Junk science, self esteem myth, and coaching: While We’re Waiting

Science has had a rough 2017. From Cleveland Cavaliers’ star Kyrie Irving being a possible Flat Earth Truther to Climate Change Deniers and Alarmists both gaining stronger footholds to complete breakdowns in the Publish or Die world of Academia being brought to light as Fake News is put under a microscope.

One of the long-established bastians of junk science is that of magazine cover stories. The internet allows many of these to become memes to be passed along fervently. Time Magazine being one organization quite willing to make catastrophic headlines regardless of what the study they are publishing might actually state. Take for instance, this recent article and accompanying headline that has been passed around in many forms this week.

Eating French fries is linked to a higher risk of death! The death rate might be twice as high if you eat fried potato products twice a week! Except, TIME decided to bury the portion that states “For now, the link is merely an association, and more research with larger groups of people is needed to investigate the link before saying that overeating fries causes an increased risk of death.”

The study was published at the American Journal of Clinical Nurtition. The idea that increasing fat and salt consumption could lead to a higher mortality rate makes sense from an intuitive aspect, but there are a ton of variables involved here. Interested to see if they had factored in exercise levels, overall nutritional aspects of the subject diets, and more, I clicked through the links. I was instead met with Osteoarthritis Initiative (OAI): A Knee Health Study.

If you happened to have hovered over that link, then you might notice it is for the Clinical Trials government site that was mandated research to be registered by the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2005 that has been a complete and total failure in practice. Politicized studies, changing expected outcome hypothesis after research, and many other unethical practices have continued as well as the entire structure of the act being ignored by many. In fact, only 5% of studies were found to have met the three main conditions of registration. Without such, it is impossible to have trusted findings as the Society for Scholarly Publishing notes “Worryingly, any breach of these standards could potentially mean that the results reported have either consciously (spin, bias, revisionism) or unconsciously (through a lack of methodological rigorousness) been manipulated to highlight (or hide) select findings.”

Of course, bad science ending in political policy is nothing new. The entire participation trophy generation was built upon the lies of such twisted studies. The Guardian was the latest to recap the 1980s California craze that wound up influencing billions of dollars of education funds over the last 40 years. Much like the “French Fries are bad for you” study, the hypothesis started with something you believe or want to be true. In this case, that students perform better when they have a higher self esteem and are met with only positive experiences. If lower grades are lowering esteem, then they should be inflated so more people get good grades. If not getting a medal or winning a trophy makes one feel bad, then everyone should get one. On the extreme, some schools refuse to utilize negative wording or punishments for fear of bruising any child’s delicate ego.

In the US, between the late 60s and 2004, the proportion of first year university students claiming an A average in high school rose from 18% to 48%, despite the fact that SAT scores had actually fallen. None of this, says Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and expert on narcissism, serves our youngsters well. “Burning yourself on a stove is really useful in telling you where you stand,” he says, “but we live in a world of trophies for everyone. Fourteenth place ribbon. I am not making this stuff up. My daughter got one.”

John Vasconcellos was the man behind this movement. He believed in it so thoroughly that he was able to convince the California legislature to fund a three-year research project to prove that higher self esteem could be a social vaccine capable of lowering unemployment, educational failure, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and gang warfare. The media and fellow politicians were skeptical of the entire idea, but he found that the constituents wanted it to be true, which was enough for him. When the report came out, the cultivated response to the national media demonstrated the correlation was a success.

Everything hinged on Dr Neil Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology who had coordinated the work, leading a team who reviewed all the existing research on self-esteem. And the news was good: four months later, in January, the task force issued a newsletter: “In the words of Smelser, ‘The correlational findings are very positive and compelling.’”

The headlines quickly piled up: Self-Esteem Panel Finally Being Taken Seriously; Commission On Self-Esteem Finally Getting Some Respect. The state governor sent the professors’ research to his fellow governors, saying, “I’m convinced that these studies lay the foundation for a new day in American problem solving.

Except it was all a great, big lie. They omitted the portions of the quote that noted in many other areas there was mixed or no correlation and that they had much work to do in order to determine the causes for the correlations. It turns out that Vasconcellos was in charge of allocating the budget for the University of California that completed the study, and they were willing to be complicit in ignoring the obvious over-selling of the conclusions.

“The news most consistently reported,” he read out loud, “is that the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent.”

This was a radically different conclusion from that fed to the public. Shannahoff-Khalsa told me he was present when Vasco first saw preliminary drafts of the professors’ work. “I remember him going through them – and he looks up and says, ‘You know, if the legislature finds out what’s in these reports, they could cut the funding to the task force.’ And then all of that stuff started to get brushed under the table.”

How did they do that?

“They tried to hide it. They published a [positive] report before this one,” he said, tapping the red book, which deliberately “ignored and covered up” the science.

As a youth coach whose wife home-schools the kids, the obviousness of the lie is evident in the outcomes of the methods when directly applied. As with any good lie, there is a decent element of truth embedded in it. Children do benefit from having a deep sense of self-worth and confidence to complete tasks. There is little chance anyone is going to be able to solve a word problem or catch a football if they fear they are not capable of doing so. Understanding that they are loved and that their life has meaning and value needs to be a staple in a child’s upbringing. Coaching kids through positive messaging can help buy the utility needed for them to trust the process that they are being asked to employ as well as themselves.

However, iron sharpens iron1 and a refusal to correct is a refusal to love; love your children by disciplining them.2 The aspects of knowing their responsibilities and being pushed to achieve the highest possible peak of their capabilities is just as important. A refusal to hold your children to lofty standards is the same as stating you do not think they deserve to achieve them. There is a reason that Cleveland Indians manager, Terry Francona, got upset with the team and went on a bit of a tirade this week in an attempt to shake them from the malaise they have been in throughout the 2017 season. Positive messaging was not said to be a major component of this particular speech.

My teams have fun. We make up chants (Cha Cha, Kumbaya, Eat Mor Chikin!), do ridiculous celebrations, and enjoy the moment whether it be splashing in a puddle during a rain delay or creating games on the fly to end practice. At the end of the season, every kid gets a certificate complete with a coaches breakdown of all of the areas where they created value for the team both on the field and in the relationships, sportsmanship, and maturation they nurtured and demonstrated during the season. Every kid has value and I do what I can to help them realize it in the short time that I am blessed to be their coach.

My teams also work their fannies off. They do drills the correct way or they do them again, practices are setup to have them in constant motion, and many of the drills have a direct competitive edge to them with small punishments for mistakes or laziness (most popular being push ups, sit ups, or burpees anytime a baseball touches dirt or grass instead of a glove). There are rewards given such as special privileges, snacks, or picking a game for those who work the hardest and have the best attitudes.

Care is taken so that every kid has a chance to develop early in the season with every player having a chance at multiple spots (and in baseball, all getting a chance at infield). By the end of the season, there is a separation. Every child has a distinct and important value, but the best positions go to the best kids so that they also can achieve their highest peaks without being held back. Having value and being equal are not the same. As Dash from The Incredibles noted, “saying everyone is special means that no one is.”

I spend far too much time thinking about how to coach kids in a way that they will have an enjoyable experience, develop their skills the most, be competitive, and help be a positive influence during their life (not over-stating my worth here, I know that I am just a miniscule piece of their childhood but there’s no reason for them to hate that minute part or for it to be a negative influence to any degree). A big part of that thinking is reading up from other coaches such as Alan Jaeger, David Thorpe, and many others to obtain ideas and philosophies along with studies that have attempted to scientifically test which methods work best. There is still a ton of great science going on in the world. There just has to be great care in ensuring those studies aren’t biased or politicized or whose results aren’t just telling me what I want to hear for clicks or because the report had to be published before it was complete.

  1. Proverbs 27:17 []
  2. Proverbs 13:24 []

  • nj0

    Which is one reason why you shouldn’t donate to Susan G. Komen and instead give money to non-profits that give the lion’s share to cancer research.

  • nj0
  • mgbode

    can we get one more step of depravity? that the pharm company books are not disappointed if they can have long-term drugs that mitigate pain rather than short-term drugs that get rid of an issue. and that pharm companies are the ones funding some of this research.

    note: lots of good is done through pharm companies too. there are just so many layers of conflicting priorities.

  • mgbode

    I know I have shared this before, but the approach mentioned matches what my dad taught me to an extent.

    Basically, everyone’s skills are achieved through effort and discipline?method of that effort. However, the starting position can be different. He used an analogy of hiking up a mountain. Some of us are hiking up a gradual slope that started out at a high elevation. Others are starting from a lower elevation with a steep slope. The slopes might even change as we hike along our journey.

    It also helps explain that everyone needs to put in the effort to maximize their skills while explaining why some people/kids accelerate faster than others at certain points.

  • nj0

    Or worse, the drug companies classify disease in a way to help sell their products. That’s some immoral synergy. See: DSM-V

  • Bob

    edit to last paragraph: “no better proof of your hypothesis than watching….”

  • nj0

    “immersed in military life or, unfortunately, gang life”

    So true, so obvious. I’d argue that being needed is a biological imperative.

  • Eric G

    Do you also say, “Fro-der-ick?”

  • mgbode

    Thanks Harv.

    It is amazing how much we allow careful pulled quotes from certain studies as statements to decide how we should live our lives.

  • Harv

    love you, man, you hit on something close to my heart. My late sister was featured in different parts of a 2011 documentary on this very subject. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QPZfcYTUaA
    I literally feel ill every designated NFL “pink” day. Right, more “awareness” is what we need now, manifested by a donation to an enormous fund-raising machine which accomplishes the goal of self-perpetuation and virtually no meaningful medical breakthroughs. But hey, pink cleats are a very cool public relations antidote to player domestic violence arrests.

  • Harv

    leaving it there as a disciplinary tool 🙂

  • RGB

    7 – Bingo Smith. No.
    11 – Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Sorry, but no.
    22 – Larry Nance. No.
    25 – Mark Price. I suppose.
    34 – Austin Carr. Sorry, but no.
    42 – Nate Thurmond. Really? No.
    43 – Brad Daugherty. I suppose.

  • Chris
  • BenRM

    A+++ article. It has been peer reviewed (by me), and I find that it passes muster.

  • BenRM

    I was stuck behind some 5 or 6 year old at subway with his mom this weekend. She (and Subway to be fair) allowed the kid to build his own sandwich with 1 piece this, 1 piece of that, half a slice of pepperoni, x number of random veggies (like exactly 1 onion, 2 pickles), etc. This kid’s order took about 15 minutes.

    Stupid kid, order a sandwich and move along!

  • mgbode

    Thanks. And, just like many scientific studies today, it was published before the proper peer review.

  • BenRM

    At the very least, have the common courtesy to leave if/when you can’t get it under wraps in a reasonable amount of time.

  • BenRM


  • tigersbrowns2

    hi HARV , sorry about your sister …

  • BenRM

    I have not liked various aspects of the DSM-V…it’s fun to see other people express a distaste.

  • Chris

    Agree on the conflicting incentives for pharm companies, but what I don’t understand is….
    …why a medical insurance company wouldn’t sift through the macro-level BS and go for the legitimate cure rather than drawn out “control” or “mitigation”
    …why a private or university researcher would be prevented from addressing a legitimate cure (funding?)
    …why the government wouldn’t step in and create an incentive (or funding) prioritizing cures over treatment
    …why a doctor would knowingly prescribe treatment over cure

  • Chris

    “correlation is not causation.”

    One of my favorite reads was Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World”. Man, did he hate that pseudo-science crap.

  • mgbode

    yeah, my limited understanding here is that the funding is tied to the incremental progress, which is easier to obtain through mitigation rather than full cure.

    I don’t think the last line would be true. Doctors would prescribe the cure if available. It is obtaining it that becomes problematic.

  • tsm

    I actually used this during my closing argument in a jury trial a number of years ago. I was pointing out that my opponent was talking out of both sides of his mouth (shocking I know for a lawyer) and when I saw the jury smile, I knew I had won the case.

  • tsm

    I was in line at a McDonald’s years ago when my kids were little, and the person in front of me ordered the usual hamburger and then requested the pickles be held, and only ketchup. I felt the urge to tell her that she should bed at burger king – to have it her way – as McDonald’s is – have it our way – but I decided against causing a stir.

  • jpftribe

    Note to self: Settle when tsm is opposing counsel.

  • tsm

    When my wife and I are watching the evening news, we often see a commercial for a new wonder drug. She then mentions that in 6 months, there will be a commercial from a law firm soliciting all those who took the wonder drug and are now suffering the effects.

  • jpftribe

    My favorite part of the big pharma commercials is listening to the soothing charms of endless side effects spoken with break neck speed. Especially when it includes things like sudden heart attacks and death.

  • RGB

    But that would constitute discipline, and that’s just not acceptable in today’s era of kid owning, errrrr, I mean modern parenting.

  • tsm

    Great article, as well as very incisive and articulate comments. My pet peeve is government funded research. Of course, any agency has to use up it’s allotment of $$ in order to maintain full employment and justify next year’s budget. With all the programs that have been initiated or funded by our government over my lifetime, I can hardly recall any that indicated that they have achieved their objective, or concluded that funding was no longer necessary and closed up shop. We all need to follow the money and demand evidence of specific results before going along with these many programs.

  • nj0

    Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, does this sounds like a man who had “all he could eat”?
    That could have been me!

  • nj0

    It’s truly disgusting, infinitely more so if you or a love one has had breast cancer. A pox on their house.

  • nj0

    This is true for every facet of government.

  • chrisdottcomm

    And some are hiking up a complete mountain all together. That has to be factored in.

    No matter how much effort/discipline/method I put in I will never be 6’8″ tall, weighing in at 250 pounds of pure muscle with the ability to jump a 40+ inch vertical.

  • Chris

    My point was that on the surface, all these other parties seem to have substantial interest in a cure. That’s much more fuzzy with Big Pharm. If there was a cure out there, I find it unlikely that none of these other parties would pounce on it. I didn’t mean to insinuate at all that doctors as a whole are “in” on it.

  • mgbode

    Understood. I think it is more the path we are taking and incentives being laid out make finding a cure more unlikely. Finding a cure might take a ton of “wasted” money on crazy ideas just to see what sticks. No one seems to want to fund such efforts.

  • mgbode

    Correct, but that 6-foot-8 guy will die early if he/she doesn’t put the work in to ensure they can handle the increased size of their body.

  • Chris

    “such and such behavior will raise the risk of such and such disease by FIFTY PERCENT!”

    There’s one for that too!!!

  • Chris

    Edison failed on thousands of ideas before stealing the lightbulb!

  • Chris

    Despite the activity of the commentariat suggesting otherwise, this is definitely *not* a patented Bode clickbait piece.

    Nice stuff.

  • Chris

    But I can fall 40+ inches. Just flip the Z-axis, and I can play with the best of ’em.

  • Chris

    Damn experts.

    “An expert is a person who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about absolutely nothing”

  • jpftribe

    Careful what you wish for. There is a shedload of VC money in biogen,

  • jpftribe

    Plastic Mozart’s and the War on Christmas, man I love this place.

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  • Garry_Owen

    “That’s why poorly raised children become immersed in military life”

    What do you mean?

  • mgbode

    I’ll try to do better next time.