Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Bro-Science vs. Real Science

The Difference in Science and “Unexplainable” Results

This piece is being written in response to the proposition that “scientific theory” cannot explain certain results, in the context of the human body’s function.

More specifically, the proposition was to the effect of:

“If science tells us that the body mobilizes fat in a fashion that is genetically determined, and therefore spot reduction is impossible, then why do some bodybuilders note that when they work the midsection harder that it gets leaner?”

Well ok, the astute among you have likely noted some of the problems here, but I’d like to go into some detail just to eliminate any doubt. This is a treatment of real science vs. bro-science.

Firstly, we have to define what science is. Science, simply, is the use of reason and logic to explain observed phenomena.

Phenomena in this sense can be virtually anything: the sun’s light, why a ball falls to the ground when you drop it, literally anything you can observe in some form or another. Science is not a quest to explain all questions ever; science can only explain what can be observed.

Further, science is based around the rigors of logical reasoning. This means that observations must ideally be carried out under strict conditions, with no confounding variables to skew the results. This serves two purposes: to ensure that what is being studied is actually a causal relationship, not merely a correlation, and to allow the testing to be repeated by others, the concept of reproducibility.

This brings us to the key notion of science, the concept of the hypothesis, the theory, and falsifiability. A hypothesis is a conjecture or speculation that is tested by experimentation. An experiment is the aforementioned series of strict conditions under which scientific testing is performed. An example of a hypothesis would be “A tennis ball will fall if not supported by another object”.

A theory on the other hand is a working model that explains an observed phenomenon. A theory has the ability to make reliable predictions about the phenomenon, can be tested through experimentation (reproducibility) and is open to being falsified through further observation (falsifiability).

In strict terms, a theory in this sense of the word is no different from a fact. It has been able to create reliable predictions, it can be tested, and it is open to being falsified by further observation. The most widely known example is gravity. Strictly speaking, gravity as described by Newton is “wrong”, as it was falsified by Einstein with relativity. However, for the purposes of those of us on Earth, there is little practical difference; Newton is as “right” as he could be (for more on “the relativity of wrong”, see <a href=“http://“>the essay by Isaac Asimov of the same title). Newton wasn’t so much disproven as expanded upon, which is the nature of all good theories that have held up over time.

There’s one final concept necessary to introduce, which is the idea of parsimony. Parsimony essentially states that the most simple (or least complex, depending on how you look at it) explanation that includes all the necessary elements is the most likely explanation. This is also known as Occam’s razor. Keep in mind that emphasized part.

The implications of Occam’s razor are obvious: if you have explanation A which describes Z, and you have explanation B which is identical to A but includes Flying Invisible Elephants that you cannot observe in any way, then explanation A is the most likely choice. Unexplainable or unnecessary terms are “cut away” with Occam’s razor, leaving only the simplest, but still complete, answer.

Beyond the ideas of the philosophy of science, we also have to consider how data is collected and interpreted. Most often, scientists use statistical methods to determine the validity and applicability of results; these methods are beyond the scope of a blurb such as this. Suffice it to say, there can be a wide variation in the ability to generalize results of studies, which are almost always done with small samples of a population, to the larger population as a whole.

Now, back to our original proposition:

“If science tells us that the body mobilizes fat in a fashion that is genetically determined, and therefore spot reduction is impossible, then why do some bodybuilders note that when they work the midsection harder that it gets leaner?”

The first assertion, that science tells us the body mobilizes fat in a genetically-determined fashion, is true. What this means is that researchers have conducted experiments, and thus far these experiments have shown that the body mobilizes fat the way it is genetically programmed to do so.

Does this mean that data will never emerge that contradicts this? Absolutely not. What it means is that to date, all the research performed has shown us that “spot reduction” doesn’t happen. Whether or not this generalizes to relevant population, i.e., bodybuilders, is another matter entirely.

This doesn’t mean that “spot reduction” cannot or will not happen. What it means is that everything we know to date, performed under controlled and tested conditions, says it can’t happen.

Now let’s look at the second part, where bodybuilders note that the midsection gets leaner when they work it.

First problem: what standard of measurement are the bodybuilders using to determine this?

Second problem: what certainty do the bodybuilders have that, even if they are noting a change, that this change is somehow contradicting known data? How can you be sure fat isn’t being mobilized in a genetically-determined pattern?

Third problem: what steps have the bodybuilders taken to ensure there are no confounding variables that could be interfering with their observation, such as dieting, or overall activity level?

These obviously are major issues. If you’re not controlling things precisely, there could be any number of reasons as to why the observation occurs. You could be measuring inaccurately or inconsistently. It could be an informal mental observation, subject to the bias of the bodybuilder who wants a leaner midsection.

You might just be genetically inclined to lose fat from the midsection as you drop fat. Or you might be doing more cardio and eating less food, thus ensuring that you’re dropping body fat overall. You could be simply working your abs more, hoping they’ll pop out, causing the ab muscle to develop and become more pronounced. You might be using drugs that will completely change the rules of normal physiology.

There’s any number of issues that could skew the results.

Yet, the bodybuilder assumes that working the midsection equates to fat loss. Why? The quick and easy answer is because that’s what he wants to think. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, beyond the simple fact that working the midsection seems to coincide with fat loss.

The contradiction is not one of science and observation. The issue is one of science vs. wishful thinking. This is bro-science in action.

Any observations that occur with a single individual, or even a small group of individuals, in uncontrolled settings without any steps taken to eliminate confounding variables, take reliable measures, and use the most likely explanation cannot be generalized to larger populations. It may not even be applicable to the individual(s) in question.

Research is done in a specific fashion for a specific reason. Science, by definition, cannot contradict observation. Science IS observation, quantified and performed under strict conditions.

I should note that the spot reduction concept is far from the only issue in which that occurs; there’s a whole slew of mythology such as this in the realms of bodybuilding.

We affectionately call this bro-science, with many sub-fields such as bro-tology and bro-logic. Bro-science functions in exact opposition to the scientific method I outlined above, relying on gut feelings rather than tested observations.

Bro-science would have you accept that uncontrolled and untested observations have some superiority to actual laboratory conditions. Cause you know, all scientists are pencilneck labcoats.