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Disappointing Woo from Outside Magazine

by Brian Dunning

June 14, 2011

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Donate I have long been a fan of Outside magazine. The outdoors industry is, sadly for those of us of a scientific mindset but who love the outdoors, rife with pseudoscience. The all-natural fallacy is particularly ubiquitous, miracle diets abound, and marketing terms like sustainability are everywhere. Outside, however, has managed to keep its head above this soup, and I've been impressed many times with its iconoclastic reporting of sound science.

But I just opened our July 2011 issue and was struck by two stories, one of which was the cover story, that fail to meet their usually high standards. This year's food fad du jour is the anti-gluten movement, which for no sound nutritional or biochemical reason, frames the wonderful wheat protein gluten as the root of all evil. This movement is based on the fallacious logic that because a tiny percentage of the population has one of three basic gluten intolerances, it must therefore be generally bad for everyone. Outside's article, written by freelance travel and social journalist Gordy Megroz, is full of outright scientific errors and repeats all the popular tripe, as if he did a Google search and copy-and-pasted from the miracle diet websites. He blames poor athletic performance on gluten, and also passing gas, inflammation, inability for muscles to recover after exercise, bowel distress, and not winning triathlons.

He offers a half dozen anecdotes of young athletes who, as they trained, improved their performance (yet oddly attributed the gains to cutting out gluten). He asserts that there is no test for gluten intolerance (untrue) but offers this suggestion to test yourself. Start running miles, and stop eating gluten. At the end of a month, if you're running your miles faster and feeling more fit, you have a gluten intolerance. Hmm...

I found at least one outright untrue science claim in every paragraph of Megroz's article. It was depressing.

Outside's July 2011 cover article features Tim Ferriss, a young supplement entrepreneur who sold a company selling worthless vitamins at the age of 23 and concluded that his financial success must have meant that he was a nutritional genius. Ten years later, it should surprise no one that a reasonably athletic 33-year-old would be in excellent health. I was too, at his age. Yet he attributes his health to the woo promoted in his new miracle diet book, The 4-Hour Body. (He also attributed his wealth to the woo promoted in his previous book, the 4-Hour Workweek.) Is anybody else seeing any red flags here?

Tim talks fast and throws buzzwords around like a wood chipper on overdrive. He advocates vitamin megadosing, a proven pseudoscience. In fact, says Outside, the book is:
...packed with shortcuts to just about everything overworked Americans wish we had more time for: trimming fat, building muscle, hitting a baseball like Babe Ruth, holder our breath longer than Houdini, sleeping better, living longer. It even claims to help non-orgasmic women achieve climax. Ferriss has divined prescriptions that, for example, enable you to lose 20 pounds in 30 days without exercise.
But what about that pesky science? Ferriss feels the scientific method is broken and needs to be replaced. The randomized controlled clinical trial is his public enemy number one, no doubt because it would show that his methods don't work. Ferriss advocates replacing that system with a "crowdsourced" version of his own devise, that he calls "open-source clinical trials", in which people do their own experimentation and report their anecdotes. Supporting pseudoscience using scientific-sounding terminology. No, Tim, that's not the way we do science. It's the way you hope to sell books.

Outside, I look forward to a return to your usual standards in future issues. These two articles did not serve your readers' interests.

by Brian Dunning

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