The problem with JP Sears
You might know JP Sears from his popular ‘Ultra Spiritual Life’ videos in which he presents a parody of faddish new age ‘spiritual’ beliefs and healthy eating/life coach gurus. See, for example, his viral send up of self righteous vegans:
Sears’ videos are often funny and witty and have proved popular with skeptics and rationalists because they effectively lampoon various fad diets and new age spirituality, highlighting the hypocrisy and logical leaps made by supporters. This has led many to assume that he is a comedian with a critical thinking or skeptical bent. Unfortunately, this seems to be an unwarranted assumption.
The first warning flag is that Sears not only lampoons new age spirituality and self-help, he also is a genuine life coach (about to launch a premium subscription service).
Sears personal website describes him as a “an emotional healing coach” who offers one-to-one sessions and organises retreats “to empower people to live more meaningful lives”. It also explains that he holds “certification as a Holistic Coach Advanced Practitioner through the Holistic Coaching Institute in Columbus” and “served as a faculty member for the C.H.E.K. Institute from 2006–2013”. The Holistic Coaching Institute is ‘real’, as is the Corrective High Performance Exercise Kinesiology Institute and both are chock-a-block with dubious pseudoscience. John McMullin, the head of the Holistic Coaching Institute, promotes courses on ‘bionetic homeopathics’ and Paul Chek (the man who put the Chek in CHEK institute) endorses every pseudoscientific position he can find, including hardcore anti-vaccine conspiracies.
It would be unfair to damn Sears for his associations, despite his glowing endorsements of McMullin as a “powerful mentor” who “changed his life” and promotional videos for the CHEK Holisitic Lifestyle Coach program. After all, couldn’t his satirical videos be indicative of how his views have changed based on his experiences within the ‘holistic lifestyle’ industry?
Maybe… but probably not.
Sears’ qualifications and chosen career are warning flags but it is the actual content of his videos that set off the loudest pseudoscience klaxons. He might be best known for his satirical parodies of egotistical new agers but if you look a bit deeper into his content you start to see elements of the anti-science sentiment and fondness for conspiracy theories prevalent throughout the ‘holistic’, ‘wellness’ community.
Take, for example, his ‘How to be Mind Controlled’ video, posted just a month ago.
Here Sears offers a sardonic monologue ‘arguing’ for the benefits of not thinking for yourself and letting the daily horrors promoted in the media leave you fearful and easy to control. It might be tempting to interpret a video like this as a welcome call for people to think critically about what they see and avoid sensationalist media coverage. But Sears’ advice seems to go further than this and mid-way through the video he inserts the line:
I want to be heavily vaccinated so I can be protected from the diseases that I’ve been told to be extremely afraid of.
The implication here is not subtle; Sears’ likens vaccinations to terrorism and other fears exaggerated in the media order to keep control the gullible. But is he just joking? Again, it’s possible. But it seems unlikely that he threw a random jibe at the anti-vaccine movement in the middle of a video which otherwise relentlessly hammers the message that mainstream narratives cannot be trusted.
Sears’ commented on the issue on his facebook group by poking fun at those voicing concerns at the anti-vaccine line saying: “I think it’s the end of the world because JP said something about vaccines.” Not entirely helpful and also a convenient way to promote standard anti-vaccine rhetoric and then sidestep criticism with ‘lolz, I’m just joking… (or am I)?’
If this was just an isolated example then it would be worth giving the benefit of the doubt but genuine conspiracy sentiments are not that uncommon in Sears’ content. Below is another recent video of him discussing the controversy around coconut oil and the American Heart Association’s (AHA) recommendation that consuming it in any significant quantity is likely to be bad for your health:
Following Sears’ standard approach, the video is a satirical endorsement of the AHA’s advice by his mindless ultra spiritual alter-ego, who proceeds to lay out all of the ‘good’ reasons to follow their recommendations. The actual message Sears wants to convey is the inverse; coconut oil is good for you and the AHA is issuing harmful recommendations due to being in the pocket of big aggro-businesses.
The video is a hodgepodge of conspiracy thinking and bad logic with Sears using his satirical monologue to argue (in order of appearance) that:
- Because he is fit and healthy and has used coconut oil for years it must be fine.
- 1 in 2 Americans get some form of heart disease therefore the American Heart Association (AHA) is ineffective, untrustworthy, and better to ignore.
- The French eat high levels of saturated fats and still have low levels of heart disease.
- The AHA is corrupt and is tied to the food industry; it earned 704 million dollars in 2014 and is run by untrustworthy business people.
- The AHA previously endorsed food products with hydrogenated oils and trans fat as healthy, changed their opinions, and now lie about their previous bad advice.
- The recommended alternatives of vegetable oils and margarine are ‘incredibly unstable’ and ’cause a tremendous amount of inflammation and free radical damage’.
- Coconut oil is disparaged not because of the health issues but because vegetable oil is more lucrative for the US food industry since coconuts are imported.
- The Soybean board and US Canola Association have undue influence over the AHA as they are part of its ‘nutrition advisory panel’.
- Heeding the AHA recommendation makes you an unthinking conformist.
That’s quite an impressive gamut of logical fallacies and conspiracy mongering to pack into a short 4 minute video but, aside from the ironic delivery, the content is completely in line with what you would expect to find with the Food Babe or any other health food guru.
It’s the standard heady mix of evil corporations, industrial conspiracies, cherry picked factoids, and pseudoscience. Exactly the kind of thing that Sears pokes fun at in other videos. He does acknowledge issues with the over-hyping of coconut oil in another video but even there he still emphasises that coconut oil only looks healthy in comparison to vegetable oil which ‘is disastrous for your health’.
To respond adequately to all of the issues with Sears’ arguments about the AHA advice would take a lot of time and effort (see the bottom of this post and this article on science based medicine for a start) but my goal here is not to offer a rebuttal to a specific video but rather to illustrate that the JP Sears is not the advocate of critical thinking that many assume from his satirical content. He might be unusually self-aware for a life coach but that isn’t exactly a hotly contested field.
Sears’ has commented repeatedly on the ‘confusion’ caused by his apparent dual identity and explained that he sees no incongruity between them; likening them to having a left and right hand (see this article and this extended out-of-character video). He can be serious and he can be comedic but fundamentally he believes that his comedic videos serve to communicate his more serious messages. In an interview with the personal development guru Lewis Howes, he also explains how the exposure from his comedy videos proved an effective means at promoting his life coaching services.
Sears might be unusually self-aware for a life coach but that isn’t exactly a hotly contested field.
Sears’ comedy is clearly both an extension of his personality and an effective marketing gimmick. Therefore it is not that surprising that he would use that delivery method to poke fun at himself and his community AND to promote his beliefs. Conspiracies about inter-dimensional reptiles, the illuminati, or 2-Pac being alive can be safely mocked for comedic effect but when it comes to things like GMO food, vaccines, or the health value of coconut oil, Sears’ positions seem to be more in line with those he parodies.
None of the above is to argue that Sears is a bad guy or that his videos should be avoided. A lot of his genuine coaching videos seem to offer decent advice and his comedic videos demonstrate that he is acutely aware of a lot of the bullshit surrounding self-help and new age fads. However, the examples above illustrate why (as always) it is a good idea to approach content critically, especially content that panders to your biases. And they also demonstrate why advocates for science and critical thinking should at least be a little wary of recommending his videos outright.
*I’m also not the only person to notice his problematic tendencies. See this thoughtful article by the skeptic blogger Cherry Teresa and this (slightly fawning) interview by an atheist YouTuber.
A Cliff Notes rebuttal to Sears’ Coconut Oil Video
- Sears could be fit and healthy despite using Coconut oil. Personal anecdotes do not trump science.
- This is an indictment of the general health of Americans, not of a charity trying to reverse the trend. Following Sears’ logic would mean we should also ignore the advice of organisations concerned with cancer, addiction, or aids prevention in Africa, since all of these issues remain unresolved.
- This is known as the ‘French paradox’ and there is debate over whether it is real or a result of cross-country differences in reporting/the time lag required for changes in diet to be reflected in public health statistics. But even if it is real, there are a number of other important differences between French and American diets and lifestyles that confound comparisons. For reference, see this article in the British Medical Journal.
- The AHA is a non-profit charity, it gets its income from donations. Looking at the AHA’s ratings on the independent ‘Charity Navigator’ site, in 2016 its $830 million dollar income is closely matched by $811 million dollar expenses. It is given the highest 4 star rating for transparency/ accountability and recorded as spending 79.5% of its revenue on its charitable programs and expenses. The AHA also reports on all the support it receives and records that only 20% of its revenue comes from corporate sources. This is reasonable for such a large charitable organisation and the figures are also completely dwarfed by the billions(!) earned every year in the Health & Wellness industry (predicted to reach a trillion dollar market in 2017). I wonder if any part of that market is business people making profits from coconut oil imports? Nah…
- Guidelines change and update in accordance with evidence. This is a feature of scientific progress and not a bug. There is uncertainty and ongoing debate within the research community and occasionally health benefits are prematurely oversold but viewing science as an all or nothing endeavour is misleading.
- Vegetable oil is not a panacea, there will always be tradeoffs but most of the accusations levelled by Sears are inaccurate. A 2012 systematic review of randomised controlled trials, for instance, concluded that there was no compelling evidence that vegetable oil consumption causes inflammation.
- This ignores the massive profits and vested interests involved with the Health Food industry and that coconut oil is also marketed by large profit making corporations. It also fails to explain why the same guidelines concerning coconut oil and risks to health have been issued by various non-American public health organisations, including the NHS & the World Health Organisation.
- That panel’s stated purpose to exist is to try and get the food industry to work with and promote the AHA’s scientific recommendations. It is therefore not surprising that food industry groups would be involved but there is also no evidence that this panel has any power to influence AHA’s health recommendations.
- Heeding the recommendation of charities and public health organisations dedicated to reducing heart disease makes you a ‘conformist’ but listening to the recommendations of health gurus and specialist health food companies that sell coconut oil makes you an independent free thinker. OK…