Why Does Personal Science Matter?

“Why does personal science matter?” is the title of my talk at the First Quantified Self Conference, which I gave two days ago. My answer to that question is personal scientists are more likely to make useful discoveries than professional scientists. Relative to professional scientists, personal scientists have two big disadvantages (less resources, less knowledge) and three big advantages (more time, more freedom, and more desire to be useful). Over the last half-century, the disadvantages have been getting smaller — the personal scientists have been catching up — causing them to overall move ahead of (= have a greater likelihood of making useful discoveries than) professional scientists.

The data behind this answer fall into two groups: (a) the profound stagnation in health care and, by contrast, (b) innovation from personal scientists. A self-serving example is obesity. Mainstream treatments for obesity are ancient. The “eat less, move more” advice was common in the 1950s. Low-fat diets became popular starting in the 1960s. The first popular low-carb diet was introduced in 1864. In contrast, the Shangri-La Diet is based on new ideas. It took far longer to develop (about 15 years) than any professional weight-control researcher would have time for.

I worked harder on this talk than any talk I have ever given. I gave a kind of rough draft a month ago and more recently I practiced it three times. After that I tried to memorize a few sections, such as the beginning and the end. The feedback has been the best I’ve gotten for any talk I’ve given so the whole thing has been great. I feel strongly about the overall message, which I don’t think is obvious, especially to me. It took me a very long time to have a good answer to why I was finding useful stuff (about acne, weight, sleep, and mood, for example) that the experts didn’t know.


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