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.

Why the Food Babe is wrong (it’s not just because she’s ignorant)

You knew I had to talk about Food Babe this week.

My not-so-secret goal with this blog is to improve public science literacy and to help people become more critical consumers of information. As a consumer activist and critic with enormous influence, one might hope that Food Babe’s goals are similar to mine.  But I’m afraid I have to give her methods a big red F, and for distressing reasons. Before I get into that, however, I want to give readers who aren’t familiar with Food Babe some background.

Like the decision to vaccinate, the choices we make about food have significant consequences to our health.  It’s easy to find advice on how to structure our diet–there is an overwhelming volume of admonitions to eat more protein!, only organic!, less fat!, more fat!, plant-based!, paleo!, non-GMO!, raw!, Mediterranean!, gluten-free! with dire warnings about what will happen if we fail to follow that plan exactly. (I feel particularly sympathetic to parents of young children, who are already stressed out about the incredible day-to-day challenges of raising them in a difficult economy. Shaming them if they’re buying most of their food in bulk once or twice a month at Costco instead of shopping exclusively for their children at Whole Foods is outrageous.  In fact, the very ability to make choices about what we eat is a privilege not shared by a huge proportion of the planet’s population…but that’s a subject for another post).

For the average person untrained in science, nutrition, or medicine, the challenge of wading through this mountain of advice on how one “should” eat, sorting out the good advice from the bad, can be daunting.  With so many options it’s easy to succumb to decision fatigue–or default to way too many meals at fast food joints.

Diet and health gurus are counting on this. They offer people a simple solution: follow my “movement”, follow my advice and you don’t have to think for yourself about this; follow my simple “tricks” and you’re guaranteed “health”, “thinness” and a sense of belonging to a righteous movement.

Enter “Food Babe” (whose real name is Vani Hari).

Actions undertaken without understanding  are always foolish, and often dangerous.
Acting without understanding is always foolish, and often dangerous.

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Please don’t politicize vaccine refusal

Given recent measles outbreaks and the ravenous news cycle, it was inevitable that public attention would shift to politicians’ position on vaccination. Some commenters are reacting by politicizing the vaccine debate, painting conservatives or the tea party (or, in response to those messages, liberals) as anti-vaccine. Please don’t let this message take hold. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s counterproductive.

The president set off a small chain reaction by advising parents to vaccinate, but Governor Chris Christie’s comments have drawn the most attention. His statement was almost meaningless; he told reporters that (of course) he vaccinated his own children, and “that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Vaccination is not strictly mandatory in any state, and most states permit exemptions for the few parents who have ideological objections to modern medicine, so as a matter of simple fact the government has already decided and given parents that choice. (He went on with a few more comments, but other than to say that obviously we disagree with them, there’s not much point in dissecting them here.)

Christie is a politician who wants to avoid unnecessary controversy. After the first negative reports of his comments emerged, he distanced himself from anti-vaxers by firmly stating, “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But it was too late. The public picked up on his initial remarks and fed him straight into the gnashing teeth of the news cycle. And once the meal started, other prominent politicians with an eye on 2016 staked out seats at the table. Rand Paul seemed to give credence to some anti-vax myths, although he, too, backed down a bit and clarified that vaccines are “a good thing.” His fellow conservative (and fellow physician) Ben Carson pushed back on those statements, backing vaccination and even comparing anti-vaxers to secondhand smokers. Hillary Clinton, the three conservatives’ bête noir, came out with her own strong, respectable and simple message: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”

Notice something about these statements? Even the most ant-vax statement isn’t all that opposed to vaccination, compared to what you read online. That’s no surprise. The overwhelming majority of parents vaccinate their kids, and politicians who offend overwhelming majorities retire early. But you’re going to read a lot of headlines and tweets about how Rand Paul and Chris Christie are anti-vaxers because they’re pandering to the voters; you may even see people promoting the meme that Republicans (or conservatives or Tea Partiers) are anti-vax now. Don’t buy it.

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Why you should vaccinate your children

Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent report that the MMR vaccine causes autism has resulted in a generation of children (~age 10-16) who have a historically low vaccination rate (below 50% in some places). As a result, the rate of measles infection has skyrocketed in Britain:


There have also been outbreaks in the United States, with significant infections so far this year in many places, including Brooklyn and New Jersey.

The good news is that thanks to excellent public health outreach in England, vaccination rates are improving significantly. But I worry that many people still don’t understand the issues. Let me summarize them for you:
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