Healthy skepticism or iconoclastic and populist muckraking

In the process of a partial rebranding, CrossFit HQ has pulled away from their promotion of the CrossFit Games as a primary focus for CrossFit’s media department and doubled down on the promotion of CrossFit as a program for people to regain their health and wellness.
 
They’ve also pivoted the focus of the company toward CrossFit Health – which seems to be an attempt to disrupt the entrenched healthcare industry in much the same way that CrossFit disrupted the entrenched fitness industry.
 
Given that CrossFit HQ has often been at-odds with conventional medical recommendations with regards to things like dietary fat intake while simultaneously waging war with entrenched soda interests who are financially tied to other fitness licensing organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), it’s not surprising that CrossFit has maintained the iconoclastic drive to take on the structure of institutions that they see as rotten.
 
And, given how effective they were at taking a huge chunk of marketshare in the fitness industry, I can see why HQ think that they can and should take on healthcare as well.
 
But, is taking on conventional wisdom in medicine the same thing as taking on conventional wisdom in fitness?
 
Much of the content shared on www.crossfit.com recently has been some pretty in the weeds articles on a lot of scientific studies related to things like hyponatremia relative to hydration guidelines, the effects of statins on heart disease prevention, and the metabolic machinery of the progression of cancer.
 
As someone who is somewhat skeptical myself, I certainly support the idea of challenging conventional wisdom and making sure that the evidence for widely accepted claims is well-supported.
 
However, I think there’s a difference between skeptical exploration and truth-seeking, and creating general confusion and mistrust of experts.
 
I mentioned the phenomenon in a previous post of geniuses like Isaac Newton spending significant amounts of time searching for numerical codes in scripture and Linus Pauling exalting the benefits of Vitamin C for just about anything. This is likely due to an overly active and highly-tuned “pattern matching” circuit in their brains. While this can result in absolute genius, it can also result in chasing down a bunch of spurious correlations. As such, geniuses should not be judged for having several kooky ideas, since that is probably part of the same wiring that also allowed them to have deep insight.
 
Similarly, CrossFit exposed a rotten fitness industry that was failing many of the people that it was supposed to serve. A lot of this disruption was based upon iconoclasm and distrust of expert opinion. However, much in the way that some individuals have their “pattern-matching” setting dialed too high, I imagine that others can have their “contrarian challenging of established expertise” setting dialed too high.
 
And, much as that can sometimes result in massive disruption and paradigm-shifting innovation – especially relative to sagging and bloated industries, it can also result in chaos and tilting at windmills.
 
If we take something like the lipid hypothesis of heart disease, we are attempting to unravel a deeply messy knot of complexity in terms of mechanistic causes of heart disease, genetic susceptibility to certain outcomes, manipulation of biology through pharmaceuticals, and lifestyle choices of individuals.
 
And, while there are certainly entrenched interests and misaligned incentives relative to scientific publication, I am concerned that painting this narrative as a failing health system full of know-nothing experts may cause more harm than good.
 
Most people reading the CrossFit site are not knowledgable enough in areas related to lipid and cancer metabolism to understand the detailed and nuanced arguments surrounding the validity of different studies, and promoting alternative hypotheses seemingly with the purpose of being disruptive gives me some concern.
 
I’m not exactly sure where the line is between “healthy academic skepticism,” “iconoclastic and populist muckraking,” and “Russian-style confusion-creating propaganda.”
 
The latter two carry much better on social media, but I have concerns with the long-term health of our information economy based upon those kinds of tactics.
 

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