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An Unconventional View of Conventional Wisdom

Sometimes things get said without much substance and then these things become conventional wisdom that we all go along with even though the reasoning may be flawed in the first place.

Even when misguided actions are pointed out to people they often do not or cannot hear what is being said because they are doing something that "everyone" knows is right because it is "conventional wisdom".  Examples of conventional wisdom that should be challenged abound and here I will touch on a few of them and why it may be so difficult to adapt to new knowledge.

It has long been a commonly held belief that it is beneficial to strengthen the abdominal muscles in order to "protect" the back.  Many people with back pain are prescribed exercises that make these muscles stronger and remain contracted.  In the ABM community we have always considered this to be a flawed approach because any muscle that is constantly contracted will inhibit movement and will cause other muscles to work harder.

Now others are beginning to reach similar conclusions.  A recent article in the New York Times draws from the British Journal of Sports Medicine and some work at the University of Waterloo in Canada.  The article states that abdominal strengthening can actually damage your back because of the stress placed on the spine.

Stretching is another widely held belief that is now being more widely challenged.  Another article in the New York Times explains how some stretching actually weakens and damages muscles.

Another myth concerns lactic acid and exercise.  The idea that lactic acid is the cause of muscle soreness following exercise was based on a few experiments carried out on the dissected muscles of frogs around a hundred years ago.  This notion was disproved in the 1970's but the belief still persists amongst many "experts" on exercise.

With a little bit of research you can also find evidence to suggest that our ideas about the amount of water we should drink, the vitamins we take, and even breastfeeding may be incorrect.

If ideas are wrong why do we persist in believing them and continuing the same action?  The reason may be that, after we have heard something a number of times, it becomes a part of our belief system, or to put it differently, it becomes a part of the frame through which we assess a situation and act.  Berkeley professor George Lakoff describes these frameworks as "mental structures that shape how we view the world".  Lakoff also says "Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact.  We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain.  Otherwise, facts go in and then they go right back out.  They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that?  Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid."

When someone tells you that something like "your child will not be able to _______ (fill in the blank)" or that "your knee/back/neck will never regain healthy function" what they really should be saying is "I don't know how to help your child _______", or "I don't know how to help you regain healthy function of your knee/back/neck".

I don't know the dictionary definition of "impossible" but it should be "an action that would require that the laws of thermodynamics are not adhered to".  In other words something that breaks the laws of physics is impossible but otherwise it might be that what we consider impossible is just something that we haven't figured out yet.

My point with this article is not to criticize the things that people do to be well, and to help others be well.  My point is that before wholeheartedly taking on an idea and making it a part of your belief system (and therefore difficult to change), you should gather as much information from as many sources as you can to make an informed decision.  Even then you should stay open to any evidence that might arrive to challenge the idea.

Bring this inquisitiveness to any situation and you will find that there are probably more options for progress than you thought.  When something is considered to be conventional wisdom there is even more reason to check the facts before deciding that the final conclusion has been reached.