Excluding the Middle

This is going to be one of those seemingly pointless posts that doesn’t say a whole lot (and I’ll try to keep it short); it’s mainly just a background type of thing that I want to put up once so that I can just link to it in the future since I’ll be referring to it repeatedly.  I figure most of my readers will still be hungover from July 4th celebration anyhow and won’t really be paying attention or able to focus on anything more detailed.

What I want to discuss is a concept that I call ‘excluding the middle’ but which is more formally referred to as a logical fallacy called ‘the false dilemma‘,  the ‘either/or fallacy’ or a whole host of other things.  It’s something I see a lot in both Internetz articles and Internetz arguments.

In brief, people have a tendency to play this cute little game where a given situation can either be exactly one thing (their preference) or exactly one other thing where that other thing is some ludicrous stupid-ass extreme example that they use to attempt to prove their preference simply by how extreme (and dumb) it is.  But compared to something stupid, anything is better by comparison.

As an example, I am apparently quoted as having said that “…compared to the Standard American Diet, a diet of bug spray and skittles would be healthier.”   One extreme compared to another and the second is only better because of the awfulness of the first.  Except that I was joking…mostly.  In most arguments, the folks falling prey to this trap are not.

Now, whether or not this is just some aspect of human nature where we want things to be one thing or another, or because people are bad at making logical arguments or what I have no idea.  Nor do I really care.  It’s called a logical fallacy for a reason and I’m going to give you four explicit examples to try to get my point across.

But simply, life is not binary and most things comes in varying degrees of extreme and shades of gray.  As my favorite author once put it “The universe can count beyond two.”  He was using this statement in a different context (to point out that most things fall into a yes/no/maybe type of situation and there are rarely simply yes/no answers) but it applies here too.  Hopefully this little piece will help you count beyond two.

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The HIT Example

For those who live under a rock, HIT refers to High Intensity Training (not to the confusingly similarly named HIIT or High-Intensity Interval Training).  Developed by Arthur Jones (as much to market Nautilus equipment or anything else) but truly popularized by Mike Mentzer (who called it Heavy Duty training), HIT has more or less become synonymous with doing 1 set to failure of a given exercise (interestingly, Jone’s original HIT was not like this at all and was actually a fairly moderate volume of training).  Yes, there’s more to it. No, I’m not going into details here because it doesn’t matter.

But in arguments with HIT’ers, if you suggest doing more than one set, you typically see a great example of what I’m talking about.  Specifically, you will often see the statement to the effect of “If you’re going to do more than 1 set, why not do 10, or 20, or 80?”  HIT’ers see the world in two simple binary situations: either you stop at one set or you do as many sets as possible.

That is, they don’t seem to have considered that one could do say, 4-8 sets of an exercise.  That the options are just 1 and ‘all’.  And since 1 set is better than ‘all’ sets, clearly it’s the correct choice.

They are excluding the middle: It’s not as if you can’t do a moderate number of sets (say 4-8 or whatever number might be optimal) and the only options are 1 or ‘all of them’.

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The Clean Eater Example

The idea of eating ‘clean’ is one that runs rampant in the physique sports.  Simply stated, ‘eating clean’ means eating only unprocessed foods in the diet.  Well, except when it’s inconvenient, it’s always amusing watching rabid clean freaks rationalize foods that don’t fit their definition (Crystal Light comes to mind) while eliminating foods (such as dairy) which clearly do fit their definition.  And when you get into arguments with clean freaks and suggest that it’s not required to eat clean 100% of the time, you will often get a response to the effect of “I guess I could go binge on junk food and McDonald’s and pizza at every meal, sure.”

I’d note that clean freaks often include a ‘cheat day’ where they go out of their way to eat the most junk humanly possible, often to the point of making themselves sick.  As well, many fall into the trap whereby if even a gram of an ‘unclean’ food passes their lips, they have ruined their diet and must go binge on everything they can get their hands on.  They need to read A Guide to Flexible Dieting.

In the clean freak’s mind, there are two binary options: you either eat clean 100% or you’re eating nothing but junk food at every meal every day.  The idea that you might ‘eat clean’ (whatever those words mean to you) 80-90% of the time and include selective ‘unclean foods’ (whatever that means to you) the other 10-20% of the time is simply an inconceivable one to many.

They are excluding the middle: it’s clean 100% of the time (except when it’s not) or junk food 100% of the time, you can’t do anything in the middle.  Even though you clearly can.  And most do, and more probably should.

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The Paleo Diet Example

Arguing with rabid paleo folks is about the same as arguing with the clean eating crowd.  I can recall specific arguments where the suggestion that grains (which represent unholy evil to the paleo crew) can be part of an overall diet was met with the counter-argument of “I’d never eat a diet that is 80% carbs.” Or something to that effect.

That is, the paleo eater seems to see the world as one of two things: you are either a strict paleo eater consuming nothing but meats, veggies, fruits and other paleo-approved ™ foods (and I’d note here that the paleo folks are about as flexible with their definitions as the clean eaters, routinely rationalizing foods that they want to eat while ignoring others based on whim) or you’re living on nothing but refined grains.

It’s one or the other, if you’re not 100% paleo, you’re 100% at the other extreme.   Apparently that whole concept of an athletic diet where you eat lots of protein, fruits, vegetables AND some amount of grains is simply inconceivable.  Despite the fact that athletes and bodybuilders have done that for decades.

They are excluding the middle: your diet is either 100% paleo (except for the exceptions they justify) or you’re eating 80% refined grains.  There is no possible middle ground that they can conceptualize.

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The HIIT/LSD Example

Now I am talking about High-Intensity Interval Training along with the whole silly either-or argument that is going on in the world of conditioning and cardiovascular training (something I’ve written about at length in the Steady State vs. Interval Training series).   Basically, and this is mostly a marketing thing/a backlash to the over-emphasize on low-intensity cardio of previous years, folks have flip flopped and it’s all intervals all the time.

Coaches will argue to the effect of “I would never have an athlete do low intensity work, marathon runners have a poor power output” or something roughly to the effect.   You’ll see similar stupidity aimed at folks aiming to lose fat where the statement is something akin to “Hours of low intensity work burn off muscle.”  As if the only way to do aerobic work is by doing hours and hours of it every day.

Apparently 45-60 minutes of low intensity work can’t be done even if dieters and contest bodybuilders have done exactly that for about 30 years.  Nor can a mix of low intensity work (i.e. 2-3 sessions per week or more) plus some interval work (1-2 session).    Or some other mixture depending on your goals and needs.  You know, like just about every endurance athlete in the world.

They are excluding the middle: It’s either nothing but interval sessions at every workout OR you’re training for the Tour De France and doing 30 hours per week of aerobic work, you can’t do anything in the middle.

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Summing Up

Stop excluding the middle.