The Growth of Personal Science: Implications For Statistics

I have just submitted a paper to Statistical Science called “The Growth of Personal Science: Implications For Statistics”. The core of the paper is examples, mostly my work (on flaxseed oil, butter, standing, and so on). There is also a section on the broad lessons of the examples — what can be learned from them in addition to the subject-matter conclusions (e.g., butter makes me faster at arithmetic). The paper grew out of a talk I gave at the Joint Statistical Meetings a few years ago, as part of a session organized by Hadley Wickham, a professor of statistics at Rice University.

I call this stuff personal science  (science done to help yourself), a new term, rather than self-experimentation, the old term, partly because a large amount of self-experimentation — until recently, almost all of it — is not personal science but professional science (science done as part of a job). Now and then, professional scientists or doctors or dentists have done their job using themselves as a subject. For example, a dentist tests a new type of anesthetic on himself. That’s self-experimentation but not personal science. Moreover, plenty of personal science is not self-experimentation.  An example is a mother reading the scientific literature to decide if her son should get a tonsillectomy. It is personal science, not professional self-experimentation, whose importance has been underestimated.

An old term for personal science might be amateur science. In almost all areas of human endeavor, amateur work doesn’t matter. Cars are invented, designed and built entirely by professionals. Household products are invented, designed and built entirely by professionals. The food I eat comes entirely from professionals. And so on. Adam Smith glorified this (“division of labor” — a better name is division of expertise). There are, however, two exceptions: books and science. I read a substantial number of books not by professional writers and my own personal science has had a huge effect on my life. As a culture, we understand the importance of non-professional book writers. We have yet to grasp the importance of personal scientists.

Professional science is a big enterprise. Billions of dollars in research grants, hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure and equipment and libraries, perhaps a few hundred thousand people with full-time jobs, working year after year for hundreds of years. Presumably they are working hard, have been working hard, to expand what we know on countless topics, including sleep, weight control, nutrition, the immune system, and so on. Given all this, the fact that one person (me) could make ten or so discoveries that make a difference (in my life) is astonishing — or, at least, hard to explain. How could an amateur (me — my personal science, e.g., about sleep is outside my professional area of expertise) possibly find something that professional scientists, with their vastly greater resources and knowledge and experience, have missed? One discovery — maybe I was lucky. Two discoveries — maybe I was very very very lucky. Three or more discoveries — how can this possibly be?

Professional scientists have several advantages over personal scientists (funding, knowledge, infrastructure, etc.). On the other hand, personal scientists have several advantages over professional scientists. They have more freedom. A personal scientist can seriously study “crazy” ideas. A professional scientist cannot. Personal scientists also have a laser-sharp focus: They care only about self-improvement. Professional scientists no doubt want to make the world a better place, but they have other goals as well: getting a raise, keeping their job, earning and keeping the respect of their colleagues, winning awards, and so on. Personal scientists also have more time: They can study a problem for as long as it takes. Professional scientists, however, must produce a steady stream of papers. To spend ten years on one paper would be to kiss their career goodbye. The broad interest of my personal science is that my success suggests the advantages of personal science may in some cases outweigh the advantages of professional science. Which most people would considered impossible.

If this sounds interesting, I invite you to read my paper and comment. I am especially interested in suggestions for improvement. There is plenty of time to improve the final product — and no doubt plenty of room for improvement.

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