Who Will Make the Future Better than the Past? Professors or the Rest of Us?

Stephen Hsu, who has an excellent blog, recently became Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. Before that, he was a professor of physics. At a dinner for faculty promoted to full professor, he said:

When an attorney prepares a case it is for her client. When a Google engineer develops a new algorithm, it is for Google — for money. Fewer than one in a thousand individuals in our society has the privilege, the freedom, to pursue their own ideas and creations. The vast majority of such people are at research universities. A smaller number are at think tanks or national labs, but most are professors like yourselves. It is you who will make the future better than the past; who will bring new wonders into existence.

In this blog, in thousands of posts, I have argued a much different view: everyone can make the future better than the past in the way Stephen is talking about, by adding to our understanding. In particular, anyone — not just professional researchers, such as professors at research universities — can increase our understanding of how to be healthy. This has already started to happen. Some examples:

1. Stuart King (a musician) commented how much bedtime honey helped him sleep better. Learning about this effect is a big step forward in knowing how to be healthy — good sleep is at the center of good health. No professional researcher has come close to Stuart’s insight.

2. Katherine Reid (trained as a protein chemist but not a professor) discovered that if she removed all glutamate from her daughter’s diet, her daughter’s autism disappeared. This is more progress than any professional researcher has made. None of them has made even one case of autism disappear.

3. Many people told me about how various treatments they learned about from this blog have helped them — for example Vitamin D3 in the morning and bedtime honey. I recently posted a comment about bedtime honey, for instance. These treatments are so new and surprising that these experiences are meaningful. They help others decide if these treatments should be taken seriously. (For anyone who dismisses these reports as “anecdotes”, I have one question: What have you discovered?)

4. I have used a brain tracking test to find out new things about how my environment affects my brain, including the benefits of butter and the bad effect of tofu. At least a billion people — everyone in China, for starters — eat tofu regularly. You might think that such a popular food would have been extensively tested for safety but, shockingly, other research supports my conclusion that tofu is bad. Anyone can do the sort of tests I did. Let me repeat my offer to give my brain tracking R software (which only works under Windows) to others who want to use it. There is an associated Google Community to join.

5. Although I am a professor, my self-experimental discoveries about sleep, mood and weight were outside the area of my graduate school training (animal learning). For example, I am not a sleep expert. I made my discoveries without expensive equipment or university resources beyond the library — that is, I made them with resources to which almost anyone has access.

I am sure these examples are the beginning of something important. They are easy to explain. Who is better equipped to discover important stuff about health, professional researchers (e.g, professors) or non-professionals (the rest of us)? Although professional researchers have big advantages over the rest of us — this is the usual view — non-professionals have big advantages over professionals that few people seem aware of. Sometimes the non-professional advantages outweigh the professional advantages and the non-professionals get there first. For example, a professional autism researcher could have done what Reid did (measure the effect of removing all glutamate on autism), but Reid did it first.

The advantages of non-professionals over professionals, a topic I have discussed many times, include:

1. Ability to self-track and self-experiment. This is too humble for many professionals. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen emphasized that professors like to show off via their work. This is a disaster for science, where small (low status) and fast is much more effective than big (high status) and slow — a lesson that few health scientists have learned.

2. Freedom. Non-professionals can study anything, consider any crazy idea, test any treatment. Professionals must be respectable. Institutional rules and committees also constrain them.

3. Time. Non-professionals can study any problem for as long as they want. Professionals must publish regularly.

4. Motivation. Because they study their own problems, non-professionals are highly motivated to find the truth. For example, no one cares more about the safety of your food than you do. Professionals usually study problems whose solution gives them no practical benefit. While non-professionals care only about their own health, professionals care a great deal about their career, which makes it quite a bit harder to do the best thing for other people’s health.

5. IQ (which Stephen often blogs about). If you randomly select one professor who studies health, and compare him/her to a thousand randomly-selected non-professionals, the top IQs among the non-professionals will be much higher than the professor’s IQ.

I keep writing about this — hardly saying anything new — because it is so important, so non-intuitive (in almost every other area of knowledge, such as physics, only professionals make lasting contributions) and no one else says it.

16 Responses to “Who Will Make the Future Better than the Past? Professors or the Rest of Us?”

  1. gwern Says:

    > (For anyone who dismisses these reports as “anecdotes”, I have one question: What have you discovered?)

    So, you can only criticize some music if you’re a musician? You can only criticize research if you’ve published research? You can only criticize a movie if you’ve directed a movie? A classic excuse, but it doesn’t wash: you don’t need to be a farmer to know what bull shit smells like.

  2. Sidney Phillips Says:

    Seth:

    I’d just like to point out what you had mentioned earlier on the dangers of mercury fillings. I’m studying for my USMLE Step 1 medical board exam and I noticed my memory wasn’t nearly as sharp as it used to be. At the same time my doctor diagnosed me with hypothyroidism; he said it was Hashimoto’s without even running labs. I paid for my own labs and my tests came back negative for anti-thyroglobulin antibodies, which should be present with Hashimoto’s.

    Around this time, I read your earlier post how your memory improved after removing your mercury fillings. Also in that same post one of your readers had cited some pubmed studies linking mercury fillings to thyroid problems.

    I decided to have my fillings removed by a dentist knowledgeable in doing so since you have to remove them carefully. It’s been only 5 days since I had them removed but I already feel sharper, as if the brain fog has lifted. I’m detoxing now with chlorella, cumin, and water high in silicon (Fiji).

    So, I was able to better my health thanks to one of your blog posts. My own doctor didn’t have the time or inclination to think deeply about my problems, and had the arrogance to diagnose Hashimoto’s without even running labs. I will certainly not go back to him. The problem is finding a doctor who is open to alternative remedies and is current with the latest research. As I told my parents, I can’t imagine most doctors after a long day’s work wanting to come home and sit in front of pubmed for 2-3 hours.

    Seth: A doctor would not need to sit in front of pubmed for 2-3 hours to realize it might be a good idea to order labs. And doctors are supposed to continue their education, which should definitely include looking at recent research.

  3. MJB Says:

    Mathematics of happiness debunked by Nick Brown

    The astonishing story of Nick Brown, the British man who began a part-time psychology course in his 50s – and ended up taking on America’s academic establishment

    Who was he to doubt the work of a leading professional which had been accepted by the psychological elite?

    “The answer,” says Brown when I meet him in a north London cafe, “is because that’s how it always happens. Look at whistleblower culture. If you want to be a whistleblower you have to be prepared to lose your job. I’m able to do what I’m doing here because I’m nobody. I don’t have to keep any academics happy. I don’t have to think about the possible consequences of my actions for people I might admire personally who may have based their work on this and they end up looking silly. There are 160,000 psychologists in America and they’ve got mortgages. I’ve got the necessary degree of total independence.”

    “Not many psychologists are very good at math,” says Brown. “Not many psychologists are even good at the math and statistics you have to do as a psychologist. Typically you’ll have a couple of people in the department who understand it. Most psychologists are not capable of organizing a quantitative study. ”

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/19/mathematics-of-happiness-debunked-nick-brown

  4. Cliff Styles Says:

    It seems to me that apart from the value of self-testing to discover new health things, you are actually promoting a kind of heuristic for living that can apply to any arena, a heuristic that is as valuable as learning valid rules of inference. Part of what self-testing does is help us question our own convictions in a way that can produce evidence of an apt answer one way or another. Simply committing to self-testing, to mastering it, and then learning from doing it alters the way we think, not just our behavior in a particular domain. ‘Learning from really doing it’ is as much an education and testing or our own feelings as it is some objective test of the non-subjective world.

  5. emini_guy Says:

    I agree with gwern that experts and non-experts should be treated in the same way and subjected to the same level of scrutiny. I have benefited quite a bit from gwern’s research into melatonin and I have found melatonin helpful for improving my sleep.

    I have yet to find Seth’s ideas equally useful, but I do appreciate them as stimulating and I did give them a fair try and continue experimenting with them.

    It is not particularly hard, though, to find people who make their careers or build online reputations by attacking the ideas of others without giving them due consideration. The Internet made it quite easy for such people to flourish. Some of them may have hidden agendas, which you will not find out unless you do some extra digging.

  6. gwern Says:

    Sidney Phillips:

    > It’s been only 5 days since I had them removed but I already feel sharper, as if the brain fog has lifted.

    Mercury poisoning onset can take a long time (Minamata disease took 5 years from initial release to first diagnosis), the symptoms can persist for decades, and many are irreversible. Nootropics users taking worthless substances often report ‘feeling sharper’ and a lifting of ‘brain fog’ in the first week of consumption…

    MJB: you should really read Gelman’s comments on that research: http://andrewgelman.com/2014/01/19/british-amateur-debunked-mathematics-happiness/ Many stories are oversold, and that’s no exception.

  7. CC Says:

    Seth, I get your larger point, but I think the stuff you wrote about weight loss and AS has to be the most revolutionary. The rest of the medical establishment has made basically zero progress on obesity, and you discovered something significant and actually cured a bunch of people. Not surprisingly, academics refuse to take it seriously.

    So here you have a major health crisis, ONE person put a dent in the problem, and none of the authorities want to acknowledge it.

    [Btw, any hints for what what to do if the AS effect from ELOO fades over time?]

    Seth: I wish I could say I “put a dent in the problem” but I am afraid hundreds of thousands of people doing the Shangri-La Diet is not many compared to hundreds of millions of obese people. Maybe someday. I think the obesity epidemic is partly driven by a depression epidemic — that is the more serious problem. If you are depressed you eat certain foods to feel better and they are more fattening than other foods. I do have a new idea about what causes depression (lack of morning faces) but I have yet to write a book about it.

    If the AS effect from ELOO fades — and even if it doesn’t — I suggest you switch to nose-clipping other sources of fat, such as flaxseed oil and butter.

  8. Seth Roberts Says:

    “It seems to me that apart from the value of self-testing to discover new health things, you are actually promoting a kind of heuristic for living that can apply to any arena, a heuristic that is as valuable as learning valid rules of inference.”

    I have tried to do experiments in other areas but only in the area of health have I found my experiments paid off. For example, I used to measure the mileage of my scooter. These measurements were never very helpful, although I did them for years. On the other hand my self-testing has helped me in other ways, as you say.

    1. It has made me very skeptical of experts (because what they said was contradicted by what I directly observed) and I agree that such skepticism is at least a good starting point for understanding many things. For example, journalists gain nothing by being so credulous about what scientists claim. I recently gave the example of James Fallows and Eric Lander.

    2. I believe that if professional scientists did the self-testing I advocate they would learn better how to do their jobs, and that would help the rest of us.

    3. Another general lesson from self-tracking and self-experimentation is not to be dismissive. To realize you can learn from small things and imperfect things. This isn’t taught — if anything, the opposite is taught. Lots of smart people are dismissive.

  9. Cliff Styles Says:

    I got enormous and unexpected benefits from trying the experiment of eliminating wheat from my diet, and apart from the health benefits, it made me aware of some of my own biases, and that they are correctible, at least somewhat, if I am willing to self-test. I emphatically did not WANT wheat to be a problem, and it was only a nasty symptom that motivated me to try the experiment of eliminating it. I was somewhat dismayed by my discovery, though relieved, too.

    If I had been more attuned to self-testing earlier, for instance if I had learned self-testing as I learned about logical fallacy or other useful thinking methods, I might have approached many things in life with a view to self-experimentation and testing. That might have included testing things where I felt something that made the prospect of testing unpleasant.

    Your point about people being dismissive is something that I did to myself in many arenas. I think – suspect, really – that an attitude that included testing might have led me down some interesting paths.

    The question is how to test that, I suppose?

    Seth: No, I don’t think there is any need to test whether self-testing (doing it, learning about it) is beneficial. It obviously is. I think of literacy. It is obviously beneficial, we don’t need to wonder whether it is. Literacy and self-testing both give a wider relatively-unfiltered view of the world. Literacy shows the outside world, self-testing the inside world.

  10. Sara Says:

    Great post.

    I do think that credulity serves journalists in that questioning scientists would force them to do much more work, and expose them to having their own authoritativeness questioned.

  11. DA Says:

    @Sidney Phillips

    Sidney- I urge great caution with your detoxification procedure. Mercury is a neutrotoxin and must not be moved around without appropriate understanding and care. Your use of chlorella, in particular, can make things much worse. Please visit these two email lists:

    http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/adult-metal-chelation/info
    http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/frequent-dose-chelation/info

    and look at this book: http://noamalgam.com/

    Good luck.

  12. Brock in HK Says:

    Hsu’s comments should be accepted as the same platitudes that are offered to every graduating high school or college class regardless of its quality. “You are the future!!!!” The obvious clue is he told them they would advance science out of pure motives rather than for profit or gain. While a good launching point for this blog, it’s mostly innocent as a speech of its type.

    It certainly would be less inspiring to tell them they are insignificant cogs in a wheel and will probably not perform their chosen profession correctly, which is your assertion will happen. That said, you are probably correct about most of the promotees addressed.

  13. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Maybe it’s time for a list of self-experimentation friendly doctors.

    There’s already a list of fat-friendly health professionals: http://fatfriendlydocs.com/ — it exists because many health professionals tell fat people to lose weight instead of paying attention to actual symptoms.

    Actually, what I’d like is a list of health professionals who listen and think, but that’s a little harder to define and publicize.

    Seth: That’s a good idea. If someone sends me as little as one name I will post it. I would like to find a doctor near Berkeley who will approve lab tests that I will pay for.

  14. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Posting a doctor’s name is good, but having a page that’s easy to search for is better.

  15. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Correction: having a page that’s easy to search for and add to is better.

    Seth: Yes, I agree.

  16. John Smith Says:

    Seth, you ask the eternal question: which one….. egg or chicken? Which is the most important, the flintlock or the flint? In truth, it is neither, but both. Which gender is the most important, the male or the female? The answer is the same: it takes the pair of them to make it tick.

    Individuals can come up with innovative ideas, revolutionary ideas even and great solutions to problems, and they are the active entity. The establishments act as the stone, the flint, and the unmovable. It is the spark that they two emit that fires the cannon.

    Individuals whether professional or one of the people can come up with this new perception, but until enough of ‘we the people’ embrace it, it will not influence the establishments. The establishments are self-preserving and unmovable, whereas individuals are self-sacrificing and irresistible.

    Establishments will not embrace any innovation that threatens their status or the equilibrium of the ‘economy’ or the interest of the masses collectively. They are far more likely to sacrifice individuals as collateral damage just to maintain the status quo.

    The evolution of the round earth concept is my favorite example of how new perceptions take forever to be incorporated into the establishments. The unfortunate part of it all is when professionals come up with good ideas that work for individuals but would topple the society were those ideas to be implemented, they are faced with choosing between their own wellbeing and the advancement of the new idea. A cancer cure (for example) would be a disaster right now for our economy.

    The older an establishment is, the bigger it is and the more powerful, the more is at stake should it be made redundant by newer and more workable ideas. These new ideas can come from both professionals and common people. Ironically, the professional has more to lose should he postulate something that is against the interest of his power base, so the wise ones often look to see which side of their bread the butter is on.

    We the people have nothing to lose, so we speak our own truth regardless of how it may suit the establishments. As an example, I may postulate that the earth is still growing, as it reduces the light from the sun to matter in the form of minerals, which would be quite in keeping with Einstein’s theory. A professional is far less likely to postulate such a foreign idea, yet Jules Verne, (a playwright) could suggest space travel, regardless of how long it took Tsiolkovsky and his like to bring it into the realm of serious human endeavor. Jesus taught the people in parables. Lewis Carol hid his 12 place decimal system in a children’s book.

    Any new idea that is perceived to be a threat to the establishments will only fly when enough laymen endorse it. It could be suggested that until establishments yield we the people cannot progress (as a class). As individuals, however, we may progress and influence other individuals. Individuals are at liberty to change. Sufficient numbers of ‘us’ can change establishments. Establishments are loathe to change except in favor of themselves and their influence and control over the masses.

    By what measuring unit, standard or specification will we be able to know if the world improves? Isn’t this present moment the most perfect one?