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Surprising self-experimentation

Seth Roberts, a pioneer in self-experimentation, has written an extremely interesting article called “The unreasonable effectiveness of my self-experimentation”  [PDF link]. In it, he tries to explain why his self-experiments were, in his opinion, so much more successful than a lot of conventional research. As he puts it himself in the paper:

[…] I was not an expert in what I studied and my research cost almost nothing. I did it in my spare time. In spite of this, my self-experimental research was far better than my mainstream research […]

Roberts describes how he started with self-experimentation by counting his pimples every day and trying a treatment to get rid of them. Eventually, he would discover surprising facts about himself, for example that drinking sugar water would tend to make him lose weight, and that eating breakfast would tend to make him wake up too early (but that standing up a lot would make him wake up later.) One of the main reasons he gives for his success is the freedom from academic pressure:

Myself-experimentation was not my job. For a long time, I did not expect to publish it; even later, after I decided to, I did not plan to use it to gain status within a profession. This freed me to (a) do whatever worked and (b) take as long as necessary. Professional scientists cannot try anything and cannot take as long as necessary. As Dyson […] said, ‘‘In almost all the varied walks of life, amateurs have more freedom to experiment and innovate [than professionals].”

The paper is interesting throughout.

Edit 2/6 2010: I found another paper by Roberts, a 61-page whopper called “Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health and weight“, where he goes into a lot more detail (complete with pretty graphs plotted in R) about his various experiments. Definitely worth a look too.


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