Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Confessions of an April Fool and the Dope on Brain Doping

Well, truth is imitating art in bizarre ways here. Nature today is running a news story by Brendan Maher (also see his forum here) and various related tidbits about a survey they conducted on brain doping. And the lead in to the news story? Well, it is the April 1 joke I coordinated where a group of co-conspirators (who I will name in a bit) and I posted stories about a new NIH crackdown on, yes, brain doping.
The US National Institutes of Health is to crack down on scientists 'brain doping' with performance-enhancing drugs such as Provigil and Ritalin, a press release declared last week. The release, brainchild of evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen of the University of California, Davis, turned out to be an April Fools' prank. And the World Anti-Brain Doping Authority website that it linked to was likewise fake. But with a number of co-conspirators spreading rumours about receiving anti-doping affidavits with their first R01 research grants, the ruse no doubt gave pause to a few of the respondents to Nature 's survey on readers' use of cognition-enhancing drugs.
So here I am going to tell the tale of the creation of this April 1 joke. In a way, it all started last April 1, when I created a fake New York Times story about how Craig Venter had been deceiving everyone with stories about sailing around the world studying microbes in the ocean, and in fact he has been studying the microbes living inside his body in order to scoop Francis Collins and others at the NIH on the "microbiome." I made the fake story by taking an article by Nick Wade on Venter sequencing his own genome, downloading the html for the whole web page on the archive of the story, with all the NY Times background material, and editing the text, simply changing the story but keeping the main outline. For example, the title of the real Wade article was "Scientist Reveals Secret of Genome: It's His" and I changed it to "Scientist Reveals Secret of the Ocean: It's Him."

I thought the html version of the story looked great. Here it is. And I tried to send it to people in email but they kept having problems viewing the thing. So in the end, I created a PDF file of the page and emailed that to a few key co-conspirators (who I knew knew a lot of people). And they sent it around. And around. And around. I did not originally post it on my blog, because, well I was worried that Venter would want to kill me. The funny part is, he liked it. And it was the real people who I had made up fake quotes from who wanted to kill me. ( I note, a friend of mine who works at Cold Spring Harbor Press and has the initials AG says he sent it to Nick Wade who also found it funny.)

Anyway, in the end, that April 1 joke worked OK but it has some limitations. First, since I did not post it on the web it did not really use the power of the blogging world to spread. Second, some people figured out it was fake when they went to YouTube or the New York Times web site to look for the things we claimed existed. So, I decided that for this year, if I could come up with a good April 1 joke, I would try and correct these issues.

So - somehow, I hit upon a funny story to do - a spoof in on the cycling and baseball controversies over performance enhancing drugs . But the target would be scientists. That was really the extent of my idea. And then I found the perfect venue to plan it. SciFoo camp (for more on it see here and here and here). Sponsored by Nature and the O'Reilly publishing group. At Google HQ. And with TONS of bloggers and other media types there. We ven considered having a session on humor in science. But that never happened. Fortunately, I cornered various people who seemed to think it would be fun to have a collaborative conspiracy to do an April 1 joke together. And they liked the performance enhancing drugs among scientists idea.

Alas, SciFoo camp was in August of 2007. April 1, 2008 was far away. And the plan slipped to the backburner. I created a private Blogspot blog for people to share information. And invited a few of the original co-conspirators. And we did not make much progress. And then I wrote to Bora (who, like Madonna, really does not need a last name). He was at SciFoo and I knew him through my new role in PLoS. And he knows EVERYONE. And I said:

Are you up for participating in a grand April 1 joke where I am
hoping to get lots of bloggers to write in different ways about the
same topic to make it really seem real?

And he agreed. And then he and I recruited some other bloggers. And then we saw a New York Times article on Brain Doping. We had not really completely formulated a plan to focus on brain doping per se yet (I still thought we could talk about EPO to have endurance at conferences, etc). And we got worried about being scooped by reality. But we soldiered on. At this point I thought maybe the best way to do the joke would be to have everyone separately write a story about some interaction with NIH that hinted at a crackdown on doping among scientists.

In the meantime, I came up with ANOTHER April 1 joke top do, but it seemed like this one had to be done before April 1 since for people to get it it needed to be done while the true news story was hot. So I posted a joke story spoofing the Eliot Spitzer resignation with my own fake resignation from my new position as Academic Editor in Chief of PLoS Biology over buying journal articles. I replaced his wife with my brother (and co-founder of PLoS) and placed a few friends in the story (Alex Gann at Cold Spring Harbor became my replacement, Emma Hill, who left PLoS Biology for a non fully OA journal became Kristen, and I made up a few quotes here and there). I had to post this before April 1 since I knew people would forget abouyt Spitzer quickly. And then I returned to the work on the brain doping joke.

And soon we saw that some people on the Nature Network were talking about trying to do a collaborative April 1 joke. And so I posted a message there and then recruited those who seemed interested. And we had a good core group of conspirators. And people were busy so not much happened. Although Chris Patil, who I used to work with at Stanford, made me freak out even more by posting a whole collection of stories about brain doping on our private blog.

And he and Anna Kushnir and others also said - we need a web site to link to and we need some story to jointly write about. So in a frenzy on March 31 I created a fake press release and a fake web site. To make the press release, I took a real NIH press release, and like with the New York Times story, I edited it a bit and then a bit more.

And fortunately, I had registered the domain name WABDA.ORG for the "World Anti-Brain Doping Authority) through Go Daddy and had paid a bit extra for their "WebSite Now" option, and using their not very easy to use system, I made a website and somehow got it live by about 12:10 AM on April 1.

And I sent the fake press release to the co conspirators, who did an amazing job or also writing fake blogs. And I send the story to lots of others too. And wrote my own fake blog post here. And then sat back and watched the story spread. Below are some of the formal or accidental co-conspirators blogs:
And then I got a call from Nature saying they were doing a REAL story on brain doping and wanted to interview me about the fake story we did. And I guess you can find out the rest at the Nature site.

Also see
UPDATE May 29, 2017 - going to try and rescue some of the links here by pointing to the internet archive.


  1. This one was good, but having a "Jonathan Davis" in the story was a bit much -- or maybe I'm just jealous that a "Jonathan San Diego" would sound like the lesser known brother of the more glamorous Carmen...

  2. You are the first, seriously, who commented on the Jonathan Davis thing. I am surprised nobody else noticed or said anything.

  3. A rather good idea for a physics-related April Fool was circulated by e-mail in the last week of March, but the preparation required would have taken more time than we had. Consequently, I'm very glad this one came along for me to latch onto! :-)

  4. I did not really have the time either, but I had insomnia, late the night of the 31st and hacked away until I got something done. The web site for WABDA was the trickiest since (1) I wanted a site not directly connected to me and (2) the GODADDY web site building software, though effective, was cumbersome and slow on my mac.

  5. Update 2017_ Nick Loman was posting on Twitter about brain doping so I found the internet archive version of the old web site:


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