Assorted Links

  • Girl brain-dead after tonsillectomy. No doubt her parents were not told (a) your tonsils are part of your immune system, an essential part of your body, and (b) tonsil removal is associated with a 50% higher death rate. As I said here, an “evidence-based” evaluation of whether tonsillectomies are good or bad failed to mention both of these things, along with a ton of other negative evidence.
  • Reverse graffiti. I think of this blog as reverse graffiti.
  • Interview with Peter Higgs. “Believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.”
  • UC Berkeley Psychology Department fires staff employee (in his 24th year), apparently for union activities. “Francis Katsuura created a Cal Agenda account to track all time that Paul Haller attended bargaining [sessions]. No other department has created such an account.”

Thanks to Matt Cassell.

Lessons of This Blog (2nd of 2)

Yesterday I posted Kristen Marcum’s list of general rules she’d learned from this blog. (For example, “be skeptical of experts.”) Behind her list, I think there is one idea, slightly hidden from view:

non-experts can discover important things about health

By non-experts I mean people who are not health professionals. People who do not make a living from health research. By discover I mean learn from data for the first time, actually discover — in contrast to learn from an expert. By important I mean stuff that matters to many people. (It’s obvious that studying yourself you can help yourself.) I haven’t heard anyone else say this, although it isn’t far from the Quantified Self movement. 

The first example of this rule was the work of Richard Bernstein, an engineer with diabetes. In the 1960s, he pioneered home blood glucose testing, now enormously important. Another example, I hope, is my work. I used self-tracking and self-experimentation to find important new cause-effect relationships in several areas — new ways to sleep better or lose weight, for example. I believe my conclusions will turn out be true for many people, not just me, because they fit well with research done with other people and animals. I’m a professional scientist, which obviously helped, but not a health researcher. Continue reading “Lessons of This Blog (2nd of 2)”

Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)

Kirsten Marcum told me she had “put a number of [my] findings to use in [her] own life.” I asked how. She replied:

I’ve put a few of your specific recommendations to work (SLD, standing on one leg each day, omega-3s, more animal fat/pork fat, butter tea, fermented foods)…but in thinking about this, I realized I’ve gotten even more use out of general principles I’ve drawn from your blog over the years: Continue reading “Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)”

How Things Begin: Duke Check

Ed Rickards, a retired lawyer and journalist, writes Duke Check, a blog about Duke University, which I enjoy reading even though I have no connection with Duke. It emphasizes scandals and bad governance but also praises. He started it in 2009. There have been plenty of scandals since then, including the Anil Potti cancer research fraud.

I recently asked him a few questions. Continue reading “How Things Begin: Duke Check”

Assorted Links

  • The power of the smell of chocolate. I add cacao shells (from Tisano Tea) to the tea when I brew black tea. This adds complexity. 2.5 g of black tea plus 0.9 g of cacao shells.
  • Madonna’s diet is rather hard. “I am basically dying on this diet. . . . It is so hard to give up all those foods.”
  • Sous vide basics. “Using extra virgin olive oil results in an off, metallic, blood taste.” DIY sous vide, I want to read it to learn how controllers work.
  • More about Steve Cooksey and the ADA. The North Carolina branch of the American Dietetics Association attacked Cooksey for making nutrition recommendations on his blog. For free. This post explains why they did such a strange thing. A friend of mine, a nutrition professor at UC Berkeley, gave a Freshman Seminar (unpaid classes with about 10 students) on how to fix a car. Later he got a letter from a dean in the engineering school at Berkeley saying that only engineering professors can teach such a course.

Thanks to Richard Sprague.

Measuring Yourself to Improve Your Health? Want to Guest-Blog?

What surprised me most about my self-experimental discoveries was that they were outside my area of expertise (animal learning). I discovered how to sleep better but I’m not a sleep researcher. I discovered how to improve my mood but I’m not a mood researcher. I discovered that flaxseed oil improved brain function but I’m not a nutrition researcher. And so on. This is not supposed to happen. Chemistry professors are not supposed to advance physics.  Long ago, this rule was broken. Mendel was not a biologist, Wegener (continental drift) was not a geologist. It hasn’t been broken in the last 100 years. As knowledge increases, the “gains due to specialization” — the advantage of specialists over everyone else within their area of expertise — is supposed to increase. The advantage, and its growth, seem inevitable. It occurs, say economists, because specialized knowledge (e.g., what physicists know that the rest of us, including chemists, don’t know) increases. My theory of human evolution centers on the idea that humans have evolved to specialize and trade. In my life I use thousands of things made by specialists that I couldn’t begin to make myself.

Here we have two things. 1. A general rule (specialists have a big advantage, within their specialty, over the rest of us) that is overwhelmingly true. 2. An exception (my work). How can this be explained? What can we learn from it? I’ve tried to answer these questions but I can add to what I said in that paper. The power of specialization is clearly enormous. Adam Smith, who called specialization “division of labor”, was right. The existence of an exception to the general rule suggests  there are forces pushing in the opposite direction (toward specialists being worse than the rest of us in their area of expertise) that can be more powerful than the power of specialization. Given the power of specialization, the countervailing forces must be remarkably strong. Can we learn more about them? Can we harness them? Can we increase them? The power of specialization has been increasing for thousands of years. How strong the countervailing forces may become is unclear.

The more you’ve read this blog, the more you know what I think the countervailing forces are. Some of them weaken specialists: 1. Professors prefer to be useless rather than useful (Veblen).  2. A large fraction (99%?) of health care workers have no interest in remedies that do not allow them to make money. 3. Medical school professors are terrible scientists. 4. Restrictions on research. Some of them strengthen the rest of us: 1. Data storage and analysis have become very cheap. 2. It is easier for non-scientists to read the scientific literature. 3. No one cares more about your health than you. These are examples. The list could be much longer. What’s interesting is not the critique of health care, which is pretty obvious, but the apparent power of these forces, which isn’t obvious at all.

I want to learn more about this. I want learn how to use these opposing forces and, if possible, increase them. One way to do this is find more exceptions to the general rule, that is, find more people who have improved their health beyond expert advice. I have found some examples. To find more, to learn more about them, and to encourage this sort of thing (DIY Health), I offer the opportunity to guest-blog here.

I think the fundamental reason you can improve on what health experts tell you is that you can gather data. Health experts have weakened their position by ignoring vast amounts of data. Three kinds of data are helpful:  (a) other people’s experiences, (b) scientific papers and (c) self-measurement (combined with self-experimentation). No doubt (c) is the hardest to collect and the most powerful. I would like to offer one or more people the opportunity to guest-blog here about what happens when they try to do (c). In plain English, I am looking for people who are measuring a health problem  and trying to improve on expert advice. For example, trying to lower blood pressure without taking blood pressure medicine. Or counting pimples to figure out what’s causing your acne. Or measuring your mood to test alternatives to anti-depressants. I don’t care what’s measured, so long as it is health-related. (Exception: no weight-loss stories) and you approach these measurements with an open mind (e.g., not trying to promote some product or theory). I am not trying to collect success stories. I am trying to find out what happens when people take this approach.

Guest-blogging may increase your motivation, push you to think more (“I blog, therefore I think“) and give you access to the collective wisdom of readers of this blog (in the comments). If guest-blogging about your experiences and progress (or lack of it) might interest you, contact me with details of what you are doing or plan to do.

Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday

When Clinton was President, Ryan Holiday writes in Trust Me I’m Lying (copy sent me by publisher, Ryan is a friend),

[Matt] Drudge accused prominent journalist and Clinton adviser Sidney  Blumenhthal of a shocking history of spousal abuse — and one covered up by the White House, no less. Except that none of it was true. . . . An anonymous Republican source had whispered into Drudge’s ear to settle a political score against Blumenthal. . . . [Drudge] refused to apologize for the pain caused by his recklessness.

In spite of knowing this, I still read Matt Drudge. I don’t have to. There are a zillion other things to read. That may or may not make me a horrible person but it illustrates the depth of the problem that Ryan writes about: Spreading lies pays.

A more mundane example is press releases. Bloggers love press releases, Ryan says (speaking from experience working at American Apparel). All the work is done for them. So what if press releases are profoundly dishonest in the way they present a half truth (positive stuff about the product) as if it is a whole truth? It’s an easy way to get a few thousand clicks. “I recall sending e-mails to Gawker and Jezebel on several occasions over matters of factual errors and not receiving a response,” writes Ryan. “My anonymous tips seem to arrive in their inboxes just fine — it’s the signed corrections that run into issues.” A car site published a rumor that turned out to be false. A friend of Ryan’s complained that the headline wasn’t fixed:

[Ryan’s friend:] Why keep the headline up since we now know it’s not true?
[Car site:] You guys are so funny.

Taking the headline down would generate fewer clicks than leaving it up. Shameless.

“That way lies madness,” I told a friend who worried about how much traffic his blog attracted. Bloggers who will do anything for a click do so, of course, because their salary depends on it, whereas my friend did not get significant income from his blog. Sure, paying bloggers by the click pushes them to write stuff that people want to read — which sounds good, aren’t snobs bad? — except what if people don’t care that much about the truth?

I think of science. Who do professional scientists more closely resemble? 1. Bloggers who will do anything for a click. 2. Disinterested seekers of truth. Well, it’s a job, not a hobby. Science and job are not a good fit (as I’ve written), just as factory food and health are not a good fit. We can see the consequences of the bad fit between factory food and health in the obesity epidemic (which I believe is caused by eating calorie-dense quickly-digested food that tastes exactly the same each time — factory food is much more standardized than food you make yourself) and the epidemic of digestive problems (caused by too-sterile food — factory food is more sterile than food you make yourself). We can see the consequences of the bad fit between science and job in the failure to find solutions to one growing problem after another (obesity, Crohn’s disease, autism, depression, poor sleep, etc.). Trust Me I’m Lying is about the consequences of the poor fit between being paid by the click and caring about the truth of what you write.



American Dietetics Association Tries to Outlaw Competition: More

Michael Ellsberg has written another fascinating article about how the American Dietetics Association is trying to make it illegal to compete with their members — that is, make it illegal to give nutritional advice without board certification. (His earlier article.) State boards have threatened several bloggers with jail if they continue to provide nutritional advice.

Thanks to Dr. B G.

Ten Interesting Things I Learned From Adventures in Nutritional Therapy

A blog called Adventures in Nutritional Therapy (started March 2011) is about what the author learned while trying to solve her health problems via nutrition and a few other things. She usually assumed her health problems were due to too much or too little of some nutrient. She puts it like this: “using mostly non-prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) supplements and treatments to address depression, brain fog, insomnia, migraines, hypothyroidism, restless legs, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a bunch of other annoyances.” In contrast to what “the American medical establishment” advises. Mostly it is nutritional self-experimentation about a wide range of health problems.

Interesting things I learned from the archives:

1. Question: Did Lance Armstrong take performance-enhancing drugs? I learned that LiveStrong (Armstrong’s site) is a content farm. Now answer that question again.

2. “If you return repeatedly to a conventional doctor with a problem they can’t solve, they will eventually suggest you need antidepressants.”

3.  “When I mentioned [to Dr. CFS] the mild success I’d had with zinc, he said it was in my mind: I wanted it to work and it did. When I pointed out that 70% of the things I tried didn’t work, he changed the subject. Dr. CFS’ lack of basic reasoning skills did nothing to rebuild my confidence in the health care system.” Quite right. I have had the same experience. Most things I tried failed. When something finally worked, it could hardly be a placebo effect. This line of reasoning has been difficult for some supposedly smart people to grasp.

4. A list of things that helped her with depression. “Quit gluten” is number one.

5. Pepsi caused her to get acne. Same here.

6. 100 mg/day of iron caused terrible acne that persisted for weeks after she stopped taking the iron.

7. “In September 2008 I started a journey that serves as a good example of the limits of the American health care system, where you can go through three months, 15 doctor visits, $7,000 in medical tests, three prescriptions and five over-the-counter medications trying to treat your abdominal pain, and after you lose ten pounds due to said pain, you are asked by the “specialists” if you have an eating disorder.” I agree. Also an example of the inability of people within the American health care system to see those limits.  If they recognized that people outside their belief system might have something valuable to contribute, apparently something awful would happen.

8. Acupuncture relieved her sciatica, but not for long. “By the time I left [the acupuncturist’s office] the pain was gone, but it crept back during my 30-minute drive home.”

9. Pointing out many wrongs does not equal a right. She praises a talk by Robert Lustig about evil fructose. I am quite sure that fructose (by itself) did not cause the obesity epidemic. For one thing, I lost a lot of weight by drinking it. (Here is an advanced discussion.) In other words, being a good critic of other people’s work (as Lustig may be) doesn’t get you very far. I think it is hard for non-scientists (and even some scientists) to understand that all scientific work has dozens of “flaws”. Pointing out the flaws in this or that is little help, unless those flaws haven’t been noticed. What usually helps isn’t seeing flaws, it is seeing what can be learned.

10. A list of what caused headaches and migraines. One was MSG. Another was Vitamin D3, because it made her Vitamin B1 level too low.

She is a good writer. Mostly I found support for my beliefs: 1. Of the two aspects of self-experimentation (measure, change),  change is more powerful. She does little or no self-tracking  (= keeping records) as far as I could tell, yet has made a lot of progress. She has done a huge amount of trying different things. 2. Nutritional deficiencies cause a lot of problems. 3. Fermented food is overlooked. She never tries it, in spite of major digestive problems. She does try probiotics. 4. American health care is exceedingly messed-up. As she puts it, “the American medical establishment has no interest in this approach [which often helped her] and, when they do deign to discuss it, don’t know what the #%@! they’re talking about.” 5. “Over the years I’ve found accounts of personal experiences to be very helpful.” I agree. Her blog and mine are full of them.

Thanks to Alexandra Carmichael.

More Her latest post mentions me (“The fella after my own heart is Seth Roberts, who after ten years of experimenting . . . “). I was unaware of that when I wrote the above.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Oskar Pearson and Dave Lull.

Reflections on a Few Years of Blogging

Andrew Gelman’s blog has lasted longer than this blog (and was responsible for this blog.) Recently Andrew looked back. It seemed like a good idea so I will follow his lead.

The two big surprises have been how easy it is and how helpful it is. In the beginning it wasn’t easy to find interesting things to say. Somehow it got easier and easier. Partly because I had more ideas — about omega-3, the umami hypothesis and fermented foods, the effect of animal fat on sleep. Partly because readers sent me interesting stuff. Partly because I started teaching at Tsinghua and moved to Beijing part of the year. Partly because the Shangri-La Diet produced results that I wanted to brag about. And — a very big part of it — because there are enough comments here and elsewhere to make me think people are reading it. I think everyone has an innate desire to be listened to. As our concerns and knowledge become more and more specialized, it becomes harder and harder to find an audience. When Spy magazine was around I read every issue three times. I was dying to talk about it with other fans. I couldn’t. I couldn’t find them.

Some of the stuff people have sent me has been incredibly helpful. Most of the examples involve trying my ideas. Taking omega-3 (via flaxseed oil or fish oil). Tyler Cowen’s experience, for example. Tim Lundeen’s results. The effect on sports injuries. Or eating more fermented food. Tucker Max’s experience. Not only does it make the whole subject much easier to talk about, it convinces me I’m on the right track. Some of the examples involve telling me about other more conventional data related to my ideas. For example, I’m very glad to know about hormesis, which supports my ideas about fermented food. Knowing about radiation hormesis makes me stop worrying about the small dose of radiation I get from my cell phone. The recent comment about two morning faces being better than one might turn out to be really helpful and important.

I haven’t read She Stoops to Conquer, an 18th century play, but the title is brilliant. My self-experimenation, I now think, had a dose of that because I was willing to do something as humble as study myself whereas most scientists wouldn’t stoop to that. Too low-status. Blogging has a lot of that. How many Berkeley professors blog? Uh, Brad DeLong? And someone else, rarely. Blogging is beneath them. Whereas half of Tsinghua students have blogs. They aren’t worried about appearing undignified. The phrase keeping up with the Joneses means your car has to be at least as expensive as your neighbor’s car, and so on. A kind of arms race. Such an arms race goes on in science: What you must do to appear high status takes up more and more of your resources, leaving less and less to actually make progress. So less and less progress is made. Self-experimentation breaks out of that vicious cycle. Blogging is the same thing more generally. Supposedly professors, especially at a place like Berkeley, have interesting things to say. But the demands of status, as Veblen described in the last chapter of The Theory of the Leisure Class, make it harder and harder for them to say them. Blogging breaks out of that vicious cycle.

When I taught introductory psychology I found I could often weave whatever I’d been thinking about into my next lecture. It’s good to start a lecture by saying “Something interesting happened to me a few days ago . . . ” Now I can just blog about it.

What I’ve Learned From Climategate (So Far)

Google “Climategate” you get 31 million hits. “Obama” returns 40 million. Yet mainstream media, such as the New York Times, have said little about it. The New Yorker has said nothing about it. Given so much interest, that will change.

Some of my prior beliefs — that empirical support for the view that man has caused global warming is weaker than we’re told, that bloggers are a powerful force for truth — are stronger. But here are a few things I didn’t think of until now:

1. The truth leaks out before it gushes out. Laurie David’s children’s book — its egregious mistake, her blithe dismissal of that mistake — is an example of the truth leaking out. In the Ranjit Chandra case, little facts implied he was a fraud long before this became utterly clear. An example is the claim in one of his papers (published in The Lancet!) that everyone asked agreed to be in his experiment.

2. Teaching is even better done via scandals than via stories. The number of hits for Climategate is an indication of how much people are learning from it. As I blogged earlier, they’re learning a lot about science. A mere story about science would never attract so much attention. I should think more about how to use scandals to teach stuff. When Nassim Taleb is scathing about this or that, he has the right idea. Spy was the perfect example. It taught me a lot about New York City.

3. Jane Jacobs was wrong. Or at least missed something very important. In Dark Age Ahead, her last book, she pointed to a number of disturbing signs. One was the rise of crappy science. She was quite right about that  — as scientists have become more professional they have become more status-oriented and less truth-oriented. She didn’t foresee that the Internet would be an enormously powerful corrective force, as is happening now. Climategate is a (relatively) small example of even bigger force: the rise of the power of sophisticated amateurs/hobbyists. Who, unlike professionals, with jobs and status to protect, have complete freedom. The first big example was printed non-fiction books, as I blogged earlier (which are written with great freedom, usually); but now the Internet provides another great outlet, much faster, cheaper, and more accessible than books, for independent thought.

Bryan Caplan on Barbara Ehrenreich

In his blog, Bryan Caplan makes some amusing and reasonable points about Barbara Ehrenreich’s criticism of some happiness research. My eyes widened as I read. This is so much betterthan what’s usually in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications. It reminded me of Spy, except the level of thought is deeper. It’s as if blogs allow and encourage intelligent people to say what they really think about stuff. Whereas in any mainstream venue there are tremendous constraints.

Why Blog? Ask American Idol

From David Osmond, a failed contestant on American Idol: “I wish I had the opportunity to share what’s inside of me.”

I think that’s exactly the driving force behind blogging.

I used to teach introductory psychology. Large lecture class. I found I could often put whatever I was thinking about in the morning into my lecture. Blogging is easier.

More Jonathan Schwarz puts it like this: We have “desperation to express what our existence is like. Sometimes this comes out literally as singing, sometimes metaphorically.”

The Wisdom of the Rest of Us

On Christmas Eve I wrote there was a lot to be learned from the web comments on newspaper articles and the like that anyone can post. My point was how wonderful this was. Now the New York Times has added a feature that allows the most popular comments to rise to the top (you “show” Readers’ Recommendations) as I hoped. For example. Way to go!

You can also find comments that the “editors” (the sub-sub editors?) recommend (show Editors’ Selections). They tend to be long and querulous. I don’t think I’ll be using that feature much but it is good to have it for when I want long and querulous.

Still no comments allowed on The New Yorker website.

100 Paper NY Times = 1 Heavy Textbook

Alana Taylor, a journalism student at NYU, blogged about one of her classes:

Quigley [the teacher] tells us we have to remember to bring in the hard copy of the New York Times every week. I take a deep sigh. Every single journalism class at NYU has required me to bring the bulky newspaper. I don’t understand why they don’t let us access the online version, get our current events news from other outlets, or even use our NYTimes app on the iPhone. Bringing the New York Times pains me because I refuse to believe that it’s the only source for credible news or Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism and it’s a big waste of trees. . . I am taking the only old-but-new-but-still-old media class in the country.

Yeah. The same thing goes on all over campus where students are required to buy a heavy glossy textbook that costs about a semester of paper New York Times. As if the same info wasn’t free on the Web.

Long ago, textbooks were a fantastic bargain because they cost so much less than private tutors. And private tutors disappeared.

After Taylor’s unflattering piece, her thin-skinned professor, who had said “it’s essential for journalists to blog”, banned blogging about the class.

The Blog of a Girl Who Killed Herself

In November, a Tsinghua undergraduate killed herself by jumping out of a building. She kept a blog. After her death, a friend of mine read her blog — as did a few thousand other people — and told me it was full of sadness. My friend, a Tsinghua student, was puzzled that the friends and family of the dead girl had read her blog and done nothing. Will you translate some of it for me? I asked my friend (who translates other things for me). She begged off. I was puzzled: Surely the girl had wanted others to read what she had written, I thought.
I found another translator. After a few minutes of translation I had to stop: It was unbearably sad, maybe the saddest writing I’ve ever come across. I could see why my friend didn’t want to translate it.

Here is one entry. It takes the form of a questionnaire:

Question 1: Which student phase [primary school, middle school, high school, college] do you miss the most?

Answer: High school. Get together with a lot of friends. I know where I should go, even if it turns out to be wrong.

Question 2: Talk about your current life.

Answer: Listless. Feel half asleep. Do not want to wake up. I want to kill the people who wake me up. I love this world. I live for my goal.

Question 3: Do you have dreams? What are they?

Answer: I have many dreams. Make a movie . . . performance art [she was an art major]. Her [she was gay]. Forgive me. Dream this day will come. Believe.

Question 4: Which kind of friend do you like best?

Answer: Any kind is fine. Understanding me a prerequisite.

Question 5: Could you give up going back to your hometown to be with your parents, to be with your lover?

Answer: No.

Question 6: What do you most want to do right now?
Answer: Sleep, dream. Find her. Just dream, do not want to meet anyone.

Question 7: Up until now, what is your happiest event?

Answer: I didn’t lose my past.

p.s. I don’t want any blessing. [A custom/game among Chinese teenagers is that after you answer a few questions you are “blessed” by your questioner.] Wish everyone happiness. Don’t ask me these boring questions again.

News of the girl’s death was posted on the student forums. What was the response? I asked my friend. Most of the comments were “Bless,” she said. The English word bless. That’s a customary thing to say when you learn someone has died.