Science and (Over-)Literalism

Okay, this blog post is just venting really, so I apologise in advance. Right, that was the nice bit out the way. Now… (cracks knuckles).

I’ve noticed a growing tendency from people who self-identify as ‘scientists’ or ‘pro-science’ (often, but not always, without any science training) to heap ridicule on anything they disagree with because it’s ‘unscientific’ or ‘disproven by science’. Particular themes are (i) diet/exercise advice is wrong, and (ii) religion is evil.

I’ll start with (i), and leave the religion thing for a future post. So, let’s start with an example.

Article: “Do these exercises to turn fat into muscle and get in shape”.

Commentator: “You can’t turn fat into muscle”.

Okay, commentator, here’s the thing.

  1. The person who wrote the article knows that you can’t turn fat into muscle. Because they’re not a fucking moron.
  2. The person who wrote the article assumes that their readers know that you can’t turn fat into muscle because they assume that their readers aren’t fucking morons.
  3. The person who wrote the article is using language non-literally in a rhetorical piece of writing. If you don’t understand that language can be used non-literally, you should never comment on anything anyone writes (or says) ever again. EVER. I mean it.

In this sort of article, the phrase “turn fat into muscle” is used as short-hand for “increase the percentage of muscle and decrease the percentage of fat in your body because you’re trying to get fitter / improve your body shape without necessarily wanting to lose loads of weight”. I’m sure you can see that the first phrase is shorter.

Here’s the second thing. Many articles written on diet and exercise aren’t articles targeted at science journals where precision and truth are key. Many are written to motivate people to get more healthy, and the persuasiveness of the piece is more important than getting the science exactly right. I don’t mean that the articles are untrue. But they’re trying to make someone get off their couch and do some sit-ups rather than trying to explain metabolic processes to them. They assume that the reader understands the science involved. But they don’t bother to spell it out to be sure.

Because here’s the thing. If, by some chance, a reader really is so stupid that they think fat turns directly into muscle, and follows the exercise advice in the article, they will still end up with more muscle and less fat. Even though they misunderstood the science. Wow! Mind-blowing, huh?

Yes, there are a few pieces of outright bullshit out there. (Raspberry ketones anyone?). But mostly when you pick on articles like this because they’re not exactly right, you’re not showing up the writer’s scientific ignorance, you’re showing up your own failure at basic comprehension.

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