Self Experimentation vs. Conventional Research: A Wonderful Excerpt Encouraging the Former

This excerpt comes from Dr. Seth Roberts. He is a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley and  at Tsinghua University. I originally came across this piece in The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss (which I HIGHLY recommend reading) and found it incredibly eye-opening.

The initial segments of the chapter that Dr. Roberts wrote discusses his path to better sleep (by simply standing more often) and curing his own acne (by simply changing his diet). He walks through a very clearly outlined and simple methodology as to how to analyze and identify cause-and-effect/trial-and-error as it relates to (whether on purpose or on accident) self-experimentation. Ultimately, this is about taking matters in to your own hands, and telling you why you should consider doing so.

The text I will be referencing perfectly highlights why conventional research will never test the simple, low-tech and low-cost interventions, because there is no money to be made in such areas.

Dr. Roberts states:

“Acne illustrates the problem. The dermatological party belief is that diet doesn’t cause acne. According to a website of the American Academy of Dermatology, ‘extensive scientific studies’ show that it’s a ‘myth’ that ‘acne is caused by diet’. According to ‘guidelines for care’ for dermatologists published in 2007, ‘dietary restriction (of either specific foods or food classes) has not been demonstrated to be of benefit in the treatment of acne’. But in fact, there is overwhelming evidence linking diet and acne. Starting in the 1970s, a Connecticut doctor named William Danby collected evidence linking dairy consumption and acne; it is telling that Danby wasn’t a professional scientist. When his patients gave up dairy, it often helped (their acne). In 2002, six scientists (not one 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. These six scientists had examined more than 1,000 subjects over the age of 10 and found no acne. When these groups of people left their communities and ate differently, they did get acne. These observations suggested that a lot of acne–maybe all of it–can be cured and prevented by diet.

Why is the official line (of dermatologists) so wrong? Because painstaking research needed to show the many ways diet causes acne is the sort of research that professional researchers can’t do and won’t do. They can’t do it because the research would be to hard to fund (no one makes money when patients avoid dairy) and because the trial-and-error involved would take too long to complete per publication/study. They don’t want do it because it would be low-tech, low-cost and very useful–and therefore low status. While research doctors in other specialties study high-tech expensive treatments, they would be doing low-cost studies analyzing the cause-and-effect of what happens when you avoid certain foods. Humiliating. Colleagues in other specialties might make fun of them. So, 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, and 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 acne problems (and they are far more self-motivated to do so!).”

I’ll wrap this post up with a few more quotes just to keep your brain going:

“All of life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

– Richard Feynman

“Often the less there is to justify a traditional custom or a traditional wisdom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”

– Mark Twain

Until next time.


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