Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Seth liked people who think for themselves

Some people have an influence that is difficult to see in the usual standards of pageviews, book sales, citations. Seth Roberts, I think, was one of those people whose real influence was felt one-on-one. I’m reminded of the movie where Forest Gump changed everything from Elvis Presley’s music to the Vietnam War, through a simple comment or gesture that seemed unimportant at the time, but turned out to be very profound.

Many of those whose lives he touched have stepped forward with eulogies that remind me how special he was. Here’s one from John Durant (a Steven Pinker-recommended author I respect):

Seth will be remembered for his work in self-experimentation. More than just his quirky findings – faces on TV, honey at bed, flaxseed oil – Seth taught that anyone can be a scientist.

Beyond this, I think Seth believed something else: that anyone can think for themselves. As someone who knew first hand about how modern science is conducted, he was not impressed just because a study showed this, or an expert said that. He was baffled about why people would make life-changing decisions based solely on what they read in The New York Times, or because they heard it from somebody with a sophisticated credential. Try it yourself! he would say. Check to see if it works on you!

Here’s another one from Seth’s friend Tucker Max (another best-selling author he mentioned frequently in our conversations):

Seth had intellectual courage as well. He examined ideas in themselves, not who they came from, and he defended and stood up for the things that were right, regardless of what they cost him. [emphasis mine]

Part of the reason I think Seth was so approachable was that he knew that good ideas could come from anywhere, that often the best ones come from ordinary conversations. Everyone who knew him personally appreciated those simple conversations the most, and we’ll never fully measure the outsize influence that resulted.