things rampant in the combat sports world as well.

Over the course of my martial arts career, I’ve had the opportunity to train with many extraordinary MMA fighters. What I observed in these elite professional fighters–most of them either competing in the UFC, or well on their way to it–was a razor-sharp focus on doing whatever it took to improve. This meant grueling eight hour training days, and equally grueling recovery practices to allow them to sustain that level of activity. The recovery practices included ice baths, contrast showers, yoga, expensive massages and bodywork, and a whole host of alternative medical treatments including acupuncture, energy work, and dubious supplements. And behind nearly every fighter, there’s usually at least one chiropractor lurking around in background.

[My interactions with these MMA chiropractors are so similar that they almost follow a script.  He (and it’s always a he) invariably introduces himself as “Dr. First Name”, even in casual social situations, and tries to impress his listeners by boasting about how many important clients he has.]

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This story gets at the psychological aspects of why elite athletes pursue useless–and sometimes even harmful–alternative practices. What I’ve observed among fighters is this exact mentality.   Magical thinking has long been endemic to martial arts, and there are few voices in the community who challenge these ideas, particularly when they’re promoted by influential teachers and coaches. Competitive martial artists, like MMA fighters, are so determined to do anything it takes to give themselves the extra edge that they are especially likely to listen to anyone who promises them a benefit to training, to recovery, to mental conditioning.  Another important motivation is the money that fighters can make through sponserships from alt med practitioners and supplement manufacturers. These athletes make so little money from fight contracts that they can’t afford to turn down any source of additional revenue.  This makes them vulnerable to all kinds of practices that are ‘desperately implausible’ , as the formidable enemy of pseudoscience David Colquhoun characterizes them.

If I sound angry here, it’s because I am. I see these quacks taking large fees from vulnerable fighters who can’t afford them…. but are convinced that they can’t afford not to pursue any possible advantage.  I’ve seen creepy alt med sponsors lurking around events and attaching themselves to athletes as if they were coaches. I’ve seen more than one person in the MMA world injured by pseudoscientific ‘treatments’, and more than one athletic career ruined by supplements.  This exploitation makes me furious.

I hope that as more attention is focused on pseudoscience in the Olympics, more attention will also be paid to these issues in MMA, and the work of people who are trying to push back against the BS in the community, like  Rosi Sexton, and Jeff Westfall.

Closing my browser tabs: September 10, 2014

I’m putting the finishing touches on a longer article to share later this week, but in the meantime, here are some stories that I’ve found interesting over the last week: Continue reading

Weekend ephemera

I know it’s technically no longer the weekend, but since it’s a holiday here in the United States, I’m going to ignore that fact. Here are some things I found interesting this past week:

Something I read:
“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” by Lawrence Wright. I’ve been reading this a chapter at a time on the El while commuting to my lab, and I’ve finally finished it. It’s an absolutely fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of Scientology, coupled with a history of L. Ron Hubbard and how he came to found the organization.

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago on a date** I actually went to a Scientology-sponsored “Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights” traveling exhibit in Bucktown called “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death”. Essentially, the exhibit consists of a series of movies (which were boring and I skipped), and posters with super scary images:
Scary scientology psychiatry photo
with explanations in text about how psychiatry is a global conspiracy with a mission to generate profits and control the world by making up diseases and using torture treatments to subjugate people. Evidently psychiatry is the true cause of all the past evil in the world, responsible for the Holocaust, torture, apartheid, scientific racism, Russian gulags, and Hemingway’s death.

The exhibits were utterly fascinating, and all entirely wrong. I’m not going to go into a detailed refutation of their inaccurate claims here (although I could do that in another post if anyone’s interested). But I do want to encourage people to read a bit about the history and philosophy of Scientology, because efforts like these do have consequences. Not only do they misrepresent a medical profession and ongoing scientific research associated with it, they also further stigmatize mental illness and potentially increase the reluctance of people afflicted with such illnesses to seek treatment for themselves. While there are certainly worthy and interesting discussions to be had about the use of psychiatric medication, I urge you to educate yourselves and recognize the difference between legitimate critiques and blatant manipulation.

On a (much) lighter note…

Here are some things I found interesting on the web:

–This wind map of the United States is completely hypnotic . Definitely recommend staring at this for a while if you get stressed. Our planet is astonishing.

A blog post about how my sister, Julie Kedzie, poses a significant challenge to current UFC champion, Ronda Rousey. Obviously I agree!

–And finally, this stunning color film of London in 1927 gave me chills. I love glimpses into the past like this.

Do you notice how slowly vehicles moved? Life was at a different pace back then.

What do you think about Scientology? Am I now a Suppressive Person for speaking out about it? What did you like best about the London film? Do you have any book recommendations for me? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. And have a lovely and adventurous week, everyone!

For Americans, today is Memorial Day, a holiday to honor soldiers killed in wars. If you’re looking for a way to make a charitable gesture in this spirit, consider donating to the Wounded Warrior project to help injured veterans find financial assistance and employment opportunities.


**Yes, I go on incredibly weird dates.

Weekly ephemera

It’s been an adventurous week. Here is a random collection of things I found interesting:

What I found: I am a Game of Thrones addict (who isn’t at this point?). But I have to admit the accents drive me crazy. Apparently, I’m not the only one. This is a pretty cool discussion on the accents in the show…I suggest you check it out before the AWESOMENESS that will be happening tonight. (Have you read the books? No? What are you waiting for?)

What inspired me:
Jacare’s UFC debut against Camozzi was a thing of beauty. Seriously.

Speaking of inspiration, here is the cutest thing ever.

What I read:
I always have good intentions to read as widely as possible, but I still have a tendency to read the same types of books over and over again. This week, however, a friend gave me a copy of something completely different: “Cool jobs in the music business!” by Jeffrey Rabhan. I know absolutely nothing about the music industry, but I started reading this while waiting for my much-delayed flight home to Chicago from New York on Wednesday, and finished it before my plane arrived. Now I know a bit more. If you have any interest whatsoever in a music career (or even if, like me, you don’t but just want to learn something completely new), I highly recommend it. For me, it was especially helpful because the very next day I went to a dear friend’s concert. With a little more background from having read this book, I made a nuisance of myself asking as many people as I could about their jobs (the sound technician, the tour manager, the drum tech, the security guys, the caterers, the guy who drove the bus), and I understood a little bit more of how everyone’s collective efforts produced a memorable night of music for thousands of people. Which brings me to my next thing…

What I listened to:
I’ve been friends with Andy Hurley for a couple of years (we are both students of Gym Jones). So when Fall Out Boy came to Chicago this past Thursday for a show at the Riviera, I was lucky enough to get to go. I love “Save Rock and Roll” , and it was an amazing experience to hear them play songs from it live, although I have to admit I chose my location more for the view than for the acoustics. If you get the chance to go see them, I really encourage you to! It’s a terrific show, and they are the nicest group of guys you’ll ever meet. Here are a few photos from the day:
Patrick Stump
Andy singing

So many happy people!
So many happy people!
During soundcheck, Andy and Patrick sang "Save Rock and Roll" to each other. It was just as sweet as you might imagine.
During soundcheck, Andy and Patrick sang “Save Rock and Roll” to each other. It was just as sweet as you might imagine.
I'm really bad at taking pictures of myself, and since we had a lot of downtime before the show, Patrick tried to give me a tutorial on how to look cute.
I’m really bad at taking pictures of myself, and since we had a lot of downtime before the show, Patrick tried to give me a tutorial on how to look cute.

Enjoy your Sunday! I’m off to the lake for a nice long walk.

Introducing myself in more than 140 characters

“I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine” -Neil Armstrong

There were only two possible career choices for me: astronaut or archaeologist. I chose the latter based on a combination of reasons, which included watching the Challenger explode in kindergarten, having bad eyesight, and discovering Elizabeth Peters books in fourth grade.

I combined Ph.D.s  in archaeology and biology to become an anthropological geneticist. These days, I delve deep into the genomes of living and dead people to see what I can deduce about their origins and prehistory. I divide my time between traveling to the high Arctic to excavate human remains and collect DNA samples and sitting in front of a computer reading lines of code and endless strings of AGTCs.

I’ve been training in martial arts since I was a little girl, and have had a few fights in Muay Thai, MMA, and boxing. Throughout the course of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and befriend some of the most extraordinary people in the fighter community, and I hope to share some of their stories and insights here.

My fellow scientists are curious about my love of fighting; my fighter friends seem to be interested in my scientific research. This is a place where I write about both aspects of my life.