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A Brief Guide to Navigating Difficult Topics

Climate change, transgender athletes competing in various classes, immigration reform, police funding, critical race theory, whether or not Sha’Carri Richardson should be banned from the Olympics for breaking a rule and smoking pot, and so on…

Chances are as you read through that list of words and phrases, you had a hint, or maybe even a scream, of a reaction. Your inner voice may have piped up as you started down the path of defending or explaining one or more of the topics. You might have even felt angst or anger towards me, ready to bang out an angry tweet or Facebook rant for the mere mention of a series of topics that bring forth strong opinions regardless of where you stand on them.

Don’t worry, reader, I am not here to delve into a detailed argument over the aforementioned topics. I am not here to dive into the political foray. Instead, I want to explore briefly how we at the Growth Equation approach controversial topics that demand nuance.

A common refrain on The Growth Equation is that we need to fight the urge for the easy answer, and take the time to understand the issue or problem. Quick answers might feel good, satisfying our need for certainty and closure, but they often miss the whole truth. And sometimes that’s fine. In his book Intuition Pumps, philosopher Dan Dennett states “Oversimplifications…cut through the hideous complexity with a working model that is almost right, postponing the messy details until later.”

Simplifications can be great when it comes to usability. We oversimplify the stress and adaptation cycle in fitness so that we can have an easy-to-use framework that mostly works when deciding how hard our workouts should be and when we should do them. If we didn’t, we’d be lost in the world of timing of hormone release and protein synthesis; we’d understand the nuance of the adaptation cycle but be lost in the minutia when it comes to applying it to our training.

But where we run into problems is when we chop off all nuance. We lose the messy details that, while they might seem small, are vital for understanding the problem. The world of nutrition and dieting is notorious for living on this end of the spectrum. We simplify to one refrain (Carbs are evil! Fat is evil!) so that it is really easy to apply (stop eating fat/carbs), but it misses the boat on the complexity underlying human metabolism.

With just about anything, we have to find the balance between usability and accuracy. Or put another way: between practicality and depth of understanding, between missing the forest for the trees and missing the trees for the forest. We use the following five strategies to help find the right balance:

Find Good Thinkers and Look in Both Directions.

We can’t be subject matter experts on everything. The quickest way to understand a topic is to go to the experts. But the key here is that difficult topics likely have experts who believe different things. Even in simple subjects, like should your lifting routine focus on heavier weights or power, you can find subject matter experts who will give differing opinions. That’s fine. Search for good thinkers on both sides of the argument. People who seem to explore ideas and nuance, who rely on data, who occasionally change their opinion. In today’s world, it’s rather easy to listen to a few podcasts, search for a few articles or Twitter threads, and get well-informed information on both sides of the argument. Understanding the arguments that experts are making is a shortcut to grasping the bulk of a problem and the holes on each side. That said, be careful of false balance. If 99 percent of the experts are saying one thing (e.g., climate change is real, masks are harmless) then you can probably safely ignore the one percent who very may well be addicted to being a contrarian for the thrill of being a contrarian.

Note Your Biases and Check Them.

We all have inherent biases. When evaluating challenging topics, note how your worldview influences your thinking. That doesn’t mean that your bias make you incorrect or illogical, it’s just that we all have a particular way of seeing and approaching things. Acknowledge that. For example, whenever I come across a claim in the exercise and fitness world, I tend to see it through the lens of running. I don’t see the new thing through the lens of a lifter or baseball player. For most things, that’s fine, but for some, that lens will bias my opinion.

Go to the Primary Source.

Every time a writer or reporter details a particular argument, they compress it. Their goal is to distill an argument so that it’s quickly understandable. The result is like a children’s game of telephone. The nuance and details of the original research is lost, and a simple model takes its place. We end up arguing against a simplistic boogeyman instead of the real thing. If at all possible, go to the primary sources. Research articles for an explainer of the science, a textbook chapter for a primer on an issue, and so forth. And if this is too much (which, sometimes it is) try to have a roster of go-to science writers, ideally those with diverse backgrounds and biases themselves.

Phone a Friend.

Discussions bring out flaws and holes in your thinking. The problem is that truly authentic discussion, where there is a suspension of judgment and an actual exchange of ideas, are exceedingly rare. Discussions or productive arguments shouldn’t be about proving oneself right, but about gaining a clearer picture.

Pull Up a Stool.

At The Growth Equation, we’ve often talked about the stool test (no, not that kind of stool test!) as a way to check your thinking. You have three legs of a stool: research, theory, and practice. If they are all there, great, go forward with your hypothesis. If two legs are there, proceed, but do so with a little extra skepticism. If you only have one of the three legs, then your idea is on shaky ground. No legs and it’s almost certainly junk, or more generously, a good fiction story. Use the stool test as an evaluative tool to make sure that your thinking is clear and on the right track.

Steve

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