In a TED talk, Stewart Brand pointed out that all over the world, poor villages — the same villages that Jeffrey Sachs seems to want to preserve — are vanishing. The people who lived in them have moved to squatter cities, where, according to Brand, there is zero unemployment and a much better life. Because Jeffrey Sachs’ interest in poor African villages seems to be recent, I am not surprised that he may end up on the wrong side of the helped/didn’t help ledger.
This is the general pattern with experts today: Sometimes they help, but often they make things worse. In a comment on an earlier post, Dr. Erika Schwartz called modern medicine “a system that more often harms than helps.”
We are living in the twilight of expertise because we now have alternatives to experts — better alternatives. Squatter cities are a new thing. They solve a very difficult problem (poverty) because they combine three things: (a) People care about themselves and their children (far more than any expert will ever care). (b) The technological knowledge behind the many small businesses (e.g., hair dresser, copy center, pirated videos, cell phones) that allow squatter cities to exist. And (c) something that brings the first two things — caring and know-how — together, namely the cities themselves. Of course, squatter cities owe nothing to Sachs-type experts.
The self-help self-experimentation I have done is another new thing. I solved the difficult problems of how to control my weight, my mood, my sleep, and a few other things related to omega-3, such as my gums. None of which I am expert in — I am not a weight-control expert, a sleep expert, etc. I attribute my success to the combination of the same three elements that come together in squatter cities: (a) I cared. I care about myself far more than experts care about most of the people they try to help. (b) Scientific knowledge — both statistical methods (e.g., exploratory data analysis tools) and basic behavioral science (e.g., the rat experiments of Israel Ramirez). (c) The ability to combine (a) and (b). Self-experimentation was a big part of this, but not the whole thing. My job as a professor and the research library system allowed me the time and opportunity to learn the scientific stuff. The flexibility of my job helped a lot. For example, I almost never had to use an alarm clock to wake up, which allowed sleep self-experimentation. The solutions I discovered are quite different from conventional solutions, but no more different than squatter cities are from what Jeffrey Sachs has prescribed.