This following is excerpted from Roberts' essay "The Value of Self-Experimentation", which appeared as an appendix in Tim Ferriss' The Four-Hour Body. It is republished here with absolutely no permission whatsoever. I think this is a very powerful line of explanation about why there are still so many question marks over health, nutrition, etc. (*)
My experience has shown that improve-your-life self-experimentation is remarkably powerful. I wasn’t an expert in anything I studied—I’m not a sleep expert, for example—but I repeatedly found useful cause-and-effect relationships (breakfast causes early awakening, flaxseed oil improves balance, etc.) that the experts had missed. This isn’t supposed to happen, of course, but it made a lot of sense. My self-experimentation had three big advantages over conventional research done by experts:
- More power. Self-experiments are far better at determining causality (does X cause Y?) than conventional experiments. Obviously they’re much faster and cheaper. If I have an idea about how to sleep better, I can test it on myself in a few weeks for free. Conventional sleep experiments take a year or more (getting funding takes time) and cost thousands of dollars.
- Stone Age–like treatments are easy to test. I repeatedly found that simple environmental changes had big and surprising benefits. In each case, the change I’d made resembled a return to Stone Age life. There are plenty of reasons to think that many common health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer, are caused by differences between modern life and Stone Age life. Conventional research is slanted toward treatments that can make money for someone. Because conventional research is expensive, funding is needed. Drug companies will fund research about drugs, so lots of conventional research involves drugs. Elements of Stone Age life are cheap and widely available. No company will fund research about their effectiveness.
- Better motivation. I studied my sleep for 10 years before making clear progress. That sort of persistence never happens in conventional health research. The reason is a difference in motivation. When you study your own problem, you care more about finding a solution than others are likely to care. And part of the motivation difference is the importance of goals other than solving the problem. When I studied my sleep, my only goal was to sleep better. Professional scientists have other goals, which are enormously constraining.
One set of prison bars involves employment and research funding. To keep their jobs (e.g., get tenure, get promoted, get jobs for their students, and get grants), professional scientists must publish several research papers per year. Research that can’t provide this is undoable. Another set of prison bars involves status. Professional scientists derive most of their status from their job. When they have a choice, they try to enhance or protect their status. Some sorts of research have more status than others. Large grants have more status than small grants, so professional scientists prefer expensive research to cheap research. High-tech has more status than low-tech, so they prefer high-tech. Fear of loss of job, grant, or status also makes it hard for professional scientists to propose radical new ideas. Self-experimenters, trying to solve their own problem on their own time, are not trapped like this.
Acne illustrates the problem. The dermatological party line is that diet doesn’t cause acne. According to a website of the American Academy of Dermatology, “extensive scientific studies” show it’s a “myth” that “acne is caused by diet.” According to “guidelines for care” for dermatologists published in 2007, “dietary restriction (either specific foods or food classes) has not been demonstrated to be of benefit in the treatment of acne.” In fact, there is overwhelming evidence linking diet and acne. Starting in the 1970s, a Connecticut doctor named William Danby collected evidence connecting dairy consumption and acne; it is telling that Danby wasn’t a professional scientist. When his patients gave up dairy, it often helped. In 2002, six scientists (none a dermatologist) published a paper with the Weston Price–like conclusion that two isolated groups of people (Kitava Islanders and Ache hunter-gatherers) had no acne at all. They had examined more than 1,000 subjects over the age of 10 and found no acne. When people in these groups left their communities and ate differently, they did get acne. These observations suggest that a lot of acne—maybe all of it—can be cured and prevented by diet.
Why is the official line so wrong? Because the painstaking research needed to show the many ways diet causes acne is the sort of research that professional researchers can’t do and don’t want to do. They can’t do it because the research would be hard to fund (no one makes money when patients avoid dairy) and because the trial and error required would take too long per publication. They don’t want to do it because it would be low-tech, low-cost—and therefore low-status. While research doctors in other specialties study high-tech expensive treatments, they would be doing low-cost studies of what happens when you avoid certain foods. Humiliating. Colleagues in other specialties might make fun of them. To justify their avoidance of embarrassment, the whole profession tells the rest of us, based on “extensive scientific studies,” that black is white. Self-experimentation allows acne sufferers to ignore the strange claims of dermatologists, not to mention their dangerous drugs (such as Accutane). Persons with acne can simply change their diets until they figure out what foods cause the problem.
Gregor Mendel was a monk. He was under no pressure to publish; he could say whatever he wanted about horticulture without fear for his job. Charles Darwin was wealthy. He had no job to lose. He could write On the Origin of Species very slowly. Alfred Wegener, who proposed continental drift, was a meteorologist. Geology was a hobby of his. Because they had total freedom and plenty of time, and professional biologists and geologists did not (just as now), Mendel, Darwin, and Wegener were able to use the accumulated knowledge of their time better than the professionals. The accumulated knowledge of our time is more accessible than ever before. Self-experimenters, with total freedom, plenty of time, and easy access to empirical tests, are in a great position to take advantage of it.
For instance, it goes a huge distance toward explaining why the very best minds in gastroenterological science were completely clueless about the causes of my ulcerative colitis 12 years ago; and why, and how, I was able to fix it myself. A whole dispatch on that one of these days, believe you me.