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.