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Andrew Huberman, I Am a Little Mixed Up About You

Updated: Apr 3

Preaching against porn and masturbation and then cheating on five women?

Dr. Andrew D. Huberman.
Dr. Andrew D. Huberman. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

I have to confess that, when I first heard about Andrew Huberman, I was envious. He is a neuroscientist like me who has managed to create an enormously successful podcast, the Huberman Lab. I should have done that when I retired.

On top of that, when I checked his publication record in PubMed, I found that he has great papers in some of the most prestigious scientific journals: Nature, Science, Cell, Cell Reports, Neuron and the Journal of Neuroscience. He is the senior author in most of these papers (last author), which means that the research was done in his lab.  I have also published a bunch of papers, but not quite as good as his.

So I got his podcast and listened to some episodes. Some of them were great. Some of his guest I had known for a long time, like Robert Malenka, a pioneer in the field of synaptic plasticity. I learned a lot from other episodes, like the one about sleep. Another one about nutrition confirmed my suspicion that sugar is slowly poisoning us and that carbs are the cause of metabolic syndrome and the diabetes epidemic.

Dopamine pseudoscience

Other episodes are disturbing, though.

He invited twice Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford who wrote Dopamine Nation. I read that book and it’s total pseudoscience.

Dr. Lembke promotes a new form of puritanism based on the idea that pleasure causes “dopamine spikes” in the reward system of the brain (ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens). These spikes supposedly lead you to become addicted to everything that causes pleasure, but especially to porn and masturbation.

Her book contains accounts of what I think is mistreatment of her patients. For example, she told a patient named Jacob to get on his knees and ask God for forgiveness for masturbating. Sounds a lot like conversion therapy to me.

She told another patient, a teenager who was forced to see her by her parents, that she was addicted to cannabis, which is considered non-addictive except for a small percentage of the population.

I debunked the whole “dopamine spike” story in this other article.

I posted a comment in the Huberman Podcast alerting him that what Dr. Lembke says about dopamine doesn’t match what science says. He ignored me.

Questionable ads

Dr. Huberman uses ads to finance his podcast. The ads are interspersed in the podcast and are voiced by him in a compelling tone. He often remarks that he would not promote a product that he didn’t believe in.

He uses a lot of the things he advertises, especially a multi-vitamin drink called Athletic Drinks. Its claims were discussed in another podcast I regularly listen to, Conspirituality, dedicated to “dismantling New Age cults, wellness grifters and conspiracy-mad yogis.” It is run by Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, Julian Walker and Mallory DeMille. They lean left. They do a great job of exposing the connections between some gurus, anti-vaxxer propaganda, climate denialism and right-wing conspiracy theories.

Puritanical views

Conspirituality also criticized Dr. Huberman for “coming to Jesus” in a recent episode.

This kind of makes sense, because Huberman’s defense of Dr. Lembke’s ideas boils down to a new kind of puritanism. He regularly condemns masturbation and porn, saying that they are addictive. They are not.

A lot of the appeal of the Huberman podcast is the advice he gives about how to live a healthy life. Some of it, like avoiding alcohol and sugar, makes sense. Some of it is pseudoscience, like saying that masturbation is addictive. And some of it, we simply don’t know.

The scandal

There seems to be a special curse on people who preach against sex: they become the center of a sex scandal.

Alas, Dr. Huberman was not an exception! On March 25, Kerry Howley published an article in New York Magazine detailing the problematic sex life of Andrew Huberman.

You can read the details there, if you want. The whole story can be summarized quite quickly. Dr. Huberman had relationships with five women at the same time while telling them that they were exclusive. Eventually, one of the women found out. Then they found each other and became friends. There was a sixth woman, but they could not contact her.

There is a joke going around saying that Huberman's health advice must work. Otherwise, he would not have the energy to have sex with so many women for years on end.

Not to mention managing the logistics to keep all those affairs hidden. In comparison, running a research lab must be trivial.

Andrew Huberman, a lying scientist?

Jokes apart, the main problem, for me, was that he lied to these women. For years.

I am polyamorous, so I don’t have a problem with somebody like Dr. Huberman having multiple love partners. And I say “love” intentionally, because I don’t have any trouble believing that he loved these women.

You can have multiple romantic loves. That’s what polyamory is all about.

Oh, but the lying!

In polyamory, being honest is a big deal. You go into a lot of trouble so you don’t have to lie to anybody. And, most of all, the people that are closest to you and you claim to love dearly.

I’m really sick and tired of people I admire getting metooed (yes, that is a new verb).

I am tempted to say: “Okay, look, he’s a mess, no question about it. But, still, he’s brilliant. He is doing a great job of popularizing neuroscience and enriching people’s lives.”

There is a problem, however.

Science is all about finding the truth. Science is based on a set of ethical values, and perhaps the most important one is a radical respect for the truth. In science, telling the truth is not just not lying. It’s saying “I don’t know” when you don’t have an answer. It’s saying exactly how sure you are about something. If there is more than a 0.05% chance that you are wrong, then you are not sure. That’s called statistics and error theory.

There is a lot of trust going around in science. Scientists believe that other scientists love science as much as they do. Falsifying results would be equivalent to a priest desecrating the most holy thing in his religion. Some scientists do publish fake data, it is true, but many are found out. The consequences when that happens are normally a career-extinction event.

So, here is the problem: if Dr. Huberman was able to lie to five women he loved, who else is he lying to?

The audience of his podcast?

The reviewers of his papers and grant proposals?

Losing credibility, in science, is death-serious.

Where do we go from here, doctor Huberman?

I don’t think this scandal will sink the Huberman Lab podcast.

Or, at least, I hope it doesn’t.

Dr. Huberman's credibility has been seriously undermined, however.

He will not be able to discuss sex, love and relationships in his podcast without addressing his past or sounding like a hypocrite. And those topics cover a big chunk of what is interesting in neuroscience.

I hope he doesn’t turn all this into another great American redemption story. I’m sick and tired of those. Besides, a coming-to-Jesus moment would not go down well with an audience that loves science and that probably includes many atheists.

He needs to get on top of this, though. And fast.

He needs to explain what he did, publicly, in his podcast. It would be best if he dedicated a whole episode to it. He needs to apologize to his exes, sincerely and profusely, and then leave them alone. He needs to apologize to his audience for having disappointed them.

To build back his credibility, he needs to take a huge step back from his most extreme claims. He needs to start speaking like a true scientist, with less assurance and more careful consideration of opposing ideas.

Maybe some of his advertising needs to go, too.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

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