The Long Lost Miracle Supplement

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I found a secret to performance. Something that will improve your endurance exponentially. Don’t believe me? Consider these facts.

  • Researchers found that it increases two of the key components of endurance, hemoglobin and red blood cell mass. In one study on this compound, hemoglobin was an astonishing 14% higher! That’s comparable to taking EPO!
  • A review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal concluded that it “enhances endurance performance and should be incorporated into high-level training programs.”
  • Scientists have discovered it activates the same pathways as altitude training. Only you can take it in your backyard, and it costs only around 35 cents per pop.
  • The technique isn’t new. History shows us that a former world record holder in the 5k, and the 4th person in history to run a sub 4-minute mile, used this product.

It’s science-backed. Elite athlete tested. What in the world is this secret supplement?

Smoking cigarettes.

All of the above statements are true. The studies are real. Smoking increases hemoglobin, red blood cells, and there was a review in a medical journal titled, “Cigarette smoking: an underused tool in high-performance endurance training.” Of course, that review, and this newsletter, are designed to make a point, and it’s not that you should start smoking. (And yes, Chris Chattaway, who broke the 5k world record in 1954, smoked 6-7 cigarettes a day.) It’s easy to twist scientific research, to create a narrative that something is great or horrible, even if all the evidence in the world points in the other direction. We just did that with smoking. I neglected to inform you of the important context that we’re all aware of: smoking significantly harms your health, increasing your risk of pretty much every disease under the sun.

If you know enough about a subject, you can make just about anything sound good or bad, and with research. I could make drinking water sound toxic if I just cited studies around hyponatremia. I could convince you that exercising is the worst thing in the world if I cited all of the inflammatory responses, data on muscle and tissue damage, and oxidative stress that occurs. Of course… I’d intentionally leave out that these short-term stressors are often the stimulus that leads to long-term adaptation.

We could make vegetables sound poisonous if we cited minute amounts of chemicals present that are harmless unless if consumed in giant quantities. (People have rode this exact claim to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, by the way.) It’s easy to twist science, to cite one part of a study, while neglecting important context. Or, alternatively, to do the classic tactic of citing dozens or hundreds of studies, to create the air of science, all the while knowing that no one listening to the podcast or reading the book will take the time to read the studies and see if you represented them accurately or not. It’s shocking how many times I’ve read a cited study where the results are the opposite of what the author claims.

The selective use of science has always been around, but it has proliferated in recent years. It’s easier than ever to convince others through a few sleight-of-hand tricks. And it’s not the consumer or listeners’ fault. Some of history’s greatest scientists fell for charlatan cures and scams. It’s hard. And, quite frankly, we often don’t have time to fact check, to look at the individual studies cited. Here are a few tips for navigating the use of scientific research on social media and podcasts. I start with evaluating the person communicating the information:

  • What is the purveyor of the information bias?
  • Are they selling a product or an idea?
  • Has this person changed their mind when presented with an abundance of evidence, or do they double down?
  • Is their identity intertwined with this idea or research? Do they need X to be true or else their sense of self, reputation, etc., will be tarnished?
  • Are they using any persuasive tactics, such as flooding the zone with citations without explaining? Or constantly switching arguments whenever they are questioned or called out?
  • Are they creating an “us vs. them?” mentality or an “other” to demonize, hate, or attack?
  • Do they have relevant expertise, or is this well outside of their wheelhouse?

There is no perfect solution for evaluating the claims of others. ‘Sciencyness’ is everywhere. Charlatans, grifters, and BS vendors can proliferate online. A healthy dose of skepticism and a reminder to pause while you are listening to that podcast can go a long way. Just remember that in the wrong hands, we can make anything sound reasonable and even beneficial; even smoking.

Steve

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