In memoriam Seth Roberts (1953 – 2014)


A couple of weeks ago (April 26) Seth Roberts died; he collapsed near his home in California. He was a Professor of Psychology at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. He was also the author of bestselling book The Shangri-La Diet.  His diet seems to be something many Australians might benefit from. But I leave that for another blog entry.

I came across Seth’s work the first time when I read his Behavioural and Brain Sciences 2004 target article titled “Self-experimentation as a source for new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight”; admittedly, I was initially a bit amused and apparently I was not the only one with this reaction. While the BBS target article was about his own travails and the ways he had decided to address his demons (insomnia, weight problems, etc.), it was also an interesting methodological reflection about the ways we generate new ideas about issues that in economics we refer to as self-command problems. Said he, “it is noteworthy that 12 years of self-experimentation led to the discovery of several surprising cause-effect relationships and suggested a new theory of weight control, an unusually high rate of new ideas.” (Abstract)  In his later reflection of the reception that his work received among his peers and elsewhere, he estimated that the rate was of order of magnitude 3.

As mentioned, when I chanced on his BBS target article I was at first amused but reading it (and the commentary that it provoked), it became clear that there was an interesting person at work, as also indicated by this Scientific American portrait. It’s fair to say, that reading the BBS piece did have some influence on my own attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of self-command and it still makes for a good read.

In the aftermath of his untimely death, it has been suggested that his experimentation with (and miscalculations about) Omega-3 fatty acids might have caused his collapse; a subsequent message by his mother on his blog and responses to it suggests several other explanations (amalgam fillings, heavily polluted fish in Shanghai). It will take a while for the competing explanations to be sorted out.

Seth’s final paper was just published in a special issue (dedicated to him) of The International Journal of Comparative Psychology (Vol 27, Issue2, 2014). The article is titled “How Little We Know: Big Gaps in Psychology and Economics” and it strikes me as an(other) important methodological reflection.

The key argument is that foraging and human learning experiments (including those in economics) are focused on the last step in the learning experience: “learning after rats have learned where to go and what to do, but after a while, perhaps after several thousand experiments,  it would be more profitable to study learning before rats have learned where to go and what to do.” Similarly, for higher animals such as humans: “Likewise, almost all economic research is about the use of economically-valuable knowledge. Almost none of it is about how that knowledge originated or was transmitted.” The word “almost” is an important qualifier here. Economists have of course, like psychologists and neuroscientists of various persuasions (e.g., Goldberg in The Executive Brain and The Wisdom Paradox), dealt with issues of learning at the pattern-recognition level. While he gets wrong what Adam Smith had to say about these issues – that happens if the only thing you know is The Wealth of Nations — , Seth has a point when he deplores economists’ under-investment in the study of innovation from the pico(micro-micro)economic level to the macro-macro level (we are talking Acemoglu & Robinson 2012 here).

Seth’s final paper is as inspiring and thought-provoking a read as was his early BBS target article. I recommend it.


3 Responses to "In memoriam Seth Roberts (1953 – 2014)"
  1. Thanks for the tribute. Seth was a close friend and collaborator. He was certainly provocative and perceptive. He was not afraid to make mistakes, because he always found value in learning from them. I guess he and I were birds of a feather in that respect.

    Btw, some of Seth’s friends are arranging a special tributary symposium to Seth at UC Berkeley on Sunday, August 10th, just following on the Ancestral Health Symposium (August 7-9th), and his sister and mother will be holding a reception afterward. I know the US is a long way from Australia, but just thought I’d let you know in case you were interested and able to attend.

    • Thanks, Aaron. I won’t be able to make that symposium since I will just have returned from Europe and will have to teach … Nice idea though …

  2. Nice. I was so surprised that Seth took such an interest in my own self experimentation that I’d outline on my blog over some years. I guess it makes sense though. In the realm of self experimentation, literally anyone gets to do it, no credentials required.

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