For exercise (Dance Dance Revolution) and self-tracking, I decided to buy a Wii. My first attempt, I was scammed. It arrived in August. With difficulty, I took it and accessories unopened to China. That was hard. It was even harder — for no obvious reason — to install it in China. The box sat unopened next to my TV, easily visible, for two months.
Finally I opened the box, took out the parts, put them together, added batteries, plugged it into the TV in my apartment. And nothing happened! Was my TV at fault? Or the Wii? Wii’s aren’t sold in China. I imagined bringing it back to America to get the problem fixed. After a few days, I tested my TV using video output from a neighbor’s Apple computer. My TV worked. After the test, my Wii also worked. When I replaced the Apple input with the Wii input I saw the Wii input for the first time. I don’t understand it, but that’s what happened.
In my experience, this is how science works. It is much harder than expected, then it pays off in ways that defy understanding. The concept of self-experimentation is simple: I will measure X (sleep, productivity) about myself. I will test different ways to improve X, learn what works, and thereby improve X. The reality is different. For years I measured my sleep and tried to improve it. It was hard to deal with the data. Even worse, every idea I had was wrong. That seemed like a huge obstacle — like my Wii needing repair. But I kept plugging away, because it was better than doing nothing, and . . . got somewhere. Out of nowhere and nothing. Not only did I improve my sleep, I arrived at a broader idea about health that turned out to be very helpful (that our bodies are designed for Stone-Age conditions and self-experimentation can help determine those conditions, which aren’t obvious). Just as we overvalue big steps (e.g., well-funded prestigious research), we undervalue small ones (e.g., cheap research with no prestige).
Science is basically a bunch of little steps. Many little experiments that explore cause-effect space. If you find a new example of cause and effect, the payoff is unpredictably large. Scientists don’t like thinking of themselves as wandering ants. But that’s how they are most effective. This goes against human psychology because wandering (Nassim Taleb calls it “tinkering”) is low status and lonely. The payoff is too rare and too unclear. It isn’t supported by powerful institutions, such as research universities and medical schools. Imagine an ant who says “I know where food is!” This is a way to get many ants to follow him, to feel important, to have high status, to get support from his employer. That’s why he does it. But he doesn’t know. The effect on the rest of us, the potential beneficiaries of progress, is that instead of having a thousand ants wandering everywhere, we have a thousand ants following one ant who doesn’t know what he’s doing.