Personal Science and Varieties of DIY

How does personal science (using science to solve a problem yourself rather than paying experts to solve it) compare to other sorts of DIY?

Here’s an example of personal science. When I became an assistant professor, I started to wake up too early in the morning. I didn’t consider seeing a doctor about it for several reasons: 1. Minor problem. Unpleasant but not painful. 2. Doctors usually prescribe drugs. I didn’t want to take a drug. 3. Sleep researchers, based on my reading of the sleep literature, had almost no idea what caused early awakening. They would have said it was due a bad phase shift of your circadian rhythm. They often used the term circadian phase disorder but never used the term circadian amplitude disorder — apparently they didn’t realize that such a thing was possible. I decided to try to solve the problem myself — an instance of DIY. Except that, if I made any progress,  that would be better than what the experts could provide, which I considered worthless.

There are thousands of instances of DIY, from fixing your car yourself to sewing your own clothes to word processing. Here is one dimension of DIY:

1. Quality of the final product. Better, equal, or worse to what you would get from professionals. Richard Bernstein’s introduction of home blood glucose testing led him to much better control of his blood glucose levels than his doctors had managed. Same as my situation: DIY produced acceptable results, the experts did not.

In contrast to Bernstein, who reduced his blood glucose variability within months, it took me years to improve my sleep.  That is another dimension:

2. Time needed. Personal science, compared to other DIY, is orders of magnitude slower.

Here are some more dimensions:

3. Training needed. I don’t know how much training personal science requires. On the face of it, not much. I had acne in high school. I could done self-experimentation at that point. It just didn’t occur to me. On the other hand, I think effective personal science requires wise narrowing of the possibilities that you test. For most health problems, you can find dozens of proposed remedies. How wise you need to be, I don’t know.

4. Commercialization. Some forms of DIY are entirely the creation of businesses — cheap cameras, home perms, IKEA, etc. Bernstein’s work happened because of a new product that required only a drop of blood. The company that made it wanted doctors to do DIY: measure blood glucose levels in their office (fast) rather than having the measurement made in a lab (slow).  When I started to study my sleep, no business was involved. Now, of course, companies like Zeo and the makers of FitBit want users to do personal science.

5. Price. My sleep research cost nothing, which in the DIY world is unusual. The term DIY is almost entirely a commercial category: Certain books and goods are sold to help you DIY.

6. Customization possible. Some kinds of DIY give you the tools to build one thing (e.g., IKEA, home perms). Other kinds (e.g., Home Depot, word processing) give you the tools to build a huge range of things. This dimension is variation in how close what you buy is to the finished product (Ikea = very close, word processing = very far). Personal science allows huge customization. It can adjust to any biology (e.g., your genome) and environment (your living conditions).

7. Benefit to society.  If I or anyone else can find new ways to sleep better — especially safe cheap easy ways — and these solutions can be spread, there is great benefit to society,  by comparison to DIY that allows non-professionals to reproduce what a professional would create (e.g, IKEA).

You might say that personal science isn’t really DIY because, compared to other DIY, (a) it is much slower and (b) the potential benefit to society is much greater. But those features are due to the nature of science. Any form of DIY has unique elements.

My mental picture of DIY is that there are two sides, producers and consumers, and in many domains (health, car maintenance, word processing, etc.) they creep toward each other in the sense that what producers can make slowly increases and what consumers are capable of slowly increases.  When they meet, DIY begins. In some cases, the business has done most of the changing; the DIY is very easy (e.g., Ikea).  In other cases, the consumer has changed a lot (literacy — not easy to acquire). Either way, the new DIY causes professionals who provided that service or good for a living to lose business.

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