Years ago I read a terrific little book called "How to Lie With Statistics" and I was reminded of it this morning when I got an email with this promise:
As far as we can tell, it's one of the biggest breakthroughs in exercise since the invention of the gym. That’s because…
These bizarre 2-minute “yoga-like” routines have been proven to burn 53% more calories in just ONE SESSION!
...Wait a minute....53% more calories than what?
Inside, it mentions a man "who lost 35 pounds of stubborn fat that personal trainers swore he would never be able to lose." Tip: If you have a personal trainer who says you're 35 pounds overweight but you'll never be able to lose it, fire him or her and get a new one.
By the way, I'm not suggesting that the people behind this promotion are actually lying, I'm sure the exercise routines they are promoting are useful, even though the sales letter refers to them as "miracle" routines and plays the "they don't want you to know" card:
"When the mainstream fitness moguls that advocate long drawn out workouts, pricey supplements and extreme diets catch up with of the information on this page, they'll stop at nothing to get me to take down this page!"
Gosh, I hope he's hired a bodyguard.
I'm not sure why weird and bizarre are considered desirable attributes unless we're supposed to feel we'll be getting something others won't have or won't understand.
After quite a few pages, the sales pitch reveals that the "53% more" refers to workouts that were done the usual way, and then done again a few days later, but this time instead of taking a three-minute rest between each round of exercises, doing these two-minute bizarre miracle exercises.
In other words, by doing an additional six minutes of exercises, the test group burned, on average, 82 additional calories.
Given that you have to burn about 3500 calories to lose a pound, it would take 42.5 sessions to lose one extra pound. Actually it might take only 41 because the more you rev up your system during an exercise session, the more calories you continue to burn for a while afterward.
It also announces that a scientific study of people who did additional exercises like this before doing their usual exercises "Increased Their Overall Oxygen Consumption During Their Workout By 21.4%."
This was published in the presumably prestigious Journal of Sports Sciences, Volume 19, Issue 9, September 2001, pages 693-700. I'm surprised it took seven pages to report that if you add six more minutes to your 25-minute routine you end up burning proportionally more oxygen. Probably it included charts.
At least the sales pitch allows you to get a full refund if you're not happy with the program: "No Questions Asked And We Can Still Be Friends!"
I didn't even know we were friends already. I'm getting a warm feeling.
And there's good news! We're not going to have to pay $1000 (whew!); we're not even going to have to pay $47! For a very limited time, we can save 53% and get it for $19--and no shipping charges! (Because it's all digital).
Why have I gone on at some length about this pitch? Not because it's unusual; quite the opposite. It's because we are getting used to people sneaking past our bullshit detectors by using statistics and language that we don't have the time and energy to scrutinize.
If we spend just two minutes a day doing that, we will improve our bullshit detection by over 45%, according to the Journal of the Society for the Promotion of Accurate and Honest Use of Language and Statistics, Volume 1, Issue 1, Page 1.*
* Source: Me. I just founded the Society a minute ago and I'm pretty darned impressed with the work we are doing, which includes writing this post and...er, that's it.