Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

What I Research and Why I'm Doing It

The title of my Masters dissertation was "Do you even lift, bro? Constructing and negotiating authority and expertise in online fitness and nutrition communities". My PhD is jumping off from there, and I wanted to write something explaining what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

When I started work on my PhD, I knew that I wanted to look at how people decide what to believe on the internet. I've spent the vast majority of my life as a regular internet user, and I've personally often had to confront the challenges presented by the overwhelmingly large quantity of information (and its often questionable quality and provenance). What I didn't know when I started was how I could go about studying this. How do people decide what to believe? It's just such an insurmountably large topic.

Then the question became, "how do I limit this?" I needed to find a community that (a) was public enough that access wouldn't be a massive issue (and nor would the ethics of reading people's posts); (b) was large enough that it had a decent amount of material, but small enough that I would be able to keep up; (c) was in some kind of field where knowledge and expertise were strongly contested, because if there was just one totally dominant understanding of a subject then it wouldn't be much of a case study in the negotiation of authority; (d) I had a reasonable amount of prior knowledge of; and (e) I wouldn't die of boredom if I had to study for three years.

For reasons outlined in another post, nutrition and fitness have been something of a pet interest of mine since I was around 18. This meant not only would I be unlikely to get bored of reading forums where people talked about their TDEEs, their NSVs and their PPLs; but also that I have a decent working knowledge of the kinds of communities that exist and the cultures and rhetoric they contain. I wouldn't have to familiarise myself with an entirely new jargon, and nor would I have to start from scratch in learning and understanding the scientific evidence and commonly accepted wisdoms of the communities I was looking at.

Moreover, nutrition and fitness are both expansive and highly contested fields. Fundamentally, there exists no consensus on (a) what we ought to aim for with respect to our bodies, either aesthetically or physiologically; or (b) even amongst those who share a common goal, how they ought to go about achieving it. This is for a number of reasons.

  1. The studies of diet and exercise are reasonably young fields, meaning that whilst there has been a large amount of research performed, it has not always been of the highest quality and there have been relatively few longitudinal studies which enable us to understand the long-term effects of adhering to particular lifestyles.
  2. Nutrition in particular is incredibly difficult to study through the medium of double-blind controlled trials, the "gold standard" of clinical medical studies which enables us to understand the effect of changing one variable in isolation.
    1. This is because it's very difficult to blind people to the kinds of food they are consuming, unless you're willing to put them all on a diet of Soylent or Huel for the foreseeable future.
    2. In addition, the effects of diet and nutrition often only show themselves over long time periods, meaning that in order to get meaningful results you'd have to perform extremely costly trials which would be almost impossible to get people to adhere to for the length of time required.
    3. You can only change one variable at a time. This means that in order to study the effect of, say, a change in the ratio of saturated to monounsaturated fats in the diet, you'd have to be willing to perform a large number of trials, in part because the particular type of monounsaturated or saturated fat also matters. You'd then have to repeat this for every other nutrient you could think of, and then you'd need to do so with combinations of nutrients, because this can affect the way in which they are metabolised (see, for example, antinutrient lectins or just the putative effects of caffeine on the absorption of creatine monohydrate).
  3. Financial interests in fitness and nutrition are enormous. The weight-loss industry alone is worth, by some estimates, ~$600bn. There's a burgeoning industry of personal trainers, fitness and lifestyle gurus, and supplement providers who want to help people get fit and stay fit; likewise, there's an enormous amount of money to be made from "super-foods", diet books, recipe books and the like. This means that a lot of the research in these fields is influenced (some would say tainted) by commercial interests.*
  4. Our diet and lifestyle are deeply personal topics, which means that just on face it's highly unlikely that people are going to be driven towards one diet or another purely by rational choice. This means that even if there were a wealth of evidence driving us towards one conclusion, it is unlikely that everyone would reach that conclusion because there are large epistemic barriers in the way. Much research suggests that when people are presented with evidence that conflicts with their worldview, they are more likely to question the validity or relevance of the evidence than they are to question their views. (A recent example: the photos of crowd sizes at Barack Obama's and Donald Trump's inaugurations, and the way that Trump supporters often denied that the obviously larger crowd actually was larger).
  5. There just isn't enough evidence to push us towards one conclusion or another. People in different nutritional camps will interpret the same evidence in different ways. For example, the failure of individuals on low-fat diets to lose weight is interpreted by people who believe in the "calories in/calories out" philosophy as evidence that those individuals either lied or were mistaken about their consumption, exercise or their calculations of their caloric needs. In contrast, low-carb adherents would argue that they didn't lose weight because low-fat diets don't work, carbs are intrinsically fattening, and the number of calories we consume or expend is secondary to the type of calories.

All of this means that, in the fields of nutrition and fitness, our decision to believe in government advice, or paleo, or keto, or low-carb, or the benefits of a raw vegan diet, is effectively decided by who we believe, rather than some logical chain of evidence driving us towards one conclusion or another.** This is important, because it means that we can look at a community which discusses these topics and look at who is believed, what they say and how they say it. I've long thought that the reason we decide to believe one person over another, particularly in domains with technical language or esoteric knowledge, is more to do with the people than the evidence. 

I settled on using a Reddit forum in part because it's the format I'm most used to, and because they're some of the more popular communities out there. But it's also public, and that's important because it assuages a whole raft of ethical issues with researching internet communities to do with presumed privacy and identifiability (I'll be looking at ethics quite in depth in future posts). Moreover, archives are available and all posts are archived after 6 months, which means you can get an interesting snapshot of what a community looked like at a particular time just by digging through. That means that you can see how certain concepts become generally accepted, rejected, entrenched and contested over time. Users also post on a number of different subreddits, which means that you can track people's activity in multiple different places and see to what degree there's cross-participation, which you just can't do with traditional bulletin board forums.

Initially I considered /r/keto, a subreddit dedicated to the ketogenic diet, as a site of research. The problem was that whilst it had quite a lot of subscribers, there weren't a huge number of posts. In addition there wasn't really the fitness aspect I wanted, as keto tends to be used as a means of weight loss, rather than as part of a fitness lifestyle.***

I settled on /r/paleo, the subreddit dedicated to "ancestral-style" diets, for a few reasons. It's a reasonably large, active forum, which means I should be able to follow and participate in it for a decent period of time. It's also small enough to be manageable - there are typically only 5 or so posts per day. More importantly, paleo is a really interesting site of a number of different discussions. The idea of "evolutionary nutrition" - that we evolved to eat a particular set of foods, and that we ought to get as close to consuming those foods as possible if we are to stay healthy - is fascinating, and the ways that people deal with the problems presented by modernity when it comes to trying to eat paleo are complex and nuanced. Paleo also seems to be quite a welcoming community, and one in which there are a plethora of different views and takes on the concept which people are happy to discuss at length. It's also filled with people who really know their stuff, and there's a lot of nutritional research which underpins and is utilised by paleo adherents. I'll be discussing paleo at length in future posts, but essentially it's a rich set of discourses which I think are under-examined and merit further attention. I'll explain exactly how I'm going about my research in future posts.

That, then, is how I came to study what I'm studying. I'll be working on /r/paleo for the next couple of years, and I'm really excited about it. I'm nervous about joining the community, but I'm hoping that its members and users will be open to talking about their beliefs, how they came to hold them, and why they decided to follow the diet they do. Fingers crossed.


*This is one of the reasons that these fields are so interesting. One of the things I've already noticed over the course of my research is that accusations of vested interests or the potential for financial gain are a key weapon in individuals' discursive arsenals. They're used to invalidate the arguments or advice of people, companies or institutions, and the claim that "I have nothing to gain from this" is a powerful way of persuading people of the sincerity (and potentially also the validity) of one's advice.

**Of course, we might also just be exposed to a limited range of evidence. This is likely the case for a large number of people who have never explored or thought about their diet, but I'd contend it's unlikely for the kind of person who frequents forums about nutrition and exercise.

***There are exceptions to this, including the group Ketogains on Facebook (and the /r/ketogains subreddit), which cater to people who want to build muscle or strength whilst on a keto diet (no mean feat).

Thoughts on Paleo: Evolutionary Nutrition and Falsification

Where My Diet's At (and Why it Matters for my Research)