Seth Roberts, Guest Blogger: Finale?

Here is the latest (and maybe final) post from our guest blogger, Seth Roberts. If you need to get up to speed on Seth’s unorthodox research with weight-loss, mood, acne, and sleep, click here (our N.Y. Times article about him), here (research extras and pix), here (the first round of reader comments), and here, here, here, and here for his earlier blog postings.

“The Elephant Speaks”
Fri., Sept. 15

Dubner asked me to blog about what may have been wrong with his and Levitt’s New York Times piece about me. In the 1950s, the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov was proposed for a position in Harvard University’s Department of Modern Languages, which included Russian. A professor who opposed the hire said, “Are we next to appoint an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” Isn’t asking me to comment on the article kinda like that?

There are two kinds of self-experimentation. Type 1 is very common: When you or I or our neighbor – anyone, in other words – tries different ways of solving a personal problem. I have acne; I try different treatments. You want to get more exercise; you try different ways of motivating yourself. Our neighbor wants to lose weight. He does Weight Watchers, or eats less chocolate, or devises his own method. (One of my students tried to lose weight by shopping at Safeway less often.)

Type 2 is rare. It is when a researcher uses himself (all the examples I know of involve men) to test a theory or medical advance. He serves as the subject in an experiment he might have done as part of his job. Who Goes First? is all about Type 2 self-experimentation; several examples (Santorio, Ebbinghaus, Herbert, Siffre) are here.

My work was Type 1 on steroids. I plotted data. I used my knowledge of the research literature to help decide what to do. I even devised a new theory of weight control. In these ways it resembled Type 2. But it was always Type 1 because it was always self-help. Type 2 is never self-help.

When Dubner and Levitt say I did “scientific self-experimentation” or I decided to “use [my] own body as a laboratory” or “What could be a more opportunistic means of generating data than exploiting your own body?” it sounds as if I was doing Type 2. I wasn’t. I was doing Type 1, “dressing it up and getting funding for it.” I didn’t get any funding but I did get it published.

The subtitle “The Accidental Diet” must have puzzled most readers. It’s true, in the grand scientific tradition, that my discovery of sugar water’s useful effects began with an accident (in Paris). However, the article doesn’t describe the accident. (You can read about it here or here.) At certain places I was puzzled. “Poking, prodding and measuring himself more than might be wise.” More than might be wise? Why? “Rigorously recording every data point along the way.” I’m not sure what that means. Could Dubner and Levitt have a weakness for alliteration?

An elephant’s eye view.

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  1. Skeptonomist says:

    Self-experimentation may be appropriate in some cases, but in many cases it is not. In the case of acne, for example, many different causative factors have been proposed and I am very skeptical that they could all be properly controlled in a single subject. If one were to try an experiment on something like this, maybe the first thing to do would be to observe for a considerable period of time, holding *everything* as constant as possible, to assess the “random” variability.

    Suppose that acne is essentially random, that is not attributable to any one of the causative factors under consideration, but is highly variable on the time scale of the experiment. Then different self-experimenters trying out different variables would get fairly random results – sometimes positive, sometimes negative. The results reported by the original blogger and the respondents seem to me to be consistent with this hypothesis.

    Self-experimentation may be a freaky subject, but I think getting valid results will still depend on proper control of the variables, which is not a simple matter.

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  2. Hal says:

    I remember a story about a religious teacher. People asked him, how should we pray? He said, don’t just pray by memorized prayers, as so many do. Instead, pray from your heart, like this. And he extemporized a prayer.

    But of course, people missed the point, and they simply memorized the prayer he gave. They recite it to this day.

    The same mistake is made, I think, in reading about your work. The real lesson is in the value of self experimentation. What works for one person may not work for another.

    But the lesson people are drawing is to copy what worked for you. They stop taking their acne pills and drink sugar water to lose weight, because that’s what worked for you.

    And maybe these things will work for them, but maybe they won’t. What they should do is to keep records, as you did, try different things out, and see what works and what doesn’t.

    Of course, that’s a lot more trouble. It’s easier to copy from a leader, whether it’s a diet or a prayer, than to figure things out for yourself.

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  3. beegee says:

    The core of self-experimentation seems to be keeping records and interpreting them.

    Keeping records on your weight, mood, blood pressure, etc. is hard. For most people it’s challenging enough just to keep track of their checking accounts.

    It would be very helpful to have some kind of web interface to keep track of all this stuff. Anyone have any suggestions?

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  4. K says:

    I think you got it Hal.Listen closely to the leader/teacher(Seth). Use his information as a starting point in your own self help experimentation. Record your observations.The record is three things. 1.)Data to draw conclusions from and modify/change approach. 2.) A motivator to continue effective behavior. 3.)The most interesting reading you can do.What subject matter is more interesting/important/stimulating to you than yourself?

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  5. Bonnie says:

    Hal, your point is excellent except… Seth has refused to give “advice” (even refusing to provide simple kitchen measurements) not out of concern for the integrity of self-experimentation but rather TO PROTECT THE SALES OF HIS FORTHCOMING DIET BOOK! Which will, we may assume, contain actual procedures rather than a treatise on self-experimentation. If Seth hasn’t already figured it out, his publisher will surely inform him that nobody will buy the book UNLESS it provides an easy-to-understand regime.

    BTW I’d love for Steve Levitt to address this idea of “not giving away the store.” I know of no other diet guru who takes this approach – especially after putting himself out there on a well-attended discussion forum. For example, on need not buy the Atkins book or the South Beach book to learn exactly how many grams of carbs one should consume during the “induction phase.” And a few minutes in front of Dr. Phil will uncover the meaning of “high response cost/ high value” food. One then buys the book for the recipies, the glycemic index charts, the science details, and the cheerleading. When someone tells me that I have to buy the book in order to find out if it’s worthwhile to buy the book… well…

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  6. serena says:

    OK I see we’ve moved on but some burning questions remain about the set point stuff.

    1. Why won’t the taste of the sugar become associated with the calories in the sugar?

    2. Is the ingestion of non-flavor-associated calories actually affecting a direct change to the set point? Or is it simply an appetite suppressant? f it’s just an appetite suppressant, then we’re not changing the set point, we’re enabling ourselves to ignore the set point.

    3. If it’s indeed true that a flavor/calorie association changes the set point, then can the association be broken? One reason I think so many bloggers are clamoring for a sugar-water recipe is that Seth’s paper implies that one false move will ruin forever the chance of the diet working.

    My personal observation is that it had better be an actual set point change, because appetite doesn’t tell anything near the whole story. I just ate about twice as much ice cream as I “needed” to satisfy my craving. Why? Because I was enjoying not only the flavor but the texture, the refreshing coolness, the whole experience. The fact that I may have officially shortened my lifespan was not a strong enough disincentive.

    This is the real question of weight loss for me: anyone who cuts calores and excercises enough, every day, for the rest of his/her life, CAN maintain a healthy weight. It may be that some of us (who are genetically screwed) need to make exercise our life’s work and live forever on 1,000 calories a day, but the success of bariatric surgery proves it can be done. So why aren’t the disincentives strong enough to counter the short-term incentives?

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  7. I am “Seth’s friend Tim” (Timothy Beneke) who lost 100 pounds pictured with a “before” (March 1999) and “after” (September 1, 2005) picture in the photo gallery. (Before: After: I made use of Seth’s basic principle that calories with weak or even zero taste reduce hunger, and developed a new method. Consuming calories with weak taste, and more recently, with zero taste, practicing what I call “taste celibacy” has enabled me to lose the weight.

    Some weight details:
    November 2, 1999 — weight: 280. Began eeating weaker tasting low glycemic index foods — eating fruits instead of juice, cutting out strong tasting desserts; no bread or potatoes; eating more low GI fruits and vegies (I used the book “The Glucose Revolution” as a guide to glycemic index.)

    September 2000. weight: 250.

    July 2003. Weight: 250. Began using roughly 350 calories of Star light-tasting olive oil a day scattered between meals, and continued to eat somewhat weaker tasting/low GI foods.

    June 2004. Weight 210. Began experimenting with a mush, composed of liquified fruits and vegetables, mixed with a powder made of brown rice, almond meal, flax seed meal, dry non-fat milk, garbonzo powder, potato flour, and soy protein powder. I cooked it all together in water until it reached a moderately hard consistency. Then I take a tiny spoon, take some mush, and place it in my mouth, and take a big gulp of water and float it down my throat bypassing taste. I wash my my mouth out with water if I notice any lingering taste residue — which is rare. Doing 25% of my calories with mush and olive oil only kept me at 210 for 10 months.

    April 22, 2005. Weight 210. Then I began experimenting with total taste celibacy — getting, initially for a few days 100% of my calories taste free. Between April 22, and today, September 17, averaging about 75% of my calories taste free, I’ve gone from 210 to 177, and am confident I can lose a bit more. I plan to lose another 8 pounds. I found, to my surprise that while taste celibacy deprives me of a certain pleasure, it’s also liberating because eating has been such a source of worry, guilt, anxiety and ambivalence for so long.

    There is a great deal more I could say but will stop for now.

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  8. Robin says:

    Ok, Dr. Roberts, your lack of knowledge of your own field has been frustrating me for this entire series, and I’m finally annoyed enough to respond to one of your articles. The field of self experimentation is much more common than you seem to think (your Type 2). I can think of lots of situations where psychologists have used themselves, simply because they couldn’t persuade anyone else to do the boring tasks. But possibly the most extensive example is that of Dr. Marigold Linton (who is a woman — putting to lie your notion that it’s only been men). She did a 6 year study of her own memory, writing down 3 things that happened to her each day, assessing them for various aspects of memorability, and then testing herself on her recognition of them at different intervals. She went to a lot of effort to eliminate bias — e.g., she typed every one on the same typewriter, so that the type idiosyncracies wouldn’t be an inadvertent clue. And she didn’t take breaks for vacations or illness. One report of her work is in “Real world memory after six years: An in vivo study of very long term memory” in the book “Memory Observed” (1978).

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