Goodbye To Seth Roberts, But Not To ‘Personal Science’

Seth Roberts has died. His sister posted on his website that he had collapsed and died while hiking in Berkeley. This was sad and shocking to me, as unexpected death always is. I didn’t know Seth personally but we’d emailed over health issues I was having. He responded to me several times and was as interested, intelligent, curious and helpful as you knew he would be from reading his blog. I checked him almost daily for the fresh ideas, the rigorous thinking and for ways to improve my life.


The old saying ‘let no irony be associated with my death’ is always violated of course. We are born to find irony. Like Jim Fixx dying while running, Seth died while doing diet and exercise self-experiments he called Personal Science. Most were innocuous indeed and several of his therapies helped me raise my mood, get more sleep and feel better.

Like ‘morning faces’ (seeing human faces in the morning to improve mood), taking your vitamin D-3 supplements in the morning, and getting morning sunlight. Honey at night aided his, and lots of other’s, sleep.

His book, The Shangri-La Diet, advocated drinking small amounts of sugar-water or oil in the absence of taste, in order to retrain the body in associating calories with taste (Seth was trained in behavioral “rat psychology”). This is supposed to lower the body’s ‘set point’ and lower weight. Again, hard to see how something like this could kill you.

Seth was a scientist and an iconoclast and went always by what the evidence showed him. If he ate half a stick of butter a day and his daily performance tests showed improvement, he was quite willing go against accepted medical and dietary norms. Like many of us, he took flaxseed oil as well but I don’t know how much. Some of the people who followed his blog wonder the same thing because they believe in healthy fats, take fatty acid supplements, and wonder if it possibly contributed to his death. No autopsy has been released so we don’t know if Personal Science contributed to his death or not. And we might not ever know.

And of course it doesn’t matter. He’s dead and I won’t be able to go to his website any more. And I will miss him. Seth was a lot more than a wacky diet guru. He was a great teacher, judging by his teachers and students both in the US and in China. His logic, independence, compassion and willingness to think ideas through to the end are rare indeed.

His breakthrough, I believe, is his discovery that sufferers of a malady, these days, will know more than the doctors about their condition. Seth pointed out that the doctor’s goal (success, a paycheck) is divergent from the patient’s goal (health); that tenure could be deadly to academic excellence.

Personal Science or Self Experimentation won’t end with Seth’s death. Sensors, tracking software and hardware get better, smaller and cheaper; groups can gather virtually to compare symptoms, doses, foods, exercise, results, and see what works for each body. DNA testing, MRI and other sensing techniques are getting cheaper and better too. Personalized medicine is close. The quantified self idea is very much alive and well.

Seth’s willingness to bravely test his diet and behavior ideas on himself reminds us of Pasteur, Madame Curie or Otto Lilienthal. And if his death was hastened by his diet then we should learn from it as he would have wished. Sometimes, in the dying words of Lilienthal after the plane crash that killed him, “Opfer müssen gebracht werden!” (Sacrifices must be made!)”.

[3/2016-The only exceptional item in his autopsy was high lead in his blood.]

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