Spotlight: Popular Scientists

Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw


The most popular male draw in the history of the Merv Griffin Show has, on his dozen appearances there, never failed to point out the detrimental effects of government regulatory agencies like the FDA and DOE. But this man, Durk Pearson, is a research scientist, not a politico. Displaying a dazzling range of expertise on topics from anti-aging research to space colonization, Pearson has captivated millions of viewers with his disarming, riveting personality and his ability to translate complex scientific concepts into understandable lay terms.

Labeled a "scientific superstar" by Playboy, Pearson's popularity is not confined just to the Griffin Show. "Mind Food," an article on intelligence boosters and creativity expanders cowritten with his research scientist partner Sandy Shaw, is, according to Omni editor Ben Bova, "the most popular single article Omni has run in its first two years." Thousands of requests for reprints have poured in since its publication in May 1979. (Shaw and Pearson are now contributing editors of Omni.) Here, too, Shaw and Pearson point out the negative effects of the FDA. "FDA regulations block the adoption of many drugs that can raise your brainpower," reads the article. "It took one doctor we know over three months to get permission to read about one promising new intelligence drug."

Ideally, Pearson and Shaw would like to see the FDA eliminated, but in the interim, they have proposed one plausible measure to unblock the channels closed by present FDA regulations. "Make the FDA an advisory agency. Give their legal-staff money to the agency's scientists. Let the FDA have half the drug package insert to make its case and the drug company half to make its case. Then let the individual and his physician decide." According to Pearson and Shaw, every physician and scientist (and even one US senator) who has heard this suggestion has enthusiastically approved it.

It is no accident that Shaw and Pearson are acutely aware of the shortcomings of government solutions. Both have been libertarians since the early '60s. But they can and do back up their claims with scientific evidence. "Data slowly filtering out of pharmaceutical labs have made it clear," they write in "Mind Food," for example, "that current FDA regulations are blocking the development of valuable new drugs in many fields of research." The evidence for such claims can be found in the primary scientific literature cited in the bibliographies that always accompany their articles.

Pearson and Shaw hope people will read the primary sources. "We don't want people to trust us," says Shaw. "We want them to check for themselves." Consequently, they have an invariant rule for all their articles and media appearances: the publisher or producer must provide upon request a reading list prepared by Shaw and Pearson.

Independent judgment, they believe, is crucial for increasing control over one's life. "It's not just a matter of coercion by the bureaucrats," cautions Shaw. "You need to learn more about your body and its natural mechanisms. Increase a person's individual power over himself, not over others."

Showing people how and where to find information has another practical side. "Over 50 percent of the information in typical lay health books is bullshit," declares Pearson, "We want to show you how to separate the bullshit from the helpful information." One popular myth they cite is the idea that polyunsaturated fats help reduce the possibility of heart disease. In fact, they assert, anti-aging research shows that polyunsaturated fats are harmful to your health because they promote the formation of "free radicals," biochemical agents implicated in the body's aging process.

Working under grants from private foundations, Pearson and Shaw have themselves done extensive research on the aging process. The conclusions they draw from their own and other scientists' investigations will soon be made public in their forthcoming book, Life Extension: a Practical Scientific Approach, to be published by Warner Books this spring. The book will detail not only what scientists have discovered about slowing down or reversing the aging process but how you can actually make use of this information for yourself. Ultimately, Shaw and Pearson believe, it may be possible to eliminate death as well as taxes!

They have been testing these ideas on themselves since 1968. Each day they take nearly 40 grams of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that have proven efficacious for improving health or slowing down the aging process in lab experiments. "We've had literally hundreds of tests run to determine the effects of our "programs," reports Pearson, "and so far, the results are all positive." Healthy-looking and trim at 37, Pearson says the tests indicate he has the cardiovascular system of someone half his age. Another sign of the efficacy of their regimen—they have serum cholesterol levels lower than teenagers, in spite of their high animal fat food preferences, a rare finding for people in their 30s.

Enumerating all this versatile duo's interests, accomplishments, and current projects would run to several pages, so I will add only their media efforts, which are especially exciting and impressive.

Black Holes: Monsters That Eat Space and Time, a TV science special produced by Walt Disney Educational Media Co., was the product of Pearson and Shaw's fertile imaginations. Aired in October 1979, the program was hosted and narrated by Pearson, with credits for the story, script, science advisors, special effects, and stunt designs going to both. A stunt showing actual free fall (by using a downwardly accelerating Learjet) was Shaw's brainchild—the first time real zero gravity has been used outside of aerospace. And it turned out that creating real zero gravity for their show was cheaper than faking it!

Other media projects under way include writing a science fiction movie for Doug Trumbull and Richard Yuricich (who created the special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Movie) and writing a 13-week science series for Adrian Malone, the producer of The Ascent of Man and Cosmos. Airing soon on the CBS Evening News in San Diego will be a two-minute, thrice-weekly science and technology series that will be offered for syndication to other TV stations. Pearson and Shaw have also been signed as consultants for Clint Eastwood's forthcoming movie, Firefox; and with this issue they start a regular column in REASON.

Pearson and Shaw's accomplishments remind us that political activity and writings on economics and politics are not the only avenues through which to encourage nongovernment solutions to social problems. By presenting in popular form impeccable scientific evidence that carries no "suspect" ideological baggage, these remarkable scientists—Pearson has a degree in physics from MIT and Shaw a chemistry degree from UCLA—are planting seeds of doubt that can take root in soil that politicos could never reach. The blossoming will have, I predict, a significant and positive effect on popular ideas about the proper role of government in people's lives.

Sharon Presley is a writer, the national coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists, and a long-time libertarian activist.