Many people imagine the scientific community as a monolithic battalion of unbiased and upright experts selflessly searching for new and better ways to understand and exploit reality for the betterment of all humankind.

If only.

Scientific theories have usually evolved like this: problems with existing paradigms and contradictory evidence are ignored or rationalized away until eventually the defects become so numerous and obvious that the discipline is thrown into crisis and new explanations are then adopted as the accepted norms.

For instance, in 1912, Alfred Wegener proposed the now-accepted theory of continental drift that asserts the continents wander across the oceans. 

Initially, however, his idea was roundly rejected by professionals on the grounds that he was a meteorologist and not a geologist and that he couldn’t explain how such a drift occurred, only that it appeared to be the case. 

And so Wegener’s hypothesis languished for nearly forty years until a new scientific discipline, paleomagnetism, started producing data in support of it.

Ignaz Semmelweis’ story is similar. He was a nineteenth-century Hungarian doctor who, after much careful observation, was convinced that if doctors handling cadavers washed their hands before delivering babies, fewer mothers would die after giving birth. 

This prediction was vehemently rejected by the medical community at large for several reasons, including the academic deficiencies in Semmelweis’ explanations for why handwashing would improve mortality as well as the offensive implication that doctors were inadvertently killing their patients. 

Semmelweis went crazy trying to prove his beliefs and was admitted to a mental institution against his will, where he was beaten, straight-jacketed, and abused. Two weeks later, he was dead at the age of forty-seven from a gangrenous wound on his right hand.

It took twenty more years for medicos to realize they were wrong about antiseptics, following Louis Pasteur’s confirmation of germ theory.

Oxygen’s role in combustion was once a radical idea proposed by an 18th century French chemist named Antoine Lavoisier whose theory challenged the prevailing doctrine that combustion was a process whereby a substance called phlogiston was released into the air. 

Lavoisier’s oxygen theory was met with widespread skepticism and criticism from the scientific community, and its detractors included prominent scientists like Georg Ernst Stahl, Jean-Paul Marat, Johann Joachim Becher, and Martin Heinrich Klaproth.

Ultimately, it took a preponderance of evidence produced by several decades of persistent and meticulous experimentation for Lavoisier’s work to achieve general scientific acceptance and adoption.

In health and fitness, examples abound: 

  • The perpetual daisy chain of offbeat diet trends (fasting, Atkins, paleo, keto, veganism, carnivore, etc.) that claim to represent the “scientifically optimal” way for humans to eat.
  • The numerous fad exercise programs that promise rapid results from “breakthrough” methods (CrossFit, high-intensity interval training, various strength training programs, etc.) or equipment (special machines, bands, bars, etc.).
  • The overemphasis of the importance and potential benefits of supplements, which are often negligible even in the case of popular products supposedly supported by scientific research (BCAAs, EAAs, hydration/electrolyte supplements, and many others).
  • The entire biohacking racket, which is the health equivalent of alchemy—the futile pursuit of boundless energy, elevated cognition, and eternal youth through extensive (and expensive) protocols of superfood smoothies; sleep, fitness, and glucose trackers; obscure herbs and drugs; EEG headbands; cold plunges; and suchlike.
  • The wholesale dismissal of alternative medicine as quackery, including unconventional interventions that lack solid scientific evidence but have considerable anecdotal support, like acupuncture, homeopathy, and meditation.

There are innumerable more examples like these, but the moral is this: Beware the cults of scientism (excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques) and credentialism (belief in or reliance on academic or other formal qualifications as the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job).

Apostles of these ideologies insist that you swallow favored claims from the mouths of approved pundits no matter how dubious, and reject disfavored ones out of hand no matter how compelling.

These aren’t smart people. These are midwits who can’t think for themselves and desperately rely on authorities to tell them what to believe, and in fact, place more value on believing what they’re told to believe rather than believing the truth.

If you were to comment that cutting off your head is unhealthy, these people would demand peer-reviewed studies as proof. 

So, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, you have every right to mistrust arguments from authority and demand that experts prove their contentions like everybody else, because too many accepted arguments have proved too agonizingly wrong.

You also have the power to formulate astute questions and come to sound conclusions through your faculties of observation and reasoning alone. You don’t have to reject your senses, deductions, and instincts until they’ve been blessed by a high priest of officialdom.