Personal Science

In the IEEE Spectrum, Paul McFedries, the author of Word Spy, writes about new words generated by new kinds of science made possible by cheap computing.

Perhaps the biggest data set of all is the collection of actions, choices, and preferences that each person performs throughout the day, which is called his or her data exhaust. Using such data for scientific purposes is called citizen science. This is noisy data in that most of it is irrelevant or even misleading, but there are ways to cull signal.

That’s not my understanding of what citizen science means. I’ve seen it used when non-scientists (“citizens”) help professional scientists. The Wikipedia definition is

projects or ongoing program of scientific work in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement or computation

Bird-watching, for example.

My self-experimentation is not citizen science. I am not doing it to help a professional scientist nor as part of a project. I do it to help myself — in contrast to professional science, which is a job. Almost all self-experimentation by professional scientists and doctors has been done as part of their job. So let me coin a term that describes what I do: personal science. Science done to help the person doing it.

I believe personal science will grow enormously, for several reasons: 1. Lower cost. The necessary equipment, such as software, costs less and less. I use R, which is free. 2. Greater income. People can afford more stuff. 3. More leisure time. 4. More is known. The more you know, the more effective your research will be. The more you know the better your choice of treatment, experimental design, and measurement and the better your data analysis. 5. More access to what is known. For example, Dennis Mangan discovered via the internet that niacin had cured restless leg syndrome. 6. Professional scientists unable to solve problems. They are crippled by career considerations, poor training, the need to get another grant, desire to show off (projects are too large and too expensive), and a Veblenian dislike of being useful. As a result, problems that professionals can’t solve are solved by amateurs. The best-known example is the invention of blood-glucose self-monitoring by Richard Bernstein, who was not a doctor when he invented it.

9 Replies to “Personal Science”

  1. Would you include non-quantitative work like the invention of the Alexander Technique?

    About a century ago, F.M. Alexander had problems with losing his voice, and found that rest didn’t help. He concluded that there was something he was doing when he spoke, and eventually found (with the help of three-way mirrors) that he was tightening his muscles as part of preparation to speak. Then he found ways to break such a strong unconscious habit.

    This is close observation and testing hypotheses, but no statistics.

  2. Nancy, yes I include non-quantitative work. Sometimes effects are so clear you don’t need numerical measurement to study them. The effect of pork fat on my sleep was/is so clear I didn’t need numerical measurement of my sleep to notice or confirm it.

    Gunnar, the term individual science doesn’t clearly exclude professional self-experimentation (by professional scientists, for their careers) which is what I am trying to exclude. Personal is about goals, whereas individual is about methods.

  3. > personal science

    The term is accurate; I like it.

    > Personal is about goals, whereas individual is about methods.

    I think you’re splitting hairs; both definitions are valid. Plus, how can you do personal science without the scientific method? Or at least the spirit of it.

    > My self-experimentation is not citizen science.

    I agree, and I also think we need to move that conversation to that of individuals doing science, i.e., to making citizen scientists. I sketched some ideas here:

  4. As someone who plans to major in neuroscience, I believe what you are saying about personal science. Science is very personal. It allows one to connect with the universe in the deepest ways. The ability to apply logic and reason can, for some, help to appreciate what is.

    With modern fields in quantum physics, neuroscientists cannot afford to be strictly materialist any more.

  5. I’m uncomfortable with the evolving definition of “citizen scientist” as a helper or assistant or collector of data. While these are important to scientific research, it’s not clear to me that it leads to the kind of personal science you’re talking about, or to a greater understanding of science for the citizen scientist.

    But all that being said, the definition of “personal science” here strikes me as the end goal for any science education that does not take one to a professional scientific career. Science as it is taught should focus on using it in daily life, rather than as a sifting process to identify likely career scientists.

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