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Pseudoscience wins the Super Bowl? The weird medical ideas of Tom Brady and other athletes

It’s possible to be great and misguided at the same time.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

Today Air Force Academy psychology professor Craig A. Foster spikes sports pseudoscience and does an end zone dance on Tom Brady’s wild claims.

Well, Tom Brady led the Patriots to what I think was their 185th Super Bowl victory this month. Like a lot of Americans, I was rooting against him. To be honest, I desperately wanted him to lose.

I can already hear Brady defenders saying, “You just hate him because he’s great.” Stop. Accusing people of being “haters” is lazy — it’s an easy way to avoid considering whether their criticisms have any merit. Besides, I don’t hate Tom Brady because he’s great. I hate him because he uses his greatness to promote pseudoscience.

I could forgive him for that. Many people get duped into supporting flim-flam. It’s just that Brady has almost certainly heard the resulting criticism, but I see no evidence that he wants to amend his woo-inspired ways. In this respect, he’s the male Gwyneth Paltrow. Maybe they should get together and sell deflated Jade eggs.

Of course, Brady has a lot of other sports figures on his claptrap-promoting team. Indeed, if an aspiring athlete bought all the products that supposedly create a competitive edge, she or he would end up looking like a techno-Bohemian Mr. T, covered in a cluttered assortment of tapes, sleeves, bracelets, and necklaces, and greased up in creams that make one feel icy, hot, or icy then hot. All the accoutrements would hopefully cover the hickeys leftover from cupping.

That athlete could also ingest a variety of supplements of dubious repute, some of which suggest, not obliquely, that gains in “performance” will somehow make their respective female romantic partners happy, too. How any supplement could help me hit home runs on the field and navigate fourth base in the bedroom is absolutely beyond me. It seems like those outcomes are based on the dreams of young male consumers, not any type of medical reality.

MLB right fielder Bryce Harper tries “cupping,” a practice that suctions and bruises the skin, yet is somehow meant to better circulation.

Oh, and for athletes who want to have sex but do not have a willing partner available, there is no need for the metaphorical cold shower. They can kill two birds with one stone by subjecting their bodies to excessive cold – like 250 degrees Fahrenheit below zero – for a couple of minutes. It’s called cryotherapy. LeBron James does it. Just don’t expect it to be “man-boosting.” Don’t worry. I would assume any shrinkage is temporary.

The proliferation of sports-based pseudoscience doesn’t occur because athletes are “dumb.” That’s an old stereotype. In fact, I suspect that great athletes often have above-average intelligence. Athletes fall for totally unreliable scientific claims because people fall for totally unreliable scientific claims. Sports just makes it easier.

To begin with, athletes generally have a strong desire to succeed, so they’re interested in trying almost anything that could help. This motivates them to entertain new products or services, without considering whether they have any legitimate scientific bases, and share their experiences with others. There are so many implausible performance and recovery claims that skeptics do not have time to address all of them.

Testing these types of claims is often challenging because it’s difficult to create an effective control condition. Ideally, a control group is just like the experimental group, except for the variable under examination. There is no feasible way to subject people to extreme cold without them being aware of it. Consequently, the only way to test cryotherapy is to have an experimental group that knows they experienced cryotherapy and a control group that does not experience cryotherapy. This means that the results could be due to perceptions, not the cryotherapy per se (e.g. a placebo effect). For some, the absence of disproof is proof enough.

Furthermore, athletes and organizations who promote suspect products or services can construct their claims in non-falsifiable ways. They can suggest that a product might not affect everyone equally, so each person has to determine whether it “works” for him or her. This makes no scientific sense. Individuals experience variation in performance after trying a product or service for any number of reasons. Counting only the improvements completely ignores whether the product or service exhibits any systematic effect across a group of people.

Once athletes attribute perceived improvement to a product or service, it can be difficult to convince them otherwise. Again, many athletes desperately want to succeed, so if they believe that something is helping them, they can be reluctant to consider arguments to the contrary. And there might not be any tangible benefit to turning over a pseudoscientific belief. LeBron James has enough dough to chill his body like a bottle of Dom, and it doesn’t seem to be inhibiting his game.

People also interpret correlations inappropriately. Tom Brady is an uncommonly gifted quarterback, so it invites the search for an explanation. It is more difficult for people to consider the situation from an opposing perspective. On principle, somebody has to be the greatest QB in the world; that doesn’t mean every distinctive thing that QB does (like consuming Himalayan pink salt) is responsible for his success. There could also be third variable explanations for apparent connections between success and pseudoscience. Strong motivation creates greatness and a willingness to try quirky things, but quirky things do not cause the greatness.

Finally, sports breeds a lot of pseudoscience because athletics and well-being overlap. Few people are MVP quarterbacks, but they still experience elbow pain. If professional athletes use something and claim it makes them feel better, there are many people with similar problems that have little to lose by trying it out and supporting the sports-pseudoscience market.

LeBron James’ “cryotherapy”

Does it really matter if athletes encourage people to waste money on junk? Yes, it does.

It’s easy to forget that many of the products and services that athletes promote can be expensive. It might also be wise for people like Brady and others to consider the many people who haven’t shared in their good fortune. I don’t like to think of poor high school students worrying they’re at a disadvantage because they don’t have rubber-cloth necklaces harnessing the power of titanium bits.

Also, some claims are truly dangerous. Encouraging phony alternatives to sunscreen, as Brady has, could cause people to elevate their risk for skin cancer. I’m no physician, but I’m pretty sure skin cancer kills people.

More importantly, it’s unfortunate when people learn they can just ignore legitimate scientific concerns because their intuition tells them otherwise. Yes, intuition can be correct, but it also can be wildly misguided. Many people are just following their intuition when they fall in love with horrible people. Some people believe, intuitively, that wearing crystals helps prevent depression.

People can engage in science denial only when it suits them. Somebody who believes that Brady’s special Under Armour pajamas enhance recovery probably still goes to the team trainer after turning an ankle. Likewise, people can believe (strangely) that science is totally wrong about vaccination but totally right about antibiotics.

Still, it seems reasonable to believe that teaching people that they know better than science in one domain could make it a little easier to for them to know better than science in another domain. Thus, selling a bunch of crap is worse than taking some money from people who usually can afford it. It’s promoting a dangerous system of thought that makes the world a less intelligent place.

Maybe I’m being unfair. I’ve never had the opportunity to get easy money by putting my name next to pseudoscience. I would love to have the chance. I think I could put principle above profit. I think genuine heroes would, too. Would the real Captain America make some side money selling bogus products that could increase performance? Call me crazy, but I really don’t think so.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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