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The Importance of Ethos: Or Who You Should Trust

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We don't form our own opinions, and that's okay.

In a recent article, I talked about redefining broscience, shifting its meaning from a nebulous cop-out to something concrete. To me, good broscience has many of the same elements as science, specifically, understanding and implementing The Scientific Method.

And while I fully stand by that way to process the world, abiding by science simply IS NOT possible to consolidate all of our ideas.

While I try to apply the Scientific Method to my thinking, I can’t do that in all areas. 

A few weeks ago I re-listened to an episode of the The Tim Ferriss Show with Dr. Dom D’Agostino, one of the leading researchers on ketogenic dieting and fasting.

In the episode, Dom talks about the latest research regarding ketogenic dieting and fasting and its potential benefits for health, longevity, and even as treatment for many cancers.

I came away from the episode with my mind expanded about the potential benefits of a keto diet.

A day later I saw a Facebook ad with the headline, “The Ketogenic Diet is bullshit” followed by a ranting response from a fitness coach.

Now, I’m not evaluating the efficacy of the ketogenic diet here. I’m simply saying that, without doing any primary research myself, I could still form an educated opinion. And based on these two sources, I concluded that the ketogenic diet, while not for everybody, is definitely not bullshit and probably very beneficial in certain circumstances, which was my main takeaway from the podcast.

How did I decide that Dr. D’Agostino’s input was more credible than some bro on Facebook? And why couldn’t I just go into the research on the ketogenic diet myself for the answer?

The answer to the first question we’ll get to, but the answer to the second question is a reality of being a human:

I Don’t Have The Time (or Energy) to Research Everything.

I’m guessing you don’t either. 

There aren’t enough hours in the day to go to primary sources for everything, to read through the scientific research and make your own conclusions. From what your rep scheme for squats should be, to what foods you should buy at the store, to any decision outside of areas you actually research and are well-versed in, we have to rely on other people—secondary sources—for guidance.

We need to defer to other people, other “experts” in all of those fields to effectively make those decisions for us

I’m more than happy to let Dr. D’Agostino decide for me whether the ketogenic diet is effective as a cancer treatment. I’m just not going to read through all the research.

Why And How Did I Decide to Trust Dr. D’Agostino? Ethos.

Ethos is the Greek word for character. In rhetoric, someone with a strong ethos is someone you can trust. The stronger the ethos, the more you trust them.

Another modern-day word for ethos is credibility

I trust Dom to help form my opinions on the ketogenic diet. I trust John to understand storytelling. I trust Tim on the latest findings on psychedelics. To me, these people have a strong ethos for these fields. 

Since you’re here reading on Roman Fitness Systems, you trust that I know a thing or two about working out and eating well and whatnot.

And, instead of reading the scientific journals and getting years of practical experience to know what you need to do to eat healthy and workout intelligently, you just read RFS articles.

Because that’s a lot less time-consuming (and more fun).

We Often Base Our Decisions And Beliefs Based On What The People We Trust Believe.

Often, where I thought I formed opinions and made decisions based on evidence, more often based them on the opinions of who I trusted.

While we have misconceptions about the uniqueness of our thoughts and opinions, in reality, we DECIDE WHO WE SHOULD TRUST and defer to their judgment.

No, there’s nothing wrong with this. You have to in order to live life and become reasonably intelligent in all basic things. This is just how life is.

In nearly all areas of life, we’re not doing independent research, we’re deciding who we can best trust to synthesize swaths of information.

You don’t need to be a trainer to workout, a chef to cook, or nutritionist to eat healthy.

Without this reality, we’d be constantly paralyzed by complex, conflicting information, when really we just need someone to tell us to do split squats instead of back squats today.

And it’s all thanks to ETHOS — to trusting the credibility of experts to guide us in our decision making.

While I believe one of the most important aspects of sound thinking and decision making comes from understanding the Scientific Method, I believe another key lies in our ability to judge who we should trust, whose ethos holds up and whose doesn’t.

And here’s where we can all go wrong: Often we don’t consciously think about WHO to trust to guide our decisions.

Maybe we defer to the loudest voice in the room, or the one who comes off with the most confidence, or whose opinions enter our Twitter and Instagram feed most frequently.

With all these means, we’re subconsciously assigning ethos, or credibility, to those individuals.

In order for us to make the best decisions we can, we need to break down why somebody seems trustworthy or untrustworthy. We’ll need to see through certain elements and hunt out others so we know who we can trust.

Let’s take an example where I have no expertise whatsoever: climate change. 

I believe climate change is real. And I believe it’s caused by humans.

Am I a climate scientist? Of course not. Do I understand the intricacies of how climate scientists know that the earth is warming and that it’s a big problem? No, of course not.

I have read a few articles in scientific journals about it, but not enough to really say with confidence that I understand from the compilation of evidence.

So why do I have a strong opinion about it?

Because nearly the entire scientific community agrees that the earth is warming and that it’s caused by humans (1).

I have placed my faith into the climate scientists — I’ve decided that they’re the ones I should trust on this issue.

Why have I done that? Why have I determined that their opinion is one I should trust? What makes the ethos climate scientists strong when it comes to discussing climate change? What makes Dom’s ethos credible for the latest fasting and ketogenic diet info?

The Keys to Ethos, Or Knowing Who to Trust

Ethos Key #1: What Are Their Self-Interests and Biases?

This, I think, should be the first thing you examine to determine someone’s credibility. If it’s in someone’s best interest to hold a certain opinion, then, naturally, they’re likely to be biased towards that opinion. The classic example here is a salesperson. They, obviously, want to sell you their product, so when we talk to them we take this into account. That Facebook ad, for example, was trying to sell me some other dieting program. I don’t object to selling, of course. We sell plenty of programs here. But I also recognize my inherent bias towards our programs.

Now, if a colleague I trust in the fitness industry came to me raving about the same diet program, I’m more likely to want to learn more. Because it’s not their program, and it doesn’t matter if it sells or not to them. 

Politicians that berate against climate change often receive donations from big corporations who don’t want to take action on climate change because it would hurt their business (this is obviously a huge problem). But it puts the politicians in a situation where it hurts them to fight climate change. 

Scientists, while they can become compromised or invested in certain outcomes, generally don’t have a conflict of interest. Because researchers are often paid by universities or other donations, the outcome of the research doesn’t affect them financially. And often, you’ll see at the end of research papers that there was “no conflict of interest.”

Of course, this isn’t perfect. But, their attempts to avert biases are part of what makes scientists’ ethos strong.

So, anytime you’re unsure whether to trust somebody on a certain topic, first look at their interests and how that could lead to bias in their opinion. 

Ethos Key #2: What’s Their Evidence?

It’s not enough for them to be unbiased. What evidence do they actually have for that evidence? Dr. D’Agostino can cite a multitude of research from many different places when discussing his area of expertise. As can climate scientists.

They should be able to explain what the evidence says and how they interpret it.

Ethos Key #3: What’s Their Process For Finding And Sorting Through That Evidence?

Imagine a scenario where somebody is steadfast in a certain belief. They’ve been researching it for weeks. They’re convinced, for example, that the ketogenic diet only leads to problems. So they google “problems with the ketogenic diet” and come across even MORE evidence against a ketogenic diet.

This person has fallen prey to confirmation bias. They only looked for evidence that supported what they believed, without even considering the other side.

In the internet age, all the research ever done is available at our fingertips. This means you can almost always find research to support your view, regardless of your viewpoint.

A credible secondary source not only understands this but embraces it. They look at all the evidence and weigh it appropriately.

Those are the attributes you should look for in a credible person to trust.

Other Ethos Considerations

Sound Logic

Does what they’re saying actually make any sense? Does it all check out?

You’d be surprised how often people just commit simple logical fallacies that completely shatter their viewpoints. If you poke holes in this logic, can they back it up? Or at least have some kind of reasonable explanation.

Now, not everything can be explained logically, especially scientific concepts that we don’t fully understand. But if that’s the case, can they say, “I know it doesn’t make sense but this is where the data are pointing.”

Story vs Data

Are you falling prey to a powerful story that might not be true?

Stories are monumentally powerful, and they’ve shaped all of human history. I won’t get too into this, because John talks about this a lot. So, I’ll defer to his ethos on this. But, stories are how we learn best. From the Bible, to literature, to movies, stories enthrall us like nothing else. If you’re sharing a helpful, accurate message with a great story, it will resonate more if the story is well told. 

Like most powerful tools, storytelling can share inaccurate or harmful narratives as well. And if it’s well told, we can be prone to believe it because it even with a lack of (or conflicting) evidence. 

So, anytime you’re moved by a story, go back to the questions above: are there biases, is there evidence, how did they get to that evidence? Come back to this when an anecdotal story draws you in.

While I don’t have evidence for this, I do have an untested theory: this is part of how ridiculous conspiracy theories gain ground. Because they’re intriguing, well-told stories. And even if they’re complete bullshit, they’re easy to believe because they’re provocative stories.

There are many other elements that make outrageous conspiracy theories believable, I read in WIRED that they’re mimicked after alternate reality games, which I suppose is following another type of storytelling, a story where the readers are actually involved in it themselves.

Repeating Catch Phrases/Sound Bites

“Carbs are bad.”

“Squats are king.”

These are a few fitness industry sound bites that take away any room for interpretation, both of these statements have so much complexity and nuance to them.

“The contemporary “sound bite,” writes writing teach Roy Peter Clark, “has been central to the work of propaganda and misinformation.” We live in a world where short phrases can encapsulate entire nuanced issues. These sound bites often don’t leave room for the discussion that almost all topics should get, because the world really isn’t that simple.

When you hear someone repeat a talking point like something a politician repeats over and over, you need to push against this. It’s not that the talking point won’t have any validity, but that it ignores so much of a complex reality.

As soon as you hear something like, “carbs are bad,” that’s something you should push back against and seek clarification on.

Final Thoughts On Ethos

There’s so much more to determine someone’s credibility that this. We haven’t even talked about how to judge someone’s character. But that’s well out of my expertise and therefore you might not want to trust me on that.

But, start with their biases, their evidence, and how they got there and you can start to move through the world with a stronger grasp on reality, even when you can’t sort through all the evidence yourself.

About the Author

David is a writer and strength coach and co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems. In addition to helping run RFS, he's also the head editor for prohockeystrength.com, the official website of the Strength and Conditioning Association of Professional Hockey.

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