Andrew Huberman: When Bro-Science Gets A Ph.D.

andrew huberman brutally honest review

Andrew David Huberman is an American neuroscientist, podcaster, and popular “optimization guru“.

In this article, we review Huberman and one of his videos.

We’ll be looking for potential red-flag power moves.
And for techniques that may be used to acquire power, fame, and authority.

Andrew Huberman Power Moves

Huberman:
Welcome to The Huberman Lab Podcast, where we discuss science and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine

Did he drop enough high-authority keywords within the first 10 seconds?

Good, then we’re ready to go 🙂

Huberman says this episode is eminently practical.
And I picked it for two reasons:

  1. Should be fair to Huberman, since I expect practical advice to be more straightforward
  2. Less theory means I can leverage my expertise. Persuasion, manipulation, power moves, etc.

We analyze straight quotes from this episode.

Let’s go:

1. Use extra jargon for extra authority

Huberman:
Elevating your feet (….) can be really beneficial for increasing the depth of sleep because of the so-called glymphatic washout.

This could be fair.

So consider it more of a personal note.
But to me, it’s a first potential red flag as a possible authority power move.

You know, just in case you forgot the “science” and “lab” plastered everywhere around Huberman’s name :).

Of course, there is nothing wrong with displaying your authority.
You can easily under-do it.

But as for everything, balance.

I feel Huberman overdoes it.

2. Forget Pareto. Spin insignificant gains as major benefits to hook your audience

Going on one of his trademark “quick side note”:

Huberman:
(raising your legs at night) lead to more wakefulness and actually can improve cognitive function and a number of other things related to brain health.

Bro, please!

To me, this is one of the worst red flags. 🚩

Huberman’s wording leads listeners to believe that “elevating your feet by 3 to 5 degrees” can significantly impact “cognitive functions” or health.

I’d bet a million that elevating your feet at night will not significantly impact cognitive functions.
Or “brain health” for that matter -a nebulous term that to me, means nothing-.

Worst yet, this approach drags many people down the over-optimization trap.

2.2. Use the “casually dropping gold” power move to make them think you have endless gold to drop

Why does Huberman talk this way?

Because the sub-communication is:

  1. I possess endless life-changing advice (“casually dropping gold” power move)

Think about it.

What does it sub-communicate when you drop gold in a tangential remark that wasn’t even your main focus?

That you have so much gold that it’s overflowing.

Any time you open your mouth there’s a golden nugget. Even when you’re casually digressing or mentioning a “quick BTW”.

  1. I nonchalantly drop gold left and right, so you better listen

Since you never know when this guy will drop life-changing optimization gold, you must listen to everything they say

To me, it’s an annoying form of “value-inflating”.
And it’s manipulative because it’s based on BS.

In truth, the basics are much fewer, and simple.

It’s just not good for Huberman to tell you that.

3. Over-complicate things to make them feel clueless. And they’ll come to depend on you

5 techniques to sound more authoritative.

All from the same continuous quote:

Huberman:
Not just that cortisol peak but it’s going to trigger proper metabolism (<— Bamboozling technique. What does “trigger proper metabolism” mean? It’s too fuzzy to convey any real information. It’s just a bamboozling device to sound authoritative)

And:

Huberman:
it’s going to set a timer for you to be able to fall asleep about 16 hours later and on and on and on (<— Pull rank technique. Makes it sound like it’s a long and complex list. He knows it well, but he’s cutting it short “for us non-scientists”. A power move to “pull rank” on the audience)

And:

Huberman:
And I should mention within the on and on and on (<— Breadcrumb technique. Frames it like he’s picking one thing among the many he could pick to give us a juicier detail. The game is “here’s a crumb for you, but there’s a whole bigger loaf where that comes from because I’m an expert”. Another power move, and to me it feels like he’s about to add more smoke without any substance)

And:

Huberman:
suppress any melatonin, a hormone that (…) It does a number of other things too (<— again, frame that “he’s not gonna bother us with all the details”, but covertly showing off he does know all the details),

And:

Huberman:
including interact with the adenosine system and kind of wash out some of the adenosine that might still be residual (…) (<— Big words techniques. covert authority displays with unneeded details and “big words” power moves such as “residual”)

And:

Huberman:
Fundamentally speaking, get that morning sunlight viewing (<— Big smoke strategy. This is what it’s all about. So, after bamboozling us with smokescreens and jargon, everything could have been boiled to a simple sentence. Thanks for saving time, Andrew)

Overall, I get a major covert brag vibe of “Look how smart I am”.

Very effective if you can’t spot it.
Very off-putting when you can.

Andrew is a good guy and these techs can be used for good.
Still, you wanna be aware of them so you don’t get all the bathwater with the baby.

4. Talk more than necessary. Verbosity is mistaken for expertise. And extra time is extra ad revenue

Huberman now shares a good old tip:

Earplugs to sleep through noise

Eearplugs allowed me to sleep over long plane flights.
Or whenever I had the misfortune to end up in hotel rooms next to busy streets.

To me, they were HUGE.

So you think it should be a GREAT and easy tip for sleeping in a noisier environment.
And that it should also be easy to explain, right?

Furthermore, given Huberman’s brand of “science-based”, you’d hope for some actual research, right?

Well, none of that.

Huberman over-complicates that too.
And without saying anything value-adding:

Huberman:
In addition, I get a lot of questions about earplugs. Here’s the deal with earplugs. Some people find that earplugs are very beneficial because, of course, they prevent the entrance of sound into the ear that could wake us up.

Yeah, thank you, Andrew.
I would have thought earplugs were to stop background cosmic radiation.

But there’s more:

Huberman:
But some people find that the sound of their own beating of their own heart can be disruptive and they get a sort of humming in their head when they have those earplugs in. I’m one such person. Although, I have family members that like using earplugs when they sleep. 

Compare the communication if one sought effective delivery of information:

Effective communication: Some ask about earplugs. They work for some, not for others. Try it and see

But that would have been too simple eh?

In the end, the episode was more than 1.5h.
In my opinion, it could have been a 15-minutes video, with no loss of information.

But the goal was NOT optimizing for information delivery -see what I did there?-.
It was to display authority, covertly brag, and entice the audience to subscribe and watch more.

Strategic Caution Or… Cowardice?

Huberman strategically avoids anything that could bother his fanbase

Huberman uses what Chris and Matt call “strategic ambiguity”.

Such as, Huberman straddles divisive issues to avoid antagonizing anyone in his audience.

No matter how clear the issue may be, or how convinced he may be, Huberman keeps it vague.

Intellectual honesty and truth be dammed.

Let’s review some examples.

1. Huberman has no opinion on vaccines? Convenient… 🪱

Huberman:
Some doctors say that you should all vaccine. Some say none

No sh*t Sherlock.

Next time call this clueless idiot (me) to summarize the research literature on vaccines.
I may add more value than that by reading ChatGTP aloud.

I’ll use strong words on this.

To me, it feels a lot like coward cop-out.

And it’s the main reason I’m writing this review.

This guy has millions of followers who trust him.

He may have helped the world.

He may have called out the bullshitters.
Encouraged people to take vaccines.
Or if he doesn’t believe in that, he may have told them not to take vaccines.

Whatever.
I don’t have a horse on that race.
I’m not judging the right call, I’m judging the honorable behavior.

But Huberman took the easy and less honorable road.
Right when he could have swayed the public discourse the most, his silence was deafening.

Lost tons of respect.

Andrew Huberman: an opinion on everything f*cking meaningless hack and supplement… But couldn’t say a word on what really mattered

2. There is “some evidence” for all woo-woo. So Huberman keeps everyone subscribed

Two examples:

2.2. The benefits of “grounding”

“Grounding” is the practice of going barefoot in nature.

Some say there are health benefits.

In one of his podcasts, Huberman says “There is some evidence for that”.

Yeah, like what’s the evidence, Andrew?

What’s the evidence that walking barefoot on grass improves your health?
Please show that to me.

This is where, to me, Huberman comes across more like a woo-woo bullshitter than a scientist.

And it’s not even to say grounding can’t be good.
Or nice.
I may even do it.
It’s just that I don’t believe there are any measurable health outcome improvements doing it.

2.3. The benefits of red-light for injury recovery

In another example, Huberman says:

Huberman:
I’m not talking about the benefits of injury recovering from red light, albeit we can also talk about that.

Huberman throws another bone to the over-optimization crowd.

And leads people to believe that there are measurable outcomes from injury recovery from red light.

He never mentions what they are though.
Too bad because THAT I’d have been curious to hear.

I bet you though that there isn’t much evidence at all.
That was just another technique to keep people hooked.

Next time you break a bone, don’t go to the hospital for a cast, Andrew.
Just sit in front of a red light.

Bro Mis-Reads & Oversells “Research”

Please note:

I’m addressing the approach to science here.

I don’t have the tools to criticize Huberman’s takes on medical research.
But I am better positioned to assess the approach to science and epistemology.

Such as, critical thinking, analytical thinking, and healthy skepticism -or lack thereof-.

As a general approach, Huberman has been criticized for:

  • Overselling small-powered studies
  • Exaggerating the significance of petri dish and animal studies (which notoriously often fail to apply to humans)
  • Misrepresenting mechanistic data as proven human outcome data

I had the exact same feeling.

To me, Huberman’s approach feels like fan-boying over-reactions.

Again, I’m not well-placed to judge Huberman’s ability to make sense of individual medical papers.
But when it comes to general approaches, overall, I perceived a worrying lack of critical thinking and an over-believing mind.
And the failure to appreciate that good science and good advice is grounded on high quantity and quality of data.

To not appreciate that, is to do pop science.
And risk giving misleading and potentially harmful advice.

That’s why, Ph.D. and “lab” notwithstanding, to me Huberman is a bro-scientist at heart.

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Shilling Supplements 💊

This is the most popular criticism against Huberman:

Huberman over-states supplements’ role in a healthy life, and then sell supplements via his endorsements.

Of course, Huberman never directly tells anyone to buy supplements.
That’s his cover, after all.

But he endorses a supplement producer.
And he often talks about the benefits of supplements.
Put two and two together, folks.

Machiavellian Covert Selling… Without Selling 🐍

A quote from our original episode:

Huberman:
What I’m talking about is taking 900 milligrams of myo-inositol also 30 to 60 minutes before sleep along with the standard sleep stack

If Huberman says that supplements should be the last thing you look into… Why does he frame “sleep stack” as “standard”?

Machiavelli would say it’s a technique to covertly sell without selling.

Such as:

  • Covertly promotes supplements with a frame of normality and “goes without saying (that you take them)”.
  • Celebrity & expert covert endorsement: do as I do, not as I say. Huberman covertly sub-communicates that HE takes supplements. This is a combination of the old famous-spokesman endorsement model. PLUS, the “authority endorsement” after he built his authority as an expert.
    How could a follower not follow him?

Optimizer 1.0 evolves with a PhD

I agree with the Conspirituality podcast here.

Huberman is the PhD evolution of old over-optimizer 1.0 such as Tim Ferriss and Aubrey Marcus & Joe Rogan.

And he follows in the same footsteps of profiting from the supplement-hungry over-optimization crowd.

SUMMARY

Andrew Huberman is not a terrible guru.

In many ways, he’s a good guy.

I’ve seen a few of his videos and may see more in the future.
When you’re open to trying new things, his bro-approach may be better than more cautious “proper scientists”.

I wouldn’t fully trust his advice, but I may try and adopt some of it.

This article though focused on the criticism and red flags.
Despite the overall “goodness” of Huberman, I believe the criticism is fair, relevant, and important to be aware of.

For those red flags, I’d recommend caution in consuming his content.
Caution in adopting his advice, or purchasing his endorsed supplements.
And, finally, caution not to be dragged into the bio-hacking porn.

Speaking of which, if you consume lots of Huberman and the likes, please read this:

Biohacking Porn: Quit OCD, Embrace Life
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