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eta week Oct 3

There are things we don’t know that we don’t know | Donald Rumsfeld

Pandemic Conspiracies

Last week I wrote about the Phoenix pandemic club. Which is for those who have been prompted by the pandemic to reimagine and reinvent their work offering.

This week I will continue with the pandemic theme and recommend an article in the Daily Maverick and a movie.

For those who are attracted to conspiracies and have had their suspicions perked up by the Corona virus pandemic or for those who have been negatively affected by the lock down you may want to read this article from Richard Poplak. You can link to:

The movie “Totally under control” is also a recommendation – if you have Apple connectivity.

The Daily Maverick gave this preview of the movie.

Totally Under Control, a new film co-directed by documentarian Alex Gibney, lays bare the insanity at the heart of the Donald Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. By extension, it proves that the modern technocratic state has crumbled under the weight of neoliberal austerity, corruption and partisan warfare. The corollaries with South Africa are as clear as they are terrifying.

Recommended reading

Surviving to Thriving – Mental Toughness (Steve Harris)

Chapter 1. WHY SURVIVING TO THRIVING? (Continued from last week)

There are things we don’t know that we don’t know

Several years ago, I allocated time to networking with the sport and fitness faculty heads of universities and colleges. I felt it was my responsibility as CEO of eta College to build relationships with them, one of which was with the, now, late Professor Paul Avis of the University of the Western Cape.

Paul was particularly interested in my mental toughness ideas. South African rugby engaged me in various capacities, including that of mind coach. Paul had represented South Africa as a senior men’s tennis player, with John McEnroe being one of his opponents.

In a short time, our conversation migrated from the relationship between eta College and the University of the Western Cape to my role in assisting sports people with developing mental toughness.

Paul asked me, “What qualifies you to help others with mental toughness?” I could only offer my personal experience as an answer. He replied, “Mental toughness is a language spoken by many but understood by few. Most people let opinion and conspiracy triumph over facts. However, people, most likely including you, don’t know what they don’t know. What they know usually represents a drop, what they don’t know is an ocean. Now that you know that you don’t know, will you help to shift the boundary between what is known and unknown? Will you get qualified? I am suggesting that you formally study mental toughness, get qualified, and in this way find out some of what you, and in fact we all, don’t know?”

He suggested that I enrol in a PhD programme with a thesis around Mental Toughness, which he offered to supervise. “Your job helping others develop mental toughness obliges you to access the immense knowledge that is unknown, bring valuable insights back and use it to facilitate the development of your community. In bygone days, the sage did that job. Note humans only see and hear a narrow spectrum of light and sound. In the same way, they only perceive a limited spectrum for mental capacity. Therefore, your research will leave you with some questions that can’t be answered but more noteworthy – there are no answers that can’t be questioned.”

No answers that can’t be questioned! That claim has been pivotal in the way I have viewed life ever since this seminal meeting with Avis.

He went on to say that, on one end of the spectrum some people make outrageous statements about the power of mental toughness and on the opposite end others assert there is no such thing. Once I successfully completed my academic programme, I could claim to be an expert on the subject and, with a smile, he alleged that I could justify my views by saying, “Trust me, I’m a doctor.”

Avis explained: “When studying for a PhD, you will discover you have become bad at seeing what you do not like to see because it often contains an inconvenient truth. You will also realize that you love seeing what you agree with, but be aware, it could contain a reassuring lie.”

I graduated in 2008, and now, several years later, I still do not feel like an expert. However, I can claim to have moved on from being a well-informed and experienced amateur to adding an intellectual, deep, and continually emerging understanding of the subject.

Paul claimed that there were many requirements for improved mental toughness. He started with the need for developing a healthy BS detector to identify whether the research methods had been manipulated by corporate greed or personal bias thus rendering the outcomes untrustworthy (Avis, 2004).

I have come across two illuminating books on this subject, both written by Dr Ben Goldacre. They are Bad Science (Goldacre, 2008) and Bad Pharma (Goldacre, 2012). Both books support his claims.

He went on to criticise the claims about untested nutraceuticals. My recollection of this part of the discussion was Avis’ scepticism around the obsessive consumption of supplements and vitamins. He called this category ‘powders, pills and potions’ and suggested there was room for healthy suspicion about substances that claim to improve wellness, and particularly brain function.

He added that nutritional supplements, that are sold without rigorous, unbiased scientific testing, should be subject to closer scrutiny as most people can derive all the nutrients, they need from a healthy eating regime sourced from locally grown foods.  He was extremely critical of factory farming, force-feeding animals, anti-biotics that he felt may be destroying much of the nutritional value and poor soil quality.  He claimed supplements could be used based on the outcome of a thorough needs analysis of individual nutritional needs weighed against eating choices and patterns. It seems he was not directing his skepticism at alternative or new age wisdom; he was aiming his suspicion at the lack of reliable evidence.

He added nutritional advice should be given by a qualified person, like a dietician. “Tragically,” he said ruefully, “even their process is underpinned with misinformation, as the official dietary guidelines these professionals use are still riddled with bias” (Avis, 2004).

He cited increased obesity and lifestyle disease and linked this trend to the food pyramid dietary guideline used by nutrition professionals.

Avis concluded with a concern that poorly researched supplementation could also result in a licensing effect, where the consumer feels justified in indulging in poor nutritional consumption because they have a so-called healthy supplementation regime.

Have you reviewed the science underpinning the supplements you use or advise? Write to us and let us know.


Dr Steve Harris eta College CEO


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