Ego is the Enemy of Discovery and Progress

It is a common viewpoint that ego stunts personal growth, and most would agree that ego undermines our effectiveness as coaches and practitioners. What is less often considered is that unconstrained ego similarly obstructs progress and discovery in the areas of scientific study that exist to inform practice. At present the respective disciplines encompassed within coaching science, sports science and sports medicine are plagued with these difficulties. Einstein famously quoted to the effect that ego has an inverse relationship to knowledge – “more the knowledge, lesser the ego; lesser the knowledge, more the ego”. Yet researchers in the fields of sports science and sports medicine are showing themselves to be particularly prone to ego and the excesses associated with it. In this post we tackle the issue of ego in sports science and sport medicine, and attempt to plot a path back to sanity.

THE PRESENT SITUATION…

Observing the conduct and interactions between prominent researchers and ‘authorities’ in the fields of sports science and sports medicine can make for an unedifying spectacle. In the era of social media these petulant and very public spats are becoming increasingly common. These displays do no credit to anybody involved. Worse, these developments actively obstruct rational discussion that might actually help to solve the problem we set out to resolve in the first place.

This trend has recently prompted calls for reason that cite the increasingly extreme positions taken by prominent researchers and ‘authorities’. The increasing ‘extremism’ also extends into how debates on particular topics are conducted. In his writing Ross Tucker has used the analogy of a pendulum to describe the present situation. Periodically the pendulum swings from one extreme viewpoint on a topic to the opposite extreme. Clearly the present situation serves nobody. In particular, for students and practitioners who are seeking to learn the present situation makes for baffling viewing and is entirely unhelpful.

ASK A GROWN UP…

Of all the sciences, what we consider sports science is one of the youngest and least evolved. It therefore makes sense to take our lead from more established areas of scientific study. In essence, let’s examine what the grown-ups do.

Here we turn to physics, one of the longest established of the sciences. Physics is not only eminently relevant to what we do, but also gives us some valuable principles to follow. Throughout this chapter we will call upon the wisdom of Richard Feynman as our guide.

ALL IS UNCERTAIN…

The more we understand about the universe it becomes increasingly clear that uncertainty is an inherent feature.

Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty… some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain…
— Richard Feynman

In essence, our understanding of everything is at best clouded and incomplete. What we ‘know’ is merely our current best guess or approximation based on the evidence presently available. Knowledge is inconstant and fleeting. This is a critical realisation. It should also serve as an important lesson in humility. Moreover this understanding should give us pause about becoming too attached to what we ‘know’ to be ‘true’.

@@To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know@@
— Richard Feynman

DOUBT AND UNCERTAINTY...

This permanent doubt, the deep source of science…
— Carlo Rovelli

Doubt is at the very core of science. This is entirely appropriate given the uncertainty that is inherent in scientific study and our tenuous grip on knowledge. It is reassuring that even the great minds in history who were responsible for the major advances in science and our understanding of the universe showed suitable hesitancy and doubt as they proposed their great discoveries.

A scientist is never certain… We absolutely must leave room for doubt, or there is no progress and there is no learning
— Richard Feynman

By extension, denying that we are fallible is not only unhelpful but is also ridiculous. Fallibility is an inevitable part of being a human engaging in scientific study; it is also necessary and integral to the process of discovery. Einstein is rightly heralded for his extraordinary scientific genius. Yet we overlook that Einstein repeatedly (and publicly) proposed solutions that were wrong on his way to arriving at his great discoveries.

SCIENTIFIC PROCESS (SEE CRIMES AGAINST)…

The basis of accepted scientific method as established by Karl Popper is falsifiability. Accordingly, hypothesis testing should essentially be a quest to disprove the initial proposition through experiment. This is a process of natural selection – the very objective of scientific study is to stress test and actively try to disprove the hypothesis. It is the hypotheses that withstand this rigorous process that survive.

Once a body of evidence in support of the hypothesis has been amassed via experimentation, the hypothesis attains the status of a theory. Hence what defines a theory is that it there is empirical evidence to support it from a number of experimental studies.

There are two critical points to note here. The first is that by definition it is impossible to propose a theory – at the outset it is merely an untested hypothesis. Increasingly the two terms are used interchangeably in the literature, and this is a real problem as it erodes standards of proof.

The second point is that even when a proposition attains the status of ‘theory’ following an extended period of scientific study it is never considered proven beyond doubt. Critical thinking and scientific enquiry should be applied with a theory just as with a hypothesis.

THE REALITY OF SPORTS SCIENCE RESEARCH…

We should acknowledge here that in reality there are a variety of agendas at play which drive research output and influence the selection of topics for scientific investigation in sports science and sports medicine. Advancing knowledge or striving for scientific discovery for its own sake tend to be lost amidst these more pressing concerns for career academics.

In the dog eat dog world of academia, young researchers (and those who are not so young) are often seeking the latest hot topic that will make their name. Most often researchers have a vested interest in the success of the research proposal. In this way the proposition becomes inextricably linked with the researcher’s own advancement. In turn, promoting the idea becomes a vehicle for promoting themselves, particularly in the social media era.

Clearly these agendas have nothing to do with scientific discovery. Indeed they are in fact contrary to it. Such agendas foster an unhealthy attachment to our proposition, and inevitably impacts how we behave towards others in the field.

Against this backdrop, from the outset of the life of a hypothesis we see that scientific method too often soon deviates from the accepted process of critical enquiry. Instead of actually testing the hypothesis (i.e. trying to disprove it), there is a strong motivation to rather seek to generate evidence to support it. So eager are we to find support for our proposition that the temptation is to rig the conditions of the experiment to give ourselves every chance of a positive finding. Clearly this is a violation of the whole premise of critical enquiry and scientific process.

QUESTIONING AND DISAGREEMENT…

@@Unhealthy attachment to a hypothetical model or view of the world is one of the biggest barriers to discovery and learning@@. As we have spoken about, the level of attachment is likely to be all the more strong if we feel ownership of the idea. When it is ‘our idea’, or our stated position, this becomes entangled with our ego. As such, we are more likely to take challenges personally. This also raises the stakes as there are consequences if we are deemed to be ‘wrong’.

So attached these best guesses or proposed solutions too often we abandon any commitment to exploring the question. Rather than questioning, we fall into the mode of defending our position and our proposition. Worse still too often we see prominent researchers who aggressively seek to shut down dissent and attack those who have the temerity to disagree or to question.

@@There is no monopoly on knowledge@@. No theory however well established is sacrosanct. Nobody should be considered, or consider themselves, above having their findings or propositions questioned.

There is no authority who decides what is a good idea
— Richard Feynman

By extension, no theory however well established is sacrosanct. As we have spoken about, a key tenet of science is that nothing is ever proven. Hypotheses and theories must remain subject to questioning and critical scientific investigation. Even once the basic premise has been stress tested via experimentation, we should continue to actively explore and establish conditions and populations for which the proposition does not hold true.

FALSE PROPHETS…

Given the uncertainty and precarious nature of scientific ‘knowledge’, it is startling the over-confidence and absolute certainty that is projected by proponents of a particular school of thought on a topic in sports science and sports medicine.

We increasingly find prominent figures and research groups presenting themselves as an authority, or worse still the sole rightful authority on a particular area of study. In the most extreme cases, individuals are claiming ownership of an aspect of training, a type of injury, or even a whole body part or muscle group (‘The Glute Guy’).

Sadly we must accept some responsibility for this, as we are somewhat complicit. A false prophet is nothing without followers. We want to believe. So unnerved are we by the notion of uncertainty that we embrace self-proclaimed authorities for the artificial and quite false sense of certainty this gives us. We are comforted by the illusion that somebody knows and has the answers.

A revelation: nobody has it all figured out. Those who project such a ridiculous notion of themselves are either deluded or ignorant (perhaps both).

There is of course still room for pioneers. However the real value of pioneers has always been that they see the world differently. Bringing a different perspective or viewing the same problem in a different way opens up a host of new potential solutions to others. The crucial point is that nobody has ownership over an idea or field of scientific enquiry.

BACK TO REALITY…

Sports science is one of the youngest and least evolved of all the sciences. Moreover, it is also one of the least exact. A feature of biological systems is inherent variability, including variation both between and within populations. There are no absolutes. When dealing with sentient humans particularly, there are also a host of confounding factors.

Everything is inexact. Always it is dependent on context. What we see will depend on the population involved, and further on where the individual sits on the spectrum within that population.

Let us return to a fundamental point that we opened the chapter with: sports science and sports medicine exist to inform practice. This critical realisation has become lost on many within academic circles. If the way in which research is conducted is at odds with valid scientific enquiry, or the behaviour of the individuals involved does not serve this higher aim, those responsible should be called out and held to account for their offences.

Returning to Einstein’s notion that ego has an inverse relationship with knowledge, if we have knowledge, but are not able to separate our ego from this knowledge then we are ultimately ignorant.

From the learners’ viewpoint, we should not unquestioningly accept anything that is written or presented to us. Equally neither should we refuse to entertain others’ positions and dismiss them out of hand. There is a third way, and this involves honing our capacity for critical thinking, as we have explored previously.