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The Wisdom of Idiots

Now THAT is a blog title. Of course, it’s not my work, it’s a term to describe collectivism which is in fact the colossal bee in my bonnet of late, and since you’re too bored to do anything else, now it’ll be the bee in your bonnet for the next few minutes. In the course of this post, expect to ask yourself “what does this have to do with training?” at least 15 times. I’ll explain later.

Ever hear of Jaron Larnier? Maybe, maybe not. You have definitely heard of one of the terms he is said to have coined; “Virtual Reality”. While he’s not famous, he is one of the leading thinkers on the subject of our technological future, and as such, the culture of the future (assuming the Taliban, Christian Fundamentalists and Sinn Féin don’t get elected). I’m also 90% certain that he was the inspiration behind the character on The Fast Show who experimented with, among other things, the taste of bull’s urine. Lanier, being a smart man, has written and considered extensively the onset of digital collectivism, the most prominent example being the Wikipedia. Now love or hate Wikipedia, you must also recognise it’s inherent flaws, that literally everyone can post on it, turning their opinion on whatever tickles their fancy into fact. Lanier isn’t so much concerned with people’s misrepresentations or attempts to win bets (my friend used to alter Wiki entries to win arguments and, occasionally, money), rather he is concerned that collective intelligence is a race to mediocrity. In other words, that the more people who contribute, the more average and faceless the site becomes. If Wikipedia listed the author of the entry for Nigeria as someone called “John Smith”, I would categorically be able to say the following: 1) John Smith wrote that article, 2) John Smith sounds a bit like a western white man to me, 3) What’s Smithy doing writing about a country he’s probably only ever visited? This article may well be inaccurate. That’s not to say that if the name was more African sounding that we would believe the article more, but that someone would have ownership (be they my Nigerian mate Moses or Mr. Smith) and that we would be able to identify a person, a questionable, fallible person, behind the entry.

In any case when was the last time that a committee of average people produced anything worth knowing or doing? If you’ve ever worked in a large company, think back to the last large meeting (in my old job they had the cuddly term “village meeting”) you were at and then imagine those same people now coming to a consensus on how to come up with an accurate description of the Holocaust, or of tapeworms, or of a washing machine. When everybody has to be considered, you end up with nothing worthwhile. It’s now becoming the same with almost every type of information, from how to best bake a loaf of bread to how to repair a 1979 Ford Capri (that one is becoming of increasing interest to myself). Look behind every significant invention and you’ll find either an innovator or a small group of big brains. Have you ever seen a book you’d want to read that was committee written? Can you imagine Heart of Darkness written by Wiki? Can you imagine Goodfellas made by popular consensus?

Well now I come to my point, and by the way I’m aware of the irony of making a contribution to this collective via the blogosphere, which Lanier also has some stern words for regarding it’s impact on professional writers, words I agree with. It is of course, training related. I was having a chat to Tom who trains with me and reads this blog. Hi Tom. Firstly, he seemed to think the rant at the end of my last entry was aimed in some way at him (it wasn’t), secondly, we were chatting about what the internet says about training. We specifically talked about people following template programmes like 5X5, or Starting Strength, both of which are pretty good programmes, but not for everyone. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the internet can be wrong, and wrong quite often. The real difficulty is that not only can it be wrong, it can become wrong so often that eventually it becomes right. As long as enough people say the same thing often enough, no matter how incorrect that thing is, then expert opinion can be drowned out in favour of what the masses say, and say loudest.

A short but significant example is squatting. Squatting is good, I like squatting. But lately if you live near a broadband connection, squatting has become Squatting. (note the capitalisation) It has developed into an anthropomorphic being who is spoken of in almost reverential terms, one for whom you must chastise the wrongdoers who don’t Squat. There may be other punishments for non-Squatters or those who bicep curl (nothing wrong with that assistance exercise too but that’s another day’s blogging) but if there is I haven’t yet heard them. There are also hardcore worshippers who are ATG squatters (that’s ass to ground). These people in turn mock the regular Squatters as though they were A la Carte Squatting worshippers, picking only what they want from the Squatting bible! Now anyone who knows about training knows that as core lifts go, squats are great, but only really on a par with all the other great lifts that make you strong like presses, deadlifts, cleans, pull ups and benching. So how did squatting become Squatting? I usually blame t-nation but I’m sure it’s beyond that. My most plausible explanation is this. Perhaps one day an expert, in an effort to sell some copies of his book/DVD/website, writes what he sees as a relatively harmless article on the benefits of squatting. He clicks Publish and walks away, waiting on the site hits to go up and the dollars to roll in. Instead, his article gathers steam and soon, people forget the message of the original and before you know it, the message is lost and “Teh Squatting” is born.

Now I don’t consider myself an expert, I’m not THAT arrogant. What I will admit to is considering myself well informed, and always willing to remain informed, but from the right sources. Everything worth knowing is informed by strong opinion, forged by real experience. If I had one piece of advice for anyone looking to do anything fitness related
it would be to go and find one person, a real person, and to get them to train you. If you don’t, and you rely on the collective knowledge of internet consensus, I think you’re on a hiding to nothing.


7 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Idiots

  1. Barry,This is by far and away your best blog entry. Now i know thats not saying much but its actually a good argument. For the record allow me to categorically state that i love squatting/Squatting. At the start of the year i set myself a goal of a double bodyweight squat, simply there is primeval pleasure that i associate with putting >200 kgs on a bar and squatting it.Your argument the other night about box squats instead of full squats made perfect sense.

    Posted by Tom D | May 17, 2009, 9:02 pm
  2. I think now that I have this first unashamedly pompous post out of the way I’ll keep the blog high brow.I think goals are great and all but I also think that some people chase them at the expense of their knees.

    Posted by Barry Oglesby | May 18, 2009, 3:09 pm
  3. You’ve been spending too much time on boards haven’t you? That stuff will rot your brain…of all the completely moronic fitness forums I’ve seen that one takes the cake. Never argue with an idiots. They drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience…and on that forum…there are a LOT of people with a wealth of experience.

    Posted by Will | May 18, 2009, 11:01 pm
  4. Hey Barry,I only just discovered your blog. Not sure why it’s taken me this long to realize that you had one. Anyway, I’ve tucked it away in my RSS reader :)Cheers!

    Posted by kira | May 19, 2009, 2:18 am
  5. Nice article Barry. Question for Will – what exactly is wrong with the Boards fitness forum?! I’m just interested!

    Posted by Anonymous | May 20, 2009, 10:19 am
  6. Hey, Will has his own blog, his head is big enough from that so don’t ask him questions here.

    Posted by Barry Oglesby | May 20, 2009, 12:51 pm
  7. Tell you what, if I have the time and inclination I’ll post about what is wrong with fora. Not just boards but everywhere.

    Posted by Barry Oglesby | May 21, 2009, 2:52 pm

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