In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the king is naked but only a little girl says so. The king’s advisers don’t tell him. I suppose the intended lesson was that powerful people have trouble getting frank answers. That’s pretty obvious. For a CEO, it’s said, the scarcest commodity is truth. Bosses learn this all the time. I learned it the first time I asked one of my students what he thought of the class.
Andersen’s story can be taken differently, partly conveyed by the phrase elephant in the room: Something big and important is overlooked by the supposed experts (in the story, the king’s advisers). It should be obvious — but it isn’t. Or at least no one says anything. This is how Harry Markopolos used the term emperor’s new clothes in No One Would Listen: Madoff was a gigantic fraud, his returns were (to Markopolos) clearly too good to be true, he was enormously visible (in certain circles), but no one said anything. It was as astonishing as a king parading naked. How come no one sees this? Markopolos thought. If you looked at Madoff the right way, he was naked.
That this sort of thing happens isn’t obvious at all. Yet three books — which I’ve just blogged about — have recently appeared with examples. One is the Markopolos book. Another is The Hockey Stick Illusion. Surely there’s overwhelming evidence that humans are causing global warming, right? Well, no. The only clear evidence was that hockey stick — and that’s a statistical artifact. (It looks like an artifact.) The third is The Big Short. It wasn’t easy to find the right sight line from which it was clear that Goldman Sachs et al. were taking on far more risk than they realized but such views existed. I call these books The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy. Their broad lesson: Sometimes the “best people” aren’t right. Sometimes there’s a point of view from which they’re glaringly wrong. The Hockey Stick Illusion is about how Stephen McIntyre found this point of view. In No One Would Listen Markopolos found this point of view. In The Big Short several people found this point of view.
This relates to my self-experimentation in two ways. First, the “best people” say self-experimentation is bad. No weight-control researcher does self-experimentation. No sleep researcher does self-experimentation. Surely they know how to do research. It’s their job. Whereas to me it’s glaringly obvious that self-experimentation is an excellent research tool, not just because of my results but also because it makes it so much easier to try new things. The best way to learn is to do, IÂ believe; self-experimentation makes doing much easier. Second, my self-experimentation uncovered all sorts of results that implied that the expert consensus on this or that was glaringly wrong. The Shangri-La Diet is just one example. Breakfast is good, right? Well, no, breakfast may wake you up too early. And so on. At first, I didn’t grasp the broad lesson I stated earlier (“Sometimes the “best people” aren’t right. . . “) and was amazed by what I was finding. To me, The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy is support.