The Crime of Curiosity

banned from youtube for sharing footage of his work on a covid vaccine, josiah zayner makes the case for the average person's right to self and science

I met Josiah Zayner a handful of years ago while working on Anatomy of Next: NEW WORLD. In an episode on making man Martian, we talked about bypassing elite institutions, democratizing science, and biological self-determination, or every individual’s right to his or her own body, which includes their DNA — and the right to change it. Back in 2020, Josiah saw a clear path to spinning out a Covid vaccine, and believed it could be done relatively fast. This bucked a major media narrative, even after Moderna designed its own vaccine in just two days. In any case, for sharing his work, but I think really for sharing this perspective, Josiah was deplatformed. This is something that happens to biohackers quite a lot.

I believe people like Josiah live on the frontier. They sometimes make mistakes, but they also advance our civilization. I also believe the practice of oligopoly speech platforms vanishing entire worlds of thought their social media managers don’t understand is incredibly dangerous. Josiah’s is a side of this conversation rarely heard, so I invited him to share his thoughts. Below, his pitch for every person’s right to self and science.

-SOLANA


A day after YouTube took down my video, I received an email. They banned me for life. This is not only to say I could no longer upload content. I could no longer even login. The speed and lack of transparency into this decision was jarring. I’m a PhD and ex-NASA scientist who, yeah, created a Covid vaccine in his kitchen, but I wasn't trying to be controversial. I was trying — and am still trying every day — to push our common sense of what’s possible, and to bring biology to the average person.

My first experience with genetic biohacking, and the press, was in 2013 during graduate school when I created a musical instrument strung with genetically engineered proteins. This achievement itself wasn’t particularly newsworthy, but it was presented in a way many had never before seen. In the world of science, most people are used to double-blind trials and extensively documented experimentation. This was something more purely inspirational, just outside the average notion of what science even is. In a manner of speaking, it was simply magic. In 2016, I left my job at NASA to start The ODIN with the goal of making genetic engineering more broadly accessible, and of bringing that magic to everyone. 

I was still in pretty well with the scientific establishment back then, and it was around that time I decided to replace my entire microbiome, which is to say the bacteria in and on my body, with someone else's. You can watch an amazing New York Times Op Doc done on the experiment here. The goal was to cure my IBS, but really I just wanted to see if it was possible. I consulted with Professors from MIT, Harvard and UCLA. They refused to be named and didn’t want any public association with the project, but all of them were interested in the outcome: the sequencing data, analyzed by a third party, showed I succeeded. And just like magic, my physical signs of IBS were gone — and have been gone ever since. But so was my privacy. This is when the deplatforming began.

I didn’t ask for the press or documentaries, they came to me, and I had no idea what I was getting into. As my platform grew, so did the target on my back. 

In general, I think I understand where the criticism is coming from. Every time I post on social media about being deplatformed, banned, or silenced, someone chimes in with their own story about being banned because “big government is trying to suppress the fact that echinacea cures Covid” or whatever. Spoiler, echinacea doesn’t cure Covid, but this is the kind of crazy nonsense my work is compared to. Are you a credential person? Great, I’m a scientist with a PhD from one of the top universities in the world. I’ve worked at NASA. I’ve published a number of papers. The problem isn’t my thoroughly detailed research, which I would love to have critiqued in good faith. The problem is big tech companies making billions of dollars aren’t capable of doing basic analysis of scientific work, or hiring a team that can, which is why the best they’re capable of on the pandemic front, for example, is attaching a link to the CDC website on every post that mentions “Covid” or “vaccine.”

To be clear, I didn't just spin up a home-made Covid vaccine. My team copied it from a monkey experiment published in May 2020. A two-dose vaccine was tested on myself and two other biohackers. In the end, our bodies were able to create antibodies from the vaccine that neutralized SARS-CoV2. I'm hesitant to say it worked because vaccines are complicated and we’d need further testing to confirm our results. But, even if it didn't work, the fact that someone could have designed a vaccine, and contracted a company to manufacture that vaccine in June 2020 for under $5k is fucking profound — and that is what, at the time of releasing our video, I felt people needed to know.

While banning things like echinacea misinformation, monopoly speech platforms are also sloppily banning any form of science that doesn’t come from ‘ordained’ sources. Protein instruments or homemade vaccines are so outside mainstream notions of science that they seem indistinguishable from magic. As I’ve always argued there’s absolutely something magical about this stuff. But because it seems so incredible the average person is willing to cede their own judgment on the subject to “experts.” And the whole "believe science" thing? I’m sorry, it’s complete bullshit. Science is not something to be believed or trusted. Trust is antithetical to science. Show me the data, and let me decide for myself. In every public experiment I’ve done, I’ve only wanted people to judge the results. But all the media seems interested in is the presentation of my work. They shove that into some kind of broader social narrative I have no control over, and no interest in, and that triggers the mob. From there, my work is targeted for vanishing. 

At The Odin, we sell kits to teach people how to do hands-on molecular biology and genetic engineering in their homes. This is our mission: we believe everyone has a right to learn about and practice science, and we want to make it affordable enough for people to do so beyond the walled gardens of elite universities. Our kits are mostly used for education, and they were a boon for schools during the pandemic, enabling graduate school level experimentation without ever needing to set foot in a lab. But while people seem to love the word “science,” the actual practice of it is forbidden. PayPal, Square, LinkedIn, Amazon, Facebook, Patreon, YouTube and more have either banned me or inhibited my ability to use their platforms. Not to be outdone, the state of California investigated me for practicing medicine without a license (unrelated to the Covid vaccine). Their claims were found to be baseless, but California went on to pass a law specifically targeting my company. 

None of the kits we sell contain anything dangerous, nor is the average person experimenting with biology inherently dangerous. If you are trying to engineer something hazardous — like say a bat virus — you might have a problem, but the genome search space is large enough that accidentally creating a harmful organism is astronomically improbable. Access to most dangerous materials are also heavily restricted. So why are tech companies and the government trying to stop people from doing biotech in their homes? 

Policy makers, both public and private, take the lazy approach: if something isn’t sanctioned by the official science cult, it needs to be stopped. But squashing something you don’t understand, or are unwilling to understand, often presents greater harm than the initially perceived risks. Is stifling at-home innovation worth the sacrifice? The advantages of having more people in biotech, of having more people experimenting and learning and sharing what they discover, are immense. Most industries have shown us that a PhD is not itself the pinnacle of achievement, or even generally valuable. Few modern tech companies were founded by PhDs, many instead by college dropouts in their garage, and most Nobel Prize work is done by graduate students. But we still hold on to the idea that scientific truth can only come from academia and big pharma. 

Democratizing genetic engineering won’t suddenly unleash bioterrorism upon the world. Instead, what would be unleashed is a wave of innovation similar to what we see in software. Imagine only having the ability to program while in a highly-structured environment, like at a school computer lab. This doesn’t catalyze innovation, and, more importantly, it doesn’t inspire people. 

People used to see major news outlets as their only source of truth, and blogs were just written by nutters. Now, the opposite is true. People are flocking to independent writers. Science is one of the last bastions of information hoarding, and paywalls and gatekeepers try everything in their power to keep science from the average person. But in recent years the scientific edifice has been crumbling faster than the New York Times's ad revenue. This terrifies the cult. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident: all scientists are as biased and ignorant as everyone else, they just went to school longer. Independent science will eventually be embraced. If the next pandemic is faster and deadlier, you won't wait for your government approved vaccine. 

The thought of a world where only the wealthy elite have access to modern genetic engineering and biotech scares me more than powerful tech companies and media organizations controlling information. Our right to science is something worth fighting for, and I know, in the end, I will be on the correct side of history. 

Still, it's fucking annoying to need to backup your email every week in case someone shuts down your account.

-Josiah Zayner

A guest post by
Josiah Zayner received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Then NASA's Synthetic Biology program, genetically engineering bacteria to terraform Mars. He left NASA to found The ODIN, making genetic engineering kits available to people at home.