Search the Site

Freakonomics in the Times Magazine: Does the Truth Lie Within?

The September 11, 2005, Freakonomics column concerns Seth Roberts, a Berkeley psychologist whose very long and frequently strange history of self-experimentation has led to, among other things, a revolutionary new diet. Click here to read the article. This blog post supplies additional research material.

  1. Self-Experimentation: Here is the academic paper on which the column is based, covering Seth Roberts’s many experiments with weight loss, mood, and sleep. (Here is a much shorter version.) In the long version, Roberts is good enough to describe several historic instances of scientific self-experimentation:
    • Santorio Santorio (born 1561), an Italian doctor, discovered insensible perspiration by measuring his intake and excretions over 30 years.
    • Ebbinghaus (1885/1913) began the experimental study of memory with work done over a 5-year period.
    • In 1961, Victor Herbert, an American medical researcher, ate a folate-free diet for 5 months to determine the effects of folate deficiency.
    • In 1962, Michael Siffre, a French cave explorer, lived in a cave for 2 months without time-of-day information, measuring his sleep and other variables.
    • Another famous self-experiment, which Roberts fails to mention, was particularly daring: the 19th-century German medical researcher Max von Pettenkofer once drank a test tube of cholera bacteria to try to disprove the emerging theory that diseases are caused by germs. Von Pettenkofer managed to not get cholera, but he did commit suicide after a cholera outbreak proved his anti-germ hypothesis disastrously wrong. (see John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, p. 53).

      Another modern scientist who has taken self-experimentation seriously is Allen Neuringer; for examples of his work see this chapter by him and Roberts. For another example of mood-related self-experimentation with surprising results, see this article about bipolar disorder – the self-experimenter in this case was Jack Pettigrew, a vision scientist in Australia. Here is a scientific paper about Pettigrew’s ideas.

    • Weight Control: Here is a draft of Roberts’s paper called “What Makes Food Fattening: A Pavlovian Theory of Weight Control.” His work on weight control is based in part on work by Michel Cabanac (such as this and this) and Israel Ramirez, above all this — without which, says Roberts, his own theory would not exist. Anthony Sclafani has done more than anyone else to clarify flavor-calorie learning, a key part of Roberts’ theory; a review by Sclafani is here.
    • Other Work by Roberts: Is Roberts is a serious scientist? Yes and no. Some of his recent work is listed here. An article for Spy, the dearly departed satirical monthly, is here. An essay about teaching, economics, and human evolution is here.
    • Other Diet/Obesity Information: There is a great deal of recent literature on the causes and history of obesity. Here is a very small sampling:When Culture and Biology Collide, by E.O. Smith (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2000), especially Chapter 4: “Fat, Diet, and Evolution.”

      The Super Size of America: An Economic Estimation of Body Mass Index and Obesity in Adults” (Natl. Bureau of Economics working paper), Inas Rashad, Michael Grossman, and Shin-Yi Chou.

      Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic, Oxford University Press, forthcoming) by the University of Chicago political scientist J. Eric Oliver.