The Academic Cult of Personality

SARS-COV-2 gave a lot of prestige to people with boring careers in grey offices who formerly spent their days answering emails and holding meetings that mainly serve to placate everyone’s ego and reinforce unspoken internal hierarchies. Those at the top of the hierarchies moved on, but most of their younger ambitious underlings will never let go. This is their source of purpose in life, their raison d’être. The Eric Feigl-Ding’s of this world found their claim to fame and they will do anything to get their fix of dopamine again.

At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter to me, nor should it matter to anyone else who isn’t paid to care. It’s just one more problem that affects an increasingly obese and elderly population, inhabiting an exhausted Earth that is increasingly struggling to keep us all fed. The Anthony Leonardi’s of this world are falling victim to an all too common error encountered among academics: When you stare very closely at anything in nature, it starts to look unique. And if you look at something scary, like a virus, it starts to look uniquely scary as a result.

Let’s look for example, at two common claims about SARS-COV-2: It causes brain aging and it accelerates the decay of your immune system. Ask yourself: Is this new? It isn’t. Look at Herpes Simplex type 1 and you’ll find that it’s directly responsible for the Alzheimer’s epidemic. Your brain produces beta-amyloid in an attempt to deal with the virus, until the protein plaques then begin to interfere with your own brain’s functioning.

For the aging of your immune system, we can look at Cytomegalovirus. Another herpes virus that your body tries to get rid of, it has the ability to hide itself in your cells and so your immune system’s inability to get rid of it leaves your scarce immunological capacity filled with T cells looking for a virus they can’t eliminate. Once you’re old this makes you more vulnerable to inflammatory conditions, as you’ve lost the naive T cells your body needs to dampen inflammatory responses and stop a signalling cascade.

But rather than staring ourselves blind at viruses, I would ask you: How much success do you think your government could have at addressing this virus? Let’s look at another health crisis, that is responsible for causing premature aging, reduces life expectancy, damages the immune system, causes blood clots and heart attacks, dementia and kills millions of people every single year: Obesity.

How much success have governments had at addressing this blight? It’s clear they have an incentive to solve it, unlike cancer, which tends to strike when you’re too old to work. The US military is paralyzed by the lack of physically fit young adults and the treatments for obesity overburden hospitals. But here’s the US obesity rate:

Compared to solving a respiratory virus that rapidly mutates, hides out in wildlife and continually reinfects people, you would imagine that solving obesity should be simple: Calories in < Calories out and people will lose weight. There are various nuances involved like how many calories are really absorbed by your body and how many your body can burn, but the general principle still stands. You could lose weight eating nothing but McDonalds food, as long as you keep your portions small enough.

Whereas the gains to be derived from exterminating SARS-COV-2 are questionable, the gains to be derived from eliminating obesity should be straightforward to see: We would all look prettier, we would live happier and longer lives, we would have fewer medical expenses and life would simply be much better for everyone. We also know what needs to happen to accomplish it. But governments have proved utterly incapable of solving it.

And if this wasn’t enough, I would ask you, how much success have these people had at solving yet another crisis we face, the mental health crisis? This is a crisis that makes millions of people unemployable, burdens our healthcare system with failed suicide attempts, drug addictions and other misery, hurts the economy and altogether has every reason for governments to try to solve it.

But I would ask you, how much success have they had at dealing with this problem? They haven’t really had any. Suicide rates climb, drug addiction rates climb, the labor force is shrinking from the masses of people with burnout symptoms, teenagers in particular seem mentally crippled by the stress they are under.

So what has the academic-industrial-government complex accomplished in this regard? Well, let’s look at a simple example. Ketamine was invented, people started taking it at parties and began reporting that it seemed to make them less depressed. This is the holy grail in psychiatry, a drug that can immediately reduce depression and suicidality, as conventional SSRI antidepressants take weeks to kick in and merely tend to increase suicidality during the on-ramp and the off-ramp period, in fact I personally knew a man who lost his life when they added something new to his cocktail. So scientists jumped on the Ketamine opportunity, found out that it works and had to figure out a way to make it profitable.

Ketamine is an old drug, it’s not really patentable. If you wish to get a patent, you need to change it. Regular Ketamine is a racemic mix of two molecules that mirror each other: Arketamine and esketamine. The pharmaceutical complex went with esketamine, which is more visual and developed a nasal spray out of it. A few years later, the scientists gradually came to the conclusion that both esketamine and arketamine seem to do something, but most of the effect is down to arketamine and there seems to be a synergistic interaction between the two. The Esketamine now barely manages to beat placebo.

And what happened to the treatments based on Ketamine? Well there are some clinics in the United States you can go to. If you live in the United Kingdom on the other hand, you’re “shit out of luck”. After all, the UK government came to the conclusion that it’s too expensive and the results are disappointing. And it’s hard to blame them: It would cost 10,000 per person per individual treatment.

But here’s the strange part: As an average Brit, you can go to your local drug dealer and for 30 quid you’ll get yourself a gram of Ketamine. This is the racemic mixture that works best, rather than the esketamine found in the nasal spray. That’s how much this treatment would cost in the absence of all the intermediaries, box-checking government bureaucrats with fragile egos, marketing departments and various bureaucratic procedures involved. The legal route is 10,000 pounds, the illegal route is 30 pounds and probably more effective.

If you’ve seen how much success these people have had at solving the obesity crisis and the mental health crisis for us, I would ask you what you expect to accomplish if you were to ask these institutes, the universities, the governments and the pharmaceutical industry, to eradicate a widespread respiratory virus for us. There is exactly one country left today that claims to be capable of eradicating this virus, a dictatorship that has notoriously lied about eradicating other illnesses as well.

It’s not going to disappear. Your effort would be better spent asking yourself how it came into existence, which would lead you back to the same suspects: The universities, governments and pharmaceutical industry, that have a habit of engaging in various experiments with coronaviruses. They may have even given birth to some of the variants we’ve seen, either in the labs themselves or by giving people Molnupiravir, although the evidence is too circumstantial to know for sure. Giving these institutes more power breached the point of diminishing returns about a century ago, asking them to protect you from a respiratory virus is either an act of masochism or severe stupidity.

The universities where the Leonardi’s of this world receive their paychecks and use their grown-out eyebrows to impress their less-learned peers and their fifty thousand Twitter followers who are eagerly awaiting the latest update that reveals how we’re all going to die of COVID soon, are like the swollen prostate of an elderly man: An organ that is deteriorating in quality and yet continues to grow and demand more resources from a body that is increasingly harmed by its growing weight. Ask yourself what problems these people have solved in the past two decades or so, that has translated into a genuinely increased lifespan for the average human being.

As an American woman, your life expectancy at 65 has increased by a whopping two years, over the past forty years:

Now that the obesity crisis is kicking in and infectious disease is gradually becoming a reality of life again, that gain in life expectancy will reverse in the coming decades. And yet I would ask you: What can this gain in life expectancy be attributed to? I believe there is little of these two years left, if we take away two factors:

-The decline in smoking.

-The transition from animal fats towards the use of polyunsaturated plant fats (that is, seed oils).

It’s currently popular to complain in anonymous Twitter circles about the use of seed oils in all our food, but the rise of seed oils has gone hand in hand with a dramatic decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease. Spontaneous lethal heart attacks in seemingly healthy middle-aged people don’t happen very often anymore, because we don’t clog our hearts as much as we used to.

And that leaves us to ask ourselves: With improved nutrition and the decline in smoking taken into consideration, how much success have the Leonardi’s of this world really had in addressing the main causes of death that affect the elderly? About as much as they had in impressing us with their eyebrows.

On the other hand, there has been quite some success at getting people to live to the ripe old age of 65. Type 1 Diabetics, Down syndrome patients, HIV patients, these are the sort of people who have seen a great increase in life expectancy over the past forty years. The sort of people who haven’t seen an increase in life expectancy, are the sort of people now dying from SARS-COV-2 and Influenza.

The low hanging fruit has been harvested. When it comes to deaths that happen due to multiple problems stacking up together, that is, the sort of deaths caused by Alzheimer’s, Influenza, SARS-COV-2 and other causes of death in old age, that’s where we start seeing the problems. We seem to make zero progress at solving aging. If you accept the claim that Jeanne Calment was actually her daughter and thus did not live to 122, we still haven’t seen anyone exceed the Genesis maximum age of 120.

It should be physically possible to cure aging: You restore organs that see a decline in cells and you remove the junk that our bodies produce over time. However, it runs into the exact sort of problems that characterize the modern pharmaceutical-academic-government complex: Aging is not seen as a disease in its own right, so funding is very limited. You need multiple treatments simultaneously to see any real effect on aging in animals, but studies with multiple different types of treatments administered simultaneously are rare, because it means using multiple patented drugs from multiple sources.

I don’t think we should solve aging, anymore than we should try to solve SARS-COV-2. Life has meaning because it’s limited. We’re one consciousness, that enters multiple different bodies simultaneously, to go through a wide diversity of experiences, that have meaning because they’re separate from other experiences. It’s good to fall in love for the first time, take psychedelics for the first time, go out by yourself into the woods for the first time, become rich for the first time, live on your own for the first time or become a parent for the first time. These things lose meaning as we grow excessively old. If anything, ninety years seems like more than enough for one lifetime to me. The ideal world would be one in which most people live out most of their lives as children, without having to go to school.

And so that tends to be what characterizes modern academics. They spend their lives growing out their eyebrows and trying to solve problems that shouldn’t be solved, but should be understood. The birth of SARS-COV-2 was supposed to be a humbling experience for scientists, as the fingerprints of a synthetic origin are all over it and all their attempts at controlling it made it worse.

And yet, by obscuring the truth they transformed it into the opposite: It became the apotheosis of the expert. It turned out the universities are filled with narcissists, people studying arcane subject matters who are merely awaiting an opportunity for them to emerge from their concrete dungeons and burden us all with their own celebrity cult.

The cult of personality of an artist is almost always tongue in cheek. You act like a king, while everyone knows you’re ultimately a joke. That’s why it’s tolerable. Tommy Cash is someone who understand that subtle distinction. Even a celebrity turned politician like Donald Trump understands that your claim to greatness needs to have an undertone of irony for us to tolerate it. You shouldn’t overdo it, because then we start to pity you, but it always needs to be present. When they forget it, that all human claims to greatness are ultimately a joke, that tends to be when they’re pulled down into the abyss.

The academics ultimately face a similar fate. They will continue to embarrass themselves in the annals of history. Just as future generations can’t experience the collective mass hysteria of interbellum era Germany, we won’t remember the fear that people felt in response to this virus. Rather, what will be immortalized are the indignities that people began to tolerate and the celebrity cults of people who appear to have really no admirable qualities whatsoever. It is generally recommendable, to pray for protection against your own human inclination towards hubris.

15 Comments

    • Academics are idiots.

      I will insist on that point even though I myself hold a PhD in Medical Biology. I can tell you with confidence that even colleagues and superiors in my field are rarely able to think for themselves. I assume there is simply too little exploration being done, with most of the time at university spent with absorbing already discovered facts without any critique whatsoever. And yet at the end of it all, the young person should be able to look critically at scientific publications? Impossible. I can not imagine how much worse it must be in other, more artsy disciplines.

  1. This one was easy to Google, you just have to choose a correct three word phrase from your description and it’s right there at the top. OK but I am good at googling and I even remembered some subject-matter from uni about this.

    I just came up with “the name of a major city in Central Europe that was famously besieged many times but never conquered by the invading armies of a neighboring empire adhering to a foreign religion, the final attempt marking the beginning of the gradual decline of the attacking state and the last attempt of a major spread of said religion into Europe” and I can’t Google the answer so easily just from the words used in my description.

    • I also think I owe you a substantial comment, not just a report on my degoogling experiment.

      “When you stare very closely at anything in nature, it starts to look unique.” Very original with a nietzschean twist.

      Great article, one of your best so far. You manage to effortlessly blend multiple pertinent topics (Covid, academia, cult of expertise, obesity, mental health) in a concise manner with interesting tidbits (I didn’t know about seed oil) and insights but still arrive somewhere, managing just to pull the threads back together.

      • Thanks, I’m flattered. I’m embarrassed the question is so easy to Google, thought I had broken it up enough for that. I have to think of ways to ask interesting questions that you can’t just throw into Google.

  2. I agree that obesity is a huge problem, but is it a government’s responsibility?

    Most of the people have no interest in their own health: they smoke, drink, don’t sleep
    and at well, they don’t exercise, etc.

    I am not sure we want another government heavy handed program. In the US, every one of these is a complete failure: “war on drugs”, “war on poverty”, was there a “war on covid”?

    • >I am not sure we want another government heavy handed program.

      Yes, that’s the point. You’re going to benefit in no way from asking your government to eradicate a respiratory virus for us by prohibiting social interaction. It turns into yet another unwinnable war against an invisible enemy.

  3. Really like your example of ketamine to highlight the pointlessness of a pharmaceutical industry in general. Very little innovation going on there compared to what the industry is worth, because it’s mostly an attempt to sell pills against bad lifestyle. Truthfully though they do test a vast amount of substances (modern pharmaceutical discovery is a blast for anybody who is even 10% nerd). And the substance class called biopharmaceuticals is crazy cool. Targeted DNA aptamers will join those ranks at some point too, but they have only existed for a few decades now so why rush ourselves?

    Aging is increasingly seen as a disease, and there are already some promising attempts to address it, see NAD boosters and senolytics. Truth be told though, everybody will die at some point, be it via falling piano or cosmic supernova – the universe doesn’t care. Also you’ll die inside much earlier. The question isn’t how we avoid getting old, the question is “how do we age [and live] more gracefully?”. And the answer to that is sports, cold exposure, fasting.

    As for the decrease of heart disease due to plant fats, I call a massive load of bullshit on that. A reduction of heart disease DEATHS is caused by better treatment options first and foremost. Obesity, which is THE key risk factor for heart disease, has risen according to the graph you show. So it’s medically impossible to have appreciably fewer heart attacks. But you would know that if you would take off your vegan™ glasses for a second. That would make you realize that the artery-clogging small-LDL particles are actually produced by the body itself, namely when metabolic disease (obesity -> diabetes) is present. An additional factor needed for deposition of cholesterol droplets in blood vessel walls is damage to the cholesterol molecule itself, which popularly happens via oxidants from smoking (you got that part right) and high blood sugar, which in turn is mainly related to calorie abuse with a special focus on carbohydrates. At no point in this sequence do animal fats play a unique causal role, and accordingly there is no point at which plant fats could improve the situation. Indeed, as a critical thinker you should be the first one to realize that the “cholesterol-lowering” plant fats are a hoax and a marketing gag.

    It’s time you asked yourself why you’re taking every possible opportunity to preach your vegan diet to others. Do you really follow it because you believe it’s the right thing to do? Or are you obsessed with it? I am reminded of those Christian or Muslim people whose faith is so incredibly weak that they can only be OK with themselves once everybody else in the world agrees with them. It’s very easy to excuse fanatic behavior with the justification of saving the world. Religious people might just want to save your soul. Stalin and Mao just wanted to save Russia and China. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

  4. We seem to make zero progress at solving aging.

    Read “Lifespan: Why We Age―and Why We Don’t Have To” by David Sinclair. He is an aging researcher and he claims we are making a huge progress at solving aging.

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The patients in the mental ward have had their daily dose of xanax and calmed down it seems, so most of your comments should be automatically posted again. Try not to annoy me with your low IQ low status white male theories about the Nazi gas chambers being fake or CO2 being harmless plant food and we can all get along. Have fun!

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