Ego and physical activity advice

Academic work can be rough on egos. Particularly in the social sciences, where ideas matter. We cultivate our reputations over years, but confidence is a brittle thing – just one chastening book review or article rejection away from frustration, anger or anxiety. In a sense, absorbing criticism is inherent to an ideal university structure. As Stuart Hall said, “The university is a critical institution or it is nothing”. Still, it is often difficult to be either the giver or recipient of a scathing critique.

Being on the receiving end of criticism recently really brought this home to me. I co-signed a letter calling for tackling in rugby to be removed from schools (thereby protecting the bodies of school children from one of the most injurious sports), but there was widespread opposition to the idea. That was understandable, but what irked was that the opposition was often coupled with criticism of the letters signers, with claims that we in our ivory towers didn’t know what we were talking about. The idea to remove tackling was labelled ridiculous, as were the letter writers. It was no fun to have my expertise questioned, much less lambasted.

I am also conscious the egos of others might have been caught up in my own critiques of policy ideas. For example, in journals, presentations and on the blog, I have rejected the claims of scholars regarding the corporate influence of companies such as Coke and Nike on physical activity scholarship. More subtly, I have critiqued the ideas of physical activity scholars who have been trying to advance the discipline and promotion of physical activity. While I would not detract from honest academic labour, I do suspect that there have been times where other academics could have taken my analyses personally. So while the ideas are the target of critique, it is impossible to completely disentangle an idea from the person who espouses it. This potential for ego damage is an inherent condition of academic work. That is unfortunate. Where I have less sympathy is when corporate interests are directing the ideas that are generated. Happily and uncritically toeing the line of a company is simply academic dishonesty. You become a shill, not a critical voice in society.

Academics also put themselves up for ridicule in opinion pieces in the press. Consider this recent opinion article in The Times.

After an Oxford professor suggested people pay at the pump of petrol stations rather than entering a service station shop to be surrounded by sugar, the commentator in The Times wrote:

“Who the hell are you saying this to, Professor Jebb? I thought Oxford lectures unlocked the secrets of the physical universe or proposed new ways to unpick Sumerian orthography. But now it’s, “Don’t go into sweet shops, boys and girls, or you’re gonna get fat”? …
Seriously, though? Your answer to Britain’s greatest health calamity since the Black Death is to gently direct people away from places where sweeties are sold? …
That’s a pretty damning view of humanity, isn’t it? That’s what leads some cultures to veil their women from head to toe, because if men can see their lovely faces, like yummy sweeties on a checkout shelf, they cannot be trusted not to have sex with them right there on the street.”

I’m not quite British enough yet to understand the extent of playful sarcasm or liberal distain for the Professor here. Whatever the case, the writer severely misrepresents what Professor Jebb was saying. I wonder if public shaming like this chips away at the enthusiasm of academics to convey their voices in public. Or worse, if it means some health promotion ideas never see the light of day because of a fear of ridicule. But this opinion piece also raises some concerns for how physical activity and health academics portray their work. And it highlights the problem of trying to gain and maintain legitimacy in an area where many structures seem unbudge-able, so academic advice becomes directed at individuals who are more nudgeable. A health promoter’s job is to give practical advice about healthy living, and resisting unhealthy choice architecture (at petrol stations and elsewhere) is one aspect of the job. But there is a risk of academics in physical activity and health being limited to repeating common sense clichés about how to live healthy lives.

In 2014, Public Health England said there needs to be a revolution in physical activity. Revolutions are only possible by upsetting the status quo. And so academics need to be not only willing to do this, but also be prepared for the critiques of those with different agendas. We can rest assured that when giving controversial advice, or advice which negatively affects corporate interests, there is actually no need for our ego at all. We embody one of the seven principles of UK public life – selflessness.