• Hugh Lawrence

'Sciency stuff', experts, sport and public comms'

More on my theme of trusting experts or Mrs Jones down the corner shop (apologies to Mrs Jones - it might have been Mr - and the corner shop is closed). I want to quote Ian Leslie from the 25 March 2020 New Statesman: "Every time I check social media, somebody is confidently proclaiming that they know exactly how to manage a global pandemic, having spent a few minutes looking at data online and scanned a Wikipedia page. They explain, with implacable conviction, why they are right, and why Chris Whitty – chief medical officer, epidemiologist, infectious diseases specialist – is quite obviously wrong."

Sport is with us every day. Fortunately, COVID-19 or any other pandemic is not. The science of sport, however, suffers from the same problem as understanding COVID-19. And today, social media is the getaway vehicle (we don't blame the car when bank robbers escape with a fast driver).

In the science world we have a hierarchy of what counts as evidence. At the top of the pile is the gold standard double blind randomised trial. Down the hierarchy we we go, through cohort studies, controlled longitudinal studies, case studies, animal research and so on. At the bottom, "some bloke told me in the pub". Accepting the critical theorists' point that qualitative methods such as narrative inquiry might equate to the randomised trial, "bloke in pub" [sometimes called Fox News] still doesn't cut it.

There's been a real real opportunity to advance great health communicators into the public square: today Ashley Bloomfield, Souixsie Wiles, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx come to mind. So when this pandemic is over, let's have more great science communicators in other spheres such as sports training. Athletes are often bombarded with what sounds 'sciency' but upon close examination turns out to be non-science: applied kinesiology, apitherapy, anthroposophic medicine, detoxification, fasting and that just gets me to a selection A-F.

One of the problems is the lack of formal and consistent qualifications in coaching and training. Medicine, law, accounting, piano teaching, maths teachers in schools: all have professional standards that all the consumer to have confidence. Food safety operates in the same way. "Can I trust what I'm given when I'm not an expert?" Qualifications for the professions I listed, are years in the making.

But a weekend course and you're a personal trainer. Advertise yourself as a sports coach, and you can't be held to a standard. This is a problem. We unleash the unqualified and unknowing on our children. That's bad enough. But as adults we buy into training theories and training practices that could and do lead to serious long-term harm (check ACC data).

Yes, this is a problem for sport - and sport must address it. Thank you Sport NZ and other advocates for good junior sport. But it's not a sport problem, it's a society problem. We are in the midst of a battle for trust. Where the traditions and canons of the scientific method are, on the one hand, trusted uncritically when we use our smart phone or get on a plane or 'tap and go' to pay with our hard earned cash. Yet when the same science presents us with an opportunity to train better and harder with better results, to vaccinate and protect ourselves and others, to come together to fight a pandemic - people who claim open minds let their brains fall out at the back.

While experts can be wrong, we generally trust experts when it conveniently fits our own narrative (making a phone call, accessing the internet, travelling by plane). And when experts get it wrong there are consequence: often serious consequences, But when we want a different narrative (short cut to fitness, 'sciency word' training) then we trust anyone and anything.

image source: memegenerator


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