The Qualified Self

It’s a race against the clock.

Bill wants to get to the finish line, but there’s a wall in the way – a big one. Going around isn’t an option, so he generates as much momentum as possible, presses down with force and explodes skyward.


Again? No.

One more time? Nah.

Instead he jumps down some plumbing pipes, pops out the other side, runs to the next screen and saves the princess.

Billy is a 6 year old scientist.

He formulated a hypothesis: ‘To get past the wall I need to jump over it’. Billy conducted the experiment as best he could, but it didn’t yield the result he hoped (a different story if he chowed some shrooms earlier). He then formulated a new hypothesis, tested it and got the result he wanted.

Science is a word used to describe lots of different things. Done well it’s typically falsifiable (Popper), predictive (reproducibility) and has a hard to vary explanation (Deutsch).

Science is usually assumed rigorous. This prevents us from being scientific and asking questions about it. Instead, with a simple enough definition the scientific method is a natural mode of thought. It therefore predates science, humanity even.

This mode is a keeper, problem is it’s just one of many. So smart people double down on it.

Health Science

If done well health studies are useful for the scientifically literate.

Useful but imperfect.

Science contradicts itself. This is a good thing, consensus contradicts skepticism. Science is impersonal. ‘Average’ is a valuable concept, but it’s still just that. Science is slow.

And of course not all science is done well.

Sometimes the execution, interpretation and hypothesis sucks. Sometimes studies are picked to get published and others aren’t. Sometimes other human scientists can’t be bothered doing reproducibility research.

Science used to tell us cigarettes were healthy. Today we’re much better than that but unless the world ends tomorrow, science isn’t done. There are more moderate pro-cigarette equivalents in todays science that will be clear in 10 years.

Useful but imperfect.

Doing Subjective Better

Given the imperfections (inherent and correctable) of health science there’s a bunch of nerds who take science into their own hands. The Quantified Self movement.

With varying degrees of scientific rigour they conduct self-experiments and keep score with objective metrics.

Rather than rely solely on studies to punctuate decision making, they’re used as a starting point for personal hypotheses.

I’ve been Quantified Selfer. Objective metrics provide clarity that can’t be achieved otherwise.

Problem is data is a little boring for me, I’m not quite wired that way. Lots of people want to be healthy but aren’t wired for data either. Lot’s of people aren’t scientifically literate.

People will always be biased towards the stuff they’ve read. This includes objective metrics.

So whats the solution? What about the foibles of subjectivity?

. . .

You’ve got a headache. Why is it there?

2 hours ago you had bacon and eggs on toast with avocado, mushrooms and some dijonnaise sauce.

You eat the same meal again the next day and get a headache.

Third day same again.

This doesn’t prove that one or some of the foods above causes headaches. Maybe it’s the time of day you eat. Maybe it’s portion size. Maybe the headache is from spending too much time in front of your laptop. Maybe it’s a million different things.

However infantile, this is science (according to my working definition). Hypothesis, experiment, result. This gives birth to new hypotheses – it’s the fucking dijon.

It can stay this simple, which makes highly imperfect learning available to heaps of people. They have to eat, might as well pay attention. Otherwise people can keep asking better questions and be as scientifically rigorous as they want. The more the better.

The trick is making the feedback as clear as possible.

Science and objective metrics are associated so often they’re considered inseparable. By our infantile definition though the scientific method existed before numbers.

Before continuing the word ‘placebo’ might be in your head, it’s important because it interferes with clear feedback. The placebo effect isn’t a rock hard entity though, it’s by definition subjective.

Say the most intellectually confident person you know has a thought or two on the best supplements to take. Being right is more important than anything to them. Now there’s another person whose done 20 consecutive days of personal experiments. They’re doing their taxes and suddenly, a headache. Does the placebo effect apply in the exact same way, to the exact degree to them both?

Your epistemologically arrogant person and the humble experimenter are two extremes. The placebo effect likely occurs on a spectrum.

For the scientifically inclined, the measurement bias can trivialise important subjective information.

. . .

What I’m about to say has a dash of fiction in the salt shaker, but it’s a helpful story.

Hunter/gatherers had to know their environment well. If they couldn’t find something to eat they’d die. If they ate the wrong thing they’d die. They didn’t have blood glucose monitors so their best option was to see how their bodies responded. Effective feedback helped us to survive, so you could say that symptoms are part of our evolutionary toolbox.

Fast forward to today and if a weird symptom occurs people see a doctor (as they should). Compared to our ancestors there’s also more food eaten and different types of food eaten which makes feedback more noisy. Therefore the distance between ingestion and symptom is wider than it used to be.

As an aside, our modern landscape isn’t very conducive to experimentation is it? Science done with the same genetic background and environmental factors would be far more controlled.

There’s many problems with the primal utopia idea, I won’t go into it all here. But for one, they didn’t have scientific thinking methods which are available to us. If Obama’s birth certificate is any indication bad ideas can spread. Bad ideas spread back then too.

Safe to say though their symptom mechanism was functioning better than ours. They listened better.

Ask any QS’er and they’ll tell you unless a heart stops no metric encapsulates it all perfectly. That’s why they often use more than one.

No degree of scientific rigour and symptom sharpening will ever free us from our subjective foibles. But the symptom mechanism combines complex bodily processes and transforms it into simple feedback. Symptoms can provide rays of insight that current objective metrics can’t.

Useful but imperfect.

Being alive right now you have the opportunity to use tap into our collective body of health knowledge, use skilful modern thinking techniques AND sharpen the symptom tool.

Thanks to measurement bias there’s an axe in the toolbox many have forgotten about.


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