The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy

In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the king is naked but only a little girl says so. The king’s advisers don’t tell him. I suppose the intended lesson was that powerful people have trouble getting frank answers. That’s pretty obvious. For a CEO, it’s said, the scarcest commodity is truth. Bosses learn this all the time. I learned it the first time I asked one of my students what he thought of the class.

Andersen’s story can be taken differently, partly conveyed by the phrase elephant in the room: Something big and important is overlooked by the supposed experts (in the story, the king’s advisers). It should be obvious — but it isn’t. Or at least no one says anything. This is how Harry Markopolos used the term emperor’s new clothes in No One Would Listen: Madoff was a gigantic fraud, his returns were (to Markopolos) clearly too good to be true, he was enormously visible (in certain circles), but no one said anything. It was as astonishing as a king parading naked. How come no one sees this? Markopolos thought. If you looked at Madoff the right way, he was naked.

That this sort of thing happens isn’t obvious at all. Yet three books — which I’ve just blogged about — have recently appeared with examples. One is the Markopolos book. Another is The Hockey Stick Illusion. Surely there’s overwhelming evidence that humans are causing global warming, right? Well, no. The only clear evidence was that hockey stick — and that’s a statistical artifact. (It looks like an artifact.) The third is The Big Short. It wasn’t easy to find the right sight line from which it was clear that Goldman Sachs et al. were taking on far more risk than they realized but such views existed. I call these books The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy. Their broad lesson: Sometimes the “best people” aren’t right. Sometimes there’s a point of view from which they’re glaringly wrong. The Hockey Stick Illusion is about how Stephen McIntyre found this point of view. In No One Would Listen Markopolos found this point of view. In The Big Short several people found this point of view.

This relates to my self-experimentation in two ways. First, the “best people” say self-experimentation is bad. No weight-control researcher does self-experimentation. No sleep researcher does self-experimentation. Surely they know how to do research. It’s their job. Whereas to me it’s glaringly obvious that self-experimentation is an excellent research tool, not just because of my results but also because it makes it so much easier to try new things. The best way to learn is to do, I  believe; self-experimentation makes doing much easier. Second, my self-experimentation uncovered all sorts of results that implied that the expert consensus on this or that was glaringly wrong. The Shangri-La Diet is just one example. Breakfast is good, right? Well, no, breakfast may wake you up too early. And so on. At first, I didn’t grasp the broad lesson I stated earlier (“Sometimes the “best people” aren’t right. . . “) and was amazed by what I was finding. To me, The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy is support.

11 Replies to “The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy”

  1. my uncle, a neuroscientist, told me a story recently when i asked him if, within my son’s lifetime, sleep would be obsolete.

    he told me about a colleague of his, a sleep researcher. one day after twenty years or so of study he concluded that there was no reason he could think of that sleep was necessary, and so he decided to cut back on sleep, one minute per day.

    he started at 8 hours per day and was fine. six hours per day — fine. four hours per day — fine.

    around the time he reached two hours per day, he was diagnosed with leukemia.

  2. Hi Seth,

    One of my favorite personal paradoxes is Searching versus Acting: I like to think of my self-experimenting as operationalizing this paradoxical form of inquiry and learning.



  3. Data point: Barry Marshall, the Bacteria-and-stomach-ulcers Nobel laureate self-experimented by infecting himself with H pylori.

  4. Science progresses via framing of falsifiable hypotheses, I hope you would agree.

    Now has your self-experimentation has led to frame falsifiable hypotheses and have you actually falsified any hypotheses suggested from o leading from self-experiments (That is, if your procedure confirmation or falsification).

    Though I am aware that falsification procedure has been criticized (by philospher Stowe) but I myself unable to judge the criticism.

  5. Sometimes self-experimenting is the only way to do it. I’m thinking of Barry Marshall, who has only recently received a Nobel prize for work he did in the 80’s on helicobacter pylori, the bacterium responsible for stomach ulcers. The well entrenched view was that bacteria couldn’t survive in stomach acid, and since no-one would believe otherwise, he drank the stuff and proved them wrong.

    It still took 20 years for the medical establishment to accept this, though, so the Emperor’s New Clothes were much in evidence, too.

  6. Infecting himself with H. pylori would much more accurately be described as a stunt than as an experiment. As a stunt, though, it worked: hint to those seeking a Nobel.

  7. Through experience(experimentation) we gain the most valuable knowledge, its better than reading it in a book,or a lecture. interesting that you should blog on this as I blogged about my personal experience and experiments on attaining bliss( as opposed to trying to understand it by reading about it).

  8. I tried the one-minute-less-sleep per day regimen. After six months, I realized I was spending most of my new-found time screaming at inanimate objects, so I gave it up.

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