The Skeptic's Guide to Sports Science

The Skeptic's Guide to Sports Science

The Skeptic's Guide to Sports Science podcast is the audio version of a monthly column published in Skeptical Inquirer: the magazine for science and reason. In each article, Dr. Nicholas B. Tiller (exercise scientist, Harbor-UCLA) reframes the health and fitness industry through the critical lens of scientific skepticism. Enjoyed the podcast? Buy the book: The Skeptic's Guide to Sports Science, named one of Book Authority's "Best Sports Science Books of All Time." For more information, visit www.nbtiller.com Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.

Episodes

April 26, 2024 8 mins

I was contacted in 2023 by a journalist writing for a major news outlet. In her email—which was written with the terseness that only journalists and famous people seem to get away with—she asked me to comment on a new study that had made a “major breakthrough” in the best time of day to exercise to elicit optimal health. It’s a subject that resurfaces periodically whenever the well of fashionable supplements or celebrity ...

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“If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you, and you probably won’t like how they do it.” —Shirley Malcolm, American Association for the Advancement of Science.


We know that complex life likely evolved from single-celled organisms. As soon as microbes emerged from the primordial soup, they were shaped by natural selection, ensuring survival of the fittest. Eventually, though not inevitably, evolution wou...

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February 26, 2024 15 mins

David had always found ice bathing after exercise to be intuitive. After all, people had been putting ice on their injuries for decades, and the RICE principle—rest, ice, compression, and elevation—had been a mainstay in the management of injuries since he’d learned it at school (despite questionable supporting evidence for efficacy). He’d also seen athletes on social media lowering their lean, muscular bodies into tubs of cold wat...

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Most readers won’t be familiar with Clark Stanley. And yet, to those who lived in the Old West, he was a household name. In the aging half of the nineteenth century, Stanley’s theater company was one of several that toured rural towns selling magical health elixirs. For the townsfolk, seeing a Clark Stanley convoy kicking up dust on the horizon would have been an exhilarating sight. After unloading their carts and setting up their ...

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Christmas is a time for giving. For the snake oil salesmen of the world, however, it’s a time for taking. The holiday sees capitalism, the pressures of gift-giving, and dietary excesses coalesce, creating the perfect storm for consumer exploitation. The commercial world swells with baseless claims and pseudoscience. After a year covering political ideologies in professional sports, the health consequences of smartphone ad...

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I wasn’t expecting the New York Jets vs. the New York Giants game last month to trigger a traumatic flashback. A commercial for Nugenix’s “total testosterone-boosting formula” appeared during half-time, sending me spiraling through space-time to April 2022. It was the day Tucker Carlson’s documentary The End of Men received its inaugural trailer. The Fox Nation special, written and starring the network’s former ...

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The world watched in awe as Michael Phelps—the most decorated Olympian in history—added another five gold medals to his record-breaking tally at the Rio Games in 2016. This he did with conspicuous purple bruises across his back and shoulders, caused by cupping therapy. Today, it’s so common for an elite athlete to fraternize with pseudoscience, it gets lost in the small print of the back page news. But Phelps is no ordinary athlete...

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The Gila Monster is North America’s only venomous Lizard. The reptile can grow to twenty-two inches and has a vicious bite that’s as toxic as that of the western diamondback rattlesnake. While studying the lizard’s venom in the 1990s, Dr. John Eng—an endocrinologist at the Veterans Administration Center in New York—discovered a compound with a similar molecular structure to a protein called GLP-1, which regulates blood glucose in h...

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When it comes to Grand Slam titles, Novak Djokovic has eclipsed every other male tennis player in history. He’s the only man to be the reigning champion of all four majors simultaneously across three surfaces, and by securing his 23rd trophy at the French Open 2023, the Serbian national perhaps cemented his place as the greatest player of all time. Such prominence invites scrutiny, and in several competitions this past year, it was...

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The plot for the epic fantasy series Lord of The Rings centered on, well, a ring. Not just any ring, but a magic ring. The “one ring to rule them all” bestowed immense power on its owner: the power of invisibility, the power to dominate the wills of others, and power over the bearers of subservient rings. But in this month’s column, I discuss jewelry with such extraordinary properties, it’d make even Bilbo Baggi...

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How desperate to lose weight would you have to be before you’d let a surgeon slice a hole in your abdomen and remove three-quarters of your stomach? This is “sleeve gastrectomy,” a common bariatric surgery that reduces stomach size and decreases appetite by blunting the release of ghrelin—a hormone that stimulates hunger. More than 1.5 million Americans have elected for bariatric surgery in the last 10 years, having repeatedly trie...

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It’s hard work beating people up for a living. A professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter typically trains year-round, fusing fighting disciplines such as boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and Brazilian Ju Jitsu with concurrent resistance and endurance training. They must carefully balance stress and recovery to bring improvements rather than injuries and infections, and then, during fight camp, they complete an intensive eight- ...

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I used to be obsessed with martial arts superstar Bruce Lee. I watched all his movies, read his books, and studied his moves (quite ineffectually). Aside from his martial arts skills and philosophies, it was Lee’s physique that distinguished him from other action heroes of the time. Standing five feet seven inches (172 cm) tall, his compact, muscular frame was perfectly suited to his explosive style of combat. And when Lee punched ...

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The least-used app on my phone is “phone.” The diverse functionality of the smartphone—texting, talking, video streaming, gaming, social networking—has changed the way we work, play, and communicate. I still wonder if Steve Jobs, when he introduced the iPhone at the Macworld San Francisco Keynote Address in 2007, anticipated the influence Apple’s revolutionary creation would have on human behavior. He probably did. Just fifteen yea...

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All doctrines have demons, some more literal than others. What I mean by this is that ideologies tend to endure because they’ve a common antagonist against whom proponents can rally. For example, the Abrahamic religions brandish the Devil; politicians demonize members and policies of the opposing party; athletes and supporters unite against an opposing sports team; homeopaths fuel fear of “big pharma”; and proponents of the keto di...

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Health and wellness scams have endured the ages by exploiting (1) scientific naiveté and (2) our innate desire for simple solutions to complex problems. The Mesopotamians made substantial contributions to science and technology. They were the first to use irrigation in agriculture, the first to forge tools from bronze and iron, and the first to use looms to weave cloth from wool. But despite these accomplishments, they were known t...

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The media backlash was swift and severe. More severe, in fact, than if an Olympic athlete had tested positive for a banned substance. For years, Brian Johnson—a.k.a. The Liver King—has marketed his brand on the core values of primal living founded on his self-derived “Ancestral Tenets.” Primarily through viral social media coverage, Johnson purportedly made more than $100 million per year. But leaked emails recently revea...

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December 1, 2022 12 mins

In terms of medical knowledge, the ancient world was primitive by modern standards. It had no germ theory to prevent the spread of disease, no anesthetics to pacify patients before surgery, and no evidence-based medicine to counteract the belief that “humors”—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm—influenced the body and its emotions. The ancients were also highly superstitious: Greeks and Romans would drink the blood of f...

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Earlier this year, the world’s most successful male tennis player, Novak Djokovic, was deported from Australia—not for misconduct on the court or for doping, but for violating Australia’s border policy that mandated COVID-19 vaccinations.1 Djokovic is one of many professional athletes who have refused the vaccine, a list that includes Czech tennis player Renata Voráčová; NBA players Kyrie Irving and Jonathan Isaac; A...

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If my recent work as a health and wellness skeptic could be distilled into a single message, it would be this: Marketing companies understand our biases better than we do. In a commercialist culture, saturated by big business and bad science, I believe this to be a fundamental lesson in determining objective truths and making sound judgments.


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