July 11th, 2011

How To Avoid Health And Fitness Scams: The Baloney Detection Kit

Fat loss and fitness fads, frauds, fakes and downright weird stuff is everywhere in the marketplace today. Collectively, we’ll call it baloney and it includes all the programs and products that have no evidence supporting their claims. Baloney is a big problem because it adds to the already overwhelming information overload. It could also be costing you a fortune.  Millions of people get scammed every year and their sense of frustration builds with each regretted purchase and every failed attempt. Fortunately, there’s a solution…

Why does baloney keep proliferating?

If there’s no science behind all this baloney, then how do fitness and weight loss companies keep getting away with selling it and why do so many people keep buying it? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States and watchdog organizations in other countries do their best to  monitor and prosecute fraud, but it’s so rampant, they can’t even put a dent in it. In fact, they can’t even keep up with it.

With the nature of internet marketing today, a company can swoop in and do a massive new product launch promotion or pay per click advertising campaign and then disappear like a shadow in the night. The alphabet agencies never even catch a whiff of it.

The baloney-meisters know that most consumers don’t investigate before they invest – they buy on impulse and emotion, especially with deadline driven sales and special offers. Advertisers know how to hit your emotional hot buttons and where there’s demand, there will always be supply.

How to protect yourself against fitness and fat loss baloney

If you want to avoid being a victim of the next fitness fraud or the latest diet deception and start getting better results, the best defense is a good baloney detector.

In his brilliant book on the virtues of science, The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan devoted an entire chapter to the art of “baloney detection.” It’s a set of skills you can learn and hone over time, which includes understanding the scientific method, developing critical thinking skills and viewing claims with a good dose of healthy skepticism.

If you have any interest in science, Sagan’s book is worth reading. I’ve  written a brief summary below and also posted an excellent video from Michael Shermer.

Key Skills of Baloney Detection

  • Get independent confirmation of the facts
  • Encourage and participate in constructive debate
  • Consider science as the ultimate authority
  • Create more than one hypothesis
  • Avoid attachment to your own ideas
  • Be sure that claims and results can be measured
  • Make certain that claims can be tested
  • Realize that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one

Am I suggesting that you become a closed minded skeptic? Not at all. In fact, I believe that some of the most die-hard skeptics develop their own “blind spots” as a result of staking their entire reputation and identity on skepticism.

I’m simply saying that if it sounds too good to be true, run it through the gauntlet of the baloney detector and see if it passes.

One last thing – and this is important – some baloney actually works, but it’s all in the mind … the placebo effect is very real.

“If we don’t practice the tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us, and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.” – Carl Sagan

 

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12 Responses to “How To Avoid Health And Fitness Scams: The Baloney Detection Kit”

  • Erubecula

    Tom, it’s a nice article that you’ve written but I’d love to add a few addenda.

    ‘Consider Science as the ultimate authority’. Authority on what? On ‘baloney detection’ or on issues in general? I am a scientist and yet science is simply one way of knowing about the world. Without wanting to sound ‘trite’ but the ‘scientific method’ is the ultimate authority on science. Science has (currently) little to say about the experience of joy, depression, jealousy and so on. It can define and ‘measure’ aspects of emotion but it says little about the ‘experience’ of it.

    ‘Realize the simplest explanation is usually the correct one’ – true if you’re a scientist (I’m sure you’re aware that it’s called ‘parsimony’) but it’s patently easy to show that this is only a heuristic not a canon. Einstein’s theory of relativity is anything but ‘simple’ – currently it is one of the simpler explanations given the astronomical facts that we now know of since Isaac Newton’s time. In other words ‘simpler’ depends on the way we decide to present the issue that needs to be explained.

    It’s kind of difficult to be a ‘closed minded skeptic’, although perhaps Michael Shermer comes close 🙂

    The meaning of skeptic is often used to mean ‘disbeliever’, whereas in fact a skeptic is someone who needs very strong proof to be convinced to change her or his mind. So a true ‘skeptic’ is actually one who is open minded but requires very ‘strong’ proof to change their mind.

    Having said that, I really appreciate that you are pointing out that many diet and exercise schemes are score highly on the baloney scale (or what I would call the ‘Phoeey’ factor) and the guidelines that you are highlighting are certainly worth considering. I think, however, that you have to be an expert in the field to be able to critically evaluate such schemes. I mean two years ago, if I was told that in order to lose weight you had to have more meals in a day (not less) I would have said ‘Phoeey’. Now that you’ve explained it in your book, it does indeed make scientific sense.

    With regard to a diet and exercise program baloney detector, I rely on blogs like yours to point them out and (as you do) to give a relatively easy but not patronising explanation as to why it’s baloney. Keep up the great work please.

    • Tom Venuto

      re: ‘Consider Science as the ultimate authority’. Authority on what?

      that statement could be easily re-phrased to say, “authorities are fallible” as it was discussed in context; thus, look to science rather than one person who claims to be an expert

      • Erubecula

        Yes, I see what you are saying. My comment on this still stands though, ‘science’ as a whole (or as espoused by individuals) is not ‘the’ authority for everything even in ‘science’ stuff.

        For instance, the theory of continental drift is a scientific theory, but it wasn’t until the originator of the theory died that it finally gained wide acceptance by science as a whole even though very strong clues were already present at the time of the majority of the nay-saying scientists. Same for the theory of the sun as the centre of our immediate astronomical system (instead of the Earth) and same for the Earth as a large globe (as opposed to the flat Earth variety). As the saying roughly goes, most new theories in science don’t actually convince the current scientists, we have to wait until they die out!

        If I were writing your comment and guessing what you’re trying to state (given the Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer citations), I think I would write:

        Consider the ‘Scientific explanation’ as probably the one that will (eventually) make the most sense (but exceptions exist), ie. it probably pays to make a scientific explanation the first port of call if looking for the most likely explanation.

        Thanks for this.

    • karina cerda (no longer mendoza!)

      I AM HAPPY TO READ THAT YOU ACTUALLY CAUGHT ON TO WHAT SIR TOM WAS TRYING TO SAY BY “ULTIMATE AUTHORITY”! AFTER ALL, HE IS THE BEST HEALTH AND FITNESS AUTHOR I KNOW OF! AS FOR “SKEPTICS” WHO REQUIRE “STRONG” SCIENTIFIC “EVIDENCE”… IF YOU CAN NOT GET AN “UNBELIEVER”…TO “BELIEVE” THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE, YOU ARE PRESENTING THEM WITH AS “PROOF”, REJOICE KNOWING YOU ARE MORE MORE INTELLIGENT THEN THEY ARE! (: THERE ARE “MIRACULOUS” AND “MAJESTIC” THINGS THAT SCIENCE CAN NOT EXPLAIN, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO “BALONEY”, JUST READ THE LABEL (:THOSE INGREDIENTS ARE “DEADLY”!)

  • Sandy Asirvatham

    Tom, as a member of your Inner Circle for a year now, I’ve already come to respect your thinking and writing very much. This entry, plus your recent point-by-point refutation of Gary Taubes’ work in an IC post, is some of the best stuff I’ve seen from you–and I was already pretty impressed. Sagan and Shermer are heroes of clear thinking and logic. It doesn’t surprise me at all to see them among your influences!

  • TonyK

    Holy smokes, we are talking about how to avoid falling into the trap of fad diets, not the mysteries of the universe. I seriously worry about the person who feels the need to be so overly dramatic about the simple notion to see if a diet plan comports with the latest research!

    Tom, LMAO, I admire your restraint. I also admire how well grounded in SCIENCE all of your excellent teachings are! As far as I’m concerned, you are the final authority when it comes to diet and training matters!

  • Nice article Tom. I consider Carl Sagan to be brilliant.

    My favorite Sherlock Holmes quote on this topic is “I never guess. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

  • Avalon

    The meaning of skeptic is often used to mean ‘disbeliever’, whereas in fact a skeptic is someone who needs very strong proof to be convinced to change her or his mind.

  • You’re right to write this, Tom. Nowhere is there a bigger helping of Baloney than the Lose Weight field. As you say, “it’s so rampant, the FTC can’t even put a dent in it.” So true.

    Carl Sagan was right. We are becoming a nation of suckers.

    Thank you for this excellent article, helping to “de-suckerize” all of us, at least a bit.
    😉

  • You’re right, Tom! There is so much “baloney” in the fat loss industry. Thanks for the valuable list of Key Skills.

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