There is a man on the Internet known for satirizing wellness trends who was recently censored on YouTube for spreading unfounded conspiracy theories. JP Sears made a name for himself by gently mocking essential oils and the unbearable demands made on friends by rule-abiding diet enthusiasts. You may remember him from his purple T-shirts, long red hair, and earnest sarcasm.
It may come as a shock to find out that not only has he become the very thing that he once ridiculed, JP Sears is now using his massive online platforms to discredit public health measures against COVID-19 and to open the door to grand conspiracy theories. Distrust is the name of the game, and he does it with comedic flair.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing for the social media age
JP Sears started to gain popularity a few years ago with his videos parodying the worst excesses of wellness-minded consumers. His 2015 video on “How to Become Gluten Intolerant” now has over 10 million views. In it, he uses his trademark deadpan delivery to feed us this line: “If you’re ready to have a ravenous appetite for impossible standards and dogmatic feelings of victimization, then let’s get started on what you need to do to become gluten intolerant.” I remember sharing it on social media and wondering if Sears was just a science-minded comedian who had seized upon a great target of derision: the worried well.
I think we were all caught with our pants down when it was revealed that JP Sears was actually an emotional healing coach. His credentials certainly raised my eyebrows. He is neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist; rather, he is reported as having been a faculty member of the CHEK Institute. Its courses teach students to harness the energy of their chakras, a spiritual concept not based in fact, as well as promoting the unscientific concepts of “detoxing” and “boosting your immune system.” The founder of this institute, Paul Chek, endorses anti-vaccination rhetoric, and Chek and Sears are reportedly very close friends. Sears himself attended a certification program at Journeys of Wisdom. A quick look at its “bionetic homeopathics” page should be enough to realize that what Sears mocks in public, he may very well endorse in private. (A lot of this was unearthed by Chris Kavanagh for his terrific article on Medium.)
These days, Sears, ever the businessman, hawks a variety of supplements and gadgets that typically have no real evidence behind them. He has sponsorships for magnesium supplements to combat stress (a recent review of the evidence characterized the existing studies as “poor” so we can’t really conclude anything at this point); he peddles “pure” deodorant as an alternative to aluminum-containing products (the link between deodorants, aluminum, and disease is false all the way through); and he pushes for “evidence-based” blue-light-blocking glasses while calling those who do not believe in them “science deniers” (blue light blockers don’t really work and if you want to sleep well, you should avoid any bright light before bedtime).
This penchant for Sears to advertise products we don’t need is not new. The website he was using to sell his services over ten years ago featured so-called “healthy resources,” such as Ultra Life Metabolic Type Supplements and the now infamous ground zero for quackery, Joe Mercola’s website. That’s right. Years before JP was mocking wellness trends, he was openly endorsing Joe Mercola’s suite of pseudoscientific supplements.
In a 2016 interview, he admitted to being asked if he was generally sincere or humorous. “My answer is ‘yes, I’m both’.” Sears’ comedic ambiguity--mocking wellness fads while endorsing them too, never allowing himself to be pinned down--has allowed him to successfully draw in masses of people as he slithers down the rabbit hole of COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
The pandemic’s all a big joke
Since the pandemic began, the object of JP Sears’ sarcasm has abruptly shifted. He calls masks “face suffocators.” He sows distrust in journalists. He mentions 5G in the context of the coronavirus and ironically wishes he could get two microchips instead of just the one. (He has escaped YouTube’s haphazard crackdown on COVID-19 misinformation, he thinks, because the artificial intelligence that scans video transcripts can’t detect sarcasm yet.) And when he soberly comments on the public health measures against the pandemic, his language is loaded with war imagery. He talks of people wanting to be “on the battlefield,” frequently makes comparisons to Braveheart, and calls his freedom-touting friends “warriors” and “crusaders,” friends like Mikki Willis, the director of the conspiracy-mongering Plandemic, and Brian Rose, the London Real founder whose own freedom-of-speech crusade has led him to interview über conspiracy theorist David Icke not just once but five times so far.
What JP Sears asserts about COVID-19 (or is he joking?) tends to be factually inaccurate. He claims, wrongfully, that virtually all COVID patients with insufficient vitamin D die, but that only 4% of COVID patients who have enough vitamin D die, inferring that sun exposure to get vitamin D is a stellar protection against the disease. The study he is quoting from comes from Indonesia. It was never peer-reviewed and was riddled with problems, chief among them the fact that patients with normal vitamin D levels and patients deficient in vitamin D were wildly different in terms of how many had pre-existing conditions putting them at risk for severe illness and death. The evidence for vitamin D supplementation preventing severe COVID illness and death is still being debated, and the vitamin has a long history of being propped up as a saviour before good evidence shows it is not.
In another video, Sears mocks the notice on PCR diagnostic kits for COVID-19 that say they should not be used to diagnose COVID-19. PCR kits can be used to diagnose COVID-19. I suspect he is getting confused with kits that test for antibodies in our blood, which indeed should not be used to diagnose someone as infectious. Antibody kits are used to know if someone has had the virus in the past and developed antibodies. Finally, Sears pulls out the big guns by pointing out the incongruity in closing down gyms when “obesity is a high risk factor for the illness.” The reason is that the virus can be airborne; people can still work out outside or at home; and not eating a calorie is actually easier than burning it, as it turns out. But, hey, to JP Sears, fact-checking is censorship and it leads to Nazism!
This warped thinking has allowed JP Sears to continue doing shows all over the United States during the pandemic. He does not wear a mask and typically hugs the hundreds of people who come and see him because “human connection is enlivening.” In a telling recording excerpted on the excellent Decoding the Gurus podcast episode dedicated to him, Sears remarks that if he had gotten sick, then he might not have repeated the act in a future show. But he did not get sick, so everything is peachy.
This is the dawning of the age of conspirituality
At the core of Sears’ reasoning is the twisted philosophy of “extreme self-responsibility.” (This is also the title of an episode of his podcast in which he interviews Ryan Moran, who runs the website Capitalism.com and who wrote a book called 12 Months to $1 Million.) Sears places the onus of being ill on a person’s behaviour. Sarcastically, he declares, “You can peel yourself off the couch after being a sedentary waste of space for thirty years, put on a mask, and now you’re a pillar of health with all that effort you’re putting in.” By eating right, cramming yourself full of supplements, working out several days a week, and exposing yourself to the sun, you just don’t need hand sanitizer or masks, he implies. While being physically healthy certainly helps ward off illness, it is not a magical shield against catching viruses. And this victim-blaming mentality aimed at people with diseases--so common in the wellness space--callously ignores social determinants of health and the inability for many people to afford healthier food.
Perhaps even more worryingly, JP Sears is part of a dangerous movement that has weaponized doubt under the cover of self-empowerment. He encourages his followers to be contrarians and to trust their intuition. He wants to feel what is “untrue,” his guiding principle being that he doesn’t have the truth but he knows “what bullshit tastes like.” This mistrustful streak leads him to entertain notions that this pandemic was planned by governments and Bill Gates in order to censor and track the populace. He and many other health gurus promote the “gut-feelification” of health. If it feels right to the primitive parts of our brain, it must be true, they tell us. This is a recipe for how not to think clearly. Stephen Colbert was ahead of the curve when he mockingly endorsed the idea of “truthiness” back in 2005.
JP Sears’ brand is called “Awaken with JP,” and this reference to awakening is key to understanding the recent trend he epitomizes: conspirituality. The word, which fuses “conspiracy” and “spirituality”, first appeared in the academic literature in 2011 and stands for a recent phenomenon by which New Age beliefs and conspiracy theories hold hands. Conspiritualists believe a group secretly controls the political and social order and also that humanity is on the verge of a paradigm shift in consciousness. A version of this movement can be seen in “Pastel QAnon,” where female Instagram influencers typically interested in nutrition and wellness started endorsing the grand conspiracy theory that a Deep State was involved in child trafficking and pedophilia and that Donald Trump was leading the angelic charge against it. Nothing is as it seems, everything is connected.
A key reference in the world of conspirituality is the “red pill/blue pill” narrative from the 1999 movie The Matrix. In it, a mentor figure offers Keanu Reeves’ character the choice between swallowing a blue pill which would allow him to return to his normal life... or a red pill that would make him aware that the world he lives in is actually a simulation. JP Sears himself mentions red and blue pills constantly in his videos. He has taken the red pill and he believes he sees things as they truly are.
Or is he just having a laugh?
- JP Sears is a businessman and emotional healing coach who used to satirize wellness trends but now endorses many while also pushing COVID-19 conspiracy theories
- He promotes the idea that using your intuition to decide what is true, which is actually a recipe for disaster
- He is part of a trend called “conspirituality” in which participation in New Age spirituality is merged with the belief in grand conspiracy theories
Illustration of JP Sears by Luc Ouellet for the McGill Office for Science and Society.