It didn’t take long for me to wake up to the realities of life and work in higher education after graduating with my PhD in 1990 and commencing work at UNM that August. When you are young and inexperienced, you are also naive to the negatives of people and institutional functions. When I wrote my first textbook with Scott Roberts, I thought science was a doctrine that all academics understood and revered equally. I thought that people naturally intended to do the right thing, for why wouldn’t anyone prefer right over anything else? I assumed that what I was taught was fact, not personal opinion, and that my field of exercise physiology within the broader umbrella of exercise science was founded totally and firmly on empiricism.
Of course, the lessons learned from being naive are all connected to the reality that such a view of anything is destined for trouble, disappointment, and/or frustration. Indeed, I learned so much about all that was wrong with exercise physiology early in my career because of this first book. There was so much content that I thought was the equivalent of exercise physiology scripture. Wow, was I wrong. There are numerous examples of the cracks that I found in the foundation knowledge and practices of exercise physiology, and some of my publication record reveals such topics. However, the topic that really provoked my critical judgement (and continues to) was on the concept and measurement requirements for measuring the maximal rate of oxygen consumption (VO2max).
Give me a bit of latitude here, as the date of this self discovery is very important. You see, the year prior to graduating with my PhD (1989), I was standing at a national convention on Sports Medicine, listening to Dr. Tim Noakes (a cardiologist by educational and professional training) constructively criticize the measure of VO2max, how we in exercise physiology interpret it, and as such, how exercise physiologists have a cardio-pulmonary bias to how we understand the limits to exercise tolerance and performance. Yet that talk was not the disturbing part. I found the talk very empirical, and I recall being stimulated by the invitation by Tim to view data without a preconceived bias. The shocking part of all this was that when the audience was invited to ask questions; an audience consisting of the “big” names of exercise physiology and exercise science in broader context, not one person stood up. Not one person gave an empirically supported argument in support of how I was taught in my preceding 9 years of university education. I remember the self doubt creeping over me. What have I invested my career in? What have I been taught that is fact, and what has been infused with biases or inept interpretations to make each of us look far from competent in the process of the scientific method?
Just to be clear, this issue I am addressing is not the concept of VO2max, but the lack of empowered scientific fact to support so much of what has been packaged as the exercise physiology of VO2max measurement and interpretation. I came to the stark realization that there are no standards for how to detect VO2max; that the protocol requirements were (in the 1990’s, and still are) largely devoid of quality research. I was taught of the need for at least 12 min of incremental exercise as the duration of a protocol when measuring VO2max, but soon discovered that the research this was based on was poor in research design, poor in sample size and statistical power, and totally inadequate to use as an empirical foundation for an exercise testing recommendation (Bruchfuhrer M.J. et al. Optimizing the exercise protocol for cardiopulmonary assessment. J Appl Physiol. 1983; 55(5):1558-1564). I and others have contributed more to this topic in recent years. I could go on and on here with more topics, and I give great detail to some in other sections of this website. What about how to process breath-by-breath data? What about how to objectively define the VO2 plateau? What about objective methods to differentiate VO2max from VO2peak? What about the validity of the secondary criteria that are continually used in published research to verify true maximal exertion? Did you know that no such criteria have ever been validated? The lesson I soon learned was that too little rigor has been used within the exercise physiology discipline of the exercise sciences to separate fact from construct, and to teach undergraduate and graduate students the difference between the two. My view of the historical development of the field is that there has been a rush to bolster the scientific base of the discipline. The irony of which is that such a development is scientifically immature, and in many ways our field has deserved the label of a second rate science by those from the more central pillars of “true” science. I guess you have to wonder about the self confidence of any scientific discipline when the word science has to be inserted in the name! Regrettably, when it comes to exercise physiology within the field of exercise science, too much of the discipline content has been, and too much remains, pseudo-science.
So, my professional philosophy? Clearly, I oppose all that is unscientific about exercise physiology. I too often discover terribly bad science within some of our best journals, and I see that my job as a PhD scientist exercise physiologist is to tell the truth about these errors. This is not easy. Too many peers, journal editors, and peer reviewers are not aware of their responsibilities in the bigger realm of science. I will discuss this more in my section on ‘What is Science?’, but for now, if the search for the truth in exercise physiology was the shared purpose for PhD qualified exercise physiologists, then concerted efforts to find and correct poorly developed constructs should be a priority to peer review and publication. Alas, it is not. There is a disconnection in how exercise physiology operates in editorial peer review and the essentials of the scientific method. I will present more on this later as I have a lot of criticism to dish out to the current trajectory we are on when it comes to scientific peer review and publication.
Nevertheless, it is my professional philosophy to forge ahead to reveal errors in methods, data interpretation, and physiological explanations whenever I see it. This is science at work. I will do my part, and yes, this is another purpose of this site – to expose the problems within exercise physiology that the faults of editorial peer review block from publication. The powers that be (the Gatekeepers to Science; journal editors and peer reviewers) seem to be in total blindness to the harm that is done by not publishing the controversial; in not realizing that to publish only that which conforms to the present is to foster selection bias, which obviously is infectious in the harm it does to science. Currently, exercise physiology is suffering because of these conditions.