Develop a healthy BS detector

Several years ago, I allocated a significant amount of time networking with the sport and fitness faculty heads of universities and colleges. I felt it was my responsibility as CEO of eta College to build relationships with them, one of which was with (the now late) Professor Paul Avis, of the University of the Western Cape.

South African rugby still engaged me in various capacities, including that of a mind coach for the Springboks, and Paul was particularly interested in my mental toughness ideas. He had represented South Africa as a senior men’s tennis player with John McEnroe being one of his opponents.

In a very short time our conversation migrated from the relationship between eta College and the University of the Western Cape to mental toughness.

I recall Paul claiming that in his view there were many requirements for improved mental toughness. He started with the need for developing a healthy bull shit (BS) detector. It was in particular needed where the scientific method had been manipulated by corporate greed or personal bias, and in so doing rendered the research outcomes untrustworthy. In other words they were bull shit.

I have since come across two illuminating books on this subject written by Dr Ben Goldacre. These are Bad Science (Goldacre, 2008) and Bad Pharma (Goldacre, Bad Pharma, 2012) both books support the BS claim made by Avis years earlier.

Avis was particularly harsh about some of the research on nutrition. He referred to studies linking nutrition to enhanced brain function. His opinion was that much of the research claiming brain-related improvements based on eating certain foods fell into the bad science or BS category.

He went on to criticize some of the studies justifying the use of food supplements. My recollection of this part of the discussion was Avis’ expansion on the use of nutraceuticals and in particular an obsessive consumption of supplements and vitamins. He called this category “powders, pills and potions” and suggested their benefits were mostly mythical. He felt that there was room for healthy scepticism about substances that claim to improve health, fitness, and particularly brain function.

He added, generally speaking, supplementation should be subject to closer scrutiny. He felt that supplements should, at least, be prescribed based on the outcome of a thorough needs analysis that identifies the individuals’ specific nutritional needs. This analysis should be conducted by a qualified person like a dietician. “Tragically,” he said ruefully, “even this process is underpinned with misinformation as the official dietary guidelines these professionals use as their reference are riddled with poor research and bias” (Avis, 2004). He cited increased obesity in countries with a western culture and linked this trend to the food pyramid dietary guideline used by nutrition professionals.

Avis included a concern that supplementation can result in a licensing effect, where the consumer feels justified in indulging in poor nutritional consumption because they have a so-called healthy supplementation regime.

The session concluded with him claiming the following about mental toughness, “Mental toughness is a language spoken by many but understood by few” (Avis, 2004). He added that many people make outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about the subject.

Paul suggested I enrol in a PhD programme, which he would supervise, with a thesis on Mental Toughness. He asserted that once I successfully completed my academic programme, I could claim to be an expert on the subject because my contribution would be grounded in academically acceptable research and, with a smile, he said I could justify my views by saying, “Trust me, I’m a doctor” (Avis, 2004).

I qualified in 2008, and several years later, I still don’t feel like an expert. I can claim to have moved on from being a well-informed amateur to having a deep, emerging understanding of the subject.



Dr Steve Harris. Motivational speaker, team building, conference speaker, keynote speaker