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Personal Science is to Professional Science as Professional Science is to Engineering

Posted May 29 2012 12:00am

A few days ago I gave a talk at Microsoft Beijing titled “The Rise of Personal Science: Discoveries about Acne, Blood Sugar, Mood, Weight Loss, Sleep, and Brain Function.” (Thanks to Richard Sprague, who invited me.) The audience was engineers.

In response to a question, I said that the relationship between personal science and professional science resembled the relationship between professional science and engineering. Cause-effect statements (X causes Y) vary in their degree of plausibility anywhere from zero (can’t possibly be true) to one (absolute certainty). Engineers, professional scientists, and personal scientists tend to work at different places along this scale:

Engineers work with cause-effect relationships at the top of the scale, that are well-established. (For example, Newton’s Laws.) Relationships in which we have total confidence.

Professional scientists like to study cause-effect relationships that are in the middle of the scale of degree of belief: true and false are equally plausible. When both true and false are plausible, you can publish the results no matter what you find. If everyone already agrees that X causes Y, further evidence isn’t publishable too obvious. If it is highly implausible that X causes Y, professional scientists cannot study the question because a test of whether X causes Y is too unlikely to pay off. If you find that X does cause Y you can publish it but that’s too unlikely. Finding that X does not cause Y is unpublishable (“we already knew that”).

Personal scientists can easily test ideas with low plausibility. First, because personal science is cheap. Many tests cost nothing. Second, because what other people think is irrelevant. (A professional scientist who takes seriously an idea that “everyone knows is nonsense” risks loss of reputation.) Third, because there is no pressure to produce a steady stream of publications. An example of a personal scientist testing an idea with low plausibility is when I tested the idea that standing causes weight loss. I thought it was unlikely (and, indeed, I didn’t lose weight when I stood much more than usual). But I could easily test it. It led me to discover that standing a lot improves my sleep .

Plainly we need all three (engineers, professional scientists, personal scientists). Has anyone reading this heard someone besides me make this point?

I have been shocked I sort of continue to be shocked how much I have been able to discover via personal science. But a high rate of discovery makes sense if personal science supplies a necessary ingredient ability to test low-plausibility ideas that has been missing.

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