Cheap Good Science

Last weekend I attended EG, a TED-like conference in Monterey. One of the speakers, a woman named Hong Yi, made representational art from cheap materials  — a portrait from coffee-stained napkins, for example. The most stirring talks were by Matt Harding (dancing video) and Jo Montgomery and Chuck Johnson (circus school) but she, more than anyone else, seemed to have done something with big implications. Her art was attractive, profitable, very cheap, and diverse (many materials, many representational styles). If anyone else has ever done this, I don’t know about it. She is an architect in Shanghai and her art began because she was in China. At a wholesale supply store, she came across very cheap candles. She realized she could buy enough of them to make a picture with one candle = one pixel. I imagine people will be watching Harding’s video a hundred years from now and the underlying point of Montgomery and Johnson’s circus school will be valid forever, but both were enormous expensive unique efforts. Hong’s work was much easier and cost almost nothing. The benefit/cost ratio was very high and millions of people could do something like what she did.

I realized that my work resembled hers. She had discovered how to make cheap good art — not just once but many times, using a wide range of materials (e.g., different foods) and representational styles. I had figured out how to do cheap good science, answering not just one question (e.g., how to sleep better) but many questions (how to sleep better, how to lose weight, how to be in a better mood, etc.). My science cost almost nothing, so I could do a lot of it (do thousands of experiments) and managed to discover many things. In both Hong Yi’s case and mine, the Internet was not needed to do the work but was essential for publicizing it. It didn’t fit the usual channels.

For a long time, I called my work self-experimentation. It’s true, but misleading, because almost all self-experimentation you’ve heard of isn’t like mine. The book Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine is full of self-experimentation quite different than mine. Most of it is by doctors, designed to show that a new treatment is safe. The scientist tries the treatment himself to protect others. The self-experimentation in Who Goes First? is closer to demonstration than experiment. In contrast, the treatments I’ve studied (e.g., butter, morning faces, standing a lot) are perfectly safe. My work is about finding new ideas. It is about changing my own beliefs, not trying to convince other people of what I believe.

More recently, I might describe my work by saying it’s an example of the Quantified Self (QS) movement. Again, this is true, but also somewhat misleading. My work does involve self-quantification and self-tracking.  Like many QSers, I do hope to become healthier as a result. What’s misleading is that the tracking is only part of the effort, I don’t measure many things, and my tracking isn’t high-tech. I’m trying to discover new cause-effect relationships (e.g., new ways to improve sleep). This is not a large part of the QS conversation.

If I describe my work ascheap science, on the other hand, what you automatically think of is pretty accurate. Scientists look for cause-effect relationships (it is central to science); I look for cause-effect relationships. Scientists do many experiments; so do I. Scientists pay great attention to the scientific literature (what has already been done, what is already known); so do I. When something becomes much cheaper (e.g., photography or computing becomes much cheaper), everyone understands that the activity can be done by many more people. That is inherent in my work. I am doing science that many people can do — many more people than can do professional science. The terms self-experimentation and quantified self do not convey this.

Like the term cheap travel, the term cheap science suggests freedom. That too is a big part of what I do. I have vastly more freedom than professional scientists. I can test treatments they can’t. I can entertain ideas (“crazy”) they can’t. I can spend longer on one project than they can. So if I describe what I do as cheap science, the rest of what I say (“I’ve discovered new ways to sleep better, lose weight, etc.”) makes more sense. And maybe the whole activity sounds more accessible, whereas self-experimentation and quantified self seem like the sort of activities that caused the word geek to be invented.

7 Replies to “Cheap Good Science”

  1. You may be leaving out up-front costs– Hong’s Yi’s learning to draw well and your background in statistics.

    Seth: I don’t think my statistics background has made much difference. But you’re right there are “infrastructure” costs. I’m not sure that Hong Yi needed to draw well to produce her work.

  2. Whether you know it or not, you and Hong Yi are exact opposites. She is most certainly an insider in the art world (or at least wants to be). One look at her architecture models is enough to tell you that.

    Seth: Have you looked at my animal-learning papers?

  3. Thanks for the link to Hong Yi.

    Here’s her blog:

    So good natured, and I got a good laugh from the uplifting photos and commentary. The use of materials is original.

    I get the feeling she’s at one with the world of marketing. Maybe she’s a natural behavioural psychologist. I’ll have to think about it.

  4. I love Hong Yi’s work, her ability to imagine amazes me, and inspires – almost like a child who sees patterns in everything and plays with it all. I always notice patterns and shapes in nature and the effects of light and shade. This desire for pattern, design and insight is linked to curiosity and play – isn’t that also part of this desire to re-design our selves whether its through sleep, eating, walking, socialising – its the desire to discover new ways of being in the world. Maybe we should call it ‘curious science of self creation through feedback”.

  5. I believe your work and discoveries, just like Hong are very inspirational. You share information and new knowledge to everyone around the globe with the use of the Internet. It sends a message that every individual has the potential to contribute something to society even with no or limited budget. We now have the Internet which we can use to publicize our work without any payment.

    Seth: “It sends a message that every individual has the potential to contribute something to society even with no or limited budget.” I agree, thank you. From my privileged position, I think I tend to miss this point. People want to improve their own health, of course. Economists endlessly discuss self-interest. My work shows a new way of improving one’s own health. But people also want to contribute something to society, just as you say — which is not so obvious, at least to economists. My work shows a new way of doing this, too. I am impressed with the work of Adam Grant, which shows that if you can make a job appear more helpful to others, people like doing that job more. Making a job seem more helpful to others is quite different than increasing how much the job helps the person doing it.

  6. Once again, cheap science proves superior: Now that the West is forced to seek alternatives to expensive antibiotics whose use has produced supergerms and helped drive up medical costs, it is looking at old-fashioned Russian bacteriophage therapy. Phage therapy is cheaper and “far more robust to heat” (, can adapt to changing bacteria, is more targeted and less likely to cause side effects or resistance, and is equally effective and in some cases more so, but more difficult to mass-manufacture (and thus not favored by corporations).,,

Comments are closed.