Boy, that escalated quickly! And caused me to write my first ever blogpost in English. I’m thinking this will interest international audiences as well. If it did, welcome!
But wait, what *exactly* happened and why are you reading some random Finnish dude’s blog in English?
Roughly about a week ago, I saw an ad stating that the annual Biohacker Summit event in Finland had invited David “Avocado” Wolfe as a keynote speaker. My initial knee-jerk reaction was: well, they’ve finally Jumped The Shark.
I let it go for a few days (places to be and things to do etc..) but then Wolfe’s visit popped into my newsfeed again. This time, shared by Quackwatch in their Facebook-page.
And now I’m suddenly pissed.
As far as I know, Wolfe has never been in Finland and by Flying Spaghetti Monster, I wasn’t going to let this happen now. Not on my watch and certainly not without a fight. (Edit: after writing this, it was brought to my attention that Wolfe actually had been here before in some small events)
So I took to my keyboard and let the hat… err.. my thoughts flow through. I explained that the reason I had never written about biohacking in my blog was that I honestly never felt comfortable doing so. I simply didn’t know enough.
(To my international readers; the name of this blog translates to ‘Healthy Skepticism’. Haha, original, right!? My topics are science and critical thinking from the perspective of health-related topics. Lots of alt med, fad diets, basics in science understanding, cognitive biases, etc..)
In my post, I briefly described my original thoughts as they were when I first heard of biohacking: I was skeptical. But like a proper skeptic, I decided to look in more detail about the specific claims and the evidence behind them. Turned out, I was actually able to find some traces of decent stuff! Some things about ergonomics, sleep and meditation were basically ok. Nothing that I wouldn’t find somewhere else, too, but still nothing too bad.
But boy, was there a lot of bullshit, too.
Dave Asprey has ventured beyond any reason now and the Bulletproof-craze is even dumber today than it was a few years ago. I’ve also seen a lot of excitement based on preclinical animal research. Some biohackers will recommend whatever nutritional supplements, herbal products, diets, treatments and whatever based on extremely weak evidence. In my post yesterday, I cited studies showing that for example in cancer research, only about 8% of treatments discovered in animals end up being useful in humans. In a stroke review, it was found that out of six hundred treatments in mice, only one reached human use. And even that was because it was useful elsewhere! Even if you take the top-7 scientific journals and pick the highest cited papers (>500 citations), only about a third of mouse treatments end up useful in humans.
So yeah, not cool to recommend some obscure pills based on preliminary data.
I also noted the potential risk of ‘cyberchondria’, an internet -induced form of hypochondria caused by googling your own symptoms.
My overall conclusion back then was somewhat agnostic: basically the core idea is not bad. Why not apply some hacks and gather data of yourself? Especially if you’re able to keep things from taking over your life.
But then again, the constant flirtation with pseudoscience and the occasional batshit-crazy personalities were the Red Flags keeping me on my toes.
Until Avocado tipped the scales.
I thought perhaps Mr Wolfe wasn’t all too familiar to some of my readers or some folks in the biohacking community. So, I wrote a lengthy bit about some of his nuttiest beliefs and the way his business operates. I argued that by endorsing a guy like this, the biohacker community is essentially declaring that they’re willing to pay for any nonsense and signalling to the public that they’re no longer interested in science and evidence. This was perhaps accidentally reinforced by the Summit referring to its venue as ‘The Church’. A detail that was not left out of my blogpost.
Eventually, I concluded that while the Biohacker community had, in my opinion Jumped The Shark, I was hoping to be wrong. I expressed my wish that the invitation of Mr Wolfe would cause enough criticism also from within the biohacker community that the organizers of the Summit would take note and action.
Some 20h later, I received a comment from one of the organizers, Teemu Arina, that they were likely to replace Mr Wolfe. A couple of hours from that, the Biohacker Summit issued the following statement:
“The organiser committee of the Biohacker Summit 2017 has revisited David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe’s involvement as a speaker. The Biohacker Summit 2017 conference held on 13-14 October in Helsinki, Finland stands for critical thinking, research and data-driven improvement of human performance. To support this agenda we give stage for both scientists and pioneering practitioners and individuals conducting their own research.
New information has surfaced in our investigation about David Wolfe’s background and has changed our stance regarding his suitability for inclusion as a speaker in this conference. In this process we have taken into account the feedback we have received from our valued biohacker community. As a result we have decided to remove David Wolfe from the list of speakers.”
My hat was instantly off to these guys!
But let’s take a few steps back, quickly..
Upon sharing my blogpost on facebook (that’s my main channel for sharing them but also for shorter news and other content), it very quickly reached a crowd of >10k users. That’s unimpressive in a global scale but pretty decent in a country of some 2,5M out of 5M people on facebook. As I’m writing this, the reach is >16k. Original tweet has been viewed some 2000 times.
However, as I was writing my original blogpost, I came across some heated discussions at Biohacker Summit’s facebook-page. Many potential attendees and folks whom I interpreted as members of the community had voiced their outrage at the organizers for the invitation of Wolfe. The organizers had acknowledged the critique. They even asked for more evidence so they could do a more deep dive.
(My inner cynic tells me that’s just them buying time. There’s NO WAY they were unaware of Wolfe’s nonsense. But I’m hoping to be wrong, again)
Therefore, as much as it would love to take credit for playing a role in keeping Mr. Wolfe out of Finland, correlation doesn’t equal causation and a more likely explanation is that the organizers of the Biohacker Summit were already aware of the problem associated with him. I’d like to think they were already considering replacing him and perhaps my blogpost was icing on the cake. Or maybe it didn’t even have any effect. In any case, it certainly brought this issue to a wider public.
Whatever the reasons may be, I feel like we’ve scored a small victory for science and reason here. There are still many, many problems with the biohacker movement and some of the remaining speakers in the Summit are just as bad as Mr. Wolfe – but, hey, at least they don’t have 11M followers. Maybe the bar will keep rising for next year and the demand for better and better science continues to progress within the biohacking community.
But for now, I salute the organizers for this decision!
Finland sends a message to the global skeptical community: keep up the good work! Progress CAN be made, as we’ve shown.
And to Mr. Wolfe: please stay away. That toxic gravity is stronger up here, anyway.