map and the territory

The Map and the Territory

“But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident… of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in any disaster.” – E.J. Smith, 1907, Captain, RMS Titanic

There are a number of books which I think should be considered required reading for everybody.

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is one of them. Taleb illustrates brilliantly that the most important books in your library are often the ones you haven’t read yet, that the things you don’t know will matter at least as much as the things you do and that we are in many ways blind to our own ignorance.

He explains, “What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Around midnight on April 14th, 1912, the Titanic encountered a Black Swan and 1,517 passengers of an “unsinkable” ship died as a result of assumptions based on faulty logic.

The manner of thinking which prevents us from understanding or accounting for the possibility of Black Swans is referred to as Platonicity, and Taleb explains it here (italics mine).

“What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and defined “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias (societies built according to some blueprint of what “makes sense”), even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over the other less tractable structures… Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do.”

A few months ago I was speaking with a bodybuilder who was on his way to compete in the Olympia. He told me that for years he didn’t eat vegetables because he didn’t have trouble pooping and therefore didn’t see them as necessary. He’s since learned that there are many reasons beyond the bathroom for eating vegetables, but it’s a perfect example of Platonistic thinking.

That’s not an isolated case either; the medical community is rife with examples of this sort of logic.

Taleb provides some great examples: “Doctors in the midst of the scientific arrogance of the 1960’s looked down at mother’s milk as something primitive, as if it could be replicated by their laboratories – not realizing that mother’s milk might include useful components that could have eluded their scientific understanding – a simple confusion of absence of evidence of benefits of mother’s milk with evidence of absence of the benefits (another case of Platonicity as it “did not make sense” to breast-feed when we could simply use bottles). Many people paid the price for this naïve inference: those who were not breast-fed as infants turned out to be at an increased risk of a collection of health problems, including a higher likelihood of developing certain types of cancer – there had to be in mother’s milk some necessary nutrients that still elude us.

Furthermore, benefits to mothers who breast-feed were also neglected, such as a reduction in the risk of breast cancer. Likewise with tonsils: the removal of tonsils may lead to a higher incidence of throat cancer, but for decades doctors never suspected that this “useless” tissue might actually have a use that escaped their detection. The same with the dietary fiber found in fruits and vegetables: doctors in the 1960’s found it useless because they saw no immediate evidence of its necessity, and so they created a malnourished generation. Fiber, it turns out, acts to slow down the absorption of sugars in the blood and scrapes the intestinal tract of precancerous cells. Indeed medicine has caused plenty of damage throughout history, owing to this simple kind of inferential confusion.”

That first paragraph may take a few read-throughs to really grasp, but take a moment to understand the importance of “confusing the absence of evidence of benefits with evidence of absence of benefits.” Just because you don’t know what it does, does not mean that it does nothing. In fact, it means that what you don’t understand is probably going to hurt a lot more because you don’t see it coming.

In the fitness industry, nutrition is a constant source of Platonistic thinking and general confusion. Scientists have tried for centuries to figure out what it is exactly about food that we need. They’ve got a pretty good handle on things like protein, carbohydrates and fats, but even in those areas we’re still bumbling along on different reductionist assumptions every decade or so.

For a while it was decided that fat was what was making Americans so overweight, so a low-fat diet was heavily advocated, at least until we realized that low-fat pop tarts were creating a generation of diabetic children. Then, low-glycemic and sugar free food became the answer. It was about a decade into this one that we started figuring out that using Aspartame is pretty much sprinkling powdered cancer into your coffee and that “no added sugar” and “whole grain” could still mean “barely a trace of nutritional value.”

Sometime after the 1960’s, we realized that fiber did in fact play a crucial role in health and suddenly foods high in fiber became health food based solely on that basis. Now boxes of Lucky Charms are plastered with health claims because they contain whole grains and some minerals.

Platonistic thinking works its way into the physical training side of fitness as well. It’s extremely common for coaches and trainers to design (make up) programs with only a shallow understanding of what’s truly happening to the bodies of the people they coach.

Often, only what is immediately and simply observable is factored into the understanding of the process. A trainer can give an athlete a workout of deadlifts, pullups and an ab movement and on the surface, these are good things. To encourage intensity, the workout is done in a circuit and timed. Intensity is also a good thing.

The first, easily measurable variable is time to completion, followed closely by number of reps or the amount of weight used, if those are not fixed variables for the sake of simplicity.

When the athlete finishes the workout, they will be exhausted and fatigued throughout their body. If the workout, or one similar, had been done previously they would be likely to have adapted to its specific nature and shown an improvement on their time to completion. They may have even used more weight this time on their deadlifts, or less band assistance on their pullups.

From these immediately measurable variables it would seem that the athlete had completed a “good workout.” The athlete moved more weight in less time and is still exhausted and has therefore stressed themselves sufficiently to encourage further increases in work capacity. Although a little wobbly, he walks out of the facility feeling pretty damn good.

Just as we once thought that we had feeding infants figured out because we could make infant formula with the same carb, fat and protein content as breast milk and that the fiber in food was an unnecessary component because we didn’t know what it did, it was, and often still is simplistically believed that since the abs can be used to flex the lumbar spine, ab training should revolve around this movement.

Athletes often went (and go) years and sometimes their whole lives without a devastating spinal injury resulting from this repeated trauma to the spine. This lack of evidence of detriment, in an act of Platonic thinking, is taken as evidence of lack of detriment.

We’ve since learned how much we didn’t know about spinal function twenty years ago and most knowledgeable coaches have moved towards training their athlete’s anterior cores for stabilization, but let’s say that in the example of our previously mentioned athlete, this is not the case. Instead, he’s doing this, and repeatedly:

Further, the athlete has never taken the time to deconstruct and optimize his movement patterns and is prone towards anterior chain dominance in his lower body with a few compensations. This leads him to rely on knee extension more heavily than hip extension from his neurologically inhibited glutes. Because his lumbar spine is unstable and the surrounding muscles overactive, he tends to use excessive spinal flexion and extension in his hip movements and his deadlifts look like this:

Lastly, our athlete’s anterior dominance continues through his upper body and his scapular retractors are significantly weaker than the muscles which protract the scapulae on his chest.

His “naturally strongest” movement pattern will be with his arms adducted by his pecs (pulled towards the center of his chest) and his scapulae protracted (spread apart). Rather than pulling his shoulder blades together and down with the musculature in his upper back, his excessively tight pec minors are doing more than their normal share of the work to depress the scapulae (pull the shoulder blades down) but in doing so they must also pull them into protraction.

Because the athlete’s goal is to finish the workout as fast as he can, he relies upon this protracted, adducted pattern rather than using an immediately weaker but much more biomechanically sound pattern and he performs “squirrel pullups” which, at their peak, all look like this:

None of these things cause an immediate injury to the athlete. He’s maybe a little sore the next day, but he’s always sore after working out. That’s how he knows he worked hard. Besides that, he improved on his time and added weight to his deadlift, so all in all, it was a job well done.

Just like the captain of the Titanic, there is no past or current information to convincingly point to the possibility of ongoing damage and the assumption is made that it will not happen. Absence of evidence of damage is mistaken as evidence of absence of damage.

Months or years later, this athlete suffers a blown lumbar disc and finds himself coping with a persistent shoulder injury, both of which “came out of nowhere.”

In reality, the transient improvements in work capacity he made could never outlast the long-term damage to his biomechanics and the injuries he sustained were an outcome just as predictable as the little bit of bodyfat he lost in his first few months.


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