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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.