Personal Science Week - 27 Oct 2022
Find statistical significance in your Apple Health data, humble curiosity, and more
Personal Science is science done for personal reasons (understand something for yourself) rather than professional ones (it's your job), and this is a weekly summary of ideas we’ve found useful for anyone who’d like to be a Personal Scientist.
Export Apple Health Data
If you wear an Apple Watch, or have any of your fitness or health data stored in Apple Health, you’ll want to look at Health Auto Export, an app for Mac and iOS that can turn your data into easily-processed CSV or JSON files.
Apple Health data is viewable from Apple’s own apps, but becomes even more useful when you can look for patterns by combining it with other data.
For example, do you sleep better on nights you take a melatonin pill? Export your data into a CSV file and easily calculate statistical significance with Excel’s T.TEST function. Follow the step-by-step directions at the new Personal Science Wiki.
Although Health Auto Export comes in a free version, rather than waste time with that or the cheap monthly ($1) or annual ($6) subscription options, I strongly recommend you go for the Premium Lifetime version ($12). Not only does the Premium version give full access to all features, but it’s a great way to help support more work from the Indie developer Lybron Sobers.
Enjoying Humble Curiosity
The personal scientist never really knows for sure. This sense of humility may be unfamiliar to people in the modern era, but in fact much of earlier scientific progress depended on it. Rutgers Historian Warren Susman, as quoted in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, refers to a shift in the Twentieth Century from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. As economic prosperity and new technologies allowed more interaction with distant people, success came to be determined by attributes that could be immediately sized up. A first impression matters more if you are less likely to cross paths again.
Our current culture puts a such a premium on the appearance of confidence that maybe we forget how much of this is a show. How often do people — including famous scientists — really, truly know something to be true, and how much of it is bluster born of a cultural requirement to rise above the noise?
The people behind the excellent site https://lesswrong.org perhaps know this lesson best. Instead of striving to be right, try to be less wrong. Science progresses not by learning to “accept” a hypothesis, but rather by failing to reject.
But the flip side of – what shall we call the opposite of confidence? humility? – must not be a retreat into the familiar. A personal scientist is distinguished by a constant, intense fascination with the unknown, and especially with paradoxes that go against familiar wisdom.
Rethinking the COVID Pandemic Reaction
I’m reminded of this while viewing the new (free) 1 hr YouTube documentary “Out to See”. It’s an extended interview with renowned Stanford physician scientist John Ioannidis, whose 2005 essay “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” is among the most highly-cited papers of all time. As editor for more than 20 peer-reviewed journals, his work in epidemiology, nutrition, and more gave rise to the entire “metascience” movement that examines the serious crisis of replication affecting all of science.
Until in early 2020 he spoke up against lockdowns, school closures, mandatory vaccinations, and other panic-induced countermeasures to the COVID pandemic, Ioannidis was universally respected as a careful, methodical scientist. In this interview, he explains how shocked he was at the vitriol directed at him for asking, in all humility, the same basic questions he’d asked his entire career. Ironically, despite having been proven correct in nearly all of his early estimates, he remains a marginalized figure, treated with disdain by the policy-makers whose main qualifications turned out to be their loud confidence.
A Personal Scientist, by necessity, must bear the occasional sneers and condescension directed at our work. After all, we’re “not real scientists”. But to me Ioannidis remains an important example worth emulating: quiet, skeptical, humble, and always focused on uncovering the truth.