Why Quantified Self Matters

Why Quantified Self Matters is the title of a talk I gave yesterday at a Quantified Self conference in Beijing. I gave six examples of things I’d discovered via self-tracking and self-experiment (self-centered moi?), such as how to lose weight (the Shangri-La Diet) and be in a better mood. I said that the Quantified Self movement matters because it supports that sort of thing, i.e., personal science, which has several advantages over professional science. The Quantified Self movement supports learning from data, in contrast to trusting experts.

If I’d had more time, I would have said that personal science and professional science have different strengths. Personal science is good at both the beginning of research (when a new idea has not yet been discovered) and the end of research (when a new idea, after having been confirmed, is applied in everyday life). It is a good way to come up with plausible new ideas and a good way to develop them (assess their plausibility when they are still not very plausible, figure out the best dose, the best treatment details). That’s the beginning of research. Personal science is also a good way to take accepted ideas and apply them in everyday life (e.g., a medical treatment, an idea about deficiency disease) because it fully allows for human diversity (e.g., a medicine that works for most people doesn’t work for you, you have an allergy, whatever). That’s the end of research.

Professional science works well, better than personal science, when an idea is in a middle range of plausibility — quite plausible but not yet fully accepted. At that point it fits a professional scientist’s budget. Their research must be expensive (Veblen might have coined the term conspicuous research, in addition  to “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure”) and only quite plausible ideas are worth expensive tests. It also fits their other needs, such as avoidance of “crazy” ideas and a steady stream of publishable results (because ideas that are quite plausible are likely to produce usable results when tested). Professional science is also better than personal science for studying all sorts of “useless” topics. They aren’t actually useless but the value is too obscure and perhaps the research too expensive for people to study them on their own (e.g., I did research on how rats measure time).

In other words, the Quantified Self movement matters because it gives all of us a new scientific tool. A way to easily see where the scientific tools we already have cannot easily see.



2 Replies to “Why Quantified Self Matters”

  1. The other value of quantified research and other sorts of self-experimentation is for people who are sufficiently non-standard that the usual methods aren’t working for them, though perhaps that counts as a variant of the beginning of research.

    Seth: That’s what I mean by quantified self being useful at the “end of research”. The end of research is the point at which research has found “usual methods” to solve a health problem. The usual methods work well for most people. To find out if they work for you, you need to measure yourself. If they do not work, you need to measure yourself to find something that does work.

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