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A week of memes and the things we think we know

May 7, 2011

By any measure, this week was a big week.  What interests me about it is that a common thread to many news stories in the UK and abroad was that many “memes” were either seeded, responded to or developed significantly as a result of the week’s events.  First up, Barack Obama officially responded to the insanity of the “birther” movement with the publication of his long-form birth certificate.  A US right-wing meme is that the President is not eligible to be President because he is not an American.  The Certificate’s publication led to the almost immediate response that it was not genuine, and so the movement continues to exist, and as many memes have been born of this episode than have been laid to rest, and the conspiracy theories will no doubt continue unabated.  Which leads neatly to the second meme of the week: Bin Laden’s killing and subsequent burial at sea has spawned all kinds of crazy ideas, ranging from “it wasn’t him and he’s still at large” to “he was killed years ago and the US covered it up” (both of these I got from the Conservapedia discussion threads, so they are about 4 standard deviations stupider than anything else on the internet).

What separates crazy conspiracy theory from well-reasoned scepticism is, of course, the evidence used to support the idea and the way in which that evidence is interpreted.  If you cherry-pick, quote mine, argue from personal incredulity, etc., then it is highly likely that you will not be doing the world any favours in drawing conclusions from your reading of even the soundest evidence base.  These techniques characterise the behaviour of just about every branch of anti-scientific discourse you care to name.  But they can also be employed by people who should know better.  Some of these people are responsible for drawing up legislation.  And so it is that I come to another meme, this one firmly entrenched in the columns of the Daily Mail, which suggests that sex education as taught in schools is encouraging teenage pregnancy.  Nadine Dorries, Member of Parliament for Mid-Bedfordshire and motived by a conservative Christian ideology, spent 10 min of House of Commons time proposing that abstinence should be a central message in female sex education.  Chris Bryant MP responded that abstinence programmes do not work and that those European countries with teenage pregnancy rates several times lower than the UK’s have much more extensive and explicit sex and relationship education than we do.  This exchange also included Dorries suggesting that there are often more sexually explicit magazines in newsagents than any other type, and that the mechanics of sexual intercourse were being taught to children as young as 7 years old.  For the latter, it is likely she has confused age 7 with Year 7 (7th Grade), and the former is probably only true of “newsagents” in the middle of Soho.  When the bill was put to the vote, the result was 67-61 in favour of giving the bill a second reading in the House.  To anybody who wants to see legislation based on sound evidence the result was extremely depressing.

Memes are also evident in scientific and medical circles, but one would hope that with our insistence on testing ideas by experiment that the survial of memes would be based on how well they describe nature.  The term “meme” is, of course, incorrect in this context. What I really mean is “hypothesis”.  What I would like to illustrate here is that hypotheses that are inadequately tested, or generalised far beyond the specific experimental conditions under which they are tested, can themselves become extremely invasive memes.  As an example, you’ve probably been to a gym or leisure centre recently, and within these places you sometimes see a sciencey diagram showing heart rate training zones as a function of age.  Maximum heart rate is calculated as 220 minus age, and the “training zones” a split up as a percentage of “heart rate reserve” (maximal minus resting heart rate).  All well and good, but there’s a problem.  These zones are usually based upon research by Karvonen and colleagues in 1957.  The zones were based upon training responses in young healthy males.  Six young healthy males.  And yet this has been adopted and developed by all kinds of people all over the world.  As an aside, there is a problem with exercise physiology generally in that almost everything we know is based upon relatively small samples of (usually) male university undergraduates.  And training studies are usually constrained by the term structure of the university they are conducted at, which (with pre- and post-testing) limits their duration to 6-10 weeks.  Generalisability is a big issue, one that deserves a blog post of its own (I should point out that the information in parentheses in the last sentence should read “before- and after-testing”.  As Prof. Ron Maughan would say “a post is something you knock into the ground”.)

I have lost count of the number of times people have asked me what heart rate zone they should exercise in to maximise fat burning.  When I tell them that 1. there isn’t one and 2. even if there was one you’d need something a little bit more advanced than a dodgy cycle ergometer and heart rate monitor to figure it out, the disappointment they display can be heartbreaking.  Well, heartbreaking when they turn their noses up at the news, satisfying when they say “that’s interesting, tell me more…”.  At that point, they get a 30-180 min crash-course in thermodynamics, energy metabolism and cardiovascular physiology.  The lucky ones stop me after 30 min.

Some other memes that are impossible to eradicate from sport and exercise include:

1. Lactic acid causes fatigue
2. Lactic acid causes muscle soreness
3. Lactic acid killed JFK
3. Stretching reduces muscle soreness
4. In through the nose and out through the mouth is the most efficient breathing pattern
5. Sports drinks enhance performance (by exactly 33%)
6. A gentle warm-up is the best form of preparation

I need hardly point out that the evidence supporting the above ranges from thin to non-existent.  Indeed, No. 5 refers to work conducted on footballers performing exercise to exhaustion lasting 6-9 min, after 75 min of intermittent exercise.  The outcome measure was the change in time to exhaustion.  If you took the finding at face-value and tried to run 33% faster than normal, sports drinks are not going to help you.

Perhaps the most common meme in exercise physiology is that lactic acid causes fatigue.  I have no doubt that at the conclusion of every race at the 2012 Olympics, irrespective distance, the commentators will insist that competitors are “swimming in a sea of lactic” or some similar nonsense.  All undergraduate students, without exception, arrive with the same impression.  Because of this, I like teaching first year students.  The response to the news that more than one factor causes muscle fatigue, and that lactate, per se, probably doesn’t contribute in the slightest is one of shock and awe, and it is a beautiful thing.

The above is a small step, however, and one I and others in my position must repeat on a yearly basis, and often more than once to get it to sink in.  The sad truth is that memes are easily released into the world and nearly impossible to eradicate.  My only comfort in all this is that the memes I have to deal with are, in the grand scheme of things, trivial.  I do not envy biology and geography teachers and lecturers faced with audiences who have been sold the memes that evolution is a lie and that climate change is not happening.

One Comment leave one →
  1. S Marwood permalink
    September 1, 2012 9:09 am

    I suppose if i was being picky, i would say that the study and the advert said you would go 33% longer, rather than faster. Though anyone expecting to go for 1h 20 rather than 1h might be disappointed.

    I am not employed by GSk

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