Methodological Lessons from Self-Experimentation (part 4 of 4)

6. Curiosity helps — because it provides a wide range of knowledge. Pasteur made a similar point when he said luck favors “the prepared mind” by which he meant the well-stocked mind. To come up with my theory of weight control you needed to know both obesity research and animal learning because the theory is based on basic facts about weight control and basic facts about Pavlovian conditioning. I knew the weight control facts because I had taught introductory psychology and lectured on weight control. I knew the basic facts about Pavlovian conditioning because my graduate training was in animal learning. It was unusual to know both sets of facts. Few obesity researchers knew much about animal learning; few animal-learning researchers knew much about weight control. The same thing happened with my mood research: Facts that I had learned from teaching introductory psychology showed me that my findings made sense and were important. I had taught introductory psychology because I was curious about psychology.

These two examples (weight control, mood) surprised me. I may have heard this point made a few times but I didn’t know any examples. Since then, however, I have come across examples not involving me that make the same point. Luca Turin is a biophysicist who has come up with a far better explanation of how the nose works than any previous theory. His recent book The Secret of Scent tells the story. “In order to solve the structure/odor problem,” he wrote, “you need to know at least three things: (a) biology, (b) structure and (c) odor. Each of these three things taken individually is not difficult” (p. 166). The problem had gone unsolved because no one before Turin knew all three.

7. Publish in open-access journals. Because my long self-experimentation paper was published in an open-access journal, anybody could read it within minutes. My friend Andrew Gelman blogged about it, which caused Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution to mention it. This brought it to the attention of Stephen Dubner, who with Steven Levitt wrote about it in their Freakonomics column in the New York Times. That led to a contract to write two books — one about weight loss, the other about self-experimentation in general. That anyone could download my paper made it spread much faster. In the old days, with photocopies and libraries and mailed reprints . . . no talk tonight.

A summing-up, if you want to figure something out via data collection: 1. Do something. Don’t give up before starting. 2. Keep doing something. Science is more drudgery than scientists usually say. 3. Be minimal. 4. Use scientific tools (e.g., graphs), but don’t listen to scientists who say don’t do X or Y. 5. Post your results.

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. You no longer need to register to comment. My talk Tuesday night (tomorrow Jan 9) 7:30 pm at PARC (Palo Alto) is open to the public.

One Reply to “Methodological Lessons from Self-Experimentation (part 4 of 4)”

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