“It’s a funny thing,” Jane Jacobs told an interviewer in an interview I cannot find, “you can’t change something unless you love it.” (By “change” she meant improve.) She had seen that people who disliked cities gave poor advice about improving them and understood that it wasn’t just cities. To improve something, it isn’t enough to have a good idea. You also need to (a) pay close attention and (b) overcome obstacles. (a) and (b) aren’t easy. You are unlikely to do them without strong motivation, such as love.
Jacobs’s point is at the heart of the success of my personal science. My personal science is hugely different from professional science, but different may or may not be better. It has succeeded, I’m sure, because of what Jacobs says. How did I manage to find new ways to sleep better, lose weight, and so on? I had good ideas, yes, but so do many people, including professional scientists. One reason for my success: I observed myself closely. Now and then I noticed outliers (e.g., nights when I slept unusually well, days when I lost my appetite). These gave me ideas to test. In professional science, this rarely happens. For one thing, they can’t wait for outliers. They are under pressure to get results soon. Another reason for my success: I persisted. For many years, I measured my weight, sleep, mood, and so on. Unlike a professional scientist, I had no required output. I could spend as much time as necessary.
I keep coming back to this because Jacobs’s point is absent from conventional American thinking, such as New York Times op-eds. But it is illustrated again and again. A recent episode of This American Life, titled “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde“, is about two doctors named Gilmer: Dr. Benjamin Gilmer and Dr. Vince Gilmer (who are unrelated). VG kills his father and goes to jail. BG replaces him at a rural clinic. His patients tell him what a nice man VG was. This puzzles BG: Why would such a nice man kill his father? The legal system had ignored this question or at least not provided a convincing answer. BG, on the other hand, actually cares. (Spoiler alert.) He gathers information about the case and visits VG in prison. With the help of a psychiatrist friend, he comes up with a new idea: VG has Huntington’s disease, whose symptoms include aggression (such as murder). In prison, VG has been far too aggressive. His hands shake some of the time; this had been called “malingering” (faking) by a psychologist. When tested, it turns out VG does have Huntington’s disease, in the sense that he has the gene for it. When VG was given medication appropriate for Huntington’s disease, he got much better.
BG, who cared about VG, managed to improve his condition. The legal system, which did not care about him, did not. The implication for all health care, including research, is straightforward: Empower those who care.