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Hey Look, Scientists are Human, Too!

Posted by on Mar 31, 2011 | 11 Comments

This page was referred to me by my friend Tuck, one of the contributors to BF Ted’s Huarache Google Group.  It is an exchange between Dr. Steve Robbins and Dr. Dan Lieberman.  Here’s the link:

Note Robbins posted this on his site.

In case you’re not up for reading all of it, this is the gist.

Robbins has some questions about Lieberman’s Nature study.  Lieberman answers.  Robbins asks for clarification.  Lieberman provides it.  Robbins then tosses out criticisms.  Lieberman responds.  This is repeated several times.  Finally Lieberman issues, a “quit being a bitch and either put up or shut up” statement to Robbins.

This exchange reminded me of why I decided against becoming an experimental psychologist.  As much as we like to put our faith in the sanctity of the scientific method, we will never get past science’s greatest limitation- it’s conducted by humans.  Researchers are people just like you and me.  They walk their dogs.  They eat burritos.  They are insecure narcissists.  Just like the rest of us.

The way I see it, Lieberman’s research has flaws which he openly discusses.  In my conversations with him, he was very honest about this.  I think he was very honest with Robbins, too.  Despite this, Robbins continued to nit-pick about details that are debatable.  I definitely got the sense there was a deeper issue at play in the email exchanges.  This wasn’t about science.  This was about ego.  I think Robbins comes off as a defensive, whiny, ass, whereas Lieberman comes off as a reasonable, objective scientist.  This is why I’m a little shocked Robbins posted it on his site.

Back in my pre-teaching days, I had the opportunity to be involved in some research as an assistant.  I was shocked to see the fragility of the scientists.  One in particular had been on an obsessive quest to disprove a particular theory.  Why?  It had nothing to do with advancing science.  The obsessed researcher overheard the theorist make a disparaging comment about the researcher’s pants at a conference several years earlier.  This researcher dedicated years of manic, anger-fueled research because of an offhand insult about an article of clothing.   That’s fucked up.

It was at that time that I realized scientists are human, too.  The research we place on a pedestal may not be as pure as we would like to believe.  Honestly, the email exchange changes the way I view Robbins’ previous research.  The very fact that he published this on his website is bush league science.  I’m glad he included the last email for Lieberman.  To the best of my knowledge, Robbins’ rebuttal was never published in Nature.  That’s telling.

Sometimes we get a little too focused on our work.  Sometimes we get WAY too focused on our work.  It’s great to have beliefs, but don’t let them become obsessions.  If they do, don’t post them on the interwebs.  Above all, don’t take yourself too seriously.


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  1. Nathan Matthews
    April 1, 2011

    At the top of Dr. Robbins’ web site there is this line, “The modern running shoe was based on the biomechanists model of the human foot as an inherently fragile object-needing protection through shock absorbent packaging.”

    Where did this idea come from that the modern running shoe was a response to the belief that the human foot is fragile? I don’t believe this was the case at all. I believe this became the idea after about 10-20 years of modern shoe development, but the original idea for a cushioned heel was to increase stride length – to change running form from what was the norm. The norm was forefoot landing stride either barefoot or in what amounts to ballet slippers. My grandfather where slipper type running shoes and could run a 4 minute mile according to my Dad.

    Running coaches came up with the idea of a cushioned heel and sticking the leg out further from the center of gravity to increase stride length – if they could maintain their runners’ stride rate – the result would be a faster runner. In elite runners this can work, which is why you still see elite marathon runners heel striking. They are heel striking at the expense of their joints in later life in order to win races when they are relatively young. They may not be aware that this is the trade off, but it is.

    The problem has come that everybody and their dog started “jogging” with these cushioned shoes and started buying shoes with more and more cushion each year (shoe companies increased the cushion in each years model in response to the sales of the previous years model cushioned shoes.)

    Only after this happened did the foot become fragile and need protection – and thusly came about the arch support in shoes and orthotics etc.

  2. ZoeB
    March 31, 2011

    Wait; I’m confused. Is this guy pro barefoot or not? he comes off as a MBT-salesman, but then he has lots of pictures of bare feet all over the site… Sketchy.

    • Andy
      April 1, 2011

      He is pro-barefoot. He is of the opinion that the tactile sensation of the bare foot is an essential component of evolved human locomotion – and he’s been a pioneer of detailed research in the arena. So when Vibram pops up promising all of the benefits of barefoot while covering them in rubber and sponsors Lieberman’s work, it’s easy to see how he has a rather strong reaction.

      • Barefoot Josh
        April 2, 2011

        Still haven’t read the exchange (now I think I won’t just on “principle”), but based on your comment I’m now on Dr. Robbin’s side. Just in case anyone was keeping score.

  3. Allan
    March 31, 2011

    Robbins comes off as a dbag. He’s totally hung up on the idea that somehow Lieberman was promoting Vibram five fingers and that his study showed the VFFs reduced impact forces despite the fact that Lieberman has repeatedly stated over and over and over again, including in the original article, that it has nothing to do with any particular shoe and is only due to the running mechanics and the foot strike. In fact, the whole point of the article is that the results can be reproduced in a shod runner using the same foot strike. Yet Robbins persists that Lieberman was promoting VFFs and seems like he won’t be content unless he admits to something that he never did and in fact went to great lengths to avoid.

    The same things with his straw man assertion that Lieberman somehow claimed that man evolved running in minimalist shoes. That is NOT what Lieberman said. He said they EITHER evolved running barefoot OR in some kind of minimalist footwear such as a sandal or moccasin. And he clarified that in his response to Robbins along with the fact that such footwear would not be well preserved in the archaeological record so we aren’t likely to know.

    Not sure what axe Robbins is trying to grind, but he’s rather unsuccessful.

  4. Jen
    March 31, 2011

    Hey, just for the record — most research scientist aren’t ego maniacs!!

    I agree that it was surprising to see this posted on Robbins’ website. It definitely makes him look like a jerk and undermines his credibility as a scientist.

    • Jason
      March 31, 2011

      Jen- clarification: I was inferring all humans (at least us North Americans) are ego maniacs, and research scientists aren’t immune to this. This is one variable that skews research.

      Robbins should get back in the research game and replicates Lieberman’s research. Alternatively, I would settle for a fist fight. 🙂

  5. Andy
    March 31, 2011

    Not to defend Robbins in his exchange with Lieberman, but I think you guys need to read about his work before making snap judgments…

    @Josh – You’re not understanding the debate correctly. Robbins is pro-barefoot, extraordinarily so. Read his website, he’s done quite a lot of interesting work. His problem with Lieberman mostly hinges on the inclusion of “minimal footwear” into the analysis. I think he starts off with a couple good points, but gets carried away with himself.

    @Colt – Just because there are people who run in mukluks doesn’t mean that he’s ignorant or wrong. His point is that they are a tradeoff – i.e. that they impair running ability in exchange for insulation necessitated by the climate.

    • Barefoot Josh
      March 31, 2011

      Oops, you’re right. Sometimes I’m a dumbass.

      Still, I like the quote. I’m sure I’ll find cause to use it in the future.

  6. Colt
    March 31, 2011

    In his last e-mail, Robbins makes a point of saying that mukluks were a hindrance to running. I guess he’s never watched Six Versus the World, which depicts in one episode a traditional race held by the natives of Kamchatka, Russia. They run for ten miles in the deep snow wearing boots very similar to mukluks.

    He should really pay more attention to such things.

  7. Barefoot Josh
    March 31, 2011

    “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

    – John Kenneth Galbraith

    If I’m understanding the debate correctly, Robbins is defending his hypothesis of why running barefoot shouldn’t work hypothetically. Lieberman is defending his hypothesis of why running barefoot works in reality. Robbins must be very frustrated that runners like us exist. Stupid reality, always getting in the way.