I was saddened last month to learn of the untimely death of my friend Seth Roberts, a highly original thinker on matters that lie at the intersection of psychology and physiology Seth was known to many as a pioneer in the burgeoning field of self-experimentation. He was an early contributor to the Quantified Self movement, which owes a huge debt to his thinking. His experiments looked at how to optimize weight loss, mood, sleep, mental speed, balance and even to address specific conditions like acne. He wrote a blog on topics related to health and scientific method. I greatly enjoyed side discussions with Seth at the Ancestral Health Symposium meetings and personal correspondence over the years. This August, both Seth and I were scheduled to talk at AHS in Berkeley. While my talk on myopia will still happen, we will never hear his talk about self-experimentation.
Yet, to pigeonhole Seth as a primarily a self-experimentalist fails to understand what he was really about as a thinker. As a professional research psychologist, he focused on developing “productive explanations” — explanations that help us not only to make sense of an individual surprising observation, but that also make predictions about additional diverse and often novel practical applications. Self-experimentation was one important input, but certainly not his only source of experimental material. Self-experimentation has the virtue of allowing one to do more experiments in less time without spending a lot of money. Self experiments allow you to make incremental progress rapidly, to adjust and learn quickly.
But Seth didn’t stop there He typically synthesized results from many different fields into a coherent explanation. He was not against using data from larger experiments, even controlled double-blind experiments. It’s just that large “designed” experiments sometimes become unwieldy and expensive failures. Simple self-experiments get you started “learning by doing” and often allow you to make rapid progress and weed out untenable hypotheses quickly, before you sink a lot of time and effort into your investigations. The best example of how Seth combined self-experiment with classical science may be how he came up with the Shangri-La Diet, a seemingly wacky–but actually very effective–way of losing weight, safely and without hunger.