How to Encourage Personal Science?

I wonder how to encourage personal science (= science done to help yourself or a loved one, usually for health reasons). Please respond in the comments or by emailing me.

An obvious example of personal science is self-measurement (blood tests, acne, sleep, mood, whatever)  done to improve what you’re measuring. Science is more than data collection and the data need not come from you. You might study blogs and forums or the scientific literature to get ideas. Self-measurement and data analysis by non-professionals is much easier than ever before. Other people’s experience and the scientific literature are much more available than ever before. This makes personal science is far more promising than ever before.

Personal science has great promise for reasons that aren’t obvious. It seems to be a balancing act: Personal science has strengths and weakness, professional science has strengths and weaknesses.  I can say that personal scientists can do research much faster than professionals and are less burdened with conflicts of interest (personal scientists care only about finding a solution; professionals care about other things, including publication, grants, prizes, respect, and so on). A professional scientist might reply that professional scientists have more training and support. History overwhelming favors professional science — at least until you realize that Galileo, Darwin, Mendel, and Wegener (continental drift) were not professional scientists. (Galileo was a math professor.) There is very little personal science of any importance.

These arguments (balancing act, examination of history) miss something important. In a way, it isn’t a balancing act. Professional science and personal science do different things. In some ways history supports personal science. Let me give an example. I believe my most important discovery will turn out to be the effect of morning faces on mood. The basic idea that my findings support is that we have a mood control system that requires seeing faces in the morning to work properly. When the system is working properly, we have a circadian rhythm in mood (happy, eager, serene during the day, unhappy, reluctant, irritable at night). The strangest thing is that if you see faces in the morning (e.g, 7 am) they have no noticeable effect until 6 pm the same day. There is a kind of uncanny valley at work here. If you know little about mood research, this will seem unlikely but possible. If you are an average professional mood researcher, it will seem much worse: can’t possibly be true, total nonsense. If you know a lot about depression research, however, you will know that there is considerable supporting research (e.g., in many cases, depression gets better in the evening). It will still seem very unlikely, but not impossible. However, if you’re a professional scientist, it doesn’t matter what you think. You cannot study it. It is too strange to too many people, including your colleagues. You risk ridicule by studying it. If you’re a personal scientist, of course you can study it. You can study anything.

This illustrates a structural problem:

2013-02-28 personal & professional science in plausibility space

This graph shows what personal and professional scientists can do. Ideas vary in plausibility from low to high; data gathering (e.g., experiments) varies in cost from low to high. Personal scientists can study ideas of any plausibility, but they have a relatively small budget. Professional scientists can spend much more — in fact, must spend much more. I suppose publishing a cheap experiment would be like wearing cheap clothes. Another limitation of professional scientists is that they can only study ideas of medium plausibility.  Ideas of low plausibility (such as my morning faces idea) are “crazy”. To take them seriously risks ridicule. Even if you don’t care what your colleagues think, there is the additional problem that a test of them is unlikely to pay off. You cannot publish results showing that a low-plausibility idea is wrong. Too obvious. In addition, professional scientists cannot study ideas of high plausibility. Again, the only publishable result would be that your test shows the idea is wrong. That is unlikely to happen. You cannot publish results that show that something that everybody already believes is true.

It is a bad idea for anyone — personal or professional scientist — to spend a lot of resources testing an idea of low or high plausibility. If the idea has low plausibility, the outcome is too likely to be “it’s wrong”. There are a vast number of low-plausibility ideas. No one can afford to spend a lot of money on one of them. Likewise, it’s a bad idea to spend a lot of resources testing an idea of high plausibility because the information value (information/dollar) of the test is likely to be low. If you’re going to spend a lot of money, you should do it only when both possible outcomes (true and false) are plausible.

This graph explains why health science has so badly stagnated — every year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine is given for something relatively trivial — and why personal science can make a big difference. Health science has stagnated because it is impossible for professionals to study ideas of low plausibility. Yet every new idea begins with low plausibility. The Shangri-La Diet is an example (Drink sugar water to lose weight? Are you crazy?). We need personal science to find plausible new ideas. We also need personal science at the other extreme (high plausibility) to customize what we know. Everyone has their quirks and differences. No matter how well-established a solution, it needs to be tailored to you in particular — to what you eat, when you work, where you live, and so on. Professional scientists won’t do that. My personal science started off with customization. I tested various acne drugs that my dermatologist prescribed. It turned out that one of them didn’t work. It worked in general, just not for me. As I did more and more personal science, I started to discover that certain low-plausibility ideas were true. I’d guess that 99.99% of professional scientists never discover that a low-plausibility idea is true. Whereas I’ve made several such discoveries.

Professional scientists need personal scientists to come up with new ideas plausible enough to be worth testing. The rest of us need personal scientists for the sake of our health. We need them to find new solutions and  customize existing ones.




10 Replies to “How to Encourage Personal Science?”

  1. I’d suggest a combination of the website and a weekly personal experimentation log. A week seems to be an excellent length for a wide variety of personal experimentation. Checkboxes to indicate adherence, notes or rating fields for results in each day. Easily viewable, trackable, and adherable. Let people set the starting day of the week. Plus a listing of experimental results, in an area separate from the calendar.

  2. Good insight.

    As to your original question, how to encourage personal science, I think the answer lies in graph. Look at the low cost side: begin anywhere. Just pick something and start tracking it. Then pick something you’d like to try. The first trial will likely give you insights and ideas to suggest the next one. Soon you may have a backlog of ideas to try. The interesting results will motivate you to keep going.

    The road blocks come when you think of personal science as though you were doing professional science. You overthink the situation, as though you were working in the professional science portion of the graph, allocating limited resources, taking risks. Begin anywhere. If you didn’t pick the right things to track and test, change what you’re doing. Begin again. There are no committees. There is no cost to failure.

    Seth: I already do plenty of personal science. The question is: what can I do to encourage other people to do it? I don’t understand your answer.

  3. No, no, I meant “you” as in the person trying to get started in personal science. You (Seth) already did all of the above. You’re the paragon of it, in fact.

    I think people look at the meaningful results you achieved with self-experimentation and feel like they have to shoot for that right from the start. As you point out, though, this is not a “go big or go home” situation.

  4. Create a reddit where people can chat about what they’re tracking?

    Gamification: A website that gives non-money prizes (badges a la Foursqare) for interesting micro-discoveries and for confirmations by others.

    They’re are a ton of habit-tracking apps. One or more might make personal science easier.

  5. One thing that would encourage more people to self-track would be more reports of the positive effects self-trackers have attained. For example, I’ve noticed that in many of the QS videos the speaker talks about what they were tracking & how they did it, but don’t mention any specific benefit. The recent video by Amelia Greenhall was an exception — the positive benefit she got out of tracking was obvious to me. I would say probably the last 4 videos I watched from QS were interesting, but not useful. If I don’t see a clear upside to what they tracked, it doesn’t motivate me to track.

  6. My suggestion is to broaden the definition of “personal science” – it can be many more things that just health related.
    People can do their own experiments with news ways to make/cook foods, (new combinations, recipes, ferments etc).
    new ways to grow gardens, news ways to build stuff, tinker with engines etc.

    Some people learned, by experiment, how to make a microwave smelter.
    That sounds like an implausible idea, that you certainly couldn’t get a research grant to test, but its cheap and easy enough to try yourself.

    This could perhaps more accurately be called “amateur science” or “innovations”, and these can lead to new discoveries.

    The difference between just normal “hacking” and “personal science” as I see it, is the application of some amount of scientific method to turn a “hack”into an experiment, or even just making observations of things and noticing what changes. A gardener notices that different combinations of plants do better or worse, and then starts tracking the changes and results.

    The key elements are the desire to learn by doing, rather than just by reading/watching, and to seek to formulate and test hypotheses. Implicit in this is being willing to be wrong, and question your (and other’s) assumptions.

    That is how I got taught in high school science, though I’m not sure if kids are still being taught like that these days.

  7. There should be some kind of “self-experimentation for dummies” guide written for people who may be intelligent and motivated but who don’t have experience in designing experiments or analyzing the resulting data. I think that such a guide would help prevent people from floundering around, getting discouraged, or possibly coming up with spurious results.

    Seth: I am struck by how often “fear of spurious results” comes up. Whereas I think that if you gather data you are much more likely to improve things than make things worse.

  8. Hi Seth,

    Great post as always. I would imagine a number of your readers found this blog, and in turn personal science, by reading your book The Shangri-La Diet. A short book on morning faces and the value of personal science, possibly an ebook culled from your blog, might be a good idea.

    It would make a compelling story: “Morning Faces: The simple, safe, and revolutionary way to fight depression without prescription drugs and harmful side effects”.

    Blogger James Altucher has written about his experience self publishing free and low cost ebooks and on-demand print books with Amazon. I read his free ebook “How to to be the luckiest person alive”. It collected a number of his favourite blog posts into a coherent story:

  9. Link is dead:

    “This graph explains why health science has so badly stagnated — every year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine is given for something relatively trivial — and why personal science can make a big difference. Health science has stagnated because it is impossible for professionals to study ideas of low plausibility.”

    I don’t know if the Nobel is given for trivial things, but your other points are correct, obvious, and denied by most people.

    Part of the problem is the eagerness of big business and of those who have funded laboratories to deny entry to startups by increasing government regulation. But even when there are no regulations, biology has bought the meme that amateurs are dangerous and should be crushed. Look at the medical community. Doctors don’t want patients to receive their own test results or DNA sequences; they don’t want them to be allowed to start their own IVs at home without a nurse; they don’t want them to be able to choose their treatment or the medicines they use; they don’t want them to take vitamins. It starts by trying to force the patient to pay a doctor every time they take a crap, but it ends with the doctors believing their own propaganda.

    For instance, Jackson Labs does a background check on anyone trying to buy lab mice, to ensure they’re “legitimate” researchers. What exactly is this supposed to prevent? It’s not to protect mice. Anybody can go to PetSmart and buy a dozen mice to feed to their pet pythons. All it does is prevent amateurs from doing animal studies, such as seeing how long various genetically-altered Jax mice live. Invitrogen won’t even sell you glassware unless you can prove you’re “legitimate”.

    Seth: The link works for me now. It failed first time. The explanation of why this could happen is a little complicated, I will skip it. The Nobel Prize is given for work on problems that are relatively trivial compared to the major sources of death and disability (heart disease, cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes, and so on) — that’s what I meant. I agree with what you say. Yes, why in the world does Jackson Labs do a background check? It seems like the main effect of that check is to slow down progress.

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