Podcast, Science

The Skeptic’s Guide To Sports Science with Nicholas Tiller, PhD | EP#239

 June 22, 2020

By  Mikael Eriksson


In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The sports, health, and fitness industry, money and marketing, and the prevalence of unsubstantiated claims
  • Examples of hyped-up or straight out snake-oil products in the industry
  • How to be a critical thinker and protect yourself from falling prey to false marketing claims
  • Understanding critical thinking: Cognitive biases and logical fallacies
  • Understanding science: the concepts of scientific consensus, statistical significance, and meaningful effect/effect size

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04:10 - 

  • My background is as a sport scientist and my particular field of interest has been physiology and exercise physiology.

    At first, I thought my passion was in the applied science area but quite soon I came to realize that I was truly burning for the science aspect of sports science.

”The Skeptic’s Guide to Sports Science”

05:00 -

  • I recently released a book called ”The Skeptic’s Guide to Sports Science”, which explains common myths within sports science and exercise physiology.

    The book combines two passions of mine, sports science and physiology in particular and a movement within the scientific community called ”scientific skepticism”, which emphasizes the importance and value of critical thinking in basically most aspects of our lives and society.

    The sport industry is full of claims that lack scientific evidence, and this is something I wish to highlight in my book.
  • The entire sporting industry globally is valued to approximately four trillion dollars, which is a sum of money that is not even graspable for the majority of the population.

    However, what most people can understand is that this means that there are large incitaments for companies to claim things about their products that lack a firm base of evidence and unfortunately this is also quite common.

Wy we are so susceptible to unsubstantial claims and marketing strategies

17:00 -

  • There are several theories about why we are so susceptible to hypothesizing strategies.

    One theory is that it historically has been an evolutionary advantage for a ”short cut seeking behavior” (helped us to conserve energy), which has lived on all the way into our modern society where such an attribute instead has made us potentially vulnerable to intense marketing campaigns.

Strategies for making us less vulnerable to unsubstantiated claims and marketing strategies

22:00 -

  • Generally we need to sharpen up our critical thinking, which unfortunately is not something that is embedded in most educational systems.

    Even many scientists do not have training in general critical thinking and I have come across plenty of professors within hard core scientific fields like physics that are completely lost when it comes to critical thinking beyond their scope of knowledge.

    This forces most of us to self-educate within this area.
  • A good way to start would be to try to get to know and understand the marketing industry and the most common tricks that they use to get us to buy their products.
  • There are also plenty of good resources out there (besides my book), which teaches the principles of critical thinking and scientific skepticism.

    One of the first books I read on the topic was ”The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan, which I can highly recommend.

    Another great author on the topic is Steven Novella, and particularly his book ”Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills”.

    He has also played a big part in developing the website sciencebasedmedicine.org, which primarily is about evaluating medical products but the principles they use can be implemented in plenty of other areas as well.

    Also, the deeper one digs into this subject, the more resources you will find.

Some of the most common biases that can lead us astray

32:10 -

  • One very common type of bias is the so-called confirmation bias, which is the phenomenon of that people who have a pre-existing thought about something consciously or unconsciously seek and read only the type of material that supports their original idea, hence they will ”confirm” their initial thought.

    This is very common and something that everybody is subject to different degrees.
  • Another type of bias is the so-called investment bias, which means that people who spend money on something are likely to believe that this will help and/or be good for them in any way.
  • An additional bias is authority bias, which is people’s tendency to believe something that is being told only because it is coming from an authority, and that ”expert” does not even need to comment on something that is within his or hers area of expertise for people to believe them.

How to recognize poor science

46:00 -

  • To start with, it is rather hard to define ”good and bad” science since many people have different opinions on that subject.

    However, one thing that is important to look for when evaluating information is whether it has been peer reviewed or not.

    Peer reviewing is something that all serious scientific journals are using in order to enhance the quality of the publicized material.

Statistical significance and clinical relevance/significance

53:00 -

  • An effect is called statistical significant when the chances of that effect occurring by chance is less than 5 %.
  • Clinical significance or clinical relevance is an effect that is statistical significance AND of clinical relevance, in some cases one can see an effect but if this effect is so small or meaningless that it lacks practical significance it is not really interesting.

    In my opinion, the research world can be a little bit too ”hung up upon” statistical significance and should consider clinical relevance a bit more instead.

Scientific consensus

1:06:05 -

  • There is no exact ”tipping point” of when scientific consensus on a certain topic is reached.

    However, one can get quite a good picture of where the research currently is positioned by looking at review and/or systematic review articles that are summarizing all the science on a topic.

    Another type of attempt to pool together all science conducted on a subject is the meta analysis, which usually comprises some pooled statistical analyses over the included studies.

    If reviews and meta analyses all point towards the same conclusion, then that would basically be as close as we can get to scientific consensus.
  • Here I would also like to underline that it is also massively important to try to review these articles with as objective eyes as possible.

”Over marketed” products/training strategies

1:12:55 -

  • The power balanced bracelets were extremely popular during the 1990:s and claimed to comprise holistic features who interacts with the body’s natural frequencies to create a calmness in the athlete.

    They were worn by athletes like Paula Radcliffe, Roger Federer and David Beckham.

    Given all the knowledge about how the body works and physiology there is no plausible way that this product could have any chance to work the way the company behind the product claims.

    The products were also tested multiple times in a scientific manner and none of the claimed effects could be demonstrated.
  • Another example of something that has been vastly commercialized and in the marketing been taken completely out of it’s context is altitude training.

    Altitude training is an enormously large research field and it is clear that it in some situations can be really beneficial.

    However, in recent years, multiple companies have utilized the hype around altitude training to offer people to come and train 1-2 times per week in their altitude chambers with the promise of that it will make them faster.

    Such a strategy is extremely less likely to be beneficial since the services offered have no similarities whatsoever with the approach towards altitude training that has been studied in the research.

Final message

1:22:10 -

  • Finally, I would like to underline the importance of implementing critical thinking not only towards the sporting industry but merely all aspects of our life and society.

Rapid fire questions

1:24:05 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource? ”The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan, which really opened up my eyes to the whole critical thinking movement, as an online resource, my favorite would be sciencebasedmedicine.org.
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? I believe in positive reinforcement, which is basically about learning from my success instead of learning from my mistakes, and I think this has helped me to achieve what I have been undertaking myself to do.
  • What do you wish you have known or done differently earlier in your career? I don’t think I would have done anything differently, I have all the time tried to strive for producing high quality research and I also use to say that ”it is not about how many people you know, it’s about how many you can be able to impress”.


Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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