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Huberman Schmuberman: A rising tide of criticism of the bright new star of wellness podcasting (Member Post) 

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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For the last year, people have been singing the praises of the Huberman Lab podcast to me. And singing, and singing. Someone has recommended it in the comments on every other post on the PainSci Facebook page and my Project Try Everything newsletter. It has quickly become an inevitable mention for anything related to lifestyle medicine or wellness optimization.

People love having a source like Huberman to “cite.”

I have listened to some of the podcast, and was impressed by some of the early episodes. For instance, to this day I’m making a point of getting outside at sunrise and sunset on the strength of Huberman’s apparently evidence-based advice. He literally “changed my life” insofar as I am actually doing my life in a different way because of things that he said.

Not that I’ve actually noticed a difference in my sleep. I’m doing it largely on “faith” in the science he cited and the arguments he made.

Faith that is now fading fast. Like a sunset.

Dark phot of a professional studio mic half in shadow, with the word “hopecasting” superimposed on it, and the caption, “There isn’t enough legit good news about wellness optimization to fill an ethical show.”

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Where it all started to go wrong (and it didn’t take long)

The microbiome episode was the first to make my eyebrows really scrunch up, along with “6 Key Tools to Improve Your Gut Microbiome Health” (the blog post). Not all six are wrong, but what’s right is rather boring, and what’s more exciting is very overstated — and that right there is the template for health optimization hype. Other than just not abusing your gut (duh), there isn’t one science-based way to meaningfully upgrade your microbiome. It cannot be done. We simply do not have the science.

The cold exposure episode was the next bucket of cold water. There were a number of issues there, but mostly what I noticed was that it was just way too positive. Excessively, suspiciously positive.

But I am less familiar with those topics, so I didn’t make too much of it. I just thought, “Hmm, I am now officially concerned about where this is headed.”

But stretching! Now that is one of my favourite topics. That’s my turf. And the stretching episode was horrifying to me, and absolutely a deal-breaker. It was not entirely nonsense — again, good hype requires a foundation of the basics — but the reek of overstatement was too strong for my tastes.

I will not be tuning in again. I am getting off the Huberman train.

There’s just not enough good news for an honest show

Science-driven “good news you can use” about how to care for yourself and solve all kinds of life problems is a terrific premise (highly marketable), but there’s an obvious problem with it: it’s unsustainable, because there’s just not enough legitimately good, useful news. I think Huberman quickly worked his way through the low-hanging fruit… and now, so soon, he’s charging into false-hope territory.

And the whole thing feels like a bait and switch to me: impress people with some legitimately good content and high production values, lots of polish and expert oomph, make it all seem Very Impressive… and then put a price tag on it. And start recommending supplements. And, sure enough, the price tag arrived on Oct 2: for USD $100/year, “Huberman Lab Premium +” (OMG, another “plus”! I swear, one of my greatest entrepreneurial accomplishments is resisting the temptation to call my membership program PainSci+).

It’s not that I object to the paywall in principle — I’d have to be quite the hypocrite to be outraged by selling content! It’s just that I don’t think the content is good. In my opinion, I do not think it is worth what he is charging. I think he’s just selling hope with the authority of science and a premium academic affiliation.

Scientism at its finest.

History is chock-a-block with grifters like this, and especially recent history. Some are probably true con artists, people who know it’s a scam — definitely Alex Jones, probably Paltrow — but most really believe in what they sell, and they are dangerous in proportion to their earnestness and their credentials and how well they cover their bullshit with science glitter.

Beware of fancy people telling you, with footnotes, how to “hack” your biology. Especially if they have sponsors.

Speaking of which, Huberman isn’t just selling subscriptions. Because of course he isn’t.

A rising tide of criticism

Stretching was the topic that got to me, but for Jonathan Jarry, it was supplements. In his April article for the McGill Office for Science and Society, “Andrew Huberman Has Supplements on the Brain,” he starts by giving Huberman credit where due (as all debunkers must do to be taken seriously, and yet we still always get hate mail from people who don’t give us credit for giving credit!):

Andrew Huberman is indeed really good at explaining what happens to neurotransmitters in the brain and to hormones inside our body when we experience stress, for example. He can boil down complicated neurobiology so that a non-scientist can understand how the human body works. Even though his podcast is firmly rooted in the masculine space of “body optimization” that has grabbed hold of large swaths of the tech sector, Huberman is a lot less “bro-ey” than his fellow influencers. There’s a real gentleness and care to his delivery. The packaging is less aggressive, but the content does not stray far from Silicon Valley’s love affair with the tweaking of healthy human biology.

And:

To Huberman’s credit, he does prioritize behaviour and dietary changes over the consumption of supplements, and he tells his fans to avoid food and caffeine before bedtime to ensure quality sleep. But it is difficult to sustain a long-form podcast—and invite numerous sponsors—when your advice is trimmed down to inexpensive common sense.

But Huberman doesn’t stick to inexpensive common sense, or his episodes would be over in five minutes.

Having given credit, Jarry points out the potentially corrupting influence of Huberman’s many sponsors, including several of the usual suspects in the wellness and supplements industry — like Athletic Greens, from whom you can get a steady supply of very dubious value for just USD $80/month.

And he points out some of Huberman’s slapdash, good-news interpretations of the science. For instance, according to Huberman, myo-inositol is supported by “an enormous number of studies.” But according to Jarry, it is “thin gruel”! Huberman’s take is standard fare for supplement promotion, where the science is always “promising,” the body of research always “growing.” But when someone without a finger in the pie takes a look-see? It’s mostly “meh” or “seriously?!” or worse. Supplements have taken a real beating from the science in the last twenty years… even as they are marketed more successfully than ever.

It saddens me to see such a gifted educator promote poorly supported bro science to so many people, but the appeal of the extramural rostrum, where the academic promotes hype and pseudoscience, cannot be denied. Inside the walls of academia, there are guardrails. On a podcast, however, anything goes, and the credibility of academia goes a long way to lend authority to supplement endorsements.

More examples of criticism of Huberman’s hype (including one particularly juicy one)

Despite the popularity of the podcast, clearly not everyone is a fan. Here are several more examples:

  • Dr. Michelle Wong tried to find a citation for Huberman’s claim that some sunscreens pollute brain neurons. Michelle reports that she did get “about a hundred comments across all the platforms telling me I could’ve just asked him and he’d probably respond though” … but no actual response from Huberman.
  • Dr. Jen Gunter says: “His episode on female hormones was atrocious and featured someone who is heavily into supplements and who counts Northrup as her mentor.” (Dr. Christine Northrup is a high-profile flake, on the record expressing belief in chakras, astrology, angels, mysticism, feng shui, and Tarot cards, and she has earned extensive, harsh criticism for the way she “famously pushes woo in the cause of women’s health.” In other words, she's the perfect opposite of Dr. Gunter.)
  • Dr. Asaf Weisman, a neuroscientist like Dr. Huberman, pulls no punches (ever): “He is a BS artist that dumbs down science to the shallowest popular level possible. His neuroscience knowledge is probably the same as any high school student and his ability to critically appraise studies is embarrassing.” Tell us what you really think, Dr. Weisman! To be fair, he might well say the same thing about me.
  • Matt Stranberg, a sports science specialist, says that Huberman is “someone I personally consider a charlatan. He has some good guests on from time to time and says some valid things here and there but mostly pseudo scientific infotainment and the cult of scientism masquerading as learning/education.”
  • Dr. Gideon “Health Nerd” Meyerowitz-Katz): “This paper on cold immersion recently went viral, because it seems to indicate that cold water can improve many facets of human health! Except, [the paper shows PRECISELY THE OPPOSITE OF THAT].” His excellent tweet thread elaborates.

And one more special example…

  • Every successful grifter has impressive credentials and affiliations, and Huberman is a perfect example of this: “neuroscientist at Standford by day, podcaster by night,” as Jarry put it. But… is he actually a neuroscientist by day? John Vaughen, a PhD student at Stanford, doesn’t think so: “Andy has no current lab, after abandoning MANY trainees. 🙁 He never comes in and is a nightmare to get ahold of for teaching neurobio classes. ‘Podcaster by day and night.’ Ah, tenure…” John adds that there’s just “one amazing postdoc doing everything solo,” and he shared this pair of images to illustrate his point: on the left, "Huberman Lab 2018," showing a group of several smiling students with Dr. Huberman. On the right, “Huberman Lab 2022”: just a series of promotional thumbnails for podcast episodes.

I know all too well that subscription income can be corrosive

It’s tempting to tell people what they want to hear for many reasons, but recurring revenue from subscribers is a particularly powerful incentive. I know this because I’ve been a little corrupted by it myself. My own two-year-old membership program has already been a little corrosive to my editorial integrity. Not disastrously so, mind you — consider how unpopular this very post will probably be!

But the temptation to pander for the sake of financial security never stops nipping at me, and I have not entirely resisted it.

For many years, I had something precious: near perfect editorial independence. It was one of the greatest strengths of my content, and it was by design. I was not beholden to anyone, especially advertisers or colleagues. I never felt like I needed to bend over backwards to “please” anyone: I was selling enough books that I could just do my thing.

But then book sales plunged in 2020 (for unclear reasons, but “something to do with Google”). And so I had to pivot to selling subscriptions to loyal fans — hi, yes, I’m talking about you — and I almost instantly started worrying about what my paying subscribers (you) would think. I can’t annoy my members! They — you — pay my friggin’ rent! So of course I worry. It would be weird if I didn’t.

Even worse, I also started to worry about what potential subscribers would think.

Once I had customers paying me on the regular, I no longer felt entirely free to just tell the truth as I saw it. Suddenly I found myself walking on editorial eggshells! I minimized the negative, accentuated the positive, and started to avoid “dangerous” topics. (Like this one!) It was clear that I was playing it little bit safe, tuning my message for its “acceptability” to a broad audience.

This change isn’t all bad, of course. I probably needed some of my curmudgeonly edges ground down. Interacting with customers on social media has resulted in a huge upgrade to my ability to apply the Principle of Charity. I “keep it classy” better than ever, and that’s just a good thing.

But there is definitely a slippery slope from there to … pandering. Selling out. There’s a fine line between playing it safe and just getting into the business of telling people what they want to hear, as long as I can make it sound even a little bit evidence-based. It would be so easy.

It seems like Huberman might have rocketed down that slippery slope in less than a year. (Unless he actually started at the bottom and I just wasn’t cynical enough to see it.)

How successful/profitable would his podcast be with 80% less good news? What if he only offered advice that can actually be supported with good evidence? How would his idealistic-sounding project be going if he replaced the too-good-to-be-true content with substantive critical analysis of the copious bullshit on the same topics?

You know, like I try to do? 🙂

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