Thursday, May 19, 2011

You are NOT a Pap Smear: The Fallacy of "Normal"

It's not normal to eat just once a day.

It is normal to eat a diet based on grains, with bread or cereal at every meal.

It's not normal to exercise five or six times a week, getting your heart rate over 180 each time and soaking through your shirt with sweat.

It is normal to have a few beers with your buddies every weekend.

It's not normal to spend your "free" time poring over nutrition and strength and conditioning books, videos, and blogs.

It is normal to gradually gain body fat as you age.

It's not normal to eat only grass fed beef, wild caught fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

It is normal to get most of your exercise by chasing your kids or playing some sports on the weekend.

It's not normal to turn down birthday cake at parties, beer at sporting events, and bread at nice restaurants.

It is normal to gradually lose muscle mass as you age.

It's not normal to have a cabinet full of powder, pills, and bottles of fish oil you chow through every day.

It is normal to build up a repertoire of drugs to control your blood cholesterol levels, pressure, and sugar levels as you age.

It's not normal to be 40 and able to knock out one arm pushups, one leg squats, handstand pushups, and dead hang chinups at any time.

The word "normal," like many words, is polysemous (has multiple meanings).  Normal can mean typical or average - when we say people "normally" lose muscle as they age, nobody is claiming that it is preferable or ideal to lose muscle, they just mean that it happens to most people.  But in other contexts "normal" can

mean adhering to some norm - some standard of correctness.  Like the result of a Pap smear.  An abnormal Pap smear isn't a good thing.  An abnormality on a CT scan of your brain doesn't make anybody happy - it's not a sign that you're super smart, it means you might have a tumor or a brain injury.  In those cases "normal" confers judgment on its object - to be normal is good; to be abnormal is bad.

A significant problem is that because we think with words, when those words are ambiguous or have multiple meanings our thoughts can become confused.  If we don't keep in mind that the different senses of the word "normal' are unrelated we can get caught up in various fallacies.  We can start to think that since eating bread is normal (in the sense that it is typical, or that most people do it) that it is good (in the sense that a normal Pap smear is good) or acceptable. 

I'm not just talking about uneducated people - the medical profession commits this fallacy all the time.  Ask most physicians about what you should do if you are over 40 and your hormone levels are significantly lower than they were when you were a teenager.  Most will say that your condition is normal - meaning that it is typical of an aging American - therefore they will not treat it.  The same way they wouldn't treat a "normal" Pap smear result - there's nothing to treat.  The problem is that while dropping hormone levels IS typical, it IS NOT good or healthy.  There IS something to treat there - an illness that happens to be shared by the majority of the population is still an illness.

Imagine a 19 year old college athlete went to the doctor and complained that they weren't as athletic, lean, explosive, or able to recover as quickly as they "used" to.  Contrast that with a 45 year old with the exact same litany of complaints.  How do you think their treatment would differ?  I bet the 19 year old would be offered a battery of tests and treatments.  The 45 year old would be told to rest more and take up some less strenuous sports.

It's NOT normal to eschew sugar and grains; to train hard while aging; to seek mastery of a physical discipline while still working a job and supporting a family; to train for extreme performance; to expect the health of a teenager as you pass 30 or 40 or 50.  It's not normal in the sense of being typical or average.  But it's not abnormal either, not in the sense of an abnormal Pap smear. 

Be un-normal.  Embrace it.  Strive to achieve physical goals that leave others shaking their heads; live a lifestyle that makes people think you're a freak. 

And if you doubt yourself - if the thoughts that being abnormal is bad start to creep into your head - go down to the nearest mall, sit near the food court, and take half an hour to watch "normal people" waddle around the tables.  Listen to them wheeze and huff and snort.  Then ask yourself if you really want to be normal after all.



  2. Chuck, I swear I didn't read your post! I'm sorry! Everybody else, go to chuck's link in the comment above - he said the same stuff I said only first and possibly better.

  3. thank you for the credit. guess good minds think alike ;)