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Seth Roberts vs. transgender people

Seth Roberts was an American psychologist and “autogynephilia” activist. A fan of transphobic psychologist J. Michael Bailey of Northwestern University, Roberts claimed Bailey’s controversial 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen was “a masterpiece” and “the most impressive professorial truth-telling in my lifetime.”


Seth Douglass Roberts was born on August 17, 1953. Roberts earned a bachelor’s degree from Reed College in 1974 and a doctorate from Brown University in 1979.

Roberts taught in the notably conservative psychology department at University of California, Berkeley from 1978 until retiring in 2008. Roberts joined the faculty of Tsinghua University in Beijing from 2008 until 2014.

In late March 1998, Bailey and Roberts both presented at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. Bailey promoted “gay gene” work, and Roberts presented on “neuroticism and self-esteem as indices of the vulnerability to major depression in women.”


Roberts gave Bailey’s book one of many 5-star Amazon shill reviews after Bailey solicited them. This is the only book review Roberts ever made on under that account:

a masterpiece, May 6, 2003
Seth Roberts (Berkeley, California USA)

This is the best book about psychology for a general audience I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of them. When I taught introductory psychology, I used to assign several books of this sort, so I was always keeping an eye out.

It is extremely well written; it is based on excellent research; and its subject is complex, powerful, and poignant. That’s why it is so good. If How The Mind Works deserves to be a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize then Bailey deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Roberts (2003)

Roberts also had a correspondence with Deirdre McCloskey after Alice Dreger and Benedict Carey teamed up to present Bailey as a “scientist under siege.” McCloskey had previously published the review “Queer Science” in Reason in 2003.


Roberts was a kind of quack that appeals to techno-utopianists and self-styled “rationalists” by claiming to succeed at “lifehacking” via self-experimentation. Roberts was a regular contributor at Quantified Self and other lifehack platforms. Roberts claimed to have personally cured acne, insomnia, poor mood, and weight gain, among other things, through self-experimentation.

Roberts was a self-proclaimed diet guru who sold a popular 2006 book called The Shangri-La Diet. Despite having no good peer-reviewed evidence that it worked, Roberts recommended drinking oil and personally ate unhealthy amounts of butter, claiming it had health benefits. On January 4, 2014 Roberts boasted:

I eat a half stick (60 g) of butter daily. It improves my brain speed. After I gave a talk about this, a cardiologist in the audience said I was killing myself. I said I thought my experimental data was more persuasive than epidemiology, with its many questionable assumptions. The new data suggests I was right — butter does not increase heart attacks. It also supports my belief that by learning what makes my brain work best, I will improve my health in other ways (such as reduce heart attack risk).

Roberts (2014)

Roberts collapsed and died a few months later, on April 26, 2014. The cause of death was ruled “occlusive coronary artery disease” and “cardiomegaly.” Roberts’s final column was published posthumously “with a heavy heart” and titled “Butter Makes Me Smarter.”


Staff report (September 2014) Seth Douglass Roberts ’74. Reed

Dubner, Stephen J. (May 12, 2014). Seth Roberts R.I.P. Freakonomics

Obituary (May 8, 2014). Seth Douglass Roberts. San Francisco Chronicle

McCloskey D (2007). McCloskey’s Back-and-Forth with Seth Roberts on the Bailey Controversy.

Slack, Gordy (March 2007). The self-experimenter. The Scientist vol. 21, issue 3, p. 24.

Dubner, Stephen J. (September 16, 2005). Seth Roberts, Guest Blogger: Finale? Freakonomics

Dubner, Stephen J.; Levitt Steven D. (September 11, 2005). Freakonomics: Does the Truth Lie Within? New York Times

Publications by Roberts

Roberts, Seth (April 28, 2014). Seth Roberts’ Final Column: Butter Makes Me Smarter. Observer

Roberts S (2009). Plot your data. Nutrition, vol. 25, pp. 608-611.

Roberts S (2008). McCloskey and me: A back-and-forth. Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 37, pp. 485-488.

Roberts S (2008). Transform your data. Nutrition, vol. 24, pp. 492-494.

Roberts Seth (August 13, 2007). Can Professors Say the Truth? [archive] also on HuffPost:

Gelman A, Roberts S (2007). Weight loss, self-experimentation, and web trials: A conversation. Chance, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 59-63.

Roberts S (2007). Something is better than nothing. Nutrition, vol. 23, pp. 911-912.

Roberts S (2006). Dealing with scientific fraud: A proposal. Public Health Nutrition, vol. 9, pp. 664-665.

Roberts S, Gharib A (2006). Variation of bar-press duration: Where do new responses come from? Behavioural Processes, vol. 72, pp. 215-223.

Sternberg S, Roberts S (2006). Nutritional supplements and infection in the elderly: Why do the findings conflict? Nutrition Journal, vol. 5.

Roberts S (2005). Diversity in learning. Ideas That Matter , vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 39-43. Longer version (with different title: “What do students want?”).

Roberts S (2005). Guest-blogs at Pleased to Meet You, Dietary Non-Advice, Freakonomics and Me, Acne, The Elephant Speaks, Thank You.

Roberts S (2004). Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: Examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 27, pp. 227-262. replications. Excerpt in Harper’s.

Gharib A, Gade C, Roberts S (2004). Control of variation by reward probability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, vol. 30, pp. 271-282.

Roberts S, Sternberg S (2003). Do nutritional supplements improve cognitive function in the elderly? Nutrition, vol. 19, pp. 976-980.

Carpenter KJ, Roberts S, Sternberg S (2003). Nutrition and immune function: Problems with a 1992 report. The Lancet, vol. 361, p. 2247.

Roberts S, Pashler H (2002). Reply to Rodgers & Rowe (2002). Psychological Review, vol. 109, pp. 605-607.

Roberts S, Temple N (2002). Medical research: A bettor’s guide. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 23, pp. 231-232.

Roberts S (2001). Surprises from self-experimentation: Sleep, mood, and weight. Chance, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 7-12.

Gharib A, Derby S, Roberts S (2001). Timing and the control of variation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, vol. 27, pp. 165-178.

Roberts S, Pashler H (2000). How persuasive is a good fit? A comment on theory testing. Psychological Review, vol. 107, pp. 358-367.

Roberts S, Neuringer, A (1998). Self-experimentation. In K. A. Lattal and M. Perrone (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in human operant behavior (pp. 619-655). New York: Plenum. ISBN 9781489919472

Roberts S, Sternberg S (1993). The meaning of additive reaction-time effects: Tests of three alternatives. In D. E. Meyer and S. Kornblum (Eds.) Attention and Performance XIV: Synergies in Experimental Psychology, Artificial Intelligence, and Cognitive Neuroscience. MIT Press. pp. 611-653. ISBN 9780262290906

Roberts S (1987). Less-than-expected variability in evidence for three stages in memory formation. Behavioral Neuroscience, vol. 101, pp. 120-125.


Seth Roberts ( [archive]

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Seth Roberts Memorial (

  • maintained by Alex Chernavsky

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University of California, Berkeley ( [archive]

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