Bridging the Chasm Between Two Cultures
August 9, 2010 4:53 PM   Subscribe

"How did a card-carrying, aura-wearing, chakra-toting leader of the New Age become able to understand and eventually embrace the skeptical culture? Well, it took quite a while, so let me start at the beginning. "
posted by Pope Guilty (411 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm four sentences in and I already want to punch her right in the FACE.

No, it’s a full-on clash of cultures that makes real communication improbable at best.

Framing the two sides as clashing cultures is a really jackass attempt to place New Age hoohah above the level of criticism. How can you criticize and denigrate a culture? It's their culture, don't you understand? Forget it, it's a cultural thing, you wouldn't understand, white boy.

Please oh please let this be satire.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:03 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


The trouble is, there is no "skeptical culture." There is just clearheaded examination of evidence on one side and hokum on the other.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:03 PM on August 9, 2010 [11 favorites]


I think you're really misunderstanding what she's trying to do (or possibly you haven't read the whole thing). She's saying that these people's culture (or mindset, or habits, or way of seeing things, whatever) makes the approach and language often used by skeptics less than effective.

She's not saying that it's above criticism, on the contrary, she's saying it should be criticized, because she's convinced it's wrong, but she thinks it should be criticized in a way that makes it more likely that the people there will actually listen, which seems to me to be eminently reasonable.

Maybe you should try reading the whole thing before going into paroxysms of rage.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:07 PM on August 9, 2010 [71 favorites]


Maybe you should try reading the whole thing before going into paroxysms of rage.

Agreed. She has some important points on why people acquire these beliefs in the first place, and why running at them performing frenzied slashes with Occam's Razor isn't the best way to get them to critically reconsider their flawed assumptions.
posted by RokkitNite at 5:10 PM on August 9, 2010 [11 favorites]


This was interesting to read, but by the end, I was irritated because it was about 3 times as long as it needed to be. She has a certain way of writing that makes it really obvious that, yes, she used to be really New-Agey.
posted by millipede at 5:10 PM on August 9, 2010 [23 favorites]


There is just clearheaded examination of evidence on one side and hokum on the other.

Which side are the people who get four sentences in and want to punch her in the face on?
posted by The World Famous at 5:15 PM on August 9, 2010 [32 favorites]


Right at the end is her thesis:

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.


It's worth it just for that. That's the best summary of why people are attracted to cults and whatnot I've seen in quite a while. I wish her well in her studies.
posted by bonehead at 5:15 PM on August 9, 2010 [151 favorites]


CPB read moar. The writer is making an honest attempt to break through the self-reinforcing denial loop that new agers have constructed.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:16 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Which side are the people who get four sentences in and want to punch her in the face on?

The side of violence, obv.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:19 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery—not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.
*jumps up and down, pointing at the screen*

This! This! This!
posted by brundlefly at 5:19 PM on August 9, 2010 [83 favorites]


I made it through the article (barely) and liked what she had to say about new-agers being the ones who can't accept mystery in their life. I'm not sure I'd read a whole book framing it as a cultural difference though, sure some people live and breathe it but more people have only a passing relationship with it in times of trouble.
posted by shinybaum at 5:19 PM on August 9, 2010


brundlefly, that's a fantastic quote. Truly great. Wow.
posted by zarq at 5:20 PM on August 9, 2010


She's the new age equivalent of a dry drunk.
posted by unSane at 5:21 PM on August 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


The trouble is, there is no "skeptical culture."

Of course there is. I posted about it.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 5:22 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Agreed. She has some important points on why people acquire these beliefs in the first place, and why running at them performing frenzied slashes with Occam's Razor isn't the best way to get them to critically reconsider their flawed assumptions.

Presuming that's your actual goal. It could just be that a person's goal is to perform frenzied slashes, in which case, you know...that person is actually an asshole, and no less so than the most fervent of fervent evangelical Christians. They, too, think that being right is carte blanche to behave like an asshole -- but an asshole is just an asshole. It really doesn't matter whether an asshole is right or wrong. It's an asshole. I think if we all endeavored first not to be assholes, and then worried about whether our neighbor did or did not believe the right thing, all of us would be better off.

That said, Randi was totally right to unleash the kraken on Uri Geller, because for real, fuck that guy. I agree with her in essence on this score, but that was an awful example.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:22 PM on August 9, 2010 [18 favorites]


That quote was probably what stood out to me the most, but I thought her experience, going from a lecturer and author in the New Age culture to being heavily critical of it, was an interesting one and worth the read.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:23 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


What really sets my teeth on edge is the appropriation of the word 'metaphysics' as a synonym for 'mysticism' or 'woo.'

Maybe the cultural communication problem is that one side doesn't know what words mean.
posted by zjacreman at 5:23 PM on August 9, 2010 [14 favorites]


I was going to quote the exact same paragraph bonehead did. The piece is way too long, but she finally got to the meat of it there.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 PM on August 9, 2010


I'm four sentences in and I already want to punch her right in the FACE.

Toleration isn't easy.
posted by washburn at 5:23 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


One thing I have noticed about a lot of New Agers is that the concepts that get appropriated from elsewhere - such as karma (from Buddhism) and chakras (from Hinduism) - get massively misunderstood and misinterpreted. Problem is, their misuse of appropriated concepts, lacking context or meaning, then puts the original cultures in a bad light - and a lot of hardened skeptics go after the original cultures too. In their zeal for rationality, a lot of indigenous and/or long-standing cultural knowledge gets thrown under the bus because they're assumed to be just like how the New Agers describe them as being.
posted by divabat at 5:23 PM on August 9, 2010 [29 favorites]


I kept waiting for more meat on that bone. Maybe I've missed all the insensitive and insulting articles on Snopes, but it's pretty hard for anyone believing in magic to remain open-minded when someone pulls back the curtain.

Take for example her example of "skeptics can't tolerate mystery". I've heard that point refuted, in exactly the way she describes, so many times I don't think I could offer a count. I think if she spends some time offering a calm, respectful voice of reason, based on the expectations she seems to be describing in this piece, she's going to be shocked at how little traction she gets. It's not all about being shouty and insulting (though that never helps).
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:24 PM on August 9, 2010


OK, I just read the whole thing. As a natural-born skeptic (yes, I honest-to-Randi got kicked out of Sunday School class for asking too many questions), I found this really interesting.

For the most part, I've always looked at the new age people to be completely misguided. In the show Bullshit, they often accuse people of intentionally misleading gullible people for economic gain. I'm sure those people are out there, and fuck 'em all, but I truly believe that that majority of these folks believe wholeheartedly in what they're doing. It's sad that they're so misinformed; the best you can do is try to engage them in a practical Q and A discussion about what they do and why they think it works. So I'm glad the author said the biggest thing she's learned is that skeptics are primarily concerned, and not just trying to be demeaning.

But I really don't understand this idea of critical thinking as something that must be taught. Sure, there are ways to teach people to think critically about things, but it's not like every skeptical person in the world got sat down at some point in their lives and instructed on how to think.

I think the big difference (and the author touches on this towards the end) between the skeptic and the non-skeptic is that the non-skeptic wants an explanation for the how and why, and will accept just about anything as the answer. The skeptic requires proof and, in lieu of hard data, says, "I don't know yet, and that's OK."
posted by phunniemee at 5:24 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


She's also saying that just because people are wrong, it doesn't mean they are fair game for intellectual abuse, which is something that smartypantses with more education than compassion need to be reminded of quite often.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 5:27 PM on August 9, 2010 [50 favorites]


She's a terrible writer, but I did appreciate what she had to say about the New Age and mystery.
posted by empath at 5:27 PM on August 9, 2010


This interests me. Although I'm an atheist, I'm hard put to it to tell people what atheism and skepticism can offer them that belief can't. In fact, it will actively rob them of community, respect and support, in many instances. And for what -- to be correct? You have to be both economically privileged, emotionally independent, and highly cerebral to say: No, I will not believe this thing. I will not accept what you accept. I will not do it because it is not so. I mean I do it, but it's not something I try to sell. McLaren associated New Age beliefs with her mother's recovery and her later livelihood; can we all reject such things so easily?

I'm very interested in the skeptical community, in that I follow several skeptical podcasts and websites on a weekly basis. But it doesn't strike me as a place you'd go to meet people -- unless they were specific, awesome persons, such as Adam Savage, George Hrab and the brothers Novella. Most people need people, and the skeptically oriented skew anti-social.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:29 PM on August 9, 2010 [31 favorites]


. In the show Bullshit, they often accuse people of intentionally misleading gullible people for economic gain. I'm sure those people are out there, and fuck 'em all, but I truly believe that that majority of these folks believe wholeheartedly in what they're doing.

This is the point I wish she'd elaborated on further in this piece. She acknowledged the existence of charlatans and frauds. She said she wasn't one. What made her different? All the stuff in all the books she wrote - where did she get it from? How did she "discover" it? Why did she think it worked, and what did it take to convince her that it didn't?
posted by Jimbob at 5:29 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Can one really tote a chakra?
posted by mr_roboto at 5:32 PM on August 9, 2010


Yes! Yes! The Mystery thing! It's so. right.

I rather hope this doesn't make anyone here want to punch me in the face, but I am/was living just this exact thing. Going from woo-woo religion to slightly-less-woo-woo-but-really-corrupt religion, and finally discovering that all the stuff that I'd ignored couldn't be ignored anymore...it's an earthshattering moment, an absolutely aching one, but so much joy follows it when you get past the fact that you've just lost most of your friends, your support network, a boatload of beliefs and are questioning so much about your life.

I love that she's addressing how the two groups talk to one another, recognizing the caring in the skeptic/questioning side, but noting that no one is going to listen to you if you trash them to their face. I wish her luck with her studies, and look forward to her book. The article alone has clarified an awfully big chunk of my life, putting it into language I wouldn't have thought of. You have to understand -- this is very, very real to some people. And some subset of those people will realize that it isn't real. But this realization hurts. Not forever, but for a little while. We're working on it, okay? Explosions of rage on your part do not help with this working on it, though.
posted by kalimac at 5:33 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


Can one really tote a chakra?

For $1000, you can attend my workshop this weekend where I will teach you to do just that.
posted by The World Famous at 5:34 PM on August 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


For that matter, can you wear an aura? I mean, I sort of thought that we all had auras all the time or something.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:34 PM on August 9, 2010


Although now that I reflect on it, my information comes from that stoner kid in my ninth grade class who may not have been the authority I believed at the time.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:35 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


Can one really tote a chakra?

I can teach you for just $12.95!
posted by bonehead at 5:36 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


heh, I love how fast the comments here proved her point.

Frankly, though, this is par for the course when any two "cultures" collide -- if you want to translate something from Language A into Language B, then what you really need is a fluent speaker of B who speaks A as a second language. Going the other way is generally a recipe for misunderstanding and/or inadvertent offense (e.g. some English manuals for Chinese electronics... or all the people who come to mefi and go "@otheruser: blah blah blah! -myusername").

As somebody who moves in a few very different subcultures, I've definitely seen this dynamic at work. In every culture there are some things you say, and some things you just don't, and it takes time and dedication to learn what those are. It gets to the point where you can smell outsiders a mile away -- and after that, it's just a small step to closing ranks against them.

That said, since New Age comes pre-inoculated not only against skepticism, but against disagreement in general, I'm not sure how one can bridge the gap. It sure ain't happening from the skeptical side... and as the author herself points out, her New Age-friendly arguments had to be so gently put that they weren't even arguments anymore, and thus lost most of their power.
posted by vorfeed at 5:40 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


The trouble is, there is no "skeptical culture." There is just clearheaded examination of evidence on one side and hokum on the other.

No argument on the hokum vs science issue, but there is a "skeptical community" (another term she uses, and a better one to discuss than "skeptical culture"), in the same way that there is a gaming community. That is, not everyone who [games/thinks skeptically] is part of the community, but those who make this a big part of their identity do seek out others to bond with over these shared values, and shared jargon and attitudes arise, often following the lead of community heroes (e.g. Penny Arcade, James Randi). That's the "skeptical culture" she's talking about. They have podcasts and everything.
posted by No-sword at 5:41 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


When one person really is correct and another person really is wrong, and the first person is trying to convince a 2nd person of this fact, there are a lot of ways to go about it. Some ways will work better on some people and other ways will work better on other people. There is no one right way. Sometimes ridicule works, in the sense that it pisses people off enough to make them try really hard to do a good job defending their views, and in attempting to do this job, they then discover that their views are actually pretty kooky. Sometimes calm rational arguments work. In any case, these various ways almost never work *quickly*. Sometimes the ridicule or the rational arguments, or whatever take months or even years to germinate in the minds of the befuddled. Sometimes then never do germinate.
posted by smcameron at 5:41 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yeah, this woman wants to build a bridge between the two cultures so she can evacuate the New Age side.

Almost as if she expects some kind of disaster to to strike.

Not that spending your life believing a bunch of silly things isn't a disaster, I suppose.
posted by jamjam at 5:44 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, ranting about logic and Occam's razor to a New Ager is worse than useless. Most people just want things to make sense, and paranormal beliefs are one way of doing that in a universe that really doesn't care about us. Ghosts are a lot easier to imagine than electron clouds and ionic bonds.

I was on an airplane flight (years before memes were terribly mainstream). and was seated next to a younger guy who was talkative. We discussed politics a bit and he started getting into Truther discussions, and then asked me if I knew why there was a pyramid with an eye on the dollar bill. I was agreeable, listened to the usual re-branded Elders of Zion speech, and said I was familiar with most of the theories and history about the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, and the Masons. Seeing that he was borderline paranoid I decided to take a different approach rather than start in with detailed rebuttals, which would have immediately branded me as a co-conspirator:

"Have you ever heard of the theory that ideas can actually evolve, and transmit from person to person like a disease? And some of these ideas, they only exist to feed on our emotions, or to compel us to tell someone else about as soon as you hear them? You know, like when you hear a good story and immediately think 'I've got to tell everybody I know about this'. So when you hear a new idea, maybe you should think, is this an idea that gives me information about the world and how to do something, or is this an idea that wants to use me for its own ends?"

The guy looked at me a little warily, and was silent for a minute or two as he thought.

"So, you mean like some of these ideas I been telling you, they might be the kind of thoughts that are just out for themselves? And they might not be good for me?"

"I don't know, it could be possible."

The plane landed shortly afterwards and I disembarked. I hope he ended up becoming a little more skeptical, but fear he might have ended up putting knitting needles in his ears to get the bad ideas out.
posted by benzenedream at 5:47 PM on August 9, 2010 [100 favorites]


...Well, it took quite a while, so let me start at the beginning.

I love how this quote is from the end of the thirteenth paragraph.
posted by hermitosis at 5:49 PM on August 9, 2010 [13 favorites]


Can one really tote a chakra?
For $1000, you can attend my workshop this weekend where I will teach you to do just that.
I can teach you for just $12.95!

My chakra tote healing seminar is just $9.99 and comes with a free chakra tote bag.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:53 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


I found this mind boggling and interesting:

"I didn't understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone—I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis".

I'm willing to give a lot of these people the benefit of the doubt as to their motives, and this snippet furthers the explanation as to why somebody would honestly think they were psychic.
posted by Omon Ra at 5:55 PM on August 9, 2010 [10 favorites]


Most people need people, and the skeptically oriented skew anti-social.

I am somewhat... skeptical of this claim. I'm an atheist because that's what I believe, and because I wasn't raised in any religious tradition. But I like people. I'm not hunkered in the basement chugging Jolt cola and referring to myself as a "Bright." Stereotypes aside, I would think people who don't believe in any kind of afterlife or "spirit world" would place more value on relating to their fellow human beings in the here and now, not less.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:00 PM on August 9, 2010 [9 favorites]


My chakra tote healing seminar is just $9.99 and comes with a free chakra tote bag.

My mantra is "you get what you pay for." And my seminar doesn't need gimmicks, because it has true mystical energy.
posted by The World Famous at 6:00 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes. I think this is one of the most important issues facing mankind today. We look around and ask "where are our allies?" when we see environmental degradation, wasteful consumerism, predatory capitalism/corporatism, the continued rise of the millitary-industrial complex, neo-fascism etc. etc. etc.

I'll tell you where our allies are: there, in the spiritual/new age/'woo" world.

So many kind hearted, well intentioned, motivated, potentially smart and effective people that would have been fantastic political/social/intellectual organizers are sucked into magical thinking*.

The reasons are manifold.

The point about not liking mystery is right. The point about there being lonliness and needing to belong to a welcoming community is right.

Other explanations: the non-anthropomorphocentric universe can be a chilling thing to behold. I think a preponderance of new age/spiritual people look into the void, and reject "our job is to make heaven on earth" as too frightnening, mundane or inexplicable.

Rejecting organized religion as the vested power structure that they rightly see, they create or join in a new belief system made of whole cloth that panders to the need for comfort, excitement or meaning.

Others have experienced things that could be explained in a rational sense by good knowledge of social dynamics, psychology, and critical thinking. A lack of education instead leads them to these belief systems.

On the whole this moves them away from actions that would actually improve the world and people's lot in it.


I think this woman's effort is noble and vital.



*Hey, listen, everyone needs a little magical thinking. We all need our comforting delusions, but not ones that run all the way through our worldview and at the expense of the way the world turns out.
posted by lalochezia at 6:05 PM on August 9, 2010 [38 favorites]


"I understand now, after years of reading and research, that the skeptical culture exists because of a very real concern for the welfare and well being of others."

I can really relate to the strength of this revelation. Because that concern is not something that is typically broadcast (at. all.) during discussions I've had with people who are incredibly skeptical.

I've gotten in a lot of arguments here on MetaFilter because of things I may or may not actually believe or promote, and I've always found that odd because I'm actually one of the more incredulous and skeptical people I know when it comes to the mystical and the supernatural. But I can't stand the mean-spirited and utterly disdainful attitude of superiority that comes across in the arguments of the more vocal skeptics, and that itself is what I feel I end up arguing against. If someone is hurting or bilking others, I think that makes them a target for outrage and an opportunity for teaching, but I don't like anyone who relishes undermining others' entire belief systems purely for the sake of it.
posted by hermitosis at 6:05 PM on August 9, 2010 [47 favorites]


James Randi’s behavior and demeanor were so culturally insensitive that he actually created a gigantic backlash against skepticism, and a gigantic surge toward the New Age that still rages unabated.

I will allow that Randi was often a dick of the highest order (he's mellowed a bit), but I'm going to need more evidence for her claim that he was responsible for a "gigantic surge toward the New Age".
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:05 PM on August 9, 2010


Also: Article published June 2004. I hope she's stayed the course.
posted by lalochezia at 6:08 PM on August 9, 2010


I am somewhat... skeptical of this claim.

As you should be! It's an observation, and not an original one. I can't provide a study that tests the proposition that open atheism is associated with personal isolation, so I could well be wrong. I'm fond of people myself, and I have no trouble believing that there are a lot of extroverted and/or happily social atheists. I just hypothesize that the overall tendency is otherwise.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:10 PM on August 9, 2010


lalochezia, apparently she has... although oddly enough her new age books are still in print.
posted by Omon Ra at 6:11 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had the same reaction as brundlefly to that quote about the falsity of the New Age's claim to embrace mystery. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

I can identify. My parents are New Agers, and they were while I was growing up. I had a moderate interest in the stuff as a teenager, though in retrospect it was a way of fumbling toward traditional philosophy. When I started growing out of it, it turned out that the New Age subculture had successfully stigmatized level-headedness for me. Thus, I bought into the idea that by turning my back on the New Age, I was turning my back on (for lack of a better word) the sublime. It wasn't until I realized what the author did--in particular, that there are secular poems that are braver confrontations with the cosmos than any cooked-up quasi-religion--that I was emotionally reconciled with the change.

(It's ironic; my dad grew up in a Christian household and it took him a long time for him to visit my grandparents without a fight breaking out about his apostasy. Now I'm the one who's given up arguing at Christmas and sits there quietly as his family bangs on about past lives.)
posted by Beardman at 6:12 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


I will allow that Randi was often a dick of the highest order (he's mellowed a bit), but I'm going to need more evidence for her claim that he was responsible for a "gigantic surge toward the New Age".

My first real look at Randi of any depth came courtesy of a long (and very courteous, if not slightly worshiping) interview in a late-'80s issue of Twilight Zone, which was hardly a magazine prone to shy away from things New Age-y. Just a random data point; but no, I don't think she's right about that.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:14 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


lalochezia, apparently she has...

Although she is now claiming to have written the first book to explain all of the emotions. Rather a strong declaration there.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:15 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


My first exposure to Randi was a video of him owning James Hydrick, which is still a fun watch.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:16 PM on August 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


Actually, my culturally sensitive capacity to attack without attacking and criticize without criticizing was so effective that some avid readers still don't know what I was saying.

I don't think the word effective means what she thinks the word effective means. It certainly comes through in her dense writing style. You can feel her trying to just break out and speak the truth of what she sees, but so much gets buried in an effort to be non-offensive to people's sensitivities, real or imagined. I agree with the comment above, it is unfortunate that traditional cultural concepts with meaning have been co-opted, redefined and then skeptics throw them out with the New Age bathwater. There is a lot of traditional wisdom about being human that has value. We just need to learn to embrace both tradition and mystery.
posted by meinvt at 6:20 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lentrohamsanin, there are a couple of fishy things about her bio as well. She carefully avoids mentioning which university she attended after switching camps; and the info in the back of her latest book still says "She is the author of 5 books and 6 audio courses on self-healing", although, presumably, these are all the bunk work she did when she was in the new age camp.
posted by Omon Ra at 6:20 PM on August 9, 2010


My chakra tote healing seminar is just $9.99 and comes with a free chakra tote bag.

My mantra is "you get what you pay for." And my seminar doesn't need gimmicks, because it has true mystical energy.


ooooh, a good ol' fashioned Chakra v. Mantra rumble!
What kind of odds is the Buddha Bookie giving on this one?
posted by mannequito at 6:24 PM on August 9, 2010


One of the interesting things about that is how locked in people can become. A nurse I know was telling me about this woman who came in. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer some time back and, instead of the usual treatments, she had opted for homeopathy, various teas, magnetic treatments, and prayer. Lots and lots of prayer. However, her family had persuaded her to come some years later. She uncovered her breast. To his horror, the tumor had grown out of her breast in this blackened, open mass. He said that he should have won some kind of professional award for not vomiting at the smell.

She was not too worried. God loved her and would take care of her. Maybe, she said, she just hadn't been trying hard enough. She was locked in. My friend nodded, then he went to get the doctor, who had to tell her, not long after, that she would most likely have to get her affairs in order, after the rest of her presenting symptoms began to reveal themselves.

And that's the part that gets me: if it doesn't work, you're just not trying hard enough/doing it right. No consideration is given to the idea that, hey, it might not work like that!

I come across this thinking all the time, whether it is free energy from magnets or amazing cancer cures or politics or unlikely dating advice. People believe things because the alternative isn't preferable, often enough. The courage to believe that unappealing things are true, anyway, is the beginning of skepticism.
posted by adipocere at 6:24 PM on August 9, 2010 [20 favorites]


The courage to believe that unappealing things are true, anyway, is the beginning of skepticism.


I would somewhat brazenly suggest that this is the beginning of critical thought, generally. As an experiment, before broaching the topic of Stoicism in my introductory Philosophy courses, I ask students to write a brief essay about the concepts of fate and/or destiny. Without fail, literally without a single exception over the past 7+ years, nary a single student who claimed to believe in either fate or destiny ever even allowed for the possibility that their particular fate and/or destiny would run counter - in any way - to what it is they already believed they would PREFER from their life, the universe, Fate, God, or whatever. Zero, to date, have suggested that their personal fate (or destiny or whatever) might be to experience things they would, other things being equal, prefer NOT to undergo.

We are a terribly vain species.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:30 PM on August 9, 2010 [19 favorites]


going in to sociologyh is a step forward...but a mere step at that...a lot of pseudo science in that field.
posted by Postroad at 6:31 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, skeptic or New Age community, she's no slouch at self-promotion, either way. I'll also agree with vorfeed and hermitosis in that one can be interested in spiritual and mystical stuff, the kind of stuff that's not easily explained, without having to be credulous or a sucker, and that painting everyone who's not a strict materialist/atheist with the "gullible sucker" brush is counterproductive, at best.
posted by infinitywaltz at 6:37 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


In case that comes across as too cold or whatever, I should also add that I find this impulse (to find positive meaning in otherwise senselessly tragic events, etc.) totally human and completely understandable. I wish we did in fact live in the best of all possible worlds. I wish there was no such thing as senseless suffering. I get it. I definitely get it. But we do not, and it is not. So far as I can tell.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:38 PM on August 9, 2010


And that's the part that gets me: if it doesn't work, you're just not trying hard enough/doing it right. No consideration is given to the idea that, hey, it might not work like that!

Alternative medicine can never fail. It can only be failed.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:45 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Most people need people, and the skeptically oriented skew anti-social.

Confirmation bias at work, here, I think. I'd report that the skeptically oriented skew really really social. Like, "Please, it's 11 pm, and the party started nine hours ago, and we're out of food and nearly out of booze, and could you please all GO HOME!" social. This has been my (frequent!) experience at our hot chocolate and games parties.
posted by rtha at 6:54 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Y'know, you New Age people and you skeptics—you're all gonna wind up dead some day. Some day real soon, in fact. Fat lot a good this fighting'll do ya then. Just love each other now because there isn't anything else.
posted by bricoleur at 7:01 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Fat lot a good this fighting'll do ya then. Just love each other now because there isn't anything else.

Uh, no shit? You know that accepting that conclusion puts you far more in line with skeptical / humanist thinking, right? If this is all we got, then it sure as shit counts. I am with you, but your effort to appear above the fray is a tad too precious, in my opinion.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:04 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


I like this part, about the hostility inherent in the words skeptics use to describe the "other" culture:
For instance, the first time I visited the skeptical health care Web site called Quackwatch, it felt as if I were walking into enemy territory. “Quack” is a very loaded word-it’s a fighting word! Though site owner Dr. Stephen Barrett has every right to call his excellent Web site anything he likes, I wonder why it couldn't have been called, for instance, HealthWatch, HealingInfo, DocFacts, or something equally nonthreatening. Why do I have to type the word “quack” when I want a skeptical review of the choices I make in medical care? And why do I have to spend so much time translating on the skeptical sites I visit-or just skipping over words like scam, sham, quack, fraud, dupe, and fool? Why do I (the sort of person who actually needs skeptical information) have to see myself described in offensive terms and bow my head in shame before I can truly access the information available in your culture?
Compassion and respect aren't luxuries; they're absolutely necessary if we want to move the culture as a whole forward. Everybody votes, everybody has some economic power, and if we want everybody to use this power in an informed way, we have to remove, remove, remove barriers to information -- and rudeness is a huge barrier.
posted by amtho at 7:05 PM on August 9, 2010 [23 favorites]


And I fail to see who is quote-unquote fighting in this thread, but whatever. We get it, you are a special snowflake who just, like, wants everyone to love each other, maaaan. I agree with you, but - like the author of the linked article suggests, albeit from the other side - there are more and less effective ways to communicate your position. Trying not to sound like a graduate of the Wavy Gravy Foundation for Cosmic Love might strengthen the reception of your ideas. Just saying. I do love you, maaaan. You know, for the record.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:07 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know, the tenor of my above comments is likely just going to serve to confirm the biases of some folks, so I happily retract the negativity. I love you all, maaaaan. Sincerely.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:09 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


When I wrote my books and recorded my audio programs, I had to write and speak so carefully that it took most people two or three readings to figure out that I was directly challenging many of the foundations upon which the New Age is built. Actually, my culturally sensitive capacity to attack without attacking and criticize without criticizing was so effective that some avid readers still don't know what I was saying.

this quote is kind of amazing. Her description of her writing reminds me of philosophers and critical theorists I studied in college.
posted by eustatic at 7:13 PM on August 9, 2010


Critical thought and psychedelic drugs = The cure for "New Age"-ism and "Skepticism".
posted by Liquidwolf at 7:13 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


Princess Elena: This interests me. Although I'm an atheist, I'm hard put to it to tell people what atheism and skepticism can offer them that belief can't. In fact, it will actively rob them of community, respect and support, in many instances. And for what -- to be correct? You have to be both economically privileged, emotionally independent, and highly cerebral to say: No, I will not believe this thing. I will not accept what you accept. I will not do it because it is not so. I mean I do it, but it's not something I try to sell. McLaren associated New Age beliefs with her mother's recovery and her later livelihood; can we all reject such things so easily?

Ohh good grief. This long slew of offensive stereotypes isn't even wrong, and a bad way to end a great long weekend with my extended family.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:19 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


I once got into a ferocious online argument with an advocate for a particular species of new age woo "alternative" medicine. I spent several turns throwing references at him.

He had the classic "na na can't hear you" thing going on. His final turn in the exchange was priceless: "Studies? Studies? FUCK YOU AND YOUR FUCKING STUDIES!"

Sums it all up.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:33 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


There is just clearheaded examination of evidence on one side

Like when drugs get tested?

hokum on the other

Would that be the 'ulcers are caused by stress' or 'vitamins just make expensive urine'?

I'm guessing the 'hokum' would be
The Emperor Mushroom will increase your yang and therefore your health and you will live long like the Emperor.
and the 'clearheaded examination' would be:
The polysacchrides of Ganoderma Lucidum have anti cancer and anti-viral properties.

And yet both have you drinking a nasty tasting tea that should be good for you with one being hokum because the words are different than the non-hokum version.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:35 PM on August 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


I read this part with particular interest:
I first encountered the New Age in 1971, when I was ten years old. My mother had been experiencing numerous arthritic symptoms that just weren't responding to medical care, and she was headed for a wheelchair. Somehow, she found a yoga class, and slowly, she became well again.

...

Our family fell apart over this massive change (though my parents’ marriage was rocky anyway), as my father was and still is a skeptic with a strong intellect and good native training in scientific and critical thought processes. One of my brothers, who is now a mathematics professor, joined with my father, while the rest of us kids (four total) went along in our own ways with my mother’s interest in metaphysics, spirituality, and the New Age.
And read the rest of the article, waiting for some context for this bit of history. Perhaps "context" is the wrong word: maybe some idea as to how she reconciles this event with her newfound skepticism.

And there was nothing. Assuming that she's telling the truth (and it doesn't strike me as impossible or even unlikely that she is), there's an interesting article there about how New-Agey practices like Yoga can actually be superior to Western medical practices. It also occurs to me that the default assumption of skeptics, that aligning one's beliefs to objective truth and away from the sorts of falsehoods found in a lot of New Age circles is good for you, may simply be wrong.

I mean, I'd rather be fully ensconced in her mother's delusional worldview and waste money on crystals and chakra realignment than be in pain and headed for a lifetime in a wheelchair.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 7:45 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I mean, I'd rather be fully ensconced in her mother's delusional worldview and waste money on crystals and chakra realignment than be in pain and headed for a lifetime in a wheelchair.

Or dying in horrific (and otherwise likely preventable agony) from a cancerous tumor left untreated?

I fail to follow your argument, here.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:54 PM on August 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


UrineSoakedRube: Assuming that she's telling the truth (and it doesn't strike me as impossible or even unlikely that she is), there's an interesting article there about how New-Agey practices like Yoga can actually be superior to Western medical practices.

Western medical practices such as supervised regular and gentle exercise focused on strength and flexibility, the kind that I get from a physical therapist who will run me through many of the same stretches and postures to relieve many of the same symptoms?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:56 PM on August 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


What I like about the part about New Agers having no tolerance for mystery or ambiguity (which I also posted about last monday) is that no skeptic would have ever noticed that, despite their celebrated rational powers to tell what is real or not. From the perspective of the skeptic, what is wrong with the New Age always ends up being the ways in which they are different from the skeptic's self-understanding: "They are irrational where I am rational; they are gullible where I am wise; they should be more like me." This is a self-serving criticism that I am very skeptical of, the kind where identifying certain problems in the world is a way to pat yourself on the back.

On top of that, it's not even a very good criticism for several reasons. It doesn't differentiate between someone who believes in Biblical creation and someone who believes in chakras, so they try to rehearse Galileo vs. the Pope with New Agers. But New Agers rarely take their metaphysical claims all that seriously, unlike the creationists. They function more like post hoc rationalizations of beliefs that mostly therapeutic. Skeptics are worried about people who take homeopathic medicine rather than having their appendix removed, which is a legitimate concern, but it's extremely rare. You should be much more concerned about people who take homeopathic remedies along with having their appendix removed, which is very likely a much more common practice.

I disagree with her that skeptics are deeply concerned about New Agers though - I think skeptics are more concerned about the negative consequences of not sharing their worldview, which leads them to be remarkably ineffective critics of New Age culture. They focus on the wrongness of the beliefs rather than why they believe what they do. And this may be because skeptics believe in rationalism for many of the same reasons, looking for "an answer, a reason, and a source" in science.

On this particular point, the New Age rejection of science has more truth that the skeptics: they know that such answers aren't found in science. But, they always assert things like "Chi energy fields are all around us!" But what if that was true? Let's pretend science finally comes around and discovers what the mystics and sages have been saying for centuries. What then? We'd discover that these energy forces are blind, just like magnetism or gravity and they'd have no appeal to New Age culture whatsoever, because they would become part of our naturalistic scientific worldview. So the appeal of these mystical realities is not that they're convinced they're real, but that they are (believed to be) deeply mysterious. The desperate hope is that once they're uncovered, we'll find out that God sees and speaks to us through those channels, that the universe doesn't stare back at us blankly, in mute indifference.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:58 PM on August 9, 2010 [13 favorites]


I don't like to think of myself as a skeptic, I much prefer "rationalist" to "skeptic" because it's perfectly possible--it's in fact very common--to be skeptical about things for which plenty of evidence exists. I would like to disbelieve only in things that are not true, and believe only in things that are true, and keep an open mind about things to the extent that truth or otherwise is unknown. But this is a difficult problem, at odds with one's human nature.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:05 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


I mean, I'd rather be fully ensconced in her mother's delusional worldview and waste money on crystals and chakra realignment than be in pain and headed for a lifetime in a wheelchair.

Good news! Do the first and the second will follow.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:09 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Zero, to date, have suggested that their personal fate (or destiny or whatever) might be to experience things they would, other things being equal, prefer NOT to undergo.

Just to be clear, the vast majority of my students (based on their own reports) quite sincerely believe that the Universe wants them to be either the next American Idol and/or America's Next Top Model. Without exception, they all believe (again, quite sincerely) that the Universe and/or God wants them to be quite wealthy and, therefore, they deserve it. I want to blame Prosperity Theology, but I fear it is a symptom and not necessarily a cause. Thanks to a (here) unnamed MeFite for referencing Schopenhauer in a MeMail to support this claim:
"What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams ... and we search in vain for their original ... Much would have been gained if through timely advice and instruction young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them."
Or, you know, Freud: "... that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of ' Creation'."
posted by joe lisboa at 8:17 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


The "gateway drug" thing is an interesting insight. I'm comfortable with the possibility that there might be something to ritual, meditation, yoga as exercise, and some herbal remedies but my willingness to keep an open mind becomes strained when I'm expected to swallow miracles or claims that something is a panacea.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:23 PM on August 9, 2010


KirkJobSluder the kind that I get from a physical therapist who will run me through many of the same stretches and postures to relieve many of the same symptoms?

Current rationalist culture often dismisses psychosomatism and placebo/nocebo effects; a rather ironic preferencing of a belief ("the world is the world and it doesn't matter what I believe") over a reality ("my beliefs affect my experience of the world"). Some proportion of the benefit you gain from the actions of your physiotherapist is actually due to the fact that you expect to gain the benefit.

Of course the only thing psychosomatism can affect is you. But you are involved in everything you experience and do, and other people likewise. Part of your interaction with the physiotherapist includes an instruction to him/her to perform effective physiotherapy on you; and an assertion from him/her to you, that the physiotherapy he/she has performed has been effective.

If the only way to make something work is to not understand how it works, the skeptic tends to treat this as a paradox. But it's actually not. It's just a limited-information problem.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:23 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd like to address the idea that skeptics are often dicks.

I've been a skeptic for as long as I can remember. I have no time for pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, or the supernatural—and I earnestly believe that this stuff is a danger to liberalism (in the original, broader sense of the word) and civil society.

I've long campaigned against it, in my own way—and I've often been told, directly or indirectly, that I'm being a dick about it.

Now, I probably have been a dick at times. And to whatever extent that's true, I don't mean to sit here and make excuses for it. I should not be a dick.

But if you've spent any amount of time discussing the supernatural with a true believer, then you know what a bizarre experience it can be. Believers present arguments that are full of glaring self-contradictions, circular logic, equivocation, and outright nonsense. Not subtle errors, but glaring errors that are obvious to anyone who makes any effort to approach the claim critically.

And these arguments are spectacularly unresponsive to correction. It doesn't matter how clearly or comprehensively you demonstrate a fallacy in a believer's argument. He'll simply spin ever more tangled webs of incoherence and ad hoc reasoning. From the perspective of a scientist, many of these defenses can seem supremely arrogant.

To illustrate one example:

Scientists understand that human beings are prone to countless biases of perception and cognition, and that many of the methods of science are designed to minimize the effects of those biases. To a scientist, it's irresponsible (and foolish) to accept a claim that hasn't been vetted with these methods.

Believers, on the other hand, quite often demand that their ideas be exempt from the standards of rigor to which scientists subject their own beliefs.

There's an enormous body of research which shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, that astrology is bunk. But try presenting that evidence to an astrology buff. He'll likely tell you that he knows, based on his own personal experience, that astrology is real.

So: on one side of the scale, we have thousands of man-hours of painstaking research, conducted using methods that have been carefully designed to minimize human error, to distinguish meaningful results from unmeaningful ones, to isolate the variables under examination from tangential ones, and so forth.

On the other side of the scale, we have a single person's personal belief, which has been subjected to none of those checks. And he's sitting here insisting that this outweighs those thousands of hours of careful research.

From a scientific point of view, that's an outrageous assertion. It's a jaw-dropping bitch move. It's tantamount to saying that you have such perfect faculties of perception and cognition that there is no need to subject your ideas to any kind of scrutiny. It says that your unchecked whims are more reliable guides to truth than a universal scientific consensus based on a mountain of empirical evidence. It basically says that you are the specialist fucking snowflake that has ever walked the Earth.

And that's just one example of how a believer's attitude can seem utterly obnoxious to a skeptic.

If you subscribe to scientific ideas about what constitutes valid evidence and knowledge, it can be really hard to wrap your head around the notion that people really believe these arguments. The arguments are so tortured, so obviously deficient, that it can be very difficult to conceive that anyone could really and truly believe them. Casting about for alternate explanations, one wonders whether the believer is an idiot, a con man, mentally ill, or just a gigantic fucking asshole.

And It's only recently that I've started to comprehend that a lot of people really do believe the crazy things they claim to believe.

I'm also beginning to realize that they don't mean to be gigantic fucking assholes (not all of them, anyway). Almost without exception, believers grossly misunderstand the basic principles of science and critical thinking—and hence probably aren't aware that the things they say are so outrageous.

So, while I completely understand why skeptics often get quite tart with believers, I'm beginning to suspect (as this women suggests) that it's not a winning strategy.

But I don't know what the winning strategy is. How do you reason with someone who doesn't understand (or believe in) the principles of reason? Any argument against the supernatural must be built on that framework—and if one party doesn't know how to use the framework, the conversation is doomed to failure from the start.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:24 PM on August 9, 2010 [45 favorites]


Or dying in horrific (and otherwise likely preventable agony) from a cancerous tumor left untreated?

Have you ever tired to get approval for treatment using the red rays of the sun of krypton past the twelve gods who approve your insurance support? Ya know - 'The poet, the physician, the farmer, the scientist, the magician and the other so-called Gods of our approval process'

Perhaps you prefer the still-not-accepted-yet claimed to be effective red laser that zaps cancer like http://www.lasemedinc.com/home.html pimps? What - too experimental for approval from the insurance company?

Would it be less hokum if ya called it PhotoDynamic treatment http://www.mayoclinic.org/photodynamic-therapy/ and I linked to the Mayo Clinic? Now would it get approval?
posted by rough ashlar at 8:28 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Current rationalist culture often dismisses psychosomatism and placebo/nocebo effects

Nonsense. Skeptical culture loves the placebo/nocebo effect because it provides such a useful explanation for so much alt med nonsense.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:29 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have you ever tired to get approval for treatment using the red rays of the sun of krypton past the twelve gods who approve your insurance support?

Are you being serious? I mean no offense, but I honestly have no idea what you are trying to accomplish here.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:32 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Maybe you should try reading the whole thing before going into paroxysms of rage."

That is awesome advice that I will apply to this thread. (Of course I knew the warriors of skepticism would fly right off the handle and miss the point, but geez. Angry skeptics are angry.)
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 8:36 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Of course I knew the warriors of skepticism would fly right off the handle and miss the point, but geez. Angry skeptics are angry.)

Dude, I am not angry in the slightest, just sincerely trying to understand what in the hell rough aslar is talking about when s/he writes stuff like the following:

Have you ever tired to get approval for treatment using the red rays of the sun of krypton past the twelve gods who approve your insurance support?

Is this parody? I have no idea, but I sure as shit hope so.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:46 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


But if it makes you feel better to pretend that I am angry and my comments and questions are the product of rage and not compassion, then whatever gets you through the night. You know, provided you do not hurt anyone else in the process.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:47 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Gah. My inner grammar Nazi is horrified by my last comment. More proofreading; less posting while tired.)
posted by ixohoxi at 8:47 PM on August 9, 2010


New Age believers are missing the point if they think skeptics are trying to convince them their beliefs are wrong or misguided. We are trying to convince other, porentially rational, people. I could give a flying fuck wihat the new agers think. Let them have their crystals.
posted by unSane at 8:47 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm not quite ready for the JREF Challenge yet, but my psychic skills told me I'd be reading this sentence by the time I finished:

She is currently co-writing a book on bridging the skeptical and New Age cultures.
posted by BoatMeme at 8:49 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Actually, instead of reading a bunch of skeptical aggro that makes me want to blow my brains out, here's my 2 cents. I'm 42. When I was 26 I decided the thing that made my life retarded was a lack of belief in anything. I dove into a whole lotta 'spiritual' business and had some amazing adventures for a while- followed by a fairly complete mental breakdown.

What got me back onto dry land- and it still took fucking yeeeaars- was a commitment to finding a way to describe the big ideas I had without using any kind of jargon. This gave me a discipline to cut through the jungle of bullshit, but there was one terrifying discovery waiting for me: I didn't know that once I had a clear bill of mental health I would also realize people are amazingly full of shit no matter what they believe.

It was like finding there was no 'there' there. And there is no answer to that, there is only uncertainty. Frankly, in that situation I find being a bit full of shit helps.

And if that offends you I'm talking to someone else.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 8:56 PM on August 9, 2010 [11 favorites]


Pope Guilty Nonsense. Skeptical culture loves the placebo/nocebo effect because it provides such a useful explanation for so much alt med nonsense.

and

[I mean, I'd rather be fully ensconced in her mother's delusional worldview and waste money on crystals and chakra realignment than be in pain and headed for a lifetime in a wheelchair.] Good news! Do the first and the second will follow.

One of these things is not like the other one; furthermore I read your use of "nonsense" as implying a rejection of the possibility of results, not just the correlation/causation fallacy inherent in achieving them.

If you accept that psychosomatic cancer remission is even possible (not necessarily predictable or reproducable), and there does exist a body of evidence to that effect, then it is possible that crystals and chakra realignment will trigger that remission. It is also possible that chemotherapeutic drugs will trigger that remission. Or the healing touch of Mad Saint Freddy who lives beneath the bridge. The "form of words and action" (the verbal, somatic and material components, if you like :D) are relevant only insofar as they serve as triggers for whatever psycho-physiological mechanism induces psychosomatic remisson, to do so.

Again, it's a limited information problem. For the sufferer to be cured by chakra realignment it is necessary that she believe that chakra realignment will cure her. From an external point of view, it is clear that the placement of rock crystals and chanting of words did nothing that can be meaningfully attributed as a cause of the cancer cure. But if her cancer actually would go into remission subsequent to the treatment, it would be irrational (arguably cruel) to assert that it "cannot work". The only way to determine whether it worked or not is to do it; she has a limited amount of time in which to choose treatments, and a limited amount of money with which to purchase them.

Even chemotherapy is to some extent subject to psychosomatism: to some extent our convincing her that chemotherapy would work and inducing her to take it up, affects its ability to actually work. "Reality" of course has immensely greater power over us than our beliefs do. Surgically cutting out a cancer removes it regardless of the patient's beliefs or otherwise about the cancer. Biochemical treatments that amount to the same on a molecular level will similarly impose reality on the cancer. A cancer patient--a baby for example, or a cat--could be utterly unaware of the nature and meaning of the treatments done to them and have no beliefs about them at all.

The New Age fallacy is to assert that psychosomatism matters most; the skeptical fallacy is to assert that it doesn't matter at all.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:57 PM on August 9, 2010 [14 favorites]


This is one of the most profound essays, for my personal circumstances, that I have ever come across.

I was born and raised in a New-Age cult called Eckankar, and I believed in it wholeheartedly for nearly twenty years. The last year or so was rough. I had a boyfriend I was in love with because he was *so handsome and talented at the GUITAR* and he also happened to be a fundamentalist Christian. Over and over, his family attacked my religious beliefs. (I think they were sincerely worried about me burning in hell.) Since I didn't have any critical thinking skills, I dealt with their onslaught by having a slow nervous breakdown. I'd go into panic attacks so crippling that the only way to get a grip on myself was to gouge out bits of my skin with a pair of tweezers I kept in my dorm room. I was a mess. I failed a bunch of classes and dropped out of college.

It's . . . still difficult for me to understand how I came through that period of my life. I . . . was raised in a cult. I . . . spent a couple of years cutting myself, and rocking back and forth in panic in bathroom stalls and corners. Then what?

Then somehow one night I said to myself, FUCK THIS. Fuck these complicated belief systems. I am too emotionally damaged to process any of these world-views. So I went outside and I watched the sun rise. I felt my chest rise up and down as the breath went in and out of my body, and I looked at the cars passing in both directions on my street. I decided that I was too fragile to believe in anything that I couldn't see, and that was all there was to it. And I felt relieved. That was how I began the long road back to health, and that was how I incidentally became a skeptic.

So here's the point of my story: what is scariest to me now is the knowledge that I only came to skepticism accidentally. Because I was tired, and fragile, and I needed to simplify my worldview. What if I had never dated that fundamentalist with that awful, pushy family? I don't think that I would ever have denounced my New-Age cult worldview without that nervous breakdown. I might easily have spent my entire life enslaved to that scientology-sister-religion with the plagiarized(!!) bible. Certainly, most of the friends I grew up with are still very devoted to the religion.

And the reason I might never have found my way out of that cult is explained exactly by Karla McLaren in this essay. There IS a chasm between the world of skeptics and the new-agers, and it is generally unbridged. Yes, I once considered the name-calling generally engaged in by skeptics to be harmful to spiritual growth, proof of negative energy to avoid at all costs. Yes, I considered emotional and intellectual arguments to be fundamentally flawed. Yes, I thought there was no reason to explore a site scornfully titled 'Quackwatch.' I was immune to every current tactic used by skeptic organizations.

I was immune to every tactic used by skeptic organizations because fundamentally, skeptic organizations treat New-Agers as if a war has been declared. As if homeopathy and its ignorant supporters are the enemy, and they should all be derided publicly by means of group homeopathic overdoses. And yes, James Randi is quite guilty of alienating vitriol. (Read the comments for a great way to bridge science into this phenomenon.)

But though I was immune to all the tactics, I was never immune to the fundamental ideas of skepticism. Fundamental ideas such as the idea that puny humans are capable of understanding the universe. The idea that it is important for the things a person believes about the universe to be true things about the universe. The idea that these true things can be proved to be true by means of experimentation. I just didn't have any access to these ideas.

I still get a trace of the old panic when I think about all this. About how easily I could have wasted my whole life in a false-world New-Age religion. Think Ivan Ilych, screaming his way to death with his feet up. Please, Metafilter, do not be quick to dismiss this woman. You are the rational, skeptical intellectuals to whom she pleads. I'm just a 24-year old cult-survivor who made it over to your side accidentally. One of my most fervent wishes is that someday the path from New-Age to Rationality may be a path less full of pain and loneliness. It's worth it to be on this side, but hell if it wasn't a terrible way to get here.
posted by sunnichka at 8:59 PM on August 9, 2010 [220 favorites]


It's worth it to be on this side, but hell if it wasn't a terrible way to get here.

Welcome and big hugs. And I say this as someone inherently suspicious of sides, per se. I am sorry you had to undergo what you did to get where you are, but now that you are here I wish you all the best. If there is no bigger picture all the more reason to place our emphasis (and trust) in our relations with our fellow human beings. Glad to have you along, sunnichka.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:04 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


aeschenkarnos: If the only way to make something work is to not understand how it works, the skeptic tends to treat this as a paradox. But it's actually not. It's just a limited-information problem.

I've never found that treatments become less effective the more I research their mechanism. For example, my understanding of how antibiotics interfere with metabolic pathways has never made them less likely to knock out a persistent infection.

In the example raised by the linked article, there's no need to invoke placebo/nocebo effects. Strength and flexibility exercise is a common recommendation for many types of joint pain. Many "western" doctors will liberally recommend yoga. There's no conflict to be reconciled there. And it would be nice if "western" science wasn't strawmanned all to heck in these discussions as being utterly hostile to the idea that religious practice is sometimes right.

Gaiman Boffenburg: It was like finding there was no 'there' there. And there is no answer to that, there is only uncertainty. Frankly, in that situation I find being a bit full of shit helps.

Ahh, the old Will to Believe.

And if that offends you I'm talking to someone else.

Why would I find that offensive compared to the offense you liberally offered in your opening statement?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:06 PM on August 9, 2010


"Ahh, the old Will to Believe."

Yeah, if you'd read my comment you'd have noticed my problems started with a will to believe and ended with belief being best avoided. But have at it.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 9:21 PM on August 9, 2010


and ended with belief being best avoided

If by belief we mean the subjective mental acceptance that a particular claim is true, then I have no idea how to parse this statement.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:23 PM on August 9, 2010


aeschenkarnos: The New Age fallacy is to assert that psychosomatism matters most; the skeptical fallacy is to assert that it doesn't matter at all.

And, what if both of these generalizations are prima facie absurd and laden with prejudice?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:25 PM on August 9, 2010


KirkJobSluder I've never found that treatments become less effective the more I research their mechanism. For example, my understanding of how antibiotics interfere with metabolic pathways has never made them less likely to knock out a persistent infection.

In this case any influence placebo/psychosomatism would be positive - the more you understand about how it works, the more you believe it works, and the more effective it would become.

There's no conflict to be reconciled there. And it would be nice if "western" science wasn't strawmanned all to heck in these discussions as being utterly hostile to the idea that religious practice is sometimes right.

Fair point. Western science doesn't do that, it definitionally has no opinions or policies. But it seems to me that there are people, Westerners, scientists, who would describe themselves as members of the scientific and rationalist culture, who are hostile to the idea that irrational (including religious) practice can ever be right. That irrational ideas can have effect. And this is at odds with reality, where irrational things happen all the time.

I would say that by virtue of its irrationality, irrational practice does not examine "rightness". Rightness and wrongness, comprehension, are concepts that inherently belong under the heading of rationality. Of computability, even.

Recently we discussed P?=NP and this seems analogous: finding out if something works, verifying it, is straightforward (if possibly extremely timeconsuming). Finding out how something works, computing it, is not necessarily straightforward at all. If P=NP, analogously, then for everything we can do, we could (given enough time) figure out how we did. If P≠NP, there exist some things that we can do and will never, ever know how we do them.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:26 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, if you'd read my comment you'd have noticed my problems started with a will to believe and ended with belief being best avoided. But have at it.

Again, why do you think I'd find that offensive after you've gone out of your way to advertise that you have a big chip on your shoulder and insult practically everyone else but the high horse you're sitting on?

In other news, we skeptics fry our baby in lard rendered from kittens. It's less convenient than the other way around, but more offensive.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:28 PM on August 9, 2010


KirkJobSluder> Western medical practices such as supervised regular and gentle exercise focused on strength and flexibility, the kind that I get from a physical therapist who will run me through many of the same stretches and postures to relieve many of the same symptoms?

The kind that was so rare back in 1971 that her mother found it easier and more effective to get help from a Yoga instructor? Or do you mean the modern kind, which never, ever, ever, ever borrows stretching and flexibility postures from Yoga asanas? And which still wasn't as effective in permanently fixing my aching right shoulder as the traditional Japanese bodywork guy I went to?

joe lisboa> Or dying in horrific (and otherwise likely preventable agony) from a cancerous tumor left untreated? I fail to follow your argument, here.

Okay, joe, before I defend my argument, can you rephrase my argument for me? Just so I can get an idea of what you think the argument I'm making is?

Pope Guilty> Good news! Do the first and the second will follow.

Those New Agers have some crazy ideas about medicine. For example, they seem to believe that wasting money leads directly to debilitating arthritis! Oh, they are hilarious!

I just knew that I'd hit a nerve here, and as much fun as it is to watch the frothing, let's go back to the article. I mean, this thread is supposed to be about the article, right?

That passage about how the author's mother got into New Age practices should have occasioned some further discussion about what people actually get out of skepticism, and frankly, the limits of skepticism. The author's mother took up Yoga when Western medicine, circa 1971, failed, and kept herself active and out of pain. Does anyone here think that her father, back in 1971, supported her through the Yoga part but drew the line on the other stuff? Why do all the self-proclaimed skeptics (in which group -- surprise! -- I place myself) here think that their kids voted 4 to 1 in favor of their mother the flake over their father the rationalist?

Now some of you might argue that had she had a rational mindset, she could have done the Yoga, realized that it was more likely to have a basis in reality than the other stuff, and went on to lead a normal life with some asanas thrown in. One, whether or not she was capable of it, the path she chose left her better off. Two, people aren't good at rationally compartmentalizing. For example, there are people even now who seem to think that there is absolutely nothing useful in ancient Chinese and Indian (to take two examples) health practices, instead of realizing that despite the large amounts of nonsense that go along with them, some of the practices were (hell, are) ahead of Western understanding.

This may be because they seem to think that because the scientific method wasn't in widespread practice back then in those locations, the fruits of their inquiries must be inferior. Which is wrong. To say that the scientific method is more efficient, and that practices that didn't come from that tradition still need to be proveable in a rational framework, is one thing. To say that "New Age" and "Western Medical Understanding" have to be taken as bundles is another, and is a fallacy of composition.

And on that note, it should have occasioned some further discussion about the current limits of Western medical knowledge. I have no doubt that in the future, people will be able to cure and treat cancer to a much greater extent than they do now. They'll be able to repair spinal injuries. There will be effective treatments for depression that are significantly better than placebo, unlike the ones now.

And in that future, they'll look at New Agey practices like crystal healing and chakra realignment with complete disbelief. How could intelligent people have believed such a thing back in the early 2000's?

Then they'll take a look at the state of medical practice back then and react much the same way we do now when we hear of bloodletting and the four humour theory. And they'll likely conclude that far too often, it was a fucking wash.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 9:30 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


"If by belief we mean the subjective mental acceptance that a particular claim is true, then I have no idea how to parse this statement."

That's okay, I do. I start by not thinking in jargon.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 9:30 PM on August 9, 2010


"In other news, we skeptics fry our baby in lard rendered from kittens."

Only when you're trying to make a point.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 9:31 PM on August 9, 2010


Actually, I better fuck right off out here because we are going to spend some time speaking different languages otherwise.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 9:33 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Actually, I better fuck right off out here because we are going to spend some time speaking different languages otherwise.

Well put. Good night!
posted by joe lisboa at 9:34 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


aeschenkarnos: In this case any influence placebo/psychosomatism would be positive - the more you understand about how it works, the more you believe it works, and the more effective it would become.

Which is the exact opposite of what you claimed earlier, making this an untestable hypothesis if the theory is supported both if you know how it works and if you don't know how it works.

Fair point. Western science doesn't do that, it definitionally has no opinions or policies. But it seems to me that there are people...

Sure, in any sufficiently large set, you're bound to find people who hold a particular position. I can't speak for the Randoids after all. My counter-argument is why are you focusing on them and not on the ton of published research which, you know, actually explores those psychosomatic effects? The argument that rationalist and skeptical inquiry is hostile to exploring how the mind matters in health isn't even wrong.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:38 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I sure hope all you skeptics are atheists as well...because it seems that most, if not all, of the arguments that you are using regarding New Age being irrational apply equally to religion in general.

This is why many top scientists don't negate religion, but simply say that it's separate from science. (although I'm not sure what kind of sense that makes). But you guys are *completely* negating New Age beliefs. Is it because they are often presented as science? What about when they aren't? Isn't it OK to be a New Ager then? (sniffle)

There is definitely a cultural arrogance and closed mindedness I have seen on Metafilter regarding anything that smells even remotely of possibly being non-scientific.

To all you ultra-rationalists, it seems to me that all logic progresses from some original statement which simply *cannot* be proved. And how do you explain the separation of consciousness in any way that doesn't sound a tad like mysticism? And what about all the weird stuff physicists get into? They're scientists too...

Perhaps what it is is, skeptics want control over the world and their lives just as much as New Agers do, but the skeptics would rather have the small amount of control they get from science, and New Agers would rather have a huge amount of mostly imagined control. Pick your poison. Just like the ultra right and the ultra left in politics, both extremes are toxic.
posted by serena15221 at 9:52 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Man, this lady is great!! Since this piece in 2004, she's finished her sociology degree and she really is actively working in the New Age field to teach about emotions and empathy from a scientific point of view, but while "speaking the language" of the New Age culture. She's rewriting her old books to include new scientific information! She *is* the gateway drug to skepticism, just like she said yoga is to New Age.

I've definitely got her back. I repudiate New Age silliness just as much as the next skeptic, but I absolutely can get behind some good old fashioned being nice and understanding.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:53 PM on August 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


UrineSoakedRube: The kind that was so rare back in 1971 that her mother found it easier and more effective to get help from a Yoga instructor? Or do you mean the modern kind, which never, ever, ever, ever borrows stretching and flexibility postures from Yoga asanas? And which still wasn't as effective in permanently fixing my aching right shoulder as the traditional Japanese bodywork guy I went to?

Again, so? The fact that Yoga and "Japanese bodywork" (what exactly do you mean by that?) is effective doesn't exactly contradict a centuries-old Western theory that such things as exercise can improve some medical symptoms. There's no need to reach for placebo effects in this case.

If it works for you, awesome. Let's explore that.

This may be because they seem to think that because the scientific method wasn't in widespread practice back then in those locations, the fruits of their inquiries must be inferior.

Whee, I sip my tea with my pinky sticking out while contemplating paving the moon with Starbucks' franchises. To the moon!

To say that "New Age" and "Western Medical Understanding" have to be taken as bundles is another, and is a fallacy of composition.

Pardon, but exactly who the fuck is making this argument?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:53 PM on August 9, 2010


Perhaps what it is is, skeptics want control over the world and their lives just as much as New Agers do, but the skeptics would rather have the small amount of control they get from science, and New Agers would rather have a huge amount of mostly imagined control. Pick your poison. Just like the ultra right and the ultra left in politics, both extremes are toxic.

Good night.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:53 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's okay, I do. I start by not thinking in jargon.

CWAA
posted by unSane at 9:54 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I mean jeez, she's worth it just for this:

Antidepressants work, and they saved my life and the lives of many people like me. Antidepressants rock!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:56 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


serena15221: Perhaps what it is is, skeptics want control over the world and their lives just as much as New Agers do, but the skeptics would rather have the small amount of control they get from science, and New Agers would rather have a huge amount of mostly imagined control. Pick your poison. Just like the ultra right and the ultra left in politics, both extremes are toxic.

"Well, the important thing is that you've found a way to feel superior to both."

And in other news, we only listen to electronic music generated from mathematical algorithms...

... and Neko Case.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:58 PM on August 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


I think what irritates me the most about this piece is the ridiculous claim that she and others weren't charlatans or snake-oil peddlers because they truly wanted to help people and had nothing but the purest intents. I doubt it. I think she found a way to make a buck advocating something about which she had no idea and no clear conviction and when pressed would say "well, who really knows?"

The evidenceis simple. I imagine she hasn't turned over all of her earnings from her books. If her article is to be believed, she would now see herself as someone who preyed off the well-meaning but misguided desires of the easily mislead and that the money was not honestly earned. She profited off of lying to the vulnerable. Any proceeds from her books should be given to a foundation helping those who've become addicted to cult-like thinking.

There's no way she's given it back. She's now making claims about cultural communication which lack any evidentiary basis. I suspect she thought she could get a book deal out of this.

I don't think she's smart enough to turn the magnifying lens inward, however. So in her eyes, she's not a charlatan. In mine, she remains exactly that. I suspect this is why many others had such a negative reaction to the piece (other than its repetitiveness, lack of citations, and overall shallowness).
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:01 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


... and Neko Case.

Definitive proof that there is a God who lurves us so vewwy, vewwy much.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:01 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or do you mean the modern kind, which never, ever, ever, ever borrows stretching and flexibility postures from Yoga asanas?

The criticism that "western science stole this idea from X, therefore it is worse" seems not even wrong, as well. If you understand science as being something that is about discovering what works, then it is obvious that elements from traditional practices that actually work will become part of western practices eventually.
posted by breath at 10:11 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


Here's a simple request. If you object to something that Randi, Meyers, Dawkins, or Schermer says about new-age beliefs, then call them out by name and cite them. Because we're barely even a community, much less a hive-mind.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:35 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


KirkJobSluder And, what if both of these generalizations are prima facie absurd and laden with prejudice?

What if indeed. Examples abound of New Agers who insist that belief itself is sufficient to change reality - c.f. "The Secret". Examples perhaps aren't as abundant of skeptics who insist that "chakra healing cannot possibly work", but they do exist. I agree that I am overgeneralizing, but that examples do exist makes the generalization not "prima facie absurd".

As for "prejudice", obviously contrary examples abound too, and any given individual is free (or bound) to make up his/her own mind. Overgeneralizing can be an error, but prejudice is a different thing. Everyone makes generalizations, it's the only way to cope with data: divide it into chunks. The prejudiced mind insists, in the face of reality, that there can be no exceptions to a generalization.

I am not accusing you of either disbelieving in placebo/psychosomatism or of prejudice. I merely claim that persons who do so, and who call themselves rational, exist.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:01 PM on August 9, 2010


People believe things because the alternative isn't preferable, often enough. The courage to believe that unappealing things are true, anyway, is the beginning of skepticism.

A girl that I cared about grew to think of me as a negative person, because of the horrible things I would predict. I didn't understand - I was an optimistic person to the core (and I am), I was only saying those things would happen because to the best of my predictive ability, they were going to happen, and it's better to be prepared for that.

She's never noticed that all those things I said would happen, did happen. That my predictions were reliable, and that was their only purpose; reliable information about the future. To her, good things happen when you have a positive attitude. And I agree with her on that, but I also know the importance of being able to separate what is genuinely most likely to happen given the facts on the ground, from positive things that might happen. That was one of the many dots she didn't connect. She grew ever more distant from me, and even from a distance I can see how she continues to sabotage her life without realizing the mechanisms.

She was too smart for the magical thinking that cripples her mind. She could have been so much more. She should have been so much more. It's so hard to watch. It's so hard to have the keys and, being untrusted and misunderstood, be unable to give them.

If the magical thinking made her happy, at least that would be something, but I don't think it did even that.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:01 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


What I am reading here - from sunnichka's amazing comment to the original article - is a mourning that no "Skeptical Outreach" services exist, and that the skeptical community is, as a whole, combative and antagonistic.

I would love to see an "irrationality deprogramming" course offered to the general public. And to a degree, science has already produced those, for extreme cases, in the form of anti-psychotic medication (crude as the current state of pharmacology is in the field).

The greatest obstacle to this - and one of the central tenents of skepticism - is that humans are very, very good at fooling themselves, and at allowing themselves to be fooled. Skepticism is hard: as a system, it requires constant, rigorous self-assessment. It is an extremely difficult discipline to teach, especially in a culture in which children are steeped in religious, superstitious and irrational belief from the moment of birth.

A good example of this very human phenomenon is the JREF Million Dollar Challenge. For decades Randi worked with mystics, clairvoyants and dowsers of all types. The testing protocols were established in lengthy, respectful negotiation with each participant to ensure that tests were scientifically rigorous, free from manipulation or bias, and acceptable to the claimant.

Every time, every single claimant has failed the preliminary test of their claimed powers. And every time, without exception, the claimant has come back with an excuse ("Mars wasn't in Pices that day", "Skeptical auras disturb my chi", etc, etc) and continues to believe that they can do what they claim.

These people are not, in general, hucksters or frauds. They are self-deluded. More importantly, they continue to hold to their delusion even after it has been shown not to be real. Often, the very method by which they were fooling themselves was revealed during the testing. It makes no difference.

There is, ironically enough, no reliable, repeatable, verified method of breaking through these kinds of beliefs once they take root in the human mind. It appears to take a long, personal struggle, often against significant societal pressure, or (ideally) minimising exposure to magical belief coupled with teaching critical thinking skills.

Given all this, together with the significant presence of rapacious grief-rapists like Sylvia Browne and Kevin Trudeau, is it any wonder that many skeptics become frustrated, dismissive, and combative? We live in a world in which religious believers literally blind themselves by looking into the sun for signs of miracles, pareidolia earns people millions of dollars, Lourdes is a major tourist destination, herbal "remedies" and psychic hotlines are billion dollar businesses, and thousands of children die each year under the "care" of faith healers, witch doctors, and exorcists. Against that tsunami of ignorance and suffering, it is asking a great deal of skeptics to remain open-armed.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 11:08 PM on August 9, 2010 [17 favorites]


If you understand science as being something that is about discovering what works, then it is obvious that elements from traditional practices that actually work will become part of western practices eventually.

Further, there is no space left for magic in this universe because anything that can be detected to work becomes science, and anything that no-one can tell if it works, doesn't matter whether it works or not because it makes no detectable difference either way.

Or more accurately, the world is full,/i> of magic, but all magic that works will fall under the umbrella of science. There is no free lunch.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:08 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


"In fact, it will actively rob them of community, respect and support, in many instances. And for what -- to be correct? You have to be both economically privileged, emotionally independent, and highly cerebral to say: No, I will not believe this thing. I will not accept what you accept. I will not do it because it is not so. I mean I do it, but it's not something I try to sell."

…and you have to be handsome, charming at parties, and able to grow a full beard, otherwise you'll never truly accept what it means to not believe in silly things.
posted by klangklangston at 11:10 PM on August 9, 2010


I'm glad sites like quackwatch use rude and dismissive language. True believers aren't going to swallow a reality-based refutation no matter how politely it is presented. A casual observer, someone who hears a woo claim and goes to the internet to check it out, might come away thinking the idea is respectable if every debunking is handled respectfully. Some ideas deserve derision.

Most skeptical websites are about keeping people from getting deep into woo in the first place. They are not the best resources for deprogramming people who have made woo a core part of their self-conception.
posted by zjacreman at 11:24 PM on August 9, 2010 [11 favorites]


She is not nearly skeptical enough about human character. In her view everyone is motivated solely by how much they care for others. The skeptics care so much for the New Agers, that's what makes them so mean! Nor is she nearly skeptical enough about her own character. She wrote all those books out of love and care! The reality is more likely to be something like: she had a good thing going, so that's why she didn't question any of it. Acting out of self-centered motives doesn't have to mean cackling and rubbing your hands over your pile of money. She was professionally successful in her field and gained personal recognition and respect; she presumed to be able to dispense knowledge and advice to others and the people she chose to listen to encouraged her in this, both financially and otherwise. Obviously it would feel good to be the one everyone turns to for answers. Self-interest is banal and quite human.
posted by creasy boy at 11:33 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


What I like about the part about New Agers having no tolerance for mystery or ambiguity (which I also posted about last monday) is that no skeptic would have ever noticed that, despite their celebrated rational powers to tell what is real or not.

And yet, Durn Bronzefist claimed earlier in this very thread:

I've heard that point refuted, in exactly the way she describes, so many times I don't think I could offer a count. I think if she spends some time offering a calm, respectful voice of reason, based on the expectations she seems to be describing in this piece, she's going to be shocked at how little traction she gets.

In light of that, I don't think there is any call to make insulting claims about what skeptics are incapable of noticing.

Though perhaps each of the countless times, a New Ager first raised the criticism before rejecting it. Even so, please consider going easy on the strawskeptics. Lacking brains, they are not as effective at thinking through their views as live skeptics.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:35 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed this essay, though it was a bit overlong, though the comments have been a bit meh, with what looks like deliberate misunderstanding.

I've been reading a book lately, one my girlfriend picked up at a yard sale, I think, or something, mostly because of its cover. It's called Prolegomena to Philosophy, by Jon Wheatley, an analytic philosopher writing in the late '60s/early '70s. Throughout, Wheatley reads as erudite, clear, precise, and an almost total dick.

Part of this is personal predilection: I enjoy a lot of continental philosophy. I find it interesting to consider viewpoints through which something can be considered, and I have no real problem with taking some of it and leaving other points.

But Wheatley hates continentals, seemingly going out of his way to belittle them as "not philosophy" while pompously proclaiming that the reader can't be expected to understand any of the reasoning why, at least not without reading Prolegomena a couple of times. (That "Prolegomena" is a term of art and a rather bold allusion to make is never mentioned by Wheatley, part of his unfriendliness to readers).

Outside of his utter hardon for Wittgenstein, he harbors a modernist passion for declaring that the newest philosophy is the best philosophy, and has no misgivings about declaring that words have, essentially, one clear meaning that can be readily grasped by merely combining their use with a little bit of good ol' analytic philosophy.

Which all adds up not too far from the criticisms leveled at skeptics. I can see echoes of it when Joe Lisboa and Gamien Boffenberg went at it above—Joe was clarifying the use of "belief" in a fairly precise way, but moving away from what Boffenburg appeared to mean, at least to me, in that Boffenburg seemed to be using "belief" synonymously with "certainty." In fact, that's the only way his statement really makes sense, that the search for certainty should lead to a rejection of certainty.

And even that's a fairly vague statement, by the strictures of philosophy—Boffenburg clearly doesn't mean certainty in things like that he can't walk through walls or that the world exists, but rather ideological certainty, "beliefs." Given that it's not a particularly profound statement, it's kind of surprising that Joe couldn't parse it at all, and to come back with a demonstration of what can read as philosophical dick-swinging, that Boffenburg got defensive makes sense, especially when he feels he's being misinterpreted over something that was pretty much a flip paraphrasing of the famous Socratic paradox.
posted by klangklangston at 11:37 PM on August 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


UrineSoakedRube> Assuming that she's telling the truth (and it doesn't strike me as impossible or even unlikely that she is), there's an interesting article there about how New-Agey practices like Yoga can actually be superior to Western medical practices.

KirkJobSluder> Western medical practices such as supervised regular and gentle exercise focused on strength and flexibility, the kind that I get from a physical therapist who will run me through many of the same stretches and postures to relieve many of the same symptoms?

UrineSoakedRube> The kind that was so rare back in 1971 that her mother found it easier and more effective to get help from a Yoga instructor? Or do you mean the modern kind, which never, ever, ever, ever borrows stretching and flexibility postures from Yoga asanas? And which still wasn't as effective in permanently fixing my aching right shoulder as the traditional Japanese bodywork guy I went to?

KirkJobSluder> Again, so? The fact that Yoga and "Japanese bodywork" (what exactly do you mean by that?) is effective doesn't exactly contradict a centuries-old Western theory that such things as exercise can improve some medical symptoms. There's no need to reach for placebo effects in this case.

When the fuck did I "reach for placebo effects" in this case? The argument I made was that back in 1971, the author's mother got relief from debilitating arthritis from Yoga, relief that she did not get from Western medicine. The centuries-old theory wasn't of much use to her, now was it? As for the bodywork, you can look it up. My point in bringing it up was that the Western medical practices that the physical therapists brought forth were less useful than the traditional Japanese stuff.

KirkJobSluder> If it works for you, awesome. Let's explore that.

Which is exactly why I said, "practices that didn't come from that tradition still need to be proveable in a rational framework".

UrineSoakedRube> This may be because they seem to think that because the scientific method wasn't in widespread practice back then in those locations, the fruits of their inquiries must be inferior.

KirkJobSluder> Whee, I sip my tea with my pinky sticking out while contemplating paving the moon with Starbucks' franchises. To the moon!

Really? Well, whatever.

UrineSoakedRube> To say that "New Age" and "Western Medical Understanding" have to be taken as bundles is another, and is a fallacy of composition.

KirkJobSluder> Pardon, but exactly who the fuck is making this argument?

Well, KirkJobSluder, if you aren't going to read what I write, and you choose to respond with nonsensical and elliptical arguments which don't actually address what I'm saying (see my statement above about the proveability of traditional non-Western practices and "reaching for placebo effects"), I'm going to have to guess at what you mean when you bring up "Western medical practices such as etc." But hey, I'm glad you don't dispute my statement, which set this whole thing off, that "New-Agey" (not really an accurate description of Yoga, but most people understood what I was getting at) practices, such as Yoga, can actually be superior to Western medical practices.

And if that's not what you're getting at, try to write without condescension next time.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 11:54 PM on August 9, 2010


UrineSoakedRube> Or do you mean the modern kind, which never, ever, ever, ever borrows stretching and flexibility postures from Yoga asanas?

breath> The criticism that "western science stole this idea from X, therefore it is worse" seems not even wrong, as well. If you understand science as being something that is about discovering what works, then it is obvious that elements from traditional practices that actually work will become part of western practices eventually.

That's not the criticism I was making (and I address this in the rest of my comment). First of all, the point I was originally making was that back in 1971, the author's mother was far better off casting her lot with the "New Age" than with Western medicine, despite having to also grab onto all the baggage of crystal healing, auras, etc. One could argue (as KirkJobSluder seems to be doing, I can't really tell with all the talk about placebo effects and tea and the moon) that she could have gotten the same result from Western medicine, because there are plenty of physical therapists who could have gotten the same effect.

There are a couple of problems with that. I haven't found it to be the case that physical therapists are superior to traditional methods, but if one argues that was just the luck of the draw in getting shitty therapists, I can't disprove it. The other problem is that Western medicine can end up with lousy outcomes, and doctors won't suggest physical therapy to fix arthritis if patients come to them around the same time that Vioxx is on the market.

I was going to write more, but anything else would be a response to others in the thread instead of to your comment. Have a good night.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 12:25 AM on August 10, 2010


So, I'm sure this is going to go over gangbusters in this thread. But one of my main quibbles with this piece is that she seems to find her New Age trappings (chakras, crystals, psychics, etc.) to be synonymous with mysticism as a whole. Mystical experience, as broad and somewhat useless as the term is, is ancient (Old Age?), grounded in mystery - claiming that mystic traditions are allergic to mystery might be like claiming that Christians don't care about Christ - and many of the people who align themselves with it are quick to criticize New Age thinking while simultaneously remaining aware of the limitations and boundaries of logic.

Its basic definining characteristics - ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, passivity - mostly render it futile to talk about in discussions such as these, but I just feel uncomfortable with it being aligned with the sorts of people who think their breast cancer will be magically cured if they drink a certain kind of tea. 'sall.
posted by naju at 1:02 AM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't see the joy in going around proving other people's cherished nonsense wrong all the time. I'm reminded of the futility of teaching a pig to sing. What I've seen of the "skeptical community" show just as much blind faith in conditions as any other limited, created, tangential thing can possess. There's no end to ignorance; it's our nature.
posted by eegphalanges at 1:07 AM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


people who think their breast cancer will be magically cured if they drink a certain kind of tea

There are people who think they are going to be cured by having the cancer mass cut out.
For some that method works. For others, not so much.

There are reported cases of cancers just 'going away' without any recognized treatment being done. Some would call that magic. Others a miracle.

Teas made from the Reishi mushroom have anti-cancer properties. (most polypores do. The edible ones anyway) While it strikes me as a large leap from anti-cancer tea to breast cancer cured, its even a larger leap to 'cancer goes away without any treatment' - and the reported cases of 'goes away' exist.

And if you are a "clearheaded examination of evidence" kind of person - exactly how are you gonna go gather the data via "gold standard" of a double blind test on any cancer?
posted by rough ashlar at 1:32 AM on August 10, 2010


One thing I have noticed about a lot of New Agers is that the concepts that get appropriated from elsewhere - such as karma (from Buddhism) and chakras (from Hinduism) - get massively misunderstood and misinterpreted. Problem is, their misuse of appropriated concepts, lacking context or meaning, then puts the original cultures in a bad light - and a lot of hardened skeptics go after the original cultures too.

posted by divabat at 1:23 AM on August 10


This is true. Fortunately there are also plenty of sceptics who have actually learned about things like Buddhism and Hinduism in detail and have thereby fairly determined that they're irrational nonsense.
posted by Decani at 1:52 AM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


And if you are a "clearheaded examination of evidence" kind of person - exactly how are you gonna go gather the data via "gold standard" of a double blind test on any cancer?

Figure out which receptor/protein/process is being affected by the drug compounds in vitro. Do a biopsy from patient tumors. Extract RNA from the tumor. Run the RNA on a microarray. Determine which of the known cancer subtypes the tumor is in, and which subtypes express a lot of the targeted protein/enzymes. Treat those patient cancer subtypes with existing therapies with and without the drug of interest. Do proper statistics and see if the result was significantly better than random chance.

And can we (generally addressing the thread) please drop the "Western medicine/science" phrase? There are plenty of scientists in India, China, and the rest of the world who are willing to test natural products using the scientific method. Just call it scientific medicine and be done with it.
posted by benzenedream at 1:55 AM on August 10, 2010 [22 favorites]


I hate to put it this way, but while not unexpected, I find it supremely ironic that a this post spurred such a virulent, polarized discussion.

Not to try and stay above the fray here; others have tried that and been (justifiably) shot down. Rather, I'd prefer to step aside from the fight, realize that the only argument presented in the article is that compassion and good manners are useful when attempting to win over the deluded, and save the whole woo-woo vs skeptic debate for some time when I feel like pounding my head against the desk in exasperation.

That said, I thought this was an interesting article, perhaps too long, but still a potentially useful resource to pass to some people I know.
posted by Arandia at 2:15 AM on August 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm hard put to it to tell people what atheism and skepticism can offer them that belief can't. In fact, it will actively rob them of community, respect and support, in many instances. And for what -- to be correct? You have to be both economically privileged, emotionally independent, and highly cerebral to say: No, I will not believe this thing.

posted by Countess Elena at 1:29 AM on August 10


This baffles me. It strikes me as making the same fundamental error that those who use Pascal's Wager make. It seems to depend on the strange idea that believing or disbelieving something is a choice. That you can somehow decide to believe - or not believe - something. I simply don't understand how that works unless you use a definition of "believe" other than the normally accepted one. I can't decide to start believing that green is red or that ice is hotter than molten lava. Neither can I decide to start believing in God again, or that astrology works, or that homeopathy isn't sheer arrant bollocks - and for precisely the same reason. To actually believe something - rather than to simply say you believe it - is to be persuaded that it is so. You can't choose to do that if you are not persuaded it is so.

When I first started losing my religious faith I was frightened, and I strove to find ways of bolstering it. But I was losing my faith because I was thinking and learning things that showed me my beliefs were based on falsehoods and irrationalities. There is no conceivable way I could have simply chosen to not know that again, and that is what it would have taken for me to be able to believe again.
posted by Decani at 2:16 AM on August 10, 2010 [15 favorites]


What I like about the part about New Agers having no tolerance for mystery or ambiguity (which I also posted about last monday) is that no skeptic would have ever noticed that, despite their celebrated rational powers to tell what is real or not.

posted by AlsoMike at 3:58 AM on August 10


What I like about that statement is how lazily and demonstrably false it is. I, and many, many sceptics I know have been saying for years that many religious / superstitious people cling to nonsensical explanations of the unknown and the mysterious simply because they can't handle the discomfort caused by saying "Well, we really don't know".
posted by Decani at 2:43 AM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


For anybody interested in actual honest-to-goodness academic studies on a section of New Age culture, I can recommend reading the work of Robert J. Wallis, an anthropologist who studies neo-paganism and is himself a practicing druid.
posted by mammary16 at 3:21 AM on August 10, 2010


aeschenkarnos: Waving your hands with a convoluted appeal to persons who exist doesn't really get you out of hot water for the sloppy existence of a stereotype that primarily seems to be about how to frame this discussion as polarized.

UrineSoakedRube: When the fuck did I "reach for placebo effects" in this case?

Then what exactly do you think is going on when you attribute some unknown positive effect to Yoga and the undefined Japanese bodywork with respect to arthritis? aeschenkarnos proposes placebo effects.

The argument I made was that back in 1971, the author's mother got relief from debilitating arthritis from Yoga, relief that she did not get from Western medicine. The centuries-old theory wasn't of much use to her, now was it?

And again so? Is anyone claiming Western medicine is perfect? And how is the success of a type of treatment that is recommended by Western doctors a challenge to Western medicine?

As for the bodywork, you can look it up. My point in bringing it up was that the Western medical practices that the physical therapists brought forth were less useful than the traditional Japanese stuff.

Do you mean massage, or do you mean such things as reiki and laying on hands which are also advocated as Japanese bodywork? It's a simple question.

Well, KirkJobSluder, if you aren't going to read what I write...

I am reading what you wrote, and mocking your cartoon-like descriptions of Western medicine and skeptics that you keep falling back on.

Again, it's not too much to ask that if you object to something from Randi et. al., that you can actually fairly quote and cite those people rather than making such broad and sweeping claims.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:59 AM on August 10, 2010


Like when drugs get tested?

Meta-analysis is a fundamental sceptical tool - and just because the naturopaths are pushing something because it goes in their favour doesn't mean that fairly prominant sceptics like Dawkins and Goldacre (probably the two most promenant British sceptics) don't also make this point - and unlike the alternative therapists suggest what should be done to prevent it.

I'm guessing the 'hokum' would be
The Emperor Mushroom will increase your yang and therefore your health and you will live long like the Emperor.
and the 'clearheaded examination' would be:
The polysacchrides of Ganoderma Lucidum have anti cancer and anti-viral properties.

And yet both have you drinking a nasty tasting tea that should be good for you with one being hokum because the words are different than the non-hokum version.


It's not the words that matter, it's the understanding.

For instance, you live somewhere the Emperor Mushroom won't grow. Or you just can't afford it. Saying the Emperor Mushroom will increase your health is utterly irrelevant. On the other hand the polysacchrides can be analysed and synthesised - or other sources can be found. You no longer need the emperor mushroom so everyone rather than a select few can benefit. And then you test which polysaccharides do what and find the balance that fits people best and come up with something that works better than the mushrooms.

Talking about the Emperor Mushroom is a dead end. Working to understand why it works and which components are the active ones allows advances and improvements to be made after the discovery.
posted by Francis at 4:15 AM on August 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


Not to try and stay above the fray here; others have tried that and been (justifiably) shot down. Rather, I'd prefer to step aside from the fight, realize that the only argument presented in the article is that compassion and good manners are useful when attempting to win over the deluded, and save the whole woo-woo vs skeptic debate for some time when I feel like pounding my head against the desk in exasperation.

Why is there an automatic assumption that we're not polite and well mannered in our dealings with people who hold these beliefs? I'm not offended by religious belief. I'm offended by stereotypes which threaten relationships I've spent most of the last decade building.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:23 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


...claiming that mystic traditions are allergic to mystery might be like claiming that Christians don't care about Christ...

I don't think she was claiming that mystic traditions are allergic to mystery, more that New Age woo-woo believers latch onto those traditions and grab whatever they can to explain the mysteries in their lives.
posted by harriet vane at 4:25 AM on August 10, 2010


The more I think about it, the more I like the way she frames the issue as being one of clashing cultures, of an inability to communicate even though each group speaks the same language. It meshes well with my own experiences with religion and New Age stuff (I tried it all before getting the hang of skepticism), in a way that I've never really been able to articulate myself.

I don't even care if she's been backsliding since then, although I do hope she's trying to become a gateway drug for skepticism. She made a really good point in this rambling essay, and I'm going to try to let it inform my own efforts to talk with people about our beliefs.

In a way, her point has a lot in common with the Ill Doctrine point about not calling people racists, but telling them they've said a racist thing: you can't really communicate with someone if you're yelling at them, or expressing contempt. It's the same as how we ask people to leave the judgemental attitudes out of Ask Metafilter, how we tell people that "tough love" is rarely successful at bringing about change.

And I didn't find Quackwatch until after I was fully skeptical, but I still find it unbearably aggressive and smug and look for other sources to use.
posted by harriet vane at 5:33 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


One thing I have noticed about a lot of New Agers is that the concepts that get appropriated from elsewhere - such as karma (from Buddhism) and chakras (from Hinduism) - get massively misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Yes, agreed.

As a Buddhist, anytime I see a friend on FaceBook refer to a pure coincidence as "karma!" I barf in my mouth a little bit. The watered-down "New Age" version of karma has become a cultural byword for coincidence - or the barely better understood concept of natural consequences. The actual philosophical concept of karma is far more nuanced and refers to things that aren't necessarily apparent - karma does not mean finding a $20 bill on the street when you're broke. That's serendipity. Or just plain luck.

There is definitely a cultural arrogance and closed mindedness I have seen on Metafilter regarding anything that smells even remotely of possibly being non-scientific.

Yes, absolutely. Saying that you truly believe in anything other than SCIENCE! - no matter what it is - puts you in the "New Age" camp with snake-oil peddlers around here. Doesn't matter what it actually is - an established religion, a personal faith in the greater power of the universe - expressing a belief in something that can't be proven by the laws of science is painting yourself with a giant bulls-eye of "Please! Tell me how wrongly wrong I am because I am wrong!"

In the end, people are going to believe what they believe. The skeptical community forgets this and often acts just as obnoxious as evangelical Christians in acting as if they're "saving" someone else's soul and that they need to convert someone for their own good. No one wins points for getting someone to believe what they do - on either side. You don't have a scorecard where you get a gold star for getting someone to agree with you. Part of the human experience is that people aren't going to agree with you and you need to be respectful of that - even if you find their beliefs to be totally bonkers, being respectful of the person goes a long way to establishing a relationship and building trust. It isn't until you have a foundation of trust that anyone is going to "come over" to your side, no matter what that side may be.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:43 AM on August 10, 2010 [13 favorites]


The article was not well-written, repeating the same things again and again, but the piece about mystery and New Age made it worth it. I am in the middle between an atheist skeptic husband and agnostic kids, and many friends with New Age beliefs. I am a "cultural Catholic" with few hard beliefs but a bit of hope, rational or not.

I am likely to cut people a lot of slack about their religious or mystical beliefs,or lack of same, because who am I to talk....but am infuriated by the mix of bad science and Fundamentalist-like certainty that there is an answer for everything that is a feature of most New Age ideas. If someone wants to believe in fairies or angels, that is fine with me, but leave quantum physics and bogus medical theories out of it.

It is exactly the narcissism and certainty of many New Age beliefs, the lack of mystery, that are so annoying. Also the endless circular reasoning and horror of any sort of critical thinking, and the "spiritual, not religious" excuse. If it relies on blind faith it is religious. If it is shored up by bad science and words like "quantum" wrongly used. it is open to criticism by real scientists.
posted by mermayd at 5:54 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


karma does not mean finding a $20 bill on the street when you're broke.

Subject A angrily kicks at a sidewalk puppy (relax: he misses) but drops the $20 bill in his jacket pocket.

Subject B is a volunteer sidewalk sweeper improving the neighbourhood who finds the $20 bill.

NOW is it karma?
posted by ecourbanist at 6:03 AM on August 10, 2010


I'm a very well trained empiricist/objectivist who has lately been able to experience and embrace other methods of experiencing the world.

My particular non-skeptical poison is Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes concepts about acupuncture and meditation, as well as diet, herbs and other holistic medical treatments that attempt to treat symptoms through decidedly non-empiricist, non-western, non-scientific means. Energetic concepts include chi (qi/ki/ji) as well as 6 other energetic forces I'm not very familiar with or knowledgeable about. Some of the food therapies use humors as a guide, and of course in acupuncture and personal chi development there are the meridians.

I started out looking into TCM as a serious skeptic and while I was studying (mostly doing Qigong and Ba Gua Zhang in the Brookline Tai Chi School), I encountered some things that my empiricist background was unable to easily dismiss. Later on, working with various acupuncturists to help deal with stress and stress-related issues, I found more sensations and experiences I could not easily dismiss.

I wouldn't say that I've completely embraced the non-empirical ideas at work in TCM. I often get a little frustrated with what I call the "woo woo". But I also don't think I can just turn away from the stuff I can't explain, and I know for a fact that going down these avenues of exploration is helping me out, helping me deal with stress, helping me feel more relaxed. And helping me feel good.

I do have to say though that what upsets me most about the skeptic/woo woo continuum is the extremism and the unthinking cruelty between different extremists on opposite sides of the spectrum.

I don't read the linked article as satire. I think she's genuinely trying to find a way to reconcile differences and find common ground. That the first few responses in this thread were insulting and dismissive is par for the course, but ultimately disappointing.
posted by kalessin at 6:09 AM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


ecourbanist: Yes and no. It's all karma because karma influences everything that happens to you. On the other hand, because we're fish swimming in a sea of karma it's difficult to link cause and effect. You don't do good deeds in Buddhism to get "good karma" because all forms of karma are chains that bind you to samsara. You do good deeds as a method to prepare yourself for enlightenment.

grapefruitmoon: The skeptical community forgets this and often acts just as obnoxious as evangelical Christians in acting as if they're "saving" someone else's soul and that they need to convert someone for their own good.

How wonderful it is that you've found a rationalization for feeling superior to both.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:17 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Subject A angrily kicks at a sidewalk puppy (relax: he misses) but drops the $20 bill in his jacket pocket.

Subject B is a volunteer sidewalk sweeper improving the neighbourhood who finds the $20 bill.

NOW is it karma?


No.

This is exactly the sort of misunderstanding of the nature of karma that wrankles me. Sure, this is an example of "karma" in action, but so is absolutely everything that occurs to you on a day to day basis. Karma isn't simply a passive "thing" that happens. It's not simply "something bad happens to one person, something good happens to another." The effects of karma don't simply translate to a puppy kicker losing money and a sidewalk sweeper finding it.

Why did the man become a puppy kicker in the first place? Does he have some psychic torment that is causing him to lash out in anger? How did he get the $20? What will the sidewalk sweeper DO with the $20?

Karma works throughout our lives in every choice we make, but the key part is that there is a choice. It is not simply the role of coincidence bringing "good" things to "good" people and making "bad" things happen to "bad" people. Were this true, it would be a constant feedback loop in which good people got better and bad people got worse. But it's not. You can always improve your karma by making better choices. Likewise, you can make it worse by being unkind and hurtful.

You could say that everything is the result of karma, but to point out one example of serendipity as "karmic" is not accurate and is boiling down the nature of karma to its lowest form. What karma actually is is the result of each individual event of your life that leads you to the present moment and how each decision you make will affect what happens to you in the future. It is equally true that an action with a clear observable consequence is karma - you work hard in your job and you get a raise, that is as equally karmic as finding $20 in the street, though no one ever thinks of it that way.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:17 AM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


grapefruitmoon: The skeptical community forgets this and often acts just as obnoxious as evangelical Christians in acting as if they're "saving" someone else's soul and that they need to convert someone for their own good.

How wonderful it is that you've found a rationalization for feeling superior to both.


If that's what you're inferring, you're misinterpreting me. I don't in any way feel superior to Christians or to skeptics. They are as sincere in their beliefs as I am in mine and I respect that. I was merely drawing a parallel between the similar proselytizing that I have seen from both communities.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:19 AM on August 10, 2010


And It's only recently that I've started to comprehend that a lot of people really do believe the crazy things they claim to believe.

Look, I think one day we'll probably discover something along the lines of a "belief" gene. Some people have it, some don't. For people who do not have it, they find ridiculous and preposterous that someone might believe something without proof, to be sure of something in the face of no facts (or even facts against).

But I do notice that most skeptics arguments center around the lack of proof of a thing. And in most online arguments they seem to see people believing in unprovable or inconsistent things as being insane, self-deluded, liars, etc.

Granted, there is no proof. From a scientific perspective, the skeptics are right.

And yet, I can't help but think that some of the conflict comes not from the battle of right vs. wrong, but rather the battle of those who can believe (what they believe in hardly matters) against those who cannot.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:32 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


grapefruitmoon: If that's what you're inferring, you're misinterpreting me.

There are not that many kindly ways to interpret the rather bold statement that two entire communities are obnoxious.

I don't in any way feel superior to Christians or to skeptics. They are as sincere in their beliefs as I am in mine and I respect that.

Ohh, how sweet. We're both sincere in being obnoxious.

I was merely drawing a parallel between the similar proselytizing that I have seen from both communities.

And I'm merely calling out the implicit prejudice in your statement.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:34 AM on August 10, 2010


Deathalicious: For people who do not have it, they find ridiculous and preposterous that someone might believe something without proof, to be sure of something in the face of no facts (or even facts against).

Wheeee!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:36 AM on August 10, 2010


KirkJobSluder: Yes, I admit I find proselytizing obnoxious, but I do not find either the Christian community or the skeptical community to be in and of itself obnoxious.

You seem intent on reading me in bad faith, there's nothing I can do about that. If you truly feel like I'm being prejudicial, I've got nothing to say other than that was absolutely not in any way my intent.

It's completely possible to dislike someone's behavior - and sometimes the behaviors of entire communities - while still holding respect for them as a person. For instance, my stepfather has the worst table manners of any human I've ever met. It drives me bonkers. And yet, I don't ever avoid meals with him because I value him as a person even though his behavior completely bugs the shit out of me.

Similarly, I don't disrespect Christians, skeptics, or anyone else who believes that they have something to gain by "converting" someone else to their beliefs - I just find the conversion element of their community to be rather irritating to deal with. I respect your beliefs and your right to have them, but I would also appreciate being given the personal space to have my own. I think a lot of people feel that way and it's not out of "prejudice" that the other community is necessarily bad, it's just out of a desire to live and let live.

Again, if after reading this you still want to read me as prejudiced and condescending, there's nothing I can do about that. I've attempted to make myself clear and if you want to read this in a way that portrays me as "superior" or "obnoxious," there's nothing I can do about that except politely ask you to take it to email rather than clogging up the thread with what will quickly become a derail about a personal disagreement rather than debating the substance of the FPP.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:41 AM on August 10, 2010 [8 favorites]


KirkJobSluder, why don't you take some time, as a Skeptic, to explain to the heathen non-skeptics of us participating in the thread how the empiricist concept of the "postulate" is different from our fact-less belief in things that we take for granted.
posted by kalessin at 6:41 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey all. I re-read this thread in the light of day and fear I may have been too combative. I want to explain. For almost two years I shared a house with the wooiest of woo-woo new-ager types. He was (and is) a sweet guy, but totally gullible and an absolutely infuriating person with whom to discuss any philosophical or spiritual topic at length, at least with any amount of rigor. The kind of guy who thinks Terrence McKenna was the most brilliant man who ever lived, that kind of guy. Anyways, his intellectual flakiness often exhibited itself in personal flakiness, too. Long story short: I spent nearly two years of (futile) attempts to honestly engage with this guy, not in a quote-unquote let me show you the light kinda way, but as intellectual peer to putative intellectual peer. It was pointless. The level of rationalization at work in his defenses of the latest woo-woo bullshit was breathtaking to behold. So if I come across as hostile or whatever in threads like this, I apologize: it usually is because it triggers flashbacks to that time. I will try harder not to take out my frustration with this gentleman on you all.

That said, I was not trying to engage in philosophical dick-swinging, klangklangston. And I am far from the analytic type, to be fair. I just think that words mean things and when you spend six days a week swatting down lazy pseudo-philosophy from undergrads it gets a little old to log into the blue and see adults engage in the same behavior. Perhaps this means I should leave well enough alone and avoid these threads. Probably. That would be sad, because I think there are members who have interesting and thought-provoking things to share. Just not all of them.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:57 AM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


Just not all of them.

Man, way to be a dick even when apologizing.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:01 AM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


What's the difference between proselytizing and arguing? And are you really drawing an equivalence between a group that's saying "here, believe these things about the world without any proof" and a group that's saying "yeah, you really shouldn't be giving those people your money"?

The false equivalency is obnoxious. An open mind doesn't entail a refusal to use your judgment.


KirkJobSluder, why don't you take some time, as a Skeptic, to explain to the heathen non-skeptics of us participating in the thread how the empiricist concept of the "postulate" is different from our fact-less belief in things that we take for granted.

Postulates are subject to change or confirmation based on confirmatory or disconfirmatory data. Newage stuff generally doesn't change based on evidence but on shifting fads.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:11 AM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


grapefruitmoon: Yes, I admit I find proselytizing obnoxious, but I do not find either the Christian community or the skeptical community to be in and of itself obnoxious.

Then you should have said so in the first place.

It's not bad faith to respond to the plain meaning of what you wrote. And your intent doesn't really matter that much because few people intend to frame their discussions along prejudicial lines. It's often purely an unconscious bias. But of course, your argument that "I didn't mean to do that" is belied by the fact that you insist on turning right around and doing it again:

It's completely possible to dislike someone's behavior - and sometimes the behaviors of entire communities - while still holding respect for them as a person.

Of course, you know better than this because you've participated in the exact same discussions in which there was not even a hint of consensus among atheists about the issue of proselytizing.

Again, if after reading this you still want to read me as prejudiced and condescending, there's nothing I can do about that.

Well yes, because your three-fold clarification is prejudiced and condescending. If that's objectionable to you, perhaps you should rethink why you attribute the action of proselytizing and obnoxiousness to entire communities. I'm fairly certain you realize that our community beanplates New Atheism vs. "accomodationism" at every opportunity, and includes atheists who are members of religious communities as well as antitheists.

I've attempted to make myself clear and if you want to read this in a way that portrays me as "superior" or "obnoxious," there's nothing I can do about that except politely ask you to take it to email rather than clogging up the thread with what will quickly become a derail about a personal disagreement rather than debating the substance of the FPP.

Now you see, I find this sort of thing to be critically relevant because the biggest problem I have in "bridging the chasm" with people of faith isn't that we believe in different things, it's that people assume that my relationship with new-age and religious beliefs is automatically going to be rude and hostile.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:11 AM on August 10, 2010


Postulates are subject to change or confirmation based on confirmatory or disconfirmatory data.

No. If they were affected by data then they'd be theorems.

Newage stuff generally doesn't change based on evidence but on shifting fads.

I assume you're being sarcastic here or you just don't have a strong grasp of the history of science and medicine. The history of science and medicine establishes that scientists and research doctors do the same thing based on scientific fads.
posted by kalessin at 7:18 AM on August 10, 2010


I should elaborate that the scientific fads are also affected by the culture in which they develop, via religious and social and other influences.
posted by kalessin at 7:20 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


KirkJobSluder> Again, it's not too much to ask that if you object to something from Randi et. al., that you can actually fairly quote and cite those people rather than making such broad and sweeping claims.

I give up -- you seem to want to argue strawmen, and throw out bits of gibberish about tea and Starbucks on the moon as if they are cutting insults. Find an argumentative mode, stick with it, and use it on someone else.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 7:22 AM on August 10, 2010


KirkJobSluder, why don't you take some time, as a Skeptic, to explain to the heathen non-skeptics of us participating in the thread how the empiricist concept of the "postulate" is different from our fact-less belief in things that we take for granted.

No, because it's not something I have a big stake in and not something I care to debate. I'll freely cop to believing at least a half-dozen unprovable concepts before breakfast after all, some of which are reasonable (there is no god), and some of which are unreasonable (she really won't mind that I used the last bit of coffee creamer).

My objection is to the suggestion that those of us lacking a belief gene consider other ideas ridiculous and preposterous. The belief that my grandfather performed supernatural miracles at the moment of this death is a touching attempt to make sense of a painful situation. The belief that we can't help but behave badly towards loved ones who disagree with us is ridiculous and offensive. The fact that I find a claim significantly less credible than angelic miracles should tell you something.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:26 AM on August 10, 2010


What's the difference between proselytizing and arguing? And are you really drawing an equivalence between a group that's saying "here, believe these things about the world without any proof" and a group that's saying "yeah, you really shouldn't be giving those people your money"?

The false equivalency is obnoxious. An open mind doesn't entail a refusal to use your judgment.


There is a distinct difference to me, which is that arguing is an open ended discussion with no fixed intent on "conversion." I'm not making a false equivalency here - I've seen just as many people trying to "convert" people to skepticism as I've seen trying to "convert" someone to a religious belief - that is "Look, you need to see that you're wrong and I'm not going to stop until you believe what I do." Arguing isn't anything that I object to, it happens and it's a part of life and a part of having and discussing ideas.

Well yes, because your three-fold clarification is prejudiced and condescending. If that's objectionable to you, perhaps you should rethink why you attribute the action of proselytizing and obnoxiousness to entire communities. I'm fairly certain you realize that our community beanplates New Atheism vs. "accomodationism" at every opportunity, and includes atheists who are members of religious communities as well as antitheists.

Yes, and in this community I forgot to say that "I find the actions of some members of various communities" to be obnoxious. My apologies for using generalizations, but I was merely trying to be succinct. I do appreciate that MetaFilter values specificity and sometimes I forget that in trying to get my general point across. My point remains that I find the behavior of proselytizing as obnoxious as you apparently find me.

Now you see, I find this sort of thing to be critically relevant because the biggest problem I have in "bridging the chasm" with people of faith isn't that we believe in different things, it's that people assume that my relationship with new-age and religious beliefs is automatically going to be rude and hostile.

This is, in my mind, totally mischaracterizing the back and forth we're having here. This isn't "person of faith" vs. "person of science." This is "I say something and you tell me I'm condescending and obnoxious." That's not a productive discussion or critically relevant to anything.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:30 AM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery

Really? Which culture? 'Cuz the one I'm in won't tolerate those who can't tolerate mystery.

To clarify: I am surrounded by people who absolutely freak out at the merest suggestion that religion is based on imagination, that all-knowing, invisible beings, gods, angels, etc., cannot exist any more than fairy tale inventions can. The same people who laugh at concepts such as auras and chakras turn right around and swear that angels are real. The religious right puts "In God We Trust" everywhere they can and become instantly irate once their beliefs are challenged. Wars are fought over whose invisible being is the "true" invisible being.

In my neck of the woods, mystery is entrenched and skepticism violently rejected, at least insofar as religion is concerned. Everywhere the message is, "don't question--believe."
posted by kinnakeet at 7:53 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


"It seems to depend on the strange idea that believing or disbelieving something is a choice. That you can somehow decide to believe - or not believe - something."

There are plenty of points at which you have limited information and can choose one of two mutually exclusive beliefs about, say, cause or consequence. Unless, of course, you're a determinist, which means that you don't believe in choice.
posted by klangklangston at 7:56 AM on August 10, 2010


No, because it's not something I have a big stake in and not something I care to debate.

Fair enough.

For what it's worth, what I object to in this thread's kind of discourse is the idea that one group is inherently better than the other. As a person who bridges between multiple belief communities I find that conceit really troublesome, and what I observe in this debate is a lot of folks taking their hobby horse out for a spin and running other people over with the white hot heat of their righteousness.

And it's ridiculous because we absolutely do not know what happens to the thing we think of as ourselves when the chariot (the body) dies. Do we disappear? Do we not? Do we find paradise? Do we change and become unrecognizable?

The majority of my ethnic community actually believes in as many things as possible simultaneously in a spiritual attempt to cover all bases.

Anyway, it seemed to me like you were going out of your way to misinterpret grapefruitmoon so you could give her a lot of trouble over what you seemed to view as wrong opinions. I don't think you need to do that and I don't think you should do that.
posted by kalessin at 8:04 AM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


In my neck of the woods, mystery is entrenched and skepticism violently rejected, at least insofar as religion is concerned. Everywhere the message is, "don't question--believe."

The point is that those things are not mystery. Those things are made up to explain away and avoid mystery.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:04 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Now you see, I find this sort of thing to be critically relevant because the biggest problem I have in "bridging the chasm" with people of faith isn't that we believe in different things, it's that people assume that my relationship with new-age and religious beliefs is automatically going to be rude and hostile."

Perhaps it's because in this thread you have been repeatedly rude and hostile? It's not too much of a leap to extrapolate bullshit like the Starbucks on the moon crack to your general demeanor, nor your entrenched and idiotic argument over yoga in '71*, to be indicative of a generally dismissive and combative tone.

*There has been a HUGE HUGE HUGE shift in the last 20 years toward Western medicine exploring non-Western health practices and accepting them. Western medicine was notoriously conservative in nearly every way, and that certain modes of treatment were only available as "alternative medicine" is part of what fuels the continued, well, skepticism of Western medicine's monopoly on healing.
posted by klangklangston at 8:07 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


For what it's worth, what I object to in this thread's kind of discourse is the idea that one group is inherently better than the other.

Well, the one group wants to encourage people to abandon their critical faculties and to charge them money (anywhere from ten to three hundred dollars a session, from what I've seen) to wave their hands or crystals over them and call it "reikei" or "crystal healing", and the other group wants the first group to stop cheating people out of their money and discouraging them from using their critical faculties.

Any discussion in which the two communities are described as equally valid or admirable is a dishonest one, and will not have any positive outcome.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:07 AM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


It's not the words that matter, it's the understanding.

In the case of reishi the 'understanding' of the effect of use was made via observation. Long before a different set of tools like microscopes, petri dishes and pipettes allow for different observation.

It was called the Emperor mushroom because that's who got it. Mere mortals would only be worthy of collecting 'em. The observation and results of the observation were that powerful back in the day. (you don't take polypore tea for the taste.)

And today - anyone with some long chained sugars can get the fungal mass to grow. Getting fruitation is harder.

Talking about the Emperor Mushroom is a dead end.

Not at all. In fact firms like WR Grace spend alot of money trying to take nature and move it into the "western" model of "doing things" - get government protection via patents. Neem in the case of WR Grace. Turmeric being another example. All because the firms are looking at the 'folklore', or things others are calling Woo-Woo mysticism.

You *COULD* make a choice to believe that if the product comes in some magical shape (a pill) and you are told by the shaman (doctor) who has things showing his power (a picture of the boat your treatment is making payments on) that it'll cure what is illing you (vioxx). But the believe that vioxx is good for ya requires a different set of filters to be operating. Similar to the filters my Dad has. I said 'Dad - add niacan to your diet' Nope. Not gonna happen because *I* did not have the doctor filter. A year later - the VA pays for his niacian. And he won't use the stuff from the vitamin store - because that did not come from the doctor.

Think the filter talk is mystical bullshit? To get something past your filters is the whole point of the marketing industry. Calling something that works 'emperor mushroom' to get it past the filters is not a dead end. You only see it as a dead end because of your filters.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:09 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


UrineSoakedRube: I give up -- you seem to want to argue strawmen, and throw out bits of gibberish about tea and Starbucks on the moon as if they are cutting insults.

Well yes, if you're going to insist on talking about utter fantasies like, "This may be because they seem to think that because the scientific method wasn't in widespread practice back then in those locations, the fruits of their inquiries must be inferior," I'm going to take the next step and suggest something even more fantastic. After all, if this discussion is going to have not a fucking thing to do with reality, we might as well make supervillian-scale proposals.

grapefruitmoon: This is, in my mind, totally mischaracterizing the back and forth we're having here. This isn't "person of faith" vs. "person of science." This is "I say something and you tell me I'm condescending and obnoxious." That's not a productive discussion or critically relevant to anything.

Take a leap of faith and assume for a few moments that I'm a person who lives as part of a multi-faith community and highly values relationships with people who have radically different views regarding religion. Assume just a few moments that I've spent a good chunk of my life speaking softly and establish the kind of trust we can have open and honest religious discussion and can attend and participate in religious ritual as an observer.

Once you've made those assumptions, do you at all understand why the stereotype that I'm just waiting for an opportunity to be obnoxious and proselytize might be offensive?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:09 AM on August 10, 2010


Take a leap of faith and assume for a few moments that I'm a person who lives as part of a multi-faith community and highly values relationships with people who have radically different views regarding religion. Assume just a few moments that I've spent a good chunk of my life speaking softly and establish the kind of trust we can have open and honest religious discussion and can attend and participate in religious ritual as an observer.

Once you've made those assumptions, do you at all understand why the stereotype that I'm just waiting for an opportunity to be obnoxious and proselytize might be offensive?


I never said anything like that. I never even implied anything like that. I think if you read my comments, you can see that I actually advocate for your position. What you seem to want is an opportunity to start a fight with someone whose comments you've decided to read uncharitably, rather than focusing on the parts of the comments where I advocate for trust and respect both on the part of the faith and non-faith communities.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:16 AM on August 10, 2010


Any discussion in which the two communities are described as equally valid or admirable is a dishonest one, and will not have any positive outcome.

I disagree. I see this discussion as being in the same sort of environment as the religious wars that Immanuel Kant wrote about in his works of philosophy.

There are folks involved in non-empiricist faith community who will probably never be convinced that empiricism is the only choice for understanding the questions we have about the universe, our place in it and how the universe works out the eventualities of causality. It's absolutely clear to me that this bothers you and other skeptics very much, but I don't think that arguing the point by being fundamentalist is the right way out of the quandary of disagreement.

To me, tolerance of other people's belief systems is the point and the way out of our struggles against each other. Tolerance starts with trying to build bridges and find out common viewpoints and common understandings. It usually doesn't work so well if you approach tolerance from a totalitarian viewpoint.

You may find that the totalitarian viewpoint only works if you have at your disposal enough force to leave your opponents no option but to agree with you. You do not have this strategic or tactical advantage in this discussion because your opponents do not agree with your same clarity about absolute truth. In such cases where you do not have the strategic or tactical advantage, the only effect your totalitarianism will have is that you will insult and alienate your opponent.
posted by kalessin at 8:18 AM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


These are real issues which have real impacts on real people in the real world. The refusal to assess worldviews and use judgment to examine their merits and flaws in favor of vague but comfortable-sounding words about tolerance elides the fact that people get hurt and fucking die from this shit. These are real people. Their suffering is real. Vague hippie-ass talk about how the side that kills people and steals their money and the side screaming about how terrible that is just need to learn to listen to each other and get along is complicity in the exploitation and death.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:27 AM on August 10, 2010 [9 favorites]


Yes, and people fucking die from science too.
posted by kalessin at 8:29 AM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


serena15221:

I sure hope all you skeptics are atheists as well...because it seems that most, if not all, of the arguments that you are using regarding New Age being irrational apply equally to religion in general.

That is correct: the arguments do apply equally to mainstream religions.

And yes, I'm an atheist—as most self-identified skeptics are. I don't see much difference between ancient, traditional nonsense and new, recently dreamed-up nonsense.

But you guys are *completely* negating New Age beliefs. Is it because they are often presented as science? What about when they aren't?

A claim such as "crystals heal cancer" is a scientific claim, whether it's presented as such or not. That is, it's a claim about how the material world works—and the proper tool for evaluating such claims is science. It's the proper tool not because it's perfect, but because it is (by far) the best (i.e. most reliable) tool at our disposal for answering that kind of question.

I don't dismiss New Age beliefs because of how they're framed (e.g., in terms of quantum phenomena, vs. in terms of ancient spirits). I dismiss them because they are demonstrably false. Astrology does not work, and that's true whether one understands astrology as a metaphysical model or a materialist one.

There is definitely a cultural arrogance and closed mindedness I have seen on Metafilter regarding anything that smells even remotely of possibly being non-scientific.

That may be true, but don't you think there's also an arrogance and closed-mindedness in declaring one's beliefs to be beyond question and exempt from scrutiny? New Agers are effectively saying that when their beliefs say one thing, and reality says another, it's reality that's mistaken. That seems fantastically arrogant to me.

To all you ultra-rationalists, it seems to me that all logic progresses from some original statement which simply *cannot* be proved. And how do you explain the separation of consciousness in any way that doesn't sound a tad like mysticism?

I'm not sure what you mean by "separation of consciousness"—but I don't explain anything about consciousness (at least not with any claim to certainty), because I'm not aware of any satisfying explanations. But I'm okay with that. The most honest answer we can give to some questions is "we don't know". We may never know. And just because science can't (yet) provide an answer doesn't mean that the supernatural explanation wins by default.

Speculating about possible answers to the question is fine—that's how we discover new, and potentially useful, ideas. But claiming that a particular answer is the correct one, without presenting any evidence for that claim, is arrogant.

As the original article illustrates, I think one of the big differences between the skeptical and the credulous and is the ability (or inability) to accept "we don't know" as an answer. People often say that "we need religion", or "we have to believe in something", or "our brains were made to believe in religion". Well, no, that's obviously not true for everyone. There are millions of atheists who are perfectly content to live their lives without believing in the supernatural.

(Of course, there are those who maintain that science and atheism are just different kinds of religion. But those people are equivocating—they're using "religion" to mean "any deeply held belief system". And skeptics aren't arguing against deeply held belief. They're arguing against believing things for which there is no evidence—or, as with astrology, which are contraindicated by the best available evidence.)

And what about all the weird stuff physicists get into? They're scientists too...

What about it? What on earth does that have to do with mysticism? Yes, physics often deals with phenomena that are counterintuitive and difficult to understand. That doesn't mean that everything that's counterintuitive and difficult to understand is on the same intellectual footing as physics.

Physics, as the hardest of the hard sciences, is based in testable, verifiable claims. Physicists don't just sit around dreaming up ideas about how the world works: they test those ideas. And they abandon the ideas that don't stand up to the testing (which happens to be most of them).

That's why (almost all) physicists believe in the theory of relativity (which has stood up to decades of experimental testing, and proven itself to be an amazingly reliable model for making specific predictions about how the universe will respond in a particular situation), but not in astrology (which has not survived similar tests, and in fact has been reduced to a pile of smoking rubble by them). That's why physics eventually abandoned the Newtonian model after its deficiencies were recognized, while astrologers haven't revised their models at all despite centuries of new evidence.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:30 AM on August 10, 2010 [15 favorites]


kalessin: Anyway, it seemed to me like you were going out of your way to misinterpret grapefruitmoon so you could give her a lot of trouble over what you seemed to view as wrong opinions. I don't think you need to do that and I don't think you should do that.

It's a misinterpretation that she clarified the exact same way three times in a row? Culminating with a non-apology that it was just trying to be succinct?

klangklangston: Perhaps it's because in this thread you have been repeatedly rude and hostile?

Well, I probably should take the high road now and then and be all nice fluffy flowers towards deeply offensive stereotypes that are posted by multiple people in a given thread. Personally, I feel little obligation to be nice and polite to people saying deeply nasty things about me and mine.

It's not too much of a leap to extrapolate bullshit like the Starbucks on the moon crack to your general demeanor, nor your entrenched and idiotic argument over yoga in '71*, to be indicative of a generally dismissive and combative tone.

I've spent my time playing Mr. Nice Atheist until I'm blue in the face trying to point out that we're not a hive mind, that there are multiple philosophical traditions under the umbrella, that many of us are members of multi-faith communities, families, and relationships. I've defended the idea that there might be legitimate philosophical principles in theism and that theism shouldn't be treated as a monolithic entity.

And yes, I fully recognize that in being dismissive and combative in regards to deeply offensive stereotypes about me and mine is likely to validate those same stereotypes. Ask me again if I give a fuck.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 AM on August 10, 2010


he refusal to assess worldviews and use judgment to examine their merits and flaws in favor of vague but comfortable-sounding words about tolerance elides the fact that people get hurt and fucking die from this shit. These are real people. Their suffering is real.

You bring this up a lot in threads about faith/New-Ageism/alternative medicine and I don't think anyone is specifically disagreeing with you. However, the fact of the matter is that people make bad choices and sometimes die. Not just from alternative medicine. People choose to drive drunk and die. People choose to smoke and die. People choose to live on an all vegan diet and die. People choose elective surgery and die. People make choices, sometimes ill-informed, and sometimes those choices don't go well.

Absolutely there needs to be an awareness and an effort to educate people away from specifically harmful practices. However, the fact of the matter is that people are flawed creatures and mortality is a fact of life. Tolerance is in no way suggesting "Please, turn a blind eye to the shitty side of this situation" but is merely saying "Blaming the people who make bad choices for their bad choices isn't helping."

And kalessin also has a point: people also die from elective surgery, hospital acquired infections, and medical negligence. All the time. Modern science is far from flawless, even if it is better than the alternative.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:34 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


grapefruitmoon: I never said anything like that. I never even implied anything like that. I think if you read my comments, you can see that I actually advocate for your position.

As I pointed out, you did both say and imply this in your original post and your clarification. I'm going to chalk this up to a misunderstanding. But there's been an entire fucking thread of such sloppy generalizations so I apologize for not looking well at the other parts of your post.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:39 AM on August 10, 2010


The majority of my ethnic community actually believes in as many things as possible simultaneously in a spiritual attempt to cover all bases.

Memail me. I have some chalk harmonically tuned carbon supplements. Because of Earth's shifting gravitational field and global warming, most people's AT fields (AT fields are spiritumagnetic fields that hold chakras in place) are weakening. My carbon nano-crystals are attenuated to the frequency of the Dalai Lama and were tuned on June 22nt (world record gathering of good-energy yogis!)! They will be essential to protect your body and your good feelings from negative ions flooding the environment because of the gulf oil spill and the Russian fires.

If you are trying to cover all your bases, these health supplements are essential! If not for yourself, then for your children! You really need to make sure you are doing everything you can to protect the young ones.
posted by fuq at 8:41 AM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Blaming the people who make bad choices for their bad choices isn't helping."

Uhh. Who should we blame, then? I mean, you admit that they're the one making the choices, and then in the very next phrase you argue that we shouldn't act as if that's true. Who is responsible for the choices a person makes, if not that person?

Modern science is far from flawless, even if it is better than the alternative.

I haven't kept up with this pissing match, but to me, this is precisely the point. I've never known anyone to claim that science is flawless; that's a blatant straw man. But as you rightly point out, it's still better than the alternative.

And that efficacy is plenty of reason to choose science over the alternative: it works better. When I choose a tool, I want the one that's most effective for the task at hand. If people's lives are at stake, I definitely want the tool that's at least less likely to kill someone.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:41 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


People choose to drive drunk and die. People choose to smoke and die.

But those people don't believe that driving drunk or smoking are going to cure them of diseases. People who go in for a nose job are going to be told that there is X% chance that they could die on the table, and I doubt that anyone going in for a nose job does so believing that it's going to keep them from getting cancer.

The fact that scientifically based medical practices sometimes have bad outcomes is neither here nor there when talking about, say, the damage caused by people believing in homeopathy. One is evidence-based, and allows you to make an informed decision; one is nonsense that relies on the desperation and gullibility of sick people. It's a lie.
posted by rtha at 8:46 AM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


People make choices, sometimes ill-informed, and sometimes those choices don't go well.

Yes, and a big part of what animates the skeptic movement is the conviction that people should be given all the tools they can be given to make the best choices. The antirationalist movement does not only harm people by exploiting them and hurting their bodies, but also by denigrating the critical thinking and skepticism which are necessary for making good choices. They are not only selling snake oil- they are attacking the critical faculties necessary to recognize it for what it is.

people also die from elective surgery, hospital acquired infections, and medical negligence. All the time.

Do you seriously not see a difference between people dying in the course of receiving medical attention and people dying from receiving no actual medical attention at all? That medicine is not perfect is not a vindication of fake medicine.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:50 AM on August 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yes, and a big part of what animates the skeptic movement is the conviction that people should be given all the tools they can be given to make the best choices.

I agree, totally. What I'm trying to say is that vilifying people for believing harmful things isn't helpful in changing their minds.

But those people don't believe that driving drunk or smoking are going to cure them of diseases.

Fair point.

The only defense I will offer for alternative medicine is that a lot, a lot of people turn to it in addition to or instead of Western medicine when Western medicine has failed them. I've mentioned a bunch of times on here that I have two parents who are disabled and in chronic intractable pain. Neither of them have found their medications to be entirely effective in controlling their pain and have supplemented with accupuncture and yoga, both of which have had a noticeable positive effect for them. Everyone I know personally who has turned to alternative medicine has done so after seeking help from their doctor and finding no diagnosis and/or no relief. I will admit that I don't have experience with homeopathy, which seems to be a different phenomenon than the kinds of therapies that can be used supplementary to medication and a "traditional" wellness regime.

Do you seriously not see a difference between people dying in the course of receiving medical attention and people dying from receiving no actual medical attention at all? That medicine is not perfect is not a vindication of fake medicine.

I see medical decisions as complicated and modern medicine as imperfect. As I say, I've seen modern medicine fail people in some pretty spectacular ways. I can't blame anyone who becomes frustrated with that. I do, however, agree that people should absolutely be educated as to what risks and benefits are involved - where we part ways is that I don't think that modern medicine is always best or that people who reject it are necessarily ill-informed. I'm all for educating people on the hazards of alternative therapies, I just bristle a bit when I see the vitriol that's often directed towards non-Western medicine.

I'm going to chalk this up to a misunderstanding. But there's been an entire fucking thread of such sloppy generalizations so I apologize for not looking well at the other parts of your post.

Thanks.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:01 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm all for educating people on the hazards of alternative therapies,

I object to things which have no demonstrated theraputic value being referred to as therapies.

The funniest thing about alt med is how it simultaneously denigrates medicine and attempts to be seen as medicine; how its proponents talk shit about the medical establishment in one breath and demand to be accepted by that establishment in the next.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:07 AM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


"And yes, I fully recognize that in being dismissive and combative in regards to deeply offensive stereotypes about me and mine is likely to validate those same stereotypes. Ask me again if I give a fuck."

If you didn't give a fuck, the stereotypes wouldn't be offensive to you. And because we have no magical ability to scry you in your private moments, what we see here is what we get—and we're getting you being a tremendous ass and picking fights. Which means that you're more likely to be treated like a tremendous ass who picks fights with those you disagree with, which is the perception you claim is deeply offensive.

If you truly don't give a fuck, maybe you should stay the fuck out of the thread.
posted by klangklangston at 9:11 AM on August 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


Take a leap of faith and assume for a few moments that I'm a person who lives as part of a multi-faith community and highly values relationships with people who have radically different views regarding religion. Assume just a few moments that I've spent a good chunk of my life speaking softly and establish the kind of trust we can have open and honest religious discussion ...

I hope I'm not being terribly unfair, but based on your comments in this thread, that's very hard to believe.

And yes, I fully recognize that in being dismissive and combative in regards to deeply offensive stereotypes about me and mine is likely to validate those same stereotypes. Ask me again if I give a fuck.

I guess you've cleared that up.
posted by nangar at 9:14 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I object to things which have no demonstrated theraputic value being referred to as therapies.

This depends entirely on what you count as "demonstrated." The effect of acupuncture as a supplement to medication on chronic pain has been demonstrated to be effective and is even prescribed by doctors in some cases.

Perhaps there haven't been enough studies to sway you, but experience of many people suffering from chronic conditions suggests that acupuncture and yoga can have significant benefit in addition to a regular medication regime.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:17 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Acupuncture's been shown to be effective at treating pain, which is what placebos are best at. And amusingly, fake acupuncture is just about as good as real acupuncture.

It's a placebo, plain and simple.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:21 AM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


If we can agree that acupuncture relieves pain, then what does it matter if it's a placebo or not? If you're in chronic pain and you feel better, why on earth would it matter that your chosen therapy isn't scientifically rigorous?

The Hippocratic Oath itself says "do no harm," and unless a treatment is actively harming someone, I see no problem in someone continuing to do something that relieves their pain. My dad does acupuncture because morphine isn't enough. I know that this is personalizing the argument, but it feels necessary to point this out in the face of "Well, it's not science." Maybe not, but it effin' helps people.

For the record: my dad also goes to a regular doctor, who prescribes the acupuncture and the morphine, and a physical therapist. I am no way advocating that he or anyone else eschew the advice of medical professionals, I am simply stating that alternative therapies used wisely can absolutely have a beneficial effect for some people where modern medicine has failed.

Along the lines of "unproven," something to ponder: I'm on anti-convulsants to treat epilepsy. I would never go off of them and try something homeopathic because they work and I know that they work. However, no one knows why they work. It's all trial and error with this type of medication. No one has any idea why this chemical compound controls seizure activity. Science, even in medicine, doesn't always have rational explanations for what works and what doesn't. Even if you told me that my medication was merely a placebo, I'd keep taking it. If it helps, it helps.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:32 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


klangklangston: If you didn't give a fuck, the stereotypes wouldn't be offensive to you. And because we have no magical ability to scry you in your private moments, what we see here is what we get—and we're getting you being a tremendous ass and picking fights.

Well, you're one to talk on this.

Let me clarify. I don't think that most of the people posting offensive stereotypes are at all interesting in bridging the chasm described by the FPP. If they were, they wouldn't be stereotyping both sides in order to claim a moral middle ground. I feel no qualms about mocking rather than responding to the statements of people who post offensive bullshit, because I've learned that they are not at all interested in what I have to say.

On a similar note, pagans are not obligated to seriously respond to accusations of satan worship, and bisexual men are not obligated to seriously respond to accusations of promiscuity. By all means, I'm guilty as charged for camping it up in the presence of Westboro Baptists.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:37 AM on August 10, 2010


Had a big response to this thread typed out.

It was too angry.

Four years ago, my dad started treating his stomach problems with Ayurveda. A little less than three years ago, he died of stomach cancer. Not that it would've necessarily been curable, but had he gotten to a hospital quicker, I might've been able to celebrate his 63rd birthday with him this past Sunday.

I remember finding Discovery Institute DVDs in his living room. I remember almost slugging his business partner when he suggested my dad would still be alive if he'd used the quack nostrum the partner was shilling through a multi-level marketing scheme. If being a bit salty helps steer people away from this nonsense, then, good! Because at this point I don't know that I can act any other way.

YES THIS IS THE SHORT VERSION

posted by jtron at 9:38 AM on August 10, 2010 [10 favorites]


If we can agree that acupuncture relieves pain, then what does it matter if it's a placebo or not?

Because acupuncturists don't say "Acupuncture has been shown to relieve pain, most likely through the placebo effect." They don't say "By poking needles into your skin, I'm going to cause you small amounts of pain, triggering an endorphin response, which will reduce pain overall", which is a perfectly plausible guess for why acupuncture might relieve pain. Instead they have these long spiels about meridians and the flow of chi through the body, neither of which have the slightest evidence backing them up.

And of course there's a reason for it, which is that once you realize that real acupuncture performed by a trained acupuncturist is no more effective than fake acupuncture carried out by some dude with a box of needles, well, there's no more need for acupuncturists. There's no longer any need for thick, expensive books on acupuncture technique and acupuncture points. There's no more need for expensive classes in acupuncture. There's no more specialist prestige or money attached to being an acupuncturist anymore; you're just some dude with a box of sharp things.

So they lie, and they make up nonsense about energy fields.

And lying to patients about the medical care they are receiving is wrong. Flat-out.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:39 AM on August 10, 2010 [17 favorites]


I feel no qualms about mocking rather than responding to the statements of people who post offensive bullshit, because I've learned that they are not at all interested in what I have to say.

Some of the people who say things that you term "offensive bullshit" would be honestly interested in having a discussion with you. I would put myself down in this category, but instead of refuting what I said, you mocked me. I would have been happy to have an actual conversation about what you disagreed with me on, but that didn't happen because I was too busy being defensive as you (kind of ironically) accused me of being superior and obnoxious.

Now that you have made this clear as a "policy" of yours, I will make it a policy of mine not to engage you in discussion as you have flat out stated that you have no interest in acting in good faith. I am honestly infuriated that I even tried to defend myself to someone who later stated that his go-to stance on comments he found objectionable was mockery.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:41 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


nangar: I hope I'm not being terribly unfair...

Yes it is. How nice of you to recognize your own flaws.

Here is a hint, if you approach me honestly and without attacking me or my beliefs because you have an axe to grind, I'm delighted to have a friendly conversation. You can generally start with, "so, what do you believe?"

That's not what's going on here while everyone is insisting on turning the kinds of conversations advocated by the FPP into a ridiculous battle between narrow-minded atheists vs. narrow-minded new agers.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:42 AM on August 10, 2010


Science and Meditation
posted by homunculus at 9:44 AM on August 10, 2010


And lying to patients about the medical care they are receiving is wrong. Flat-out.

I would agree, but it is also a lie to say "Acupuncture doesn't help anyone ever." Giving someone information "Look, we don't know why this works beyond a simple placebo effect, but it has been proven to help people with chronic pain" isn't a lie.

I think we're probably just going around in circles at this point, and we'll continue to disagree, so it's best to just leave it. My point is simply that I don't disagree that people need to be educated about their decisions, but I do disagree with the idea that all alternative therapies are 100% bad all the time.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:44 AM on August 10, 2010


Wow, jtron. That sucks. Condolences... that has to be tough to make peace with.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:46 AM on August 10, 2010


jtron, I'm very sorry about your dad. :(
posted by zarq at 9:48 AM on August 10, 2010


Wow, jtron. That's just awful. So, so sorry about your dad.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:49 AM on August 10, 2010


ixohoxi: on one side of the scale, we have thousands of man-hours of painstaking research, conducted using methods that have been carefully designed to minimize human error, to distinguish meaningful results from unmeaningful ones, to isolate the variables under examination from tangential ones, and so forth.

On the other side of the scale, we have a single person's personal belief, which has been subjected to none of those checks. And he's sitting here insisting that this outweighs those thousands of hours of careful research.


I think one problem here is that you have an understanding of statistics and how scientific research is done and most people don't. If you don't, it becomes a matter of competing authorities. You've got your "scientists" and "studies" and they've got their authorities they like better. (I would point out though that it's not irrational to fall back on your own experience when you're confronted with arguments you don't understand.)

I don't know of any tricks to deal with this kind argument, especially if the person has a hostile attitude to science to begin with. I do think it would help if more people had at least a basic understanding of statistics, and could understand arguments based on them (and how they can be misused). It would be good if statistics was taught at a basic level in high school, and it could be. But don't think that's likely to happen.
posted by nangar at 9:52 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The double irony here is that if he were still alive we probably would've celebrated his birthday by sharing in a much-more-scientifically-validated therapy, currently "alternative" but formerly a mainstream component of the US pharmacopaeia, that is essential in treating my debilitating arthritis ALL THE SAME, YOU CAN HAVE MY OPIATES WHEN YOU PRY THEM FROM MY STIFF CLAWLIKE HANDS
posted by jtron at 9:53 AM on August 10, 2010


grapefruitmoon: I would put myself down in this category, but instead of refuting what I said, you mocked me. I would have been happy to have an actual conversation about what you disagreed with me on, but that didn't happen because I was too busy being defensive as you (kind of ironically) accused me of being superior and obnoxious.

We did have a conversation about what I disagreed with you on. I consider your initial posts to have a sloppy and offensive generalization, (that I don't consider fair to either group you were talking about.) I apologize that I don't have the Buddha-like patience to calmly point out that many of us are deeply involved in multi-faith communities and relationships after over 140 posts of ridiculous stereotypes. But so it goes. Catch me on a day in which this didn't feel like pissing on a wonderful weekend I had with a group of people I care deeply about.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:53 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


People believe things because the alternative isn't preferable, often enough. The courage to believe that unappealing things are true, anyway, is the beginning of skepticism.

My skepticism and attempts at holding a rational world view eventually brought me to the bleak conclusion that our lives are brief and, in the grander sense, meaningless. And that our whole existence is an infinitesimal speck within an uncaring universe where no god holds sway. And because of this, when we die we cease to exist, with no soul or spirit capturing our essence to exist in perpetuity.

Sometimes when I think of the unfathomable distances and indifference of space I'm held in awe at how absolutely insignificant we are, regardless of what we want to believe.

And, surprisingly, this makes me incredibly happy. Because that means that right here, and right now, this is our life. This moment that we are experiencing is amazing and wonderful even when it's mundane and boring. Our need for something greater or something more mystical, has blinded us to the day to day miracle that is just being alive for our brief time.

My world view is so unappealing and so grim, that is comes back around to creating joy from the other side.
posted by quin at 9:59 AM on August 10, 2010 [18 favorites]


My world view is so unappealing and so grim, that is comes back around to creating joy from the other side.

Like Juggalos!

Juggaloes?
posted by jtron at 10:01 AM on August 10, 2010


I apologize that I don't have the Buddha-like patience to calmly point out that many of us are deeply involved in multi-faith communities and relationships after over 140 posts of ridiculous stereotypes. But so it goes. Catch me on a day in which this didn't feel like pissing on a wonderful weekend I had with a group of people I care deeply about.

Fair enough, but I don't think pissing on others (which you admit to doing in saying that you prefer to deal with offensive comments by mocking them) is the way to honor the people in your life you care about.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:03 AM on August 10, 2010


. . . there is actually more beauty, wonder, brilliance, and mystery in science than there is in the mystical world.

Hear, hear!
posted by General Tonic at 10:03 AM on August 10, 2010


grapefruitmoon: Fair enough, but I don't think pissing on others (which you admit to doing in saying that you prefer to deal with offensive comments by mocking them) is the way to honor the people in your life you care about.

I don't know. Even the 2-year-olds in my family have a wicked sense of humor.

I will tone it back some. Thanks.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:08 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know. Even the 2-year-olds in my family have a wicked sense of humor.

I will tone it back some. Thanks.


Thanks for being gracious, I mean it.

And yeah, I also have a wicked sense of humor but I didn't read it into your posts. I'm sorry if that was a misunderstanding on my part.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:15 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Speculating about possible answers to the question is fine—that's how we discover new, and potentially useful, ideas. But claiming that a particular answer is the correct one, without presenting any evidence for that claim, is arrogant.

I actually agree with you, except I "believe", using that term loosely. I fully accept the possibility that there is no higher power or anything else, and am comfortable with that possibility. But I lean toward a belief due to the direct, subjective, unverifiable experiences I've had throughout my life. I make absolutely no claims that this belief is "correct." Combined with the fact that I am a huge fan of science, evolution, critical thought, etc., does this make me skeptical, credulous, or neither?

As the original article illustrates, I think one of the big differences between the skeptical and the credulous and is the ability (or inability) to accept "we don't know" as an answer.

I think coming to grips with the full picture of "we don't know" necessarily includes a great deal of possibility (again, carefully, without any claims of "correctness".) Logic, like math, is an incredibly useful tool (as a computer scientist and lawyer, I'd be lost without it) but is ultimately a limited construct, and we are creatures with a limited capacity to accurately observe, explain, and describe the universe around us. How limited, exactly? Even this is inherently (conveniently, perhaps) unanswerable - "we don't know that we don't know." All of this seems obvious, axiomatic to me, but I think it should be taken into account.

I'm uncomfortable with the claims in this thread that all spiritually-minded people (even the woo-woo types) are deeply afraid of mystery and ambiguity. Quite a few are, certainly, but at least for me personally, this couldn't be further from the truth. The inability to know is an important part of both my sense of belief and my sense of skepticism.
posted by naju at 10:16 AM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


. . . there is actually more beauty, wonder, brilliance, and mystery in science than there is in the mystical world.

My paganism fail came about at a time when trying to shoehorn everything into a very humanoid gender dimorphic goddess and god felt clumsy and awkward while I was working with fungi and algae that have some very strange things going on with sex at the time. Sex in the biological world is not only stranger than you can dream of, it's stranger than you'd want to dream of.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:19 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


...[explain] how the empiricist concept of the "postulate" is different from our fact-less belief in things that we take for granted...
Just to stick my oar in a fairly well-developed thread, I think it's interesting to note that this often played refrain itself leads to a kind of skepticism, specifically Pyrrhonism. When I was at school my friends and I would refer to this as the 'nuclear option' in debate; once invoked there is no way back because everyone just ends up saying "That's just another unsubstantiated claim! Your position thus has equivalent value to mine! Drinking Cocoa-cola is just like smoking crack" &c.,

Suffice to say that, following one too many decisions to dust off and nuke the debate from orbit, my friends & I no longer find this tactic convincing. The purpose of debate isn't to root out everyone's hidden axioms and then say "we all have axioms, let's go home" so much as to debate the value of different axioms (definitions of value of course remain vulnerable to the nuclear option) and to try and persuade one another of their respective merits.

As such the assertion that empiricism is somehow the same as a new-age belief because, at heart, empiricists assume a variety of things (in particular ideas about induction and the spatio-temporal regularity of physical law, the existence of parsimonious descriptions of nature and so on) and new-age adherents assume a variety of things (the existence of subtle energies, the primacy of the will and so on) is trivially true and trivially unhelpful. As an alternative I claim that the question we should be addressing is "how should we construct our beliefs?", and at that level the two approaches are clearly different. To decide which is better we need values, which are of course a whole different kettle of ethics. Although I have a marvellous proof about which ones are best it won't fit in the margin.

Of course, the whole thesis I've presented is itself vulnerable to the nuclear option, resting as it does on the axiom that debates are better if we multilaterally metaphorically disarm! It is only by mutual assent that we can put it to one side and thus, I hope, communicate more effectively.
posted by larkery at 10:22 AM on August 10, 2010 [22 favorites]


So sorry to hear about your dad, jtron. Thank you for sharing the story.

The Hippocratic Oath itself says "do no harm," and unless a treatment is actively harming someone, I see no problem in someone continuing to do something that relieves their pain.

Agreed.

But if you're feeding someone sugar pills in lieu of non-placebo treatments, you are doing harm: you're delaying their access to more effective treatments. Real people have really died, or otherwise suffered permanent injury, because of this.

Perhaps there's an argument to be made for placebos as a supplementary therapy, or as therapy for non-life-threatening symptoms such as pain. And if alt med practitioners confined themselves to this domain, I'd be significantly less pugnacious toward them. But they don't. Many of them are eager to convince their patients that Teh Westarn Medicine is evil and not to be trusted. They want those health care dollars for themselves.

In any case, placebos only work if you believe they work. If you know they're a placebo (and understand what a placebo is), they don't work. So placebos can only be effective if the patient is less than fully informed about the treatment. That is: the doctor must lie to the patient, either explicitly or by omission, if the placebo is to work. Perhaps that lie can be justified (perhaps), but surely you appreciate that there's an ethical dilemma here.
posted by ixohoxi at 10:23 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


larkery, your comment is worth a favorite just for the Fermat reference :)
posted by ixohoxi at 10:27 AM on August 10, 2010


nurse I know was telling me about this woman who came in.

That's weird. I've heard this story before used precisely this way, though it was just about homeopathy... I looked around and found another. I don't know how many times I could find this warning story if I really exerted myself. I guess there're alot of people avoiding cancer treatments and having their tumors erupt from their breasts.

weird.
posted by ServSci at 10:51 AM on August 10, 2010


Western medical practices such as supervised regular and gentle exercise focused on strength and flexibility, the kind that I get from a physical therapist who will run me through many of the same stretches and postures to relieve many of the same symptoms?

My dad's doctor (orthopedic surgeon) recommended yoga for my dad. It's really good for you. Yes, you can duplicate some of the same effects, but yoga is a specific practice, and there's no harm in learning it. Tai Chi can also be very good for you. There is a spiritual component to each which is not necessary to learning the physical component, and both are often recommended by medical professionals. I'm not a woo-woo person, but I can relate to the spiritual component of Tai Chi, which is rooted in Taoism (not very woo-woo, most of the time). Spiritual fulfillment is important, too, but not everyone goes about it the same way.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:28 AM on August 10, 2010


However, the fact of the matter is that people make bad choices and sometimes die. Not just from alternative medicine. People choose to drive drunk and die. People choose to smoke and die. People choose to live on an all vegan diet and die. People choose elective surgery and die. People make choices, sometimes ill-informed, and sometimes those choices don't go well.

posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:34 PM on August 10


Which is all fine and dandy and nice and "tolerant" and open-minded and balanced and even-handed and oh, if only that were all there was to it. Personally, as one of these unapologetically in-your-face atheist/sceptics who never misses an opportunity to call a spade a bunch of bollocks, that is simply not good enough. That is a disingenuously selective, sugar-coated view at best. Religion, and New Age bullshit, damages others, not just the fools who choose to believe it. It is a blight on society, not just the individuals who choose to abuse their own intellectual integrity. From the children who get circumcised as infants, to the children whose parents refuse to let them receive the treatments that would actually save their lives, to the women oppressed by patriarchal, religion-derived dogma, to the shut-away cult victims and Kool-Aid drinkers, to the shunned and the "witches" and the poor saps persuaded that their cancer is somehow their fault... this poison is a deep, wide, black, primitive, savage menace and by hell I will not apologise for refusing to be polite to modern manifestations of it. Science is not perfect and yes, it has its victims too, but by hell it is a demonstrably better, more honest and more effective generator of raw knowledge and useful application than the polluted water drawn from the haunted old well of superstition and religion.
posted by Decani at 12:03 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Religion, and New Age bullshit, damages others, not just the fools who choose to believe it. It is a blight on society, not just the individuals who choose to abuse their own intellectual integrity.

It's not particularly scientific to paint with such a broad brush, is it? Your comment sounds a lot more like rhetoric than like science.
posted by The World Famous at 12:09 PM on August 10, 2010


As an early member of MetaFilter who stopped posting or commenting several years ago after just one too many useless pissing contests, this discussion gives me some hope that all of you are not complete fuckheads. Thanks.
posted by mooncrow at 12:09 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are plenty of points at which you have limited information and can choose one of two mutually exclusive beliefs about, say, cause or consequence. Unless, of course, you're a determinist, which means that you don't believe in choice.

posted by klangklangston at 3:56 PM on August 10


Yes, and when that happens, you hold your belief very conditionally, you continue to question it and to seek better knowledge about it to let you form a more informed belief, and you are permanently open to the idea that your belief may be wrong.

This, in my experience, does not describe the type of belief manifested by either New Agers or Old Agers (by which I mean the religious).
posted by Decani at 12:10 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's not particularly scientific to paint with such a broad brush, is it? Your comment sounds a lot more like rhetoric than like science.
posted by The World Famous at 8:09 PM on August 10


Did I claim my point, or the way I chose to express it, was scientific?

To me, lazily straw-manning is even less impressive than expressing an unscientific opinion. Would you care to make a specific argument or point, or shall we just acknowledge that you didn't like my opinion and move on?
posted by Decani at 12:13 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Science is not perfect and yes, it has its victims too, but by hell it is a demonstrably better, more honest and more effective generator of raw knowledge and useful application than the polluted water drawn from the haunted old well of superstition and religion.

Nearly everyone here agrees on this. However, by shouting it from the rooftops in this tone, you may be right but you aren't effective at winning people over to your side. This is one of the points she makes in the article.

I tire of explaining to my colleagues, that no matter how correct and truthful and good and just your message is, if the medium is wrong it will fall on deaf ears.

If the goal is to be correct - fine. If the goal is to convince: you fail.
You're not communicating - you're just venting, wasting your breath.

.......And furthermore there have been empirical studies shown that confrontational/accusational techniques actually decrease the likelihood of someone accepting your premises, so you're actually being ANTI-SCIENTIFIC by continuing to make your asertion in this manner!

While the universe is rational, the way to convince people of rationality aren't always direct.
posted by lalochezia at 12:14 PM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


From the original article: "I understand now, after years of reading and research, that the skeptical culture exists because of a very real concern for the welfare and well being of others."

This seems like the crux of the article to me.

Hermitosis: "I can really relate to the strength of this revelation. Because that concern is not something that is typically broadcast (at. all.) during discussions I've had with people who are incredibly skeptical."

I agree. It's not typically broadcast. In my experience, what's typically broadcast is closer to contempt. This is why a bridge is needed between these two cultures (though subculture is probably a more accurate term).

If concern for the well-being of those who might conceivably die from faith healing and such is the prime motivator for skeptical proselytizing, then the skeptics who call anyone they consider "woo" stupid or fraudulent are in reality helping to save the lives of those people. If this is really true, it's a noble effort. But it doesn't make sense.

People are going to get defensive when you tell them they're stupid. You're going to look like an intellectual elitist who gets off on seeming superior.

I've known a lot of "woo" people, as well as skeptics. I'm comfortable calling myself an agnostic at this point in life, after looking into, and rejecting, a number of non-skeptical ideas over a period of years. I am a skeptic, but not a Skeptic.

The "woo" people I know seem to sincerely believe. For a few years, I was in a support group (it wasn't a New Age group per se) that included a couple of professional Tarot readers/psychics/astrologers. I never got the impression that they were tricking their clients. Their behavior was congruent with people who thought they were helping others. One of them even had a rule that she limited readings with clients she thought were getting too dependent on her because she wanted to empower them to think for themselves and didn't want to exploit them.

People will get even more defensive when told they're deliberately defrauding others when they don't believe they are. If we truly want to save the lives of people like jtron's dad, we have to lose the smug, mocking superiority and instead put ourselves in the shoes of people who aren't comfortable with not knowing.

One of the people I met who was really sincere about her psychic practice lost her daughter and granddaughter while I knew her. Her beliefs seemed to help her brave the loss with grace. Not to say she didn't feel devastating grief. She talked about how there "had to be a reason" they died -- like a cosmic, God-driven reason. It seemed to me that her spiritual beliefs helped her cope. This was her only child and only grandchild and they both died in childbirth. The woman went from joy and anticipation to devastation overnight.

It would have been so cruel of me to question or undermine any of her non-skeptical beliefs; to roll my eyes when she spoke of things like past lives in Atlantis and alien abduction. All these feats of human imagination and longing are underpinned by one crucial issue, to my mind: death parts us from those we cherish. To believe in one magical thing is to open the door to the hope of an afterlife, a reunion, a learning experience buried in our pain.

Instead of a focus on cerebral hair-splitting, we would do well to remember this.
posted by xenophile at 12:32 PM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


You're damaging your cause by being angry
posted by jtron at 12:32 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I sure hope all you skeptics are atheists as well...because it seems that most, if not all, of the arguments that you are using regarding New Age being irrational apply equally to religion in general.

I'm unaware of any Catholic doctrine that posits a direct relationship between worship and health. Can you cite for me please the paragraph in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church that says I will be cured of cancer if I hang a rosary around my neck?

The problem with many New Age belief systems is that they posit testable hypotheses about how the world works; that these hypotheses prove demonstrably incorrect; and that when confronted with such evidence, proponents of that belief system make irrational excuses for why they didn't work. Many more long-standing spiritual traditions have learned through experience to be cautious about sticking their nose into theories of how the natural world works. [1] [2] [3] [4]
posted by thesmophoron at 12:32 PM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


I sure hope all you skeptics are atheists as well

Do you doubt my credentials? I say good day, sir!
posted by jtron at 12:37 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Religion, and New Age bullshit, damages others, not just the fools who choose to believe it. It is a blight on society, not just the individuals who choose to abuse their own intellectual integrity. From the children who get circumcised as infants, to the children whose parents refuse to let them receive the treatments that would actually save their lives, to the women oppressed by patriarchal, religion-derived dogma, to the shut-away cult victims and Kool-Aid drinkers, to the shunned and the "witches" and the poor saps persuaded that their cancer is somehow their fault... this poison is a deep, wide, black, primitive, savage menace and by hell I will not apologise for refusing to be polite to modern manifestations of it. Science is not perfect and yes, it has its victims too, but by hell it is a demonstrably better, more honest and more effective generator of raw knowledge and useful application than the polluted water drawn from the haunted old well of superstition and religion.

Ah, here we go. Tell me again how my superstitious Jewish beliefs are killing folks, oppressing women and fucking up my children, please. That fucking bullshit never gets old.
posted by zarq at 12:40 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


As an early member of MetaFilter who stopped posting or commenting several years ago after just one too many useless pissing contests, this discussion gives me some hope that all of you are not complete fuckheads. Thanks.

Speaking as someone who's now being tarred with the broadest possible brush by other members in this thread, this discussion most certainly does not give me the same hope.
posted by zarq at 12:42 PM on August 10, 2010


Hatred and intolerance also harm others, Decani. A lot.

To live in any kind of large scale society, we need to learn to coexist with people who are not like us. We need to combat actual harm when it occurs, but justifying harm to entire categories of people based past harms committed by some members of those categories is a different matter.
posted by nangar at 12:46 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nearly everyone here agrees on this. However, by shouting it from the rooftops in this tone, you may be right but you aren't effective at winning people over to your side. This is one of the points she makes in the article.

posted by lalochezia at 8:14 PM on August 10


Firstly, having read this entire thread I am far from sure that your claim that "Nearly everyone here agrees with this" is true. Secondly, I find the "argument from tone" weak, and transparently a fallacious, smoke-screening tactic usually employed to avoid grappling with actual points raised. To say that my post was "shouting it from the rooftops" is frankly hysterical hyperbole and as such, not in the least bit likely to win people over to your position so if you are truly concerned about "conversion", give that some thought, eh? Is someone a bit less-than-infinitely-respectful about your opinion? Oh dear, how sad, grow a bloody skin. Thirdly, in common with someone else further upthread whose name I forget, my primary aim when I argue against superstition of any kind is most definitely not to "convert" those who are, very likely, beyond conversion. It is in the hope that other people - often young, impressionable people who may be under pressure to buy into culturally-endorsed nonsense - may see how eminently worthy of ridicule and deconstruction it is, and be spared some of the pain and strife people like me went through in order to rid ourselves of this drivelling mindrot.

Usually, the way the victims of superstition get converted to reason is by using their own brain and their own powers of observation. I am one such "convert". As such I am very well aware of how futile it can be to try to persuade those riddled with the disease. It's those who have yet to contract it I'm more concerned about, not the lost causes.
posted by Decani at 12:50 PM on August 10, 2010


In any case, placebos only work if you believe they work. If you know they're a placebo (and understand what a placebo is), they don't work. So placebos can only be effective if the patient is less than fully informed about the treatment. That is: the doctor must lie to the patient, either explicitly or by omission, if the placebo is to work. Perhaps that lie can be justified (perhaps), but surely you appreciate that there's an ethical dilemma here.

I don't think it's lying in any way shape or form to say about yoga or acupuncture (or meditation or any other therapeutic practice which, if not making things better, won't make things worse) to say "This might not work and if it does, we don't know why." I don't think that's a lie at all.

But yes, the use of placebos in general is ethically fraught and is why placebos simply can't be used as a test in all situations. It's not always ethical to give a patient no treatment to prove that a treatment works - for instance, everybody's favorite bugbear, the vaccine. A placebo trial for a vaccine would just be cruel. Painkillers? It's an easier thing to say "Well, the placebo won't make it worse." in that situation, but any placebo trial is essentially withholding care. Yes, absolutely there are times when this needs to be done to test the efficacy of treatment, but it's not to say that the use of placebos is in and of itself entirely ethical.

(For instance see the episode of House when Foreman finds out they've given 13 a placebo! OHBOY!)

If concern for the well-being of those who might conceivably die from faith healing and such is the prime motivator for skeptical proselytizing, then the skeptics who call anyone they consider "woo" stupid or fraudulent are in reality helping to save the lives of those people. If this is really true, it's a noble effort. But it doesn't make sense.

People are going to get defensive when you tell them they're stupid. You're going to look like an intellectual elitist who gets off on seeming superior.


Agreed a thousand times over.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:50 PM on August 10, 2010


What's interesting to me, looking at this discussion, is that the somewhat aggressive tone that people are accusing (and often for good reason) the skeptics' arguments of is often exactly how scientists argue with one another about science. Except there, because both sides tend to agree with how to define something as "true," this can persist for quite some time because both sides know that given sufficient evidence they will agree. But the tone along the way can become quite confrontational and even dismissive, even if it usually passes quickly after it is resolved. There's no use wasting time in telling someone subtly that they are wrong if you think they are wrong, but there's also no use in staying angry at someone after they come 'round, nor (much) shame in resolving your own issues. I wonder if this isn't some part of the situation here, since it's extremely exasperating to talk to someone who has no interest in responding to evidence — it's an enormous amount of work to communicate in such a different manner.
posted by Schismatic at 12:54 PM on August 10, 2010 [9 favorites]


Ah, here we go. Tell me again how my superstitious Jewish beliefs are killing folks, oppressing women and fucking up my children, please. That fucking bullshit never gets old.
posted by zarq at 8:40 PM on August 10


Hmm. You seem to have been revealingly selective about the content my post here.
posted by Decani at 1:05 PM on August 10, 2010


Schismatic: That's an interesting point, but I think the key thing to note here is that we're not scientists. Nor are we all skeptics. It's much harder to have a sort of cross-cultural conversation than it is to have a heated argument between like minded people. The scientist bit certainly rings a bell for me as my partner is an engineer (and I, obviously, am not). Living with him is very much like living with a sort of benevolent cylon - he doesn't understand that it is indeed how you say something that is often as important as what you say. He's learned by now that I have to be home for at least five minutes before he can tell me that I need to clean my desk or take out the kitty litter. It's not that I object to doing these things, or of being reminded of my agreed upon chores, but that I mind being told flat out the second that I get home that I MUST DO THIS THING. It took a while for him to understand that interacting with me, his partner, was not the same as interacting with his labmates - that I am not simply task oriented.

Same thing on MetaFilter. A lot of people are very rational and appeal to the rational side of others and would love for the world to communicate in pure logic. Some of us are kind of fuzzy on this and appreciate logic, but it's not the be all and end all for us. (I speak for myself and I assume at least some others on the site feel the same way.) I'm sure that lurking in the shadows are people for whom logic means nothing.

Different values means you have to be very careful in how you construct an argument as coming on too strong puts the other side on the defensive immediately, and since you don't necessarily have a common background, coming to any kind of peaceable conclusion is much harder when you start off with a perceived attack. Were we all scientists, or even were we all skeptics, the blunt approach would probably have minimal consequences - but being that we're not, we do have to remember to be tactful if we want to have a productive discussion and not a mud flinging contest.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:06 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hmm. You seem to have been revealingly selective about the content my post here.

You seem to be revealing yourself to be quite intolerant of others who are members here.
posted by zarq at 1:07 PM on August 10, 2010


Hmm. You seem to have been revealingly selective about the content my post here.

In fairness, your main point IS that religion is in and of itself a harmful force. It's not hard to see how someone with religious beliefs would heartily disagree, especially when you bring witches and such into it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:07 PM on August 10, 2010


A problem in the linked piece is that it focuses exclusively on a responsibility for skeptics to not act like boogeymen, without a responsibility for others to not treat skeptics as rhetorical case examples of how not to think about the world. The bridge needs to be built from both ends.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:23 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


One of my best friends has been fighting stage 4 cancer for the last 7 years. It began in her stomach and has worked its way around many of her (soft tissue) organs. She's had several dozen surgeries (minor and major) and a number of organs removed. But she's still fighting. Is now in her late 40's.

She used to smoke quite heavily.

My friend has now become an aggressive anti-smoking advocate to anyone who will listen. She literally has no compunctions about telling random strangers she sees who are smoking that they shouldn't. Personally, I think this is incredibly obnoxious behavior on her part and have told her so. It's embarrassing. Some poor schmuck who is taking a drag on a cigarette shouldn't have to deal with a tall, intimidating woman looming over him, lecturing him about what he's doing.

But she doesn't care, because she feels she's doing them a favor: "No one should ever have to go through what I'm dealing with. And he's poisoning the rest of us with second-hand smog."

I see her point.

There are no safe tobacco cigarettes. There are no safe tobacco cigars or cigarillos.

But religion is not the same as tobacco. Not all religions are threats to non-believers, or "...poison... a deep, wide, black, primitive, savage menace," and asserting that they are seems to reveal a particularly narrow and hidebound view on your part. As with my friend, I do sympathize with your perspective. I'm pretty outspoken around here about the Catholic Church, dominionism and religious extremists, especially within my own religion. But decani, this isn't a matter of people not having a thick skin. It's a matter of you being intolerant and hyperbolic.

How you choose to treat others around here is your own business. But tarring everyone with the same brush inappropriately seems like a rather sad and ineffective way to make your case.
posted by zarq at 1:33 PM on August 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


.
posted by kalessin at 1:34 PM on August 10, 2010


You seem to be revealing yourself to be quite intolerant of others who are members here.

posted by zarq at 9:07 PM on August 10


Well, that's one way of evading an observation, I suppose.

As for being "intolerant of other members", well, firstly, if I am, so what? How many members are there? Several thousand? What are the odds that I'm going to find some of them objectionable and deserving of criticism? Pretty high, no? Sorry about that, but there it is. And besides: "critical" does not mean the same thing as "intolerant". If I were intolerant of superstitious, irrational people, well, I wouldn't tolerate them. You know? Yet I do. Every damned day of my life, I tolerate them. But by hell, I am not going to hold back from criticising them, because I see them as a retrograde force; a bad lot all round; purveyors of things that are plain dreadful for the species. And I will, I'm afraid, insist on my right to do that.
posted by Decani at 1:46 PM on August 10, 2010


In fairness, your main point IS that religion is in and of itself a harmful force. It's not hard to see how someone with religious beliefs would heartily disagree, especially when you bring witches and such into it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:07 PM on August 10


I agree, except I don't see how bringing "witches and such" into it is a problem. I was referring to the way religious belief led to the torture and murder of countless women as witches. Given that i was making a hasty, tossed-off list of things to illustrate how superstition - religious and otherwise - can damage people other than those who actually hold the beliefs - it seems an entirely reasonable example to me.
posted by Decani at 1:49 PM on August 10, 2010


As for being "intolerant of other members", well, firstly, if I am, so what? ... I am not going to hold back from criticising them, because I see them as a retrograde force; a bad lot all round; purveyors of things that are plain dreadful for the species.

"Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand—not at other members of the site."
posted by thesmophoron at 1:57 PM on August 10, 2010


"Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand—not at other members of the site."
posted by thesmophoron at 9:57 PM on August 10


If you would care to show me where I made a personal attack on a specific Mefite, I will reconsider my previous response.
posted by Decani at 2:05 PM on August 10, 2010


If you would care to show me where I made a personal attack on a specific Mefite, I will reconsider my previous response.

The guideline doesn't refer to "specific Mefites." It says you shouldn't focus your comments at other members of the site. That can refer to a group of us, or one of us.
posted by zarq at 2:11 PM on August 10, 2010


Schismatic, I believe you're onto something there. Debates among my science-minded friends can get quite spirited—but we all understand that we're criticizing ideas, not each other. We understand debate as a way of testing ideas, not as a personal attack. We know that if our beliefs have integrity, they'll survive the thrashing—and that if they don't, we should discard them anyway.

Even if we can't agree on which answer is the correct one, we agree that there is a correct answer, that it can (at least in theory) be proven, and that any answers which contradict the correct one must (by definition) be false.

We tend to see these as universal principles of civil debate—not peculiarities of our particular subculture—but clearly not everyone feels that way.

Consider those who maintain that whatever you believe to be true is true—for you. According to that view, all answers are correct, even if they contradict each other. There is no objective fact; only opinion. So criticizing the notion of astrology is like criticizing someone's preference for raspberry ice cream—who the fuck are you to tell them that's wrong? A belief in the truth of something is truth, to these people.

As nangar points out, they tend to see the results of scientific research as just another opinion, not qualitatively different than anecdote. Or they may believe that science's scrupulous effort to remove emotion and personal experience from the equation makes it less reliable, and that the "evidence" of strong personal feeling is the kind that deserves special weight.

(This is obviously not a complete picture of New Age thinking. It's just a small example that illustrates how different our assumptions can be.)

When you consider that skeptics and believers disagree so markedly on these fundamental matters—the nature of truth, the meaning of the word "evidence", whether an objective universe even exists—it's no wonder the claws fly so quickly and so spectacularly. We're pissing all over each others' implicit norms, without even realizing it.

From the believers' point of view, the skeptics are telling them that they're idiots for liking raspberry ice cream. From the skeptics' point of view, the believers are claiming (as I illustrated above) that they're privy to almost godlike certainty and knowledge.

Now, I still think that the scientist's norms of debate are the right ones, and that the New Age approach is misguided, to say the least. But if we want to get anywhere, we need to acknowledge that these differences in principles and assumptions exist. Otherwise, we are speaking different languages—using similar words, but talking about very different things.

For a skeptic, the first step in these conversations should be to determine whether the other person understands, appreciates, and believes in the principles of reasoned inquiry. If they do, then by all means present a rational argument. But if they don't, then trying to have a rational argument is just going to end in anger on both sides. The situation calls for a very different approach.

The approach that I usually take—because I don't know a better one—is to walk away. To make any headway at all, I'd have to teach the principles of reason to the other person, and convince them of their value. I'm simply not equipped to do that, and most believers aren't interested in hearing it. But I do believe it's where any against battle against woo must begin, if we expect to make any progress.

I'd be very interested in ideas on how to have that conversation—either the thoughts of other MeFites, or links to articles elsewhere.

it's an enormous amount of work to communicate in such a different manner.

Truly. I've tried very, very hard to meet people at the middle of the bridge. It's exhausting.
posted by ixohoxi at 2:14 PM on August 10, 2010 [12 favorites]


Maybe I'm old, cranky, and part of the problem, but I really don't see how embracing the warm happy fuzziness of New Age woowoo will free people of their dependence on warm happy fuzziness.

Quacks are quacks, period. If we call them something like "suboptimal practitioners" then we may as well just drink the homeopathic kool-aid ourselves.
posted by Legomancer at 2:14 PM on August 10, 2010


But religion is not the same as tobacco. Not all religions are threats to non-believers, or "...poison... a deep, wide, black, primitive, savage menace," and asserting that they are seems to reveal a particularly narrow and hidebound view on your part.

"Not all religions are threats to non-believers" depends entirely on what one considers a threat... and since you identified a threat to yourself in Decani's comment, it should be easy for you to understand that religion seems to imply a similar threat to many of those who oppose it.

Personally, I think the idea that some opinions about religion are inherently "intolerant" is a far more "narrow and hidebound view" than the opinions in question.

on preview: come on. Nobody claims that general negative comments about, say, Republicans or cops or lawyers are "focused at other members of the site", even though we have plenty of cops and lawyers and Republicans. That rule is clearly meant to address personal attacks, not opinions you don't happen to like.
posted by vorfeed at 2:17 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Quacks are quacks, period. If we call them something like "suboptimal practitioners" then we may as well just drink the homeopathic kool-aid ourselves.

Except that not everyone who believes in woo is a quack. Some of them really believe it. Being argumentative and insulting with them (and believe me; I understand why you might feel inclined to act that way) isn't going to convince them to change their ways, either. It's just going to cement their belief that we're assholes, and make them less likely to listen to skeptical viewpoints in the future.
posted by ixohoxi at 2:21 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Science is not perfect and yes, it has its victims too, but by hell it is a demonstrably better, more honest and more effective generator of raw knowledge and useful application than the polluted water drawn from the haunted old well of superstition and religion.
posted by Decani at 12:03 PM on August 10

If only this were true.

In fact, science is largely responsible for allowing us to increase our numbers beyond any reasonable estimate of the long-term carrying capacity of the planet even if we hadn't significantly altered the climate.

But we have altered the climate, and science is responsible for that too, because it has given us access to the CO2-generating fossil fuels which would have remained beyond our reach without it.

And our huge numbers, combined with the global warming that will drastically reduce our ability to get food, has set us up for a (I believe unavoidable) catastrophic decline in population next to which all previous disasters will barely be visible on the graph.

Science will come to be regarded, rightly, not as the great benefactor of humanity, but as the pied piper that has led us to our doom, I'd say within the next century and a half or so.
posted by jamjam at 2:21 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The guideline doesn't refer to "specific Mefites." It says you shouldn't focus your comments at other members of the site. That can refer to a group of us, or one of us.

Okay, dude, what specific GROUP did Decani attack?

JAYSUS.
posted by idest at 2:22 PM on August 10, 2010


Except that not everyone who believes in woo is a quack. Some of them really believe it.

Quackery isn't fraud. Quackery is selling and promoting useless treatments. Most quacks probably are completely sincere; it doesn't mean that they're not quacks, or that they're harmless.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:24 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


The guideline doesn't refer to "specific Mefites." It says you shouldn't focus your comments at other members of the site. That can refer to a group of us, or one of us.

posted by zarq at 10:11 PM on August 10


Really? Wow. So... it is unacceptable, on MeFi, to criticise the remarks of other MeFites? Either in a group or individually? Then why, pray, are you criticising me?

Come on son. Get a grip here. ;-)
posted by Decani at 2:25 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


JAYSUS.

Perhaps you should take the time to read other people's comments thoroughly before responding to them.
posted by zarq at 2:28 PM on August 10, 2010


"Not all religions are threats to non-believers" depends entirely on what one considers a threat... and since you identified a threat to yourself in Decani's comment, it should be easy for you to understand that religion seems to imply a similar threat to many of those who oppose it.

Explain to me please how my religious views threaten you in any way.
posted by zarq at 2:28 PM on August 10, 2010


Really? Wow. So... it is unacceptable, on MeFi, to criticise the remarks of other MeFites?

You keep adding words (in this case, "remarks") to change the meaning of what people are saying. It's rather disingenuous of you.

Please go back and read what I said again. Then you might try responding to what I actually said without manipulating my words to serve your purposes.
posted by zarq at 2:30 PM on August 10, 2010


Quackery isn't fraud. Quackery is selling and promoting useless treatments. Most quacks probably are completely sincere; it doesn't mean that they're not quacks, or that they're harmless.

If you wish to define quackery that way, then fine—but that's a matter of semantics, and my point still stands.

Certainly peddlers of useless treatments cause harm, whether they truly believe in the treatment or not. I'm simply arguing that some of them do really believe in it, and that an antagonistic approach is not likely to change that belief.

I'm not saying that we should give up and accept their harmful belief. I'm just saying that we should address the belief using the methods that are most likely to correct it.

(Actually, I was speaking of New Agers in general—laypersons as well as practitioners.)
posted by ixohoxi at 2:32 PM on August 10, 2010


Perhaps you should take the time to read other people's comments thoroughly before responding to them.

Can you elucidate exactly what you're getting at here?
posted by idest at 2:36 PM on August 10, 2010


Quackery isn't fraud. Quackery is selling and promoting useless treatments. Most quacks probably are completely sincere; it doesn't mean that they're not quacks, or that they're harmless.

Yeah, I'm not actually sure which scares me worse: the huckster out for a buck by fleecing gullible people out of their money with new age themed schemes, or the true believer who really wants to help those around them.

In some ways the faithful here is actually a little more worrisome because the fraud will eventually cut-and-run whereas the faithful will keep being an active and vocal promoter forever.
posted by quin at 2:36 PM on August 10, 2010


Decani: Religion, and New Age bullshit, damages others, not just the fools who choose to believe it. It is a blight on society, not just the individuals who choose to abuse their own intellectual integrity.

Me: It's not particularly scientific to paint with such a broad brush, is it? Your comment sounds a lot more like rhetoric than like science.

Decani: Did I claim my point, or the way I chose to express it, was scientific?

To me, lazily straw-manning is even less impressive than expressing an unscientific opinion. Would you care to make a specific argument or point, or shall we just acknowledge that you didn't like my opinion and move on?
posted by Decani at 12:13 PM on August 10


So I guess the specific point that I would like to make (since I guess I was too subtle above) is that you appear to be a skeptic only up to the point where you decide to make unscientific factual assertions and unskeptical value judgments against millions of people who you don't know -- value judgments so broad that to consider yourself a skeptic while holding those opinions is preposterous.

Do you consider yourself a skeptic? If not, then I guess there's nothing surprising about you going on and on about a broad, unscientific value judgment. But if you do consider yourself a skeptic, maybe you could take a step back and consider whether the opinion you're fighting about at the moment has been arrived at through the sort of rigorous skeptical process that you seem to be advocating.
posted by The World Famous at 2:40 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can you elucidate exactly what you're getting at here?

It's honestly not worth it.

I'm truly not interested in becoming a punching bag for the folks in this thread who feel they should be allowed free reign to bash those who adhere to any sort of religious faith. Nor do I intend to become the subject of some ill-conceived incendiary MeTa thread wherein people do the same.

I'm done here.
posted by zarq at 2:41 PM on August 10, 2010


Please go to MetaTalk to continue this tired MeFi debate about how critical of religion it's appropriate to be. Decani, zarq, et. al, go there.
posted by jessamyn at 2:41 PM on August 10, 2010


“I read a depressingly inane magazine article by a Logical Positivist--someone wanted my comment on it.

“What can I say? The burden of his teaching seems to be this: ‘Since we cannot really say anything about anything, let us be content to talk about the way in which we say nothing.’ That is an excellent way to organize futility.

“After all, even nothing has its dignity: but here not even the dignity of nothingness is respected. There must be the mechanical clicking of the thought machine manufacturing nothing about nothing, as if even nothing had at all cost to be organized, and presented as if it were something. As if it had to be talked about.

“The atheist existentialist has my respect: he accepts his honest despair with stoic dignity. And despair gives his thought a genuine content, because it expresses an experience--his confrontation with emptiness. But these others confront only the mechanical output of their own thinking machine. They don't have the imagination or the good sense to stand in awe at real emptiness. In fact, their rationalizations seem to be a complacent evasion: as if logical formulas somehow could give them something to stand on in the abyss.

“And now: just wait until they start philosophizing with computers!” –Thomas Merton, 1965
posted by eegphalanges at 2:43 PM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


The atheist existentialist has my respect: he accepts his honest despair with stoic dignity. And despair gives his thought a genuine content, because it expresses an experience--his confrontation with emptiness. But these others confront only the mechanical output of their own thinking machine. They don't have the imagination or the good sense to stand in awe at real emptiness. In fact, their rationalizations seem to be a complacent evasion: as if logical formulas somehow could give them something to stand on in the abyss.

Thanks for a classic example of how the bridge needs to built from the other side as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:45 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


zarq: in accordance with Jessamyn's suggestion, I'm over to MeTa if you're still into it.
posted by Decani at 2:51 PM on August 10, 2010


For reasons stated above, I'm completely done with the conversation.
posted by zarq at 2:57 PM on August 10, 2010


For a skeptic, the first step in these conversations should be to determine whether the other person understands, appreciates, and believes in the principles of reasoned inquiry. If they do, then by all means present a rational argument. But if they don't, then trying to have a rational argument is just going to end in anger on both sides. The situation calls for a very different approach.

The approach that I usually take—because I don't know a better one—is to walk away. To make any headway at all, I'd have to teach the principles of reason to the other person, and convince them of their value. I'm simply not equipped to do that, and most believers aren't interested in hearing it. But I do believe it's where any against battle against woo must begin, if we expect to make any progress.

I'd be very interested in ideas on how to have that conversation—either the thoughts of other MeFites, or links to articles elsewhere.


Oh, for fuck's sake. Ugh. Ok, let's see if I can walk you through a path to relating to different people with different points of view as human beings, because that is mostly what the problem seems to be here.

One. You are not a "skeptic". They are not a "New Ager". You are a person who happens to be skeptical about things. They are a person who happens to be trying out some new thing they read in a book last month. What, they're not? Start out with the most generous assumption! Otherwise – if you think of yourself as a Skeptic tribesman and the other as a New Age tribesman – you are going to kill your chances of getting them to understand where you are coming from before you even start.

Two. Fuck the rules of rational debate. They work like crap even among people who believe in them and half of them are just gentlemen's agreements to keep said debates from erupting into incompetent fistfights. On a casual, interpersonal basis? Shit. If your New Ager target mentions that Sherri has been trying out The Secret and it's really been working out for her, feel free to point out that she's still having trouble making rent and everyone knows The Secret is silly away, without worrying about whether the plural of anecdote is data or whether you're invoking a silent majority. Only worry whether you're coming across as an unreasonable asshole. Because –

Three. You're there to represent yourself. You're not going to upend their worldview (if they even have one, and by the way worldviews are overrated) in one conversation, but you might get them to think "skeptical people are funny and cool" a little, and that is a victory. If they think skeptical people are funny and cool and together and all, then maybe they'll investigate the principles of reason themselves, or just read a bit about science maybe, because you will let them be free to do so. You're just one person, being skeptical about what you hear, and you're letting them know that's a good way to be. Maybe you counter the talk about The Secret or whatever by talking about something in science you read recently, something interesting and mysterious.

Four, drop the "woo." The problem isn't that it's disrespectful, it's that it's witless. It's on the level of saying "demoncrat" or "rethuglican" and it just makes you look like an ass. You can get away with being disrespectful if you're funny or charismatic about it, because that means you care enough about your audience to entertain them.

Mostly what this all ties into is that human brains are emotional & social first, and rational second or twelfth, which is something scientists will tell you, and it helps to remember that when you're interacting with them. It's really awesome when people can remember that their own brains are emotional & social first, rational later, but that's a whole different shitfight.

Signed,

Generally Skeptical of Stuff, not a "Skeptic"
posted by furiousthought at 3:33 PM on August 10, 2010 [23 favorites]


During my massage therapist training, I'd bought, read, dismissed, then cheerfully donated a stack of chakra-type books, including one of McLaren's, to hippie crystal folks on Berkeley's College Ave. I do believe that the chakra/crystal/New Age construct can serve as a symbolic system--like a method of loci or "Memory Palace"-- to visualize and understand one's own body/mind connections. Crystal woo-woo stuff, for me, is taking a childhood love of shiny rocks and assigning a private mythology to object and memory--a kind of participation mystique with a mapped-out spread of good luck charms. It's also really corny, irrational, and private.

Just as child psychotherapist utilize dolls, role-playing, and story-telling to help kids be able to communicate and be able to assimilate traumatic experience, adults, too, can connect to a sense of play via woo-woo New Age stuff. Many of these people are rather consciously playing with myth, metaphor, and masks in a ritualize, participatory way that has nothing to with belief, proselytizing, or dangerous quackery.

In the same way a mass, puja, chanting, hymns, sangha, congregation, etcetera, can be an edifying experience. Worship, prayer, ritual, and religious experience often have less to do with belief in nonsense than an enjoyable experience of participation mystique, which a healthy-minded person recognizes for what it is--a kind of rooted, peak experience, after which one gets back to the business of living in practical, non-woo-woo, skeptical reality. Kind of like a Renaissance faire, or Comic-con, or weekend dungeon or whatever.

I don't trust anyone so one-dimensional that they only identify with their religious side, woo-woo New Age side, or Ren-Faire side, or constantly skeptic-refuter battling for "The Truth" side. Real people are complicated, contradictory, silly, and irrational---and some are dangerous, violent, psychopathic, etc. One does reach the "Live and let Die" point with the most tedious, admittedly. People need to lighten up, walk more lightly on the earth, on every side of this odd continuum. I offer no solutions. Find your kin, try to be kind and inclusive. It ain't easy, I know.
posted by eegphalanges at 3:47 PM on August 10, 2010 [9 favorites]


furiousthought: You're not going to upend their worldview (if they even have one, and by the way worldviews are overrated) in one conversation, but you might get them to think "skeptical people are funny and cool" a little, and that is a victory.

Me? I'll settle for a shared consensus that I really do love my mother, something I often find lacking in these sorts of discussions. From there, it's trivial to jump to other things.

That particular Thomas Merton quote isn't entirely fair to Merton, who had the grace to admit that Christian mysticism had more in common with atheism than with the growing popularity of fundamentalism. While that pull quote suggests that we wouldn't have much to say to each other, as my experiences have no place in his little taxonomy, other work suggests that he does at least get it.

eggphalanges: I don't trust anyone so one-dimensional that they only identify with their religious side, woo-woo New Age side, or Ren-Faire side, or constantly skeptic-refuter battling for "The Truth" side.

I can't say I've ever met a one-dimensional person, or even a two-dimensonial one. Do they have mass? How do they make themselves visible as pedestrians?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:54 PM on August 10, 2010


Today at work, a guy was walking around our store wearing a t-shirt that said "Repent Pervert!" Once, I realized that wasn't a punk band, I got kind of irked. So the crystal huggers are the least of our problems, spirituality-wise.
posted by jonmc at 4:55 PM on August 10, 2010


Once, I realized that wasn't a punk band, I got kind of irked.

Because you don't think perverts should repent?
posted by The World Famous at 5:15 PM on August 10, 2010


Are you a pervert? Cause I'm one and I never see you at the meetings...
posted by jonmc at 5:18 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are you a pervert? Cause I'm one and I never see you at the meetings...

I've never been big on meetings.
posted by The World Famous at 5:22 PM on August 10, 2010


Well, you're missing out on all the perversion. Nyaaah!
posted by jonmc at 5:24 PM on August 10, 2010


Because you don't think perverts should repent?

Only if they're bad at it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:24 PM on August 10, 2010


breath> The criticism that "western science stole this idea from X, therefore it is worse" seems not even wrong, as well.

UrineSoakedRube> That's not the criticism I was making (and I address this in the rest of my comment).


Hey, if I don't reply immediately, how about a few days later! Yay. Nice comment style.

I know that you weren't making that criticism yourself, which is why I restated it. It is a really common anti-science criticism though, which your comment reminded me of, and so I used it as a jumping-off point without intending to directly respond to you. Sorry I wasn't more clear about that.

Reading through all your comments, it appears the point you were trying to make borders on, "if science can't fix everything and be perfect, it's no better than anything else." Which is similar, but different. It's also a super-common anti-science argument, but it's a little better hidden than the first one. I mean, I realize that you're not making this argument, either, but you sound like you might be.

Since the subject of this post is about how the manner in which you comport yourself affects how likely people are to listen to you, I think it's funny that our own discussions followed along. You started off by saying "my mother got helped by these practices", which is constructive and positive in tone, but the underlying meaning is criticism. Whereas KirkJobSluder and I have the "you are incorrect" tone, even though our meaning is about the same degree of criticism.
posted by breath at 6:50 PM on August 10, 2010


"The atheist existentialist has my respect: he accepts his honest despair with stoic dignity. And despair gives his thought a genuine content, because it expresses an experience--his confrontation with emptiness. But these others confront only the mechanical output of their own thinking machine. They don't have the imagination or the good sense to stand in awe at real emptiness. In fact, their rationalizations seem to be a complacent evasion: as if logical formulas somehow could give them something to stand on in the abyss."

I rather think that the implicit argument here is that Atheism is synonymous with despair. That sounds like the argument of one of those people who, though seeing the logical contradictions of religion, refuse to abandon it because they would find life empty of meaning.

Personally, as someone who was raised not to give a toss about religion, I find the religious person who does not recognize the implicit horror of a universe designed by a creator to act as if it is uncaring, a little simple-minded.

The idea that we are set in the world and allowed to try our best to make it a good experience for others and ourselves is a bit more comforting to me. The world makes a lot more sense when you stop looking at it like some kind of rigged pachinko game.
posted by lumpenprole at 7:14 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


furiousthought:

Oh, for fuck's sake. Ugh. Ok, let's see if I can walk you through a path…

You know, I'm honestly trying to hear what you have to say—and I think I am, a bit—but the condescending attitude doesn't help. Just putting that out there for future reference.

…to relating to different people with different points of view as human beings, because that is mostly what the problem seems to be here.

I actually suspect that you're right. As I mentioned earlier, when I'm engaged in these conversations, I'm addressing the idea—not the person.

I don't think that's a bad thing, in and of itself. Among people who are used to drawing that distinction, it can work just fine—and is actually the most efficient way of finding both truth and agreement. To take a super-nerdy example: if a fellow programmer approaches me with a flawed programming idea, and I say to him "that won't work because x, y, and z", he's not going to throw a fit because I'm disrespecting his belief system. Assuming that my argument is right, and that I've presented it well, he'll say "oh, you're right", and will revise his thinking on the issue.

But it's clearly not a good approach for those who are unpracticed, or uninterested, in drawing the distinction. (I imagine that you'll think this statement arrogant. Forgive me; I'm just a socially retarded Skeptic™ who is struggling to benefit from your wisdom.)

Four, drop the "woo."

It's not a term I'm accustomed to using, and I don't use it to believers' faces (most people don't know what it means anyway). I've recently been trying it out, on sort of a trial basis, because it captures a rather complex concept in a single syllable. "Pseudoscience" doesn't work, because that omits conspiracy theories (which don't necessarily masquerade as science, but are nonetheless irrational). "The supernatural" fails for similar reasons.

I don't mean it as a term of mockery. If others perceive it as such, though, that hardly matters—I don't want to be seen in the same light as people who go around spelling "America" as "AmeriKKKa". Point taken.

Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts, despite the cocky framing.

eegphalanges:

Kind of like a Renaissance faire

This is very, very interesting to me, because it's directly related to some things I've been wondering lately. I've even been drawing the same parallel to Ren Faires.

See, if someone wants to dress up and pretend they're an elf on the weekends, I have absolutely no problem with that. I might even be interested in trying it out myself.

But the key word is pretend. Ren Faire folk admit they're just play-acting. Religious folks (and I'm including New Age as a religion) generally don't.

I'm being totally sincere here: if there really are people who approach religion the same way people approach Ren Faires, why won't they admit that it's just a fantasy? Because I could totally party with people like that.

And, there are clearly those who do take the fantasy seriously—seriously enough to base personal, social, financial, family, and political decisions on it. And those people are present in, and certainly comprise the most influential strata of, most congregations. How do the religious role-players reconcile their association with the True Believers? Even if I was into LARPing on the weekends, I don't think I'd want to LARP with people who sincerely believed that they were elves or vampires or whatever. Because that's just straight-up mental illness, and not the kind of thing I could enjoy being around.

If religious folks would simply say "I don't literally believe this is true; it's just an enjoyable fantasy"—and would refrain from basing their sociopolitical attitudes, voting habits, science policy, and the allocation of my tax dollars on that fantasy—I'd be totally cool with the whole thing. Tolkien fans get off on the LotR mythos, but they aren't busy forging swords to prepare for war with the Orcs. Many religious folks, more or less, are.

Again, in all sincerity: if religion really is just a conscious fantasy for most folks, why do they campaign so hard to put real lives, laws, and dollars on the line for that fantasy? I can't make sense of it.
posted by ixohoxi at 7:24 PM on August 10, 2010


ixohoxi, some kids play too rough, I dunno why. Maybe because organized religion ia s top-down, thought-controlling structure. Maybe because people are deeply connected to clan identity and the piece of physical and mental ground they occupy. As for religion being a "conscious fantasy," if it is anything, I often think of the nun in DeLillo's White Noise, paraphrased, "We pretend to believe so you don't have to."

I believe something about lack and want produces a "religious experience." People without a sense of control and agency due to poverty, war, and disaster tend to be pushed to a state of surrender to a Godlike notion. It's a coping mechanism, if not overt State power, and it's most of our human history in one form or another. The problem with a thousands-year old world view is that it often preserves that view that these inequalities are acceptable and God-ordained, when it fact it's sheer political force, not tied to spirituality, personal redemption, and ethical behavior in any way.

I grew up in a very small, poor town with a loving, overly-protective, quite religious family. They were very gentle people who cared for a community of sons and daughters of coal and steel town-bound immigrants from miserable Eastern European countries. Lots of war, pogroms, and starvation in everyone's recent memories. My family ran a soup kitchen, all were welcome, we all shared what meagre things we had. My father became a minister in a protestant denomination a few years after after a flood washed our town away and left already poor people destitute.

My first religious experience was in church when I was around 7 years old: the pastor (not my father) had called sinners to the altar to confess and be born again. My understanding of sin at that age has not changed any since, namely, just the acknowledgment of the essential dissatisfactions, error, imperfection, and limitations of life. Bible stories were about the lesson behind the story, not about believing in the historical Adam and Eve or creationism. A congregation were people you could expect safety, support, silence, and nonjudgment from---because you were all sort of one in the Body of Christ. Comforting, safe, belly-filling, shelter-giving, but limiting. A warm coercion. I had to learn to guard my head pretty young, but we all get dealt some take-it-on-faith bullshit, I believe we all do, regardless of religious upbringing.

Being "born again" was expecting some voodoo to wipe the discomfiture of life's not being a wish-fulfilling gem away. Even then, though, I did not feel the presence of a personal God, just of a vastness and mystery that I could rest in and not worry so much about things I couldn't control. That never entailed controlling other people like the horrible caricature that Christianity has become. The symbolism of Christ on a cross, to me, meant that there is suffering and it ends, hallelujah. The pie-in-the-sky aspect never appealed to me, and the concept of hell angered me like a school's teacher's spanking in the 2nd grade: How dare you!

Much of religious experience is about giving up control, even if for that brief, ecstatic moment. What's insidious about organized religion versus a free spirituality is the dogma and coercion that follows one's conversion. Luckily, my family more pressed the ethical actions of Christianity rather than the righteousness, hellfire angle. Even that much made me too soft-hearted, gullible, with poor boundaries and feeling responsible for all the misery in the world.

Would-be solutions tend to couch their opposite in some Gestalt like function. Good needs evil, etc. There is mystery and power in words, binary meanings, etc. To have some of that confusion of words cleared away by experiential certainty--no matter how irrational--is comforting. But it often results in mush brain, mush heart, blind certainty, misconstrued visions seen as "God's Truth" that must be shared with the flock so as to control their behavior.

I never became too fervently Christian because it seemed too rude to all who weren't. And it was and is still too ruled by a primal emotionalism I can't fully understand and therefore mistrust. It's been very hard to deprogram myself and also put my trust in any sort of leader, friend, or lover who asserts any sort of perceived toe-stepping control of my thoughts and actions. I still don't play well with others. I often feel that other people's interactions with me are part of their own reality testing, that they need to approve and redact every thought in my head, that I must agree with them in order for them to feel comfortable. They need to put people in neat little categories in their heads. Or that they expect me to do the same to them when what I want is to be understood.

I moved out to NYC at age 17 to attend a very expensive liberal arts school far out of line with my poor upbringing, and it really wrecked my head to the point I retreated home and was "born again" again and again, trying to be able to close up my mind and be completely sheltered and ignorant once more. It couldn't be done, you can't go home again, of course. Experience outside the fold means you develop your own, unsheltered reality tests.

Religious people are often gentle, scared people afraid of change who have never travelled beyond the province in which they were born and raised. My parents, raising me and my siblings, undid some of the worse things placed upon them by their parents. They did not hit, they did not drink, they did not fight, they did not destroy and belittle. I know above all they love me and want me to be happy. They may not understand all the choices I've made in my life, but I don't really think they're too concerned about my "soul". Their faith is much stronger than my own.


/and to lumpenprole: There is despair in life, and I don't know what to say to people, religious or atheist, who've never experienced it: Good for you, I guess? But I rather think you're at a loss in the long run for not being able to experience real empty despair and come through it somehow, by crook or by hook, sometime in your life. But that's judgy of me, ennit?
posted by eegphalanges at 9:15 PM on August 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


eegphalanges: There is despair in life, and I don't know what to say to people, religious or atheist, who've never experienced it: Good for you, I guess? But I rather think you're at a loss in the long run for not being able to experience real empty despair and come through it somehow, by crook or by hook, sometime in your life. But that's judgy of me, ennit?

It's usually the case that atheists are accused of having nothing but despair. And so much the pity that people are blind and deaf to the fact that I also experience ecstasy, joy, sorrow, frustration, revelation, and beauty.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:02 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Two. Fuck the rules of rational debate

wut.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:06 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think that's a bad thing, in and of itself. Among people who are used to drawing that distinction, it can work just fine—and is actually the most efficient way of finding both truth and agreement. (...) But it's clearly not a good approach for those who are unpracticed, or uninterested, in drawing the distinction. (I imagine that you'll think this statement arrogant. Forgive me; I'm just a socially retarded Skeptic™ who is struggling to benefit from your wisdom.)

No! It's not arrogant! It's just strangely blinkered! How do you talk to regular people? In non-professional situations? In somebody's backyard, perhaps nursing an alcoholic beverage! Shooting the shit! Do more of that! Except about ideas!

And, there are clearly those who do take the fantasy seriously—seriously enough to base personal, social, financial, family, and political decisions on it. And those people are present in, and certainly comprise the most influential strata of, most congregations. How do the religious role-players reconcile their association with the True Believers?

Because the true believers are part of their personal, social, financial, family spheres too – that's how you got there. Because if you are in a religious circle, you want to believe even if you don't believe – that's the point – and so even if you disagree with your pious friend about some point of doctrine, you look up to his piety at least, to the sense of certainty that he possesses. Because there's a difference between having beliefs and faith (or enlightenment, or what have you – this is somehow veering into a Christian context, isn't it)
posted by furiousthought at 10:11 PM on August 10, 2010


Two. Fuck the rules of rational debate.

Is this a position you are rationally defending? If so, you just contradicted yourself. I am not trying to be too clever by half so much as trying to understand this position, as muddled as it is. I get it: let the people have their chakras or spirit stones or astrological charts. You cannot have it both ways, though. This strikes me as similar to those theists who argue (i.e., assert) on the one hand that God is ineffable (i.e., utterly mysterious and transcendent with respect to human understanding) and on the other hand, that God has told them exactly what to eat, whom to fuck, what clothes to wear, what politicians to support, etc. You cannot have it both ways. That said, I am bowing out of this thread. As a secular humanist I fully concede that I have better things to do with my limited time in this particular (otherwise insignificant) corner of the cosmos. If you want to celebrate the mystery, then treat it as essentially mysterious and move on. Otherwise, you are blaspheming. Seriously!
posted by joe lisboa at 10:14 PM on August 10, 2010


No, I mean the rules of rational debate are amazingly ineffective at persuading people in most social contexts, and if you limit yourself by playing that game, you're not going to be able to get anywhere with most people who aren't trained in a very particular mode of inquiry, so you should use other tactics!
posted by furiousthought at 10:22 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


No, I mean the rules of rational debate are amazingly ineffective at persuading people in most social contexts

Okay, I misunderstood, then. I totally concur here. Most folks are woefully undertrained in the basics of logic and/or debate so I definitely concede this point. Sorry for putting words in your mouth.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:26 PM on August 10, 2010


The conversation seems to have fizzled out a bit, but what the hell I'll comment anyway.

I'm a pretty hard-core believer in something greater than myself alone. I've lived all over the world, I've been exposed to many different kinds of belief systems including atheism, I'm educated, thought about and challenged my belief systems, encourage others to think about and challenge their belief systems, and in general respect other people's right to believe what they want (mostly to the point where they start trying to tell other people what to believe).

I admit that I didn't have the strength to read every comment in this thread, but the ones I did included statements about how I (as I am included in the subset of people with spiritual/religious beliefs): endanger everyone else, am not a rational thinker, lacking in intellectual integrity, misguided and misinformed. There seems to be this general sentiment among "skeptics" that if someone could just construct the perfect argument, people who believe in things that do not conform to a certain notion of that is real will just wake up and see the world for what it really is. I'm here to tell you that believing in the value of "woo" and "rational thought" are not mutually exclusive.

I can relate to the animosity directed at religious beliefs to a certain extent. I've seen a lot of damage that people who believe a certain thing and try to make sure that our laws and cultural standards back them up have hurt me and people I know. But I'd like to point out that those actions are NOT about religion or spiritual beliefs. Those are about personal and organizational agendas and religion is used as an excuse for that behavior. Because it is used as a rationalization to be shitty to others doesn't mean that it is in and of itself shitty.

Also, you don't know me. I'm sure when people were making the assertions I mentioned above, they didn't mean me specifically. That doesn't mean they weren't actually talking about me though. They were in theory talking about those "other people" who are much easier to put in a little box and whose worldview can therefore be easily dismissed, but we're all individuals with life stories and exceptions and messiness. When you talk about large swaths of humanity it's important that you don't lose sight of the fact that the large swaths are made of up individuals.

Since I have settled where I am with my beliefs I am by far a happier and more tolerant person. My beliefs help me frame the world in a way that makes me glad to be living my life, appreciate others, cope when times are hard, have hope for change etc. Maybe I lose points with other people because my version of reality doesn't line up with something they can prove, but the goal here is to make my life easier and happier and my life is better when I don't worry about the score or who is keeping it.
posted by Kimberly at 10:02 AM on August 11, 2010 [7 favorites]


What I don't like is that up here in my province, our health care plan pays for acupuncture and Chiropractic care.

Gotta shout that down. Gotta call quacks quacks.
posted by Trochanter at 10:18 AM on August 11, 2010


Trochanter: "What I don't like is that up here in my province, our health care plan pays for acupuncture and Chiropractic care. Gotta shout that down. Gotta call quacks quacks."

Well, down here in America:

Medicare.com - Medicare Part B pays for a chiropractor’s manual manipulation of the spine to correct a subluxation (when one or more of the bones of your spine move out of position)

Coverage for acupuncture is provided to members under select Medicare Advantage private fee-for-service plans.

But have you had either or talked to someone who has?
posted by psyche7 at 12:31 PM on August 11, 2010


What I don't like is that up here in my province, our health care plan pays for acupuncture and Chiropractic care.

Gotta shout that down. Gotta call quacks quacks.


Acupuncture has been shown to work on some forms of chronic pain, which doesn't always respond to conventional therapies. Likewise, chiropractic adjustments have been shown to help with back pain.

That said, the problem is that there are plenty of quacks who claim that acupuncture or chiropractic can heal all manner of diseases, not just the ones these treatments have proven effective for. Sure, something like this might help if you've got lower back pain, especially in conjunction with conventional therapy... but chiropractic for cancer? Acupuncture for seizures? Not so much.

IMHO, the best possible outcome would be for these therapies to become part of mainstream medicine. The insistence that chiropractic and acupuncture are "quackery" in and of themselves only makes it easier for quacks to operate alongside honest therapists, because these therapies aren't tightly regulated the way medicine is.
posted by vorfeed at 1:41 PM on August 11, 2010


Acupuncture has been shown to work on some forms of chronic pain, which doesn't always respond to conventional therapies. Likewise, chiropractic adjustments have been shown to help with back pain. ... IMHO, the best possible outcome would be for these therapies to become part of mainstream medicine

As I mentioned above, acupuncture has yet to be shown to have significantly different results from fake acupuncture, which is pretty much the definition of "it's a placebo". Chiropractic, meanwhile, is about as effective as massage, and has the dual problems of a) being fake (if you believe that a chiropractor really does manipulate your spine, you need an intro class in anatomy, as a chiropractor doing what they claim to do would leave you paralysed) and b) having the problem of occasionally causing strokes.

They're not medicine. They're not therapy. They're shams.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:51 PM on August 11, 2010


Looking for more anecdotes? Because, "The plural of anecdote is not data."(Brinner)

Chiropractic scepticism. Acupuncture scepticism.
posted by Trochanter at 2:03 PM on August 11, 2010


As I mentioned above, acupuncture has yet to be shown to have significantly different results from fake acupuncture, which is pretty much the definition of "it's a placebo". Chiropractic, meanwhile, is about as effective as massage, and has the dual problems of a) being fake (if you believe that a chiropractor really does manipulate your spine, you need an intro class in anatomy, as a chiropractor doing what they claim to do would leave you paralysed) and b) having the problem of occasionally causing strokes.

Yes, but massage and placebo are effective therapies for conditions like chronic pain and lower back pain, often more so than drug therapy. And you get strokes from having chiropractic on your neck , not your back, which is why I didn't make any claims about using chiropractic for neck problems.

At any rate, these treatments are here, and they're not going away -- we can either choose to denounce them as "shams", thus excusing them from regulation, or we can absorb and regulate them, just as we did with physical therapy. The all-or-nothing approach simply isn't going to work, not without the political will to ban these practices outright.
posted by vorfeed at 2:07 PM on August 11, 2010


So basically you are arguing that patients belied to by their doctors.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:36 PM on August 11, 2010


An outright ban may be impossible, but the thing is, my aunt needs a new hip, and she's on a long waiting list because money in the health care system is tight. Having these sham treatments sucking money out of the system is something we should fight against.
posted by Trochanter at 2:46 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


So basically you are arguing that patients belied to by their doctors.

My argument is one of harm reduction. If chiropractic and acupuncture are no less effective than therapies like placebo and massage, and if people are going to be getting them anyway, then they should probably be getting them in a doctor's office, not a room full of crystals and pyramids. Until one or more of those variables changes, railing against these treatments isn't going to change anything, and is actually likely to make things worse. Same as with drugs; emotion-and-ideology-based arguments like "so basically you are arguing that junkies be given drugs by their doctors" fall flat next to the actual cost of "shouting down" all these things we "should be fighting against".

We're basically giving chiropractors and acupuncturists carte blanche to tell any lie to their patients, no matter how dangerous or costly; next to that, I think it would be perfectly true for doctors to tell their patients something like "acupuncture might help your back pain, and it might not, so let's try it in conjunction with your medication and see if it's of benefit to you".
posted by vorfeed at 3:31 PM on August 11, 2010


An outright ban may be impossible, but the thing is, my aunt needs a new hip, and she's on a long waiting list because money in the health care system is tight. Having these sham treatments sucking money out of the system is something we should fight against.

I feel for your aunt. I do. But if you want to take the money from my dad's acupuncture that actually alleviates his pain when nothing else works because you believe it's a sham... you can feel free to do so over my cold dead body. The system needs overhauling, absolutely. But taking money away from treatments just because you don't like them isn't the way to to do it. Believe me, I have my own "list" of things insurance shouldn't cover, but insurance companies absolutely shouldn't listen to me because I'm just some chick with too many opinions.

I think it would be perfectly true for doctors to tell their patients something like "acupuncture might help your back pain, and it might not, so let's try it in conjunction with your medication and see if it's of benefit to you".

Yes. This is precisely and exactly what my dad's doctor told him and exactly how his treatment goes. I fail to see how this is problematic in any way.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:43 PM on August 11, 2010


You are, again, arguing that doctors lie to their patients about the treatment they are receiving on the grounds that it is in the best interests of the patient. I cannot even believe that a person would argue for such a thing.

We're basically giving chiropractors and acupuncturists carte blanche to tell any lie to their patients, no matter how dangerous or costly

The refusal of the law to jail charlatans and fraud-committers is not a justification for infantilizing patients. Patients deserve accurate information about the treatment they receive. What you are proposing is monstrous.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:45 PM on August 11, 2010


But taking money away from treatments just because you don't like them isn't the way to to do it.

As ever, the newage peddlers frame things not in terms of efficacy or evidence or proof but in terms of feelings. It is not, after all, a question of whether there is any good reason to believe that something is real, but rather a question of how you feel about it. If I'm being imperceptive and this is hats off, bravo.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:50 PM on August 11, 2010


You are, again, arguing that doctors lie to their patients about the treatment they are receiving on the grounds that it is in the best interests of the patient. I cannot even believe that a person would argue for such a thing.

Are you talking to me? Because I just said that I'm for doctors saying "We don't know how or why this works but it might help." That's not a lie. They don't know how or why it works. It might not. But it might help.

Not a lie. Even if you don't like it, it's not a lie. Even if it's just a placebo effect, if what you're after is pain relief and it relieves pain it has achieved its goal and is ultimately beneficial to the patient. Therefore, it has helped. Therefore saying even though we don't know how it works, or if it even does anything, acupuncture might help your pain is not a lie.

What is true is that you don't like it. And you don't have to. But it's not a lie.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:51 PM on August 11, 2010


As ever, the newage peddlers frame things not in terms of efficacy or evidence or proof but in terms of feelings. It is not, after all, a question of whether there is any good reason to believe that something is real, but rather a question of how you feel about it.

I am hardly a newage peddler. Hardly. I don't think that insurance needs to pay for me to have a massage. I would be first to protest insurance funded reiki. But. I do have faith in alternative therapies that have been shown to alleviate pain - especially in the absence of long-term medical strategies for dealing with intractable pain that doesn't respond to medication.

It's not about my "feelings."

It's about the proof that comes from the human experience. The proof that others have felt that this helped them. The proof that I have witnessed from watching my own loved ones supplement alternative therapies in addition to their own modern medical treatments and how completely life-changing it has been. Your burden of proof is different from mine, obviously, and I'm clearly not going to change your mind. Fine with me. I'd prefer it if you would back off just a tiny bit with the self-righteousness, but you're probably not going to since in your worldview convincing me that I'm wrong is more important than my actually respecting you.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:58 PM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Are you talking to me?

No, I wasn't. I was talking to vorfeed, who is arguing that doctors should lie to their patients because there's only that, the excluded middle, and people being free to tell whatever lies they want.

They don't know how or why it works. It might not. But it might help.

We know for a fact that acupuncture doesn't work any better than placebo. That is the very definition of "it doesn't work". Get this through your head: acupuncture is not real. There is no evidence whatsoever of chi or meridians. Telling people that it is an effective therapy is a lie. Selling acupuncture as medicine is fraud.

Thing is, if your claim is that acupuncture, which does not outperform placebo, is a valid therapy, then by your standard anything which is not actively harmful is a valid therapy. I could dump a box of kittens on a patient's bed and call it therapy. I could tell a patient that I was going to play some tones through a headset which relieve pain and call it a valid therapy. I could make up any fucking thing I wanted and, as long as I could convince the patient to believe that their pain had subsided, I could call it a valid therapy and you would have no ability to condemn me for the fraud I would be.

And where else do you spit on empiricism? In what other fields do you elevate feelings over proof? You understand, don't you, that you have no grounds upon which to criticize proponents of the Iraq invasion of 2003? After all, they felt very strongly that Iraq was behind 9/11 and was hiding weapons of mass destruction. What would you have said to a war supporter who told you that your protestations that there was no evidence of those claims was false, and that you simply didn't like that Iraq was behind 9/11 and hiding WMD?

You are promoting the elevation of unreason over proof, and this has far greater consequences than you want to acknowledge.

in your worldview convincing me that I'm wrong is more important than my actually respecting you.

What's important to me is trying to convince you to stop denigrating the practice of being careful about what you believe and to stop rejecting reason. I don't give a damn if you respect me. The point here is not to get somebody who openly rejects critical thinking and rational thought to have good feelings about me. I just want you to stop defending criminals, con men, frauds, and charlatans.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:06 PM on August 11, 2010


What's important to me is trying to convince you to stop denigrating the practice of being careful about what you believe and to stop rejecting reason. I don't give a damn if you respect me.

Good, because I don't. After what you just implied about my feelings about WAR? I have nothing kind to say to you. You have absolutely 100% failed in getting me to change my mind or be more open to your view of "critical thinking" with that shot over the bow about Iraq. There is absolutely nothing I could respond with that would be in any way productive to an actual conversation and I'm appalled and horrified that you would bring 9/11 into a discussion where it absolutely didn't belong.

If I'm not "answering" your comment or seem to be "running away" from the truth, it's because I can't possibly engage with someone who claims to be proporting rational thought who brings September 11th into a conversation about acupuncture.

I can absolutely handle being wrong on the internet if it means being done with this conversation.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:13 PM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


grapefruitmoon. In repeated studies, the treatment your father is recieving has not been shown to be any more effective than when someone pretends to give that treatment. Doesn't that set your spider sense tingling?
posted by Trochanter at 4:13 PM on August 11, 2010


Trochanter: No. It doesn't. I'm not going to get into my beliefs because even just skimming the surface and saying "I am in favor of acupuncture in some cases" has brought me under fire, so I'm just going to say - that no, in the case of acupuncture the studies that say that it isn't proven to help don't make me uneasy in any way shape or form.

Which makes me bad and wrong and abetting war criminals. So be it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:18 PM on August 11, 2010


Or, maybe I'll just hold the Pope's coat.
posted by Trochanter at 4:19 PM on August 11, 2010


After what you just implied about my feelings about WAR?

Look, either you believe in empiricism or not. Either you believe in requiring evidence before you believe in things or you don't. I'm pointing out that you're trying to have it both ways- rejecting empiricism when it doesn't support what you feel and accepting it when it does. That's incoherent and inconsistent.

I can't possibly engage with someone who claims to be proporting rational thought who brings September 11th into a conversation about acupuncture.

What? I didn't call you a Truther or anything. I'm simply pointing out that when you reject the evidence because it doesn't say what you want it to say in one area, you lose the right to call other people out on it. I don't see how you can take offense at that. You clearly don't see anything wrong with rejecting empiricism vis a vis acupuncture; I'm simply trying to demonstrate what a horrible road rejecting empiricism leads to.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:21 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm simply pointing out that when you reject the evidence because it doesn't say what you want it to say in one area, you lose the right to call other people out on it. I don't see how you can take offense at that. You clearly don't see anything wrong with rejecting empiricism vis a vis acupuncture; I'm simply trying to demonstrate what a horrible road rejecting empiricism leads to.

You absolutely have no idea how insulting you're being? Really?
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:25 PM on August 11, 2010


I am not being insulting. I am confronting you with the consequences of your argument. That you do not like those consequences- that they make you feel uncomfortable and angry- should indicate to you that something is wrong with your argument.

You can either continue to lash out, refusing to participate usefully in the discussion, and make this about how you feel instead of the topic at hand, or you can confront the consequences of your argument.

Or hey! Maybe I'm wrong, and these are not the consequences of your argument. But if that's so, you need to show what is wrong in my reasoning, instead of making emotional appeals and trying to make me feel shame for making you feel bad.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:29 PM on August 11, 2010


I am not being insulting. I am confronting you with the consequences of your argument. That you do not like those consequences- that they make you feel uncomfortable and angry- should indicate to you that something is wrong with your argument.

I am absolutely 100% completely finished with this conversation. Bringing the Iraq War into a conversation about medical treatment is not confronting me with the consequences of my argument. If you can't see that, that's not my problem and is absolutely not about my feeling uncomfortable because something is wrong with me - it's about you having to go so far to prove yourself right that you completely bypass reasonable argument and go straight for alienation.

If you interpret this as my being "soft" and appealing to feelings rather than reason, so be it. You don't care what I think of you, obviously, so I have no reason on earth to put myself in this kind of situation where I'm arguing with someone who claims to value logic and conflates acupuncture with the Iraq War. We're obviously never going to come to an agreement. You don't care if I respect you, so there's no reason at all for me to care whether or not you think I'm an idiot. I'll just go for maintaining my own self-respect, not engaging with your further, and you going ahead and thinking I'm "soft."

Anything more you want to say to me can be done privately.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:35 PM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't use the word "soft" to refer to prioritizing feelings over reason; that's stupid and rooted in misogyny.

If you can't see how rejecting empiricism when it makes you feel good removes your right to criticize others for rejecting empiricism when it makes them feel good- if you can't see the hypocrisy in your argument- I don't know how to argue anything with you, because there's no way to convince you of anything whatsoever. I don't know how anybody is supposed to do anything but walk away when they disagree with you, because you have rejected the very concept of discussion.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:42 PM on August 11, 2010


"This may help, and it may not, but we may as well try" is the literal truth when you're dealing with something harmless that's been proven to work as well as placebo. You may have an ideological problem with the placebo effect, but it does have a measurable and often significant effect on pain patients in real-world situations... which suggests that any rational medical system would be falling all over itself to exploit it, especially in conjunction with other interventions.

If there were a computer program which ran on average 6.5% faster when X was introduced as an input, yet never produced unwanted output at the same time, there'd be no question that X was a valid input. Somehow, we've got a similar outcome in humans -- a 6.5% reduction in pain, observed according to the scientific method -- yet we've convinced ourselves that X isn't a "valid therapy". That doesn't seem rational to me.

I could make up any fucking thing I wanted and, as long as I could convince the patient to believe that their pain had subsided, I could call it a valid therapy and you would have no ability to condemn me for the fraud I would be.

The only problem here is that the placebo effect does not work by "convincing the patient to believe that their pain had subsided" (which implies that the pain has not subsided). According to every measure science has, the placebo effect actually decreases the patient's pain -- even studies which suggest that placebo has no effect on objective outcomes whatsoever found small but significant effect in subjective outcomes like pain, and others have found much more significant effects.

So yes, that does imply that dumping kittens on people's heads and playing tones through headphones can have an effect on pain, assuming you can do it convincingly enough. Pain is subjective: welcome to neurology 101.

on preview: empiricism supports the efficacy of the placebo effect on pain. There's no need to "reject empiricism" in order to accept pain treatments which appear to work through placebo effect; there's only a need to reject certain tenets of medicine, tenets which are not based on empiricism.

And for a guy whose entire argument appears to be based upon "but that would be lying, and lying is bad!", you're sure quick to accuse others of acting on their emotions.
posted by vorfeed at 4:47 PM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you can't see how rejecting empiricism when it makes you feel good removes your right to criticize others for rejecting empiricism when it makes them feel good- if you can't see the hypocrisy in your argument- I don't know how to argue anything with you, because there's no way to convince you of anything whatsoever. I don't know how anybody is supposed to do anything but walk away when they disagree with you, because you have rejected the very concept of discussion.

So be it. I'm fine with you having that opinion of me if it means not having to have further conversations with you on subjects where no, we're never going to agree.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:48 PM on August 11, 2010


vorfeed, the problem is that acupuncturists, as I mentioned upthread, don't admit it's a placebo. They have thick books about chi and meridians to consult, and they tell their marks that what they are doing works not because of the placebo effect, but because by sticking them with needles, they are redirecting the flow of chi through the body.

These are lies. There is no evidence for the existence of chi, no evidence for the existence of meridians, no evidence that sticking needles into the body redirects any sort of mystical force- it's all hokum and balderdash. The problem is not with the placebo effect. The problem is lying to patients- and I absolutely fucking cannot believe that "doctors should not lie to patients about the treatment they are receiving" is a controversial statement- in order to invoke that effect. What else is it acceptable to lie about? If a study shows that patients feel 50% better when they are told that their open-heart surgery was actually gnomes merging with their flesh and massaging their colons, would that be an acceptable lie to tell?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:55 PM on August 11, 2010


PG: you're being a dick, here.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:58 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


vorfeed, the problem is that acupuncturists, as I mentioned upthread, don't admit it's a placebo. They have thick books about chi and meridians to consult, and they tell their marks that what they are doing works not because of the placebo effect, but because by sticking them with needles, they are redirecting the flow of chi through the body.

Yes. Thus my argument, which is that doctors should administer acupuncture rather than "quacks", and should freely admit that there is no such thing as chi.

People originally believed that certain surgeries worked because they acted upon the four humours, but that doesn't invalidate surgery as a therapy.
posted by vorfeed at 5:05 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


PG: you're being a dick, here.

In the sense that I'm calling out attempts to derail the debate to make it about feelings instead of about facts and logic, and that I'm repeating the same argument I made upthread for somebody who couldn't be bothered to read the thread before posting in it... well, if that's dickery, then fine, I'm being a dick. I only hope that my dickery is of a lesser degree than arguing for the abandonment of empiricism when it doesn't say what we want it to and for the paid application of phony treatments.


People originally believed that certain surgeries worked because they acted upon the four humours, but that doesn't invalidate surgery as a therapy.

Name a surgery that was thought to act upon the four humours and which is still carried out in the same way today.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:14 PM on August 11, 2010


While I'm profoundly skeptical when it comes to acupuncture, there's a ton of little things that helped me get through the day when I was seriously ill that likely have little or no double-blind empirical support. Meanwhile, I've experienced side effects that were not officially listed in any of the medical literature for the treatment I was taking, but which were reported through informal channels.

A problem with the scientific method that prevents it from being the be-all and end-all of knowledge is the demand for systematic collection of data with control of extraneous variables. There are also significant biases towards reporting significant results rather than no results. I refuse to use the scientific method on the hypothesis that my mother loves me, first because I'm not certain that experience can be operationally defined, and second because the scientific method can't work on singleton cases. Legal rights also shouldn't be empirically tested, and empirical testing makes for miserable and inaccurate reviews of books and movies.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:34 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's unethical to provide patients with placebo treatments, as long as the following conditions are met: it's not harmful, it's not used in place of an effective treatment if one is available, and it's inexpensive.

The presentation should be something like "I'm going to prescribe X, it may help reduce your symptoms, call me back it the symptoms persist." Presented this way, you're telling the patient it's a placebo, but you're not lying to them about it's expected effects.

I don't think psychological treatments are invalid just because they're psychological.

(This is not a comment about acupuncture. I don't know enough about it.)
posted by nangar at 5:38 PM on August 11, 2010


Obviously we can't make moral judgments empirically; that would require, among other things, some way of empirically determining moral reality, which is a completely silly concept. Good ethics, however, as my favorite prof once said, start with good facts, and as such empiricism does play a role in helping us determine what the facts are so that we can make the best judgments possible. I believe that this is not only limited to ethics- good aesthetics, good laws, and so on all require good facts in order to create them. We would laugh at someone who reviewed a book and factually wrong about its content, and we would protest at someone who proposed laws based on lies.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:39 PM on August 11, 2010


Well, the fact that I subjectively feel better when I have a head cold after eating a toasted swiss on rye sandwich is a fact. That's something that's idiosyncratic and can't be supported using any empirical standard, but that's how I roll.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:45 PM on August 11, 2010


Right, but you're making a subjective claim. You wouldn't evaluate subjective claims with empiricism any more than you would take a person's temperature with a Wiimote.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:49 PM on August 11, 2010


Err - Presented this way, you're not telling the patient it's a placebo ...
posted by nangar at 5:59 PM on August 11, 2010


Pope Guilty: I guess the issue here is that I feel subjective claims made by patients are critically important. Perhaps that subjective claim is bullshit. Perhaps it's purely psychological. Perhaps that subjective claim points to a problem with treatment that lies on the fringes of what is medically known. A close friend of mine still doesn't have a diagnosis or more than a palliative treatment for a spinal problem that's stumped multiple experts including the Mayo Clinic. Her symptoms are real, but off the map.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:00 PM on August 11, 2010


KJS, I'm not discounting that. Look at it this way: if somebody came up to you and said "I know what your friend has, and I know how to make her better, and no, I won't give you any proof that I'm not bullshitting you", how would you react? How would you react if what he told you he was going to do was something completely absurd, like beaming psychic thoughts of Jesus having tea with Buddha into her brain, stimulating the healing process? Would your reaction change if there was a huge body of research demonstrating no known correlation between beaming psychic thoughts of Jesus having tea with Buddha into a person's brain and any sort of healing of that person?

That we do not know everything is not a reason to accept things without evidence, nor is it a reason to reject what we do know.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:06 PM on August 11, 2010


Since I have settled where I am with my beliefs I am by far a happier and more tolerant person. My beliefs help me frame the world in a way that makes me glad to be living my life, appreciate others, cope when times are hard, have hope for change etc. Maybe I lose points with other people because my version of reality doesn't line up with something they can prove, but the goal here is to make my life easier and happier and my life is better when I don't worry about the score or who is keeping it.

I'd like to go back to Kimberly's comment for a minute. I'm glad you wrote in, Kimberly. For a long time I didn't understand positions like yours. Now, though, I'm beginning to understand, thanks to an interaction I had with my mother a few years ago.

My mom had been gushing to me for a while that she'd finally found "the perfect mirror!" I was pretty confused by this, because I thought all mirrors were created alike--as reflectors?--but you know, she's my mom and I still love her, so I just said, "Congratulations, Mom!"

Eventually I ended up over at Mom's house and stumbled across her "perfect mirror." I was stunned. In that mirror, I looked . . . beautiful. It was fascinating. I was wowed! I felt taller! I felt skinnier! I felt like a model! I wondered what the deal was. Maybe Mom had actually just improved the lighting in her bedroom?

Then suddenly I realized that this mirror didn't just make me feel taller and skinnier, it was actually reflecting my image back in a slightly distorted way. My image in that mirror actually was taller and skinnier than in real life.

I went to mom. I was a little upset that I'd been tricked by that piece of glass. "Mom," I said. "Do you realize that your perfect mirror is actually physically distorting your image?"

I thought she would be upset. I figured this would be a bubble-bursting moment of truth. But instead she was thrilled. "I KNOW!" she squealed. "ISN'T IT WONDERFUL???"

Now here's where my realization comes in. Mom leaned in closer to me and said, "I'm short. I have fat ankles. I'm not quite as skinny as I wish I was. I can't change what's real, but what I can change is the way I see it."

I was baffled. My mom was aware of the situation and thrilled about it, so there wasn't anything left for me to say. I shut up. But I've never forgotten what she said.

I never forgave her for raising me in a cult until I started reflecting on that incident. But after that, I began to realize that what my mother wants from the world is something fundamentally different than what I want. I want what skepticism offers: I want my ideas about the world to line up with what the world is actually like. Even if I don't like what I find. But my mom wants something entirely different. She wants to be happy. She wants her mirror to show her a pleasing reflection. She wants her religion to comfort her.

She doesn't ultimately care whether or not that mirror reflection or that religious doctrine are true. She wants them both to make her feel better.

I have decided that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this desire. The world is filled with pain and suffering, and then you die. Who am I to rob someone of their small measure of happiness?

So Kimberley, even though I can see from your profile that you're a Reiki practitioner, I have no argument with you. You're aware that your beliefs cannot be defended. You understand that you hold your beliefs because they make you happy. I respect that. Thank you for sharing.

If we sincerely want to "bridge this chasm," we must first understand that people can be motivated very differently. It was always important to me personally that my beliefs be provable. Thus, I'm happy to have made it into the skeptic movement. But there are other people who are not motivated by the fundamental desire to have their beliefs match reality.

I think that's okay. The issue is not the people who believe odd things in order to be happy. The issue is the people who believe odd things because they think that's how things really are. Those are the people I want to reach.
posted by sunnichka at 6:32 PM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't think the software analogy holds. You've got X working for whatever reason, but you've also got some nefarious programmer telling you that it's not X that is accounting for the 6.5%, but his little chunk of ACUCODE™, but you can't test for Y (ACUCODE™) without X because X is a byproduct of the whole routine.

We've got lots to learn about serotonin, and adrenaline, but why do we need to believe falsehoods in the meantime.
posted by Trochanter at 6:35 PM on August 11, 2010


But actually, you CAN test for Y, because X+Y=X
posted by Trochanter at 6:38 PM on August 11, 2010


Name a surgery that was thought to act upon the four humours and which is still carried out in the same way today.

Inguinal hernia surgery is done according two simple principles today; one of them originates in the mid 1500s. The lancing of abscesses is another example -- we've been doing it since Greek antiquity.
posted by vorfeed at 6:46 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty: That we do not know everything is not a reason to accept things without evidence, nor is it a reason to reject what we do know.

Of course not. But your earlier statements set up an impossible standard of rejecting subjective experience as a valid source of knowledge.

Trochanter: We've got lots to learn about serotonin, and adrenaline, but why do we need to believe falsehoods in the meantime.

In the field of pain management, in which video games have proven efficacy, it's not clear that it's a falsehood that participation in religious ritual improves psychological outcomes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:00 PM on August 11, 2010


Man, I'm not trying to say I'm psychic over here and shit, but all of a sudden I'm having this crazy vision of how MetaTalk is gonna look this weekend. I may need to make plans to go...outside.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:05 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


it's not clear that it's a falsehood that participation in religious ritual improves psychological outcomes.

That doesn't mean we accept a religious agency. We recognize the placebo effect and we we study it. We don't licence religious practitioners to charge money for their services.
posted by Trochanter at 7:32 PM on August 11, 2010


As health care providers, that is.
posted by Trochanter at 7:32 PM on August 11, 2010


I'd like to thank Pope Guilty and grapefruitmoon for demonstrating how not to do what I outlined a little further upthread. That was great! Particularly this exchange makes it very clear:

GFM:You absolutely have no idea how insulting you're being? Really?

PG:I am not being insulting. I am confronting you with the consequences of your argument. That you do not like those consequences- that they make you feel uncomfortable and angry- should indicate to you that something is wrong with your argument... You can either continue to lash out, refusing to participate usefully in the discussion, and make this about how you feel instead of the topic at hand, or you can confront the consequences of your argument.

GFM:I am absolutely 100% completely finished with this conversation.

PG:I don't know how anybody is supposed to do anything but walk away when they disagree with you, because you have rejected the very concept of discussion.

GFM:So be it. I'm fine with you having that opinion of me if it means not having to have further conversations with you on subjects where no, we're never going to agree.

(a bit later)

PG:In the sense that I'm calling out attempts to derail the debate to make it about feelings instead of about facts and logic, and that I'm repeating the same argument I made upthread for somebody who couldn't be bothered to read the thread before posting in it... well, if that's dickery, then fine, I'm being a dick.

That's not what you do! You want to care about whether the other person thinks you're a dick or not! That is key! I want everyone to pay attention to that because that is very important.

Now. Can we have a couple more volunteers step up and show us how you engage in these conversations successfully?
posted by furiousthought at 9:13 PM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't know, furiousthought. You want skeptical people to play the game to win, that is to convince non skeptical people that a skeptical stance may be better. The problem is that skeptical peole don't share your goals.

From my point of view, the use of putdowns, unflattering comparisons, etc., is to assert dominance, to establish a pecking order. Convincing people is completely orthogonal to that goal.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:33 PM on August 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


Trochanter: That doesn't mean we accept a religious agency. We recognize the placebo effect and we we study it.

What do placebo effects have to do with anything? Participation in ritual, grilled cheese, the use of music and play have reasonably well-documented psychological effects, but they are not placebos.

We don't licence religious practitioners to charge money for their services.... As health care providers, that is.

That's nice, why don't you raise that objection to someone who actually makes that argument?

My point here is that it's inconsistent and hypocritical to attack someone for not universally applying one standard of empiricism, then turn around and make four huge exceptions to that standard when challenged on its limits (moral, legal, aesthetic, and subjective claims if you're keeping score.) If you accept that my grilled swiss cheese on rye ritual is beneficial, if only because it makes me happy, if you accept that video games might have a beneficial effect in pain management, then you can't say that it's categorically wrong to engage in religious ritual and practice as a patient as long as those practices don't interfere with other forms of care.

To go back a bit.

Pope Guilty: You wouldn't evaluate subjective claims with empiricism any more than you would take a person's temperature with a Wiimote.

Ohh, come on. You know better than this. (Hint, you deal with subjective claims the same way you deal with objective claims, collect a shitload of them and test for statistical reliability.)

That we do not know everything is not a reason to accept things without evidence, nor is it a reason to reject what we do know.

But we do accept things without evidence all the time, for example, your fetish for absurdly oversimplified views of empiricism. Furthermore, you've already conceded that it's reasonable to accept claims about the love of mothers and grilled swiss cheese on rye without evidence. I believe in the absence of God, methodological materialism, and the virtue of equal protection under the law without a shred of evidence for any of these claims. Looking for empirical validation of one of the most divisive and politically problematic constitutional rights is a fool's game. I don't sacrifice even a micrometer of privilege to be skeptical on other issues when I do so.

Note, I'm not saying you should dash out right now and get baptized, circumcised, or take refuge in the three jewels. I am saying that the burden of empiricism is that we need to respect the limits of that method, and the fact that we're forced to short-circuit that method in minute-by-minute action.

And if we hang our hat on empiricism, then we must also acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that people often psychologically benefit by religious faith and practice. Because that's an empirical fact, and a significant challenge for humanists.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:19 PM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


Look, I believe that I have been scrupulous in describing empiricism as a method of investigating objective reality, and in fact as the only useful method of doing so. I do not see how that entails that empiricism must also be used to investigate the non-objective and am curious as to why you're insisting that in order to do the one I have to do the other. I would prefer not to be told what I believe. I mean, if you think the one's a consequence of the other, fine, but show your work.

And if we hang our hat on empiricism, then we must also acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that people often psychologically benefit by religious faith and practice. Because that's an empirical fact, and a significant challenge for humanists.

Do I have to drag out again the Marx quote about the protest against real suffering and giving up a condition that requires illusions? 'Cause I will.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:55 PM on August 11, 2010


If I say that I'm in pain, but my doctors can't find a definite cause for that pain, my claim is subjective, right?

Now suppose that I start wearing a spoon around my neck, or whatever silly thing. I find that my pain has significantly reduced. This is completely subjective.

Isn't it possible, though, that people who, like me, claim to have experienced a reduction in pain because of spoons have measurably (objectively) better outcomes than people who suffer from similar pain but haven't found a way to subjectively reduce it?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:16 PM on August 11, 2010


Pope Guilty: Look, I believe that I have been scrupulous in describing empiricism as a method of investigating objective reality, and in fact as the only useful method of doing so.

Well gee, there are three different claims here. Let's unpack them.

First, there's "I believe...." If we're going by the absurd rules you yelled at grapefruitmoon, I have to reject this as a nonsense statement of feelings. If we're going by the rules you set for yourself, it's a subjective claim and therefore not empirical.

Then there's the claim that you have been scrupulous. And that's demonstrably false as you keep changing what is and is not valid to suit you.

The third claim is that empiricism is the only useful method of investigating objective reality. And this is trivially false because the Pythagorean theorem is real, objective, and absolutely not empirical. Empiricism can't say that the theorem is true for all possible triangles, only true for all triangles measured to date.

I do not see how that entails that empiricism must also be used to investigate the non-objective and am curious as to why you're insisting that in order to do the one I have to do the other.

Because you set those rules up early in the debate when you made the claim that a person's subjective claim to well-being must be rejected if one is to be skeptical of the objective existence of WMDs in Iraq. Then, you turn right around and start making exceptions that benefit you, at which point, it's obvious that you're changing the rules as you go along.

Note that I didn't say that empiricism, in context idealized as the double-blind experimental protocol, must be used to investigate the non-objective. I'm pointing out that you can use double-blind experimental protocols to look at subjective data like the experience of pain or well-being. Whether you should depends on the kind of question and knowledge your interested in. I have an interest in investigating how satisfied people are with what I create. I don't have an interest in investigating whether my mother loves me, she just told me on the phone.

I would prefer not to be told what I believe. I mean, if you think the one's a consequence of the other, fine, but show your work.

That's good, because I didn't tell you what you believe. I've done the work to point out that what you've said is both internally inconsistent (alternately demanding that some claims be categorically rejected and making exceptions for your them) and inconsistent with empiricism as a methodology (claiming that empirical methods can't be used with subjective claims at all).

Do I have to drag out again the Marx quote about the protest against real suffering and giving up a condition that requires illusions? 'Cause I will.

As we're unlikely to see Marx's revolution of the proletariat any time soon, this isn't an empirical claim. If you want to make a moral argument from Marx that we should reject religion on this basis, be my guest.

But the empirical facts are that some forms religious ritual and practice are correlated with some benefits to health and well-being. And a big challenge as a humanist is figuring out how to replicate those benefits in my own life and communities.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:02 AM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Monday, stony Monday: I'm not talking about hypothetical spoons at all. I'm talking about the very well investigated fact that many religious communities appear to offer things like social networks, ritual, meditation, music, and coping mechanisms that make many people a bit happier and a bit healthier. We may not agree that it's due to the grace of God but it's certainly not woo, and one of the things I tend to like about Michael Schermer is the way he points out that those subjective experiences are real, powerful, and not trivially dismissed.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:12 AM on August 12, 2010


You want skeptical people to play the game to win, that is to convince non skeptical people that a skeptical stance may be better. The problem is that skeptical peole don't share your goals.

Why? Why does it have to be this way? I mean that - why do skeptics have to convert non-skeptics but not the other way around? Starting off with this stance is problematic as you've already put the other person on the defensive. It's not going to work in convincing anyone of anything. If you want a productive argument, you need to start off with respect. That's not to say you can't say "You're wrong" but to say "You're wrong and you need to believe me" is a step towards a personal attack and just flat out doesn't work. Showing someone the evidence and allowing them to decide for themselves is a thousand times more effective than trying to forcibly change their minds.

.I would prefer not to be told what I believe.

Look, I didn't want to engage with you further - but for you to say this after the way you treated me for valuing my own beliefs is absolute bullshit. You can't have it both ways. You can't participate in a discussion where you tell someone else that their beliefs are wrong and then turn around and say that you refuse to be held to the same standard. You want strict rationality, and this violates your own position. If you want to be taken seriously, you can't change this particular horse mid-stream and switch to "These are my beliefs... and I've already defined that a belief can't be proven, but I won't let you tell me I'm wrong."
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:09 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


grapefruitmoon: that was just my interpretation of furiousthought's goal. Telling someone that they're wrong is trying to convince them, even if it's done with the utmost respect and the expectation that the other party may or may not change its mind.

I simply believe that many people who argue from a skeptical stance are not primarily trying to present a convincing argument regarding non skeptical people's beliefs, but are rather playing to themselves or to the crowd, to further accumulate capital, if you will. Hence the counterproductive strategies (if your goal is to convince the other party) such as putdowns.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:50 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I simply believe that many people who argue from a skeptical stance are not primarily trying to present a convincing argument regarding non skeptical people's beliefs, but are rather playing to themselves or to the crowd, to further accumulate capital, if you will. Hence the counterproductive strategies (if your goal is to convince the other party) such as putdowns.

Yes, totally agreed. And given the atmosphere on MetaFilter that skepticism is already valued very highly by the majority, it's pretty risk-free to do this whereas the opposite viewpoint puts you vulnerable to attack.

Still, I don't see "I think you're wrong" as an invalid statement, though it is one that is very difficult to counter in any kind of productive way. I don't think that it's necessarily the best way to participate in a discussion, but I do understand that if someone truly feels this way, it's a valid thing for them to put out there. The problem is when the implication is"I think that you're wrong and you have to agree with me." If it's a simple "Look, I think that you're wrong and this is why, and maybe you don't see it that way." - I see no problem with that. Honesty is an important thing to bring to a discussion and if you honestly feel that someone else is misinformed, that's a perfectly ok thing to bring up. The important thing is to leave room for them to continue to disagree after you've said your piece.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:03 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


What do placebo effects have to do with anything?

They have to do with the discussion of whether acupuncture and chiropractic should be covered by health insurance when their benefits are accounted for by the placebo effect, which is what the discussion was about, far as I knew.

Enjoy your sandwich.
posted by Trochanter at 7:59 AM on August 12, 2010


Also: I'm thrust, all unknowing into a vast, chaotic and impersonal world -- one that will, in the end, kill me. Some guy comes along and tells me it's not impersonal, it's not chaotic and it's not going to kill me. I believe him and feel better. Duh.

But I have lived my life deluded. I have died deluded. Because I was afraid.

I don't think that's a 'good'. I think that's a 'good' for children.
posted by Trochanter at 11:15 AM on August 12, 2010


Trochanter: And that's a moral and philosophical argument, not an empirical one.

Of course, this fails on two counts. First, it's a rather insipid and sloppy generalization given that many flavors of religion also propose that we live in a vast, chaotic, and impersonal universe. And secondly, the psychological benefits of religious practice have nothing to do with the comfort provided by the claims of the religious theology, or belief in that theology. Atheists benefit just as much as Tibetan Buddhists from practicing meditation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:30 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


the psychological benefits of religious practice have nothing to do with the comfort provided by the claims of the religious theology, or belief in that theology.

Says who? How do you separate them? How do you test for that?

You'd better start citing some of this.

Or don't. I'm about done.
posted by Trochanter at 12:03 PM on August 12, 2010


And personally as an empirical agnostic atheist via Russell's teapot, I think that calling all beliefs in god(s) categorically delusional is little more than a personal prejudice. It's one I'm sympathetic to, but without a watertight proof it's little more than an aesthetic philosophical preference.

Says who? How do you separate them? How do you test for that?

Simple, you test the practice separate from the theology.

A four-year study of mindfulness meditation in chronic pain management.

A metastudy of 20 different trials.

A review article looking at combined mind-body therapy in pain management.

Meditation in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:27 PM on August 12, 2010


They're not testing a religious practice, they're testing sitting quietly. That's fine. Take wisdom where you find it.

I think that calling all beliefs in god(s) categorically delusional is little more than a personal prejudice.

These beliefs arise in every culture, again and again and again. Sooner or later you come to ascribe it to an impulse in the human mind. And having tested enough triangles, there's a point where believing that the next triangle you test will jibe with Pythagoras becomes something other than a personal prejudice.

The universe scares me. Meaninglessness scares me. I really don't blame anyone for taking any comfort they can find. I find Dawkins and Hitchens mean spirited in this area. We're all stumbling through.
posted by Trochanter at 1:26 PM on August 12, 2010


And having tested enough triangles, there's a point where believing that the next triangle you test will jibe with Pythagoras becomes something other than a personal prejudice.

Thankfully, that's not how mathematical proof works.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:28 PM on August 12, 2010


PS: Poor Chris.
posted by Trochanter at 1:30 PM on August 12, 2010


Take wisdom where you find it.

Indeed.
posted by The World Famous at 1:45 PM on August 12, 2010


>>Take wisdom where you find it.

>Indeed.


But give it a good shake to knock the bullshit off.
posted by Trochanter at 2:08 PM on August 12, 2010


The universe scares me. Meaninglessness scares me. I really don't blame anyone for taking any comfort they can find. I find Dawkins and Hitchens mean spirited in this area. We're all stumbling through.
posted by Trochanter at 9:26 PM on August 12


Fine, but please acknowledge that this is cowardice, and act accordingly, and with due humility. Especially when dealing with people who do not share this particular form of cowardice.
posted by Decani at 2:14 PM on August 12, 2010


I don't get your point.

If there is cowardice in the equation (and it's not my term) it's in rushing toward beliefs that allow you to deny the scale and meaninglessness.

In my 51 years on the planet, I've come to believe that we're probably on our own, and we've just got to face it. Our reason seems to arrive at a morality, and because it's moral, we are obliged to try to live up to it. No rewards, no punishments, just rightness for rightness' sake. A glimmer in the void.
posted by Trochanter at 2:31 PM on August 12, 2010


Fine, but please acknowledge that this is cowardice, and act accordingly, and with due humility. Especially when dealing with people who do not share this particular form of cowardice.

Because why...?
posted by Snyder at 2:56 PM on August 12, 2010


Because why...?

Because when you're dealing with a badass who can look at the vast magnitude of the universe and not even bat an eye when confronted with his own insignificance, you just have to give respect, yo.
posted by The World Famous at 2:58 PM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


> but please acknowledge that this is cowardice, and act accordingly, and with due humility. Especially when dealing with people who do not share this particular form of cowardice.

Yeah, you're a real tough guy flaming broad swaths of people on the internet. Such courage!
posted by Burhanistan at 7:18 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah man, you guys killed grapefruitmoon! If that's the best kind of outcome this bungling variety of "fearless skepticism" can produce, I'll take a humbler, recursively meta-skeptical variant of skepticism any day. At least it respects its own limits. Alas, poor grapefruitmoon!
posted by saulgoodman at 1:53 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't know, furiousthought. You want skeptical people to play the game to win, that is to convince non skeptical people that a skeptical stance may be better. The problem is that skeptical peole don't share your goals.

From my point of view, the use of putdowns, unflattering comparisons, etc., is to assert dominance, to establish a pecking order. Convincing people is completely orthogonal to that goal.


Well, sure, it's pack behavior, and if you want to know what my goals are, they include curbing this whenever possible because it is boring and poisonous, and group dynamics are #1 on the list of things I am personally skeptical about.

Why? Why does it have to be this way? I mean that - why do skeptics have to convert non-skeptics but not the other way around? Starting off with this stance is problematic as you've already put the other person on the defensive. It's not going to work in convincing anyone of anything. If you want a productive argument, you need to start off with respect.

I dunno, that's what the article was about so I thought I'd contribute something along those lines, and generally the real world could use a doubling or tripling of people who think of things from a skeptical/humanist perspective most of the time, so I'm supportive. However, that last thing you said is really fundamental. No mode of argument can survive bad faith among its participants, if the goal is for the one person to convince the other.

Anyway I just found the Pope Guilty - grapefruitmoon exchange very funny because he completely ignored everything I said and whatta surprise, grapefruitmoon doesn't want to talk to him any more, even though both of them probably agree on most things from what I can tell about their writings here. I'm not even good at winning friends and influencing people myself! But come on.
posted by furiousthought at 2:10 PM on August 13, 2010


Ah man, you guys killed grapefruitmoon

Oh, what the hell, really?
posted by furiousthought at 2:15 PM on August 13, 2010


Because I know empirically, that I, being human, am prone to self-deception that at times may do harm, to me rational sparring feels like self-improvement of a sort.

But only of a sort, and only up to a point.

Taken to extremes, hardcore rational skepticism becomes a form of warfare enacted (both internally and externally) against other attributes of human nature. This can be every bit as harmful as self-deception.

I've been known on far too many occasions -- though not here (yet (thankfully (and hopefully not ever))) -- to alienate people whose respect I would much rather have, by attacking their ideas from a place of hardcore skepticism when their only intent was to engage in a form of communication that honors human beings in their entirety, rather than enshrining one particular attribute above all others.

Victory in a one-sided combat is not victory.

To steal a line one of my favorite movies, sometimes when you win, you lose.

grapefruitmoon: namaste
posted by perspicio at 3:42 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


You absolutely have no idea how insulting you're being? Really?
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:25 AM on August 12


You absolutely have no idea how irrelevant that is to who's right? Really?
posted by Decani at 3:43 PM on August 13, 2010


Man, you have to love how often people go through the following path when they're basically trying to defend utter bollocks:

1. You say "bollocks" to me? Oh! Oh! You rude, uncouth person! Woe! Lack of respect for difference! Lack of respect for diversity! Lack of respect for my round and plumptious bollocks! Oh! Oh!

2. What's that? You persist, even in the face of my petticoat-hoisting hysteria and fainting girlish shriekery?

3. Do you have any idea how... how... RUDE you are? Are you unaware of the modern liberal sensitivity?

4. POUT

5. I am absolutely 100% completely finished with this conversation!!

6. Huh! That showed 'em!

Honestly. Grow a bloody hide. It's just words.
posted by Decani at 3:54 PM on August 13, 2010


Nobody likely to read this now, way after the party, so I feel free to voice my thoughts, ramble away in the quiet after the storm.

Loved this article, loved how Karla McLaren wrote it with such personal honesty, courage and humility. Been thinking about it intensely since yesterday.

Okay, be rational, be grounded, be truthful, be reality-based. But what about the need humanity has - and has had for millennia - for mythology, for symbols, for the language of the unconscious mind? What about the expression of the emotions, appreciation of reality through symbols? What about the power art has on the human mind as an expression of the truth? Those parts of life are not about a scientific formula but about feelings, shifting perceptions. What about the deep meaning of creativity, imagination? These all have significant meaning in human life. What about feelings and perception beyond words and numbers? What about non-religious feelings of the numinous?

Numbers, things, facts, the measurable, can be recreated in a lab aspect have their place, an important place. But they are not everything, not the whole of life. On the other, unhealthy woo woo, side there is, imo, danger in trying to contain the mysterious in religious form. There also seems to me something dangerous, small minded, mean and plain stupid in trying to say facts, numbers, laboratory provable anything is the sum total of life. Those who insist that there's only facts, in belligerent, vitriolic ways do critical thinking a great disservice. The nature of science is to explore the unknown, not merely to trumpet what is known or try and cudgel others into the worshiping of imaginary certainties.

As the daughter of a loving, kind scientist I grew up engaging in the fun of the universe, singing science songs, enjoying playful syllogisms, the allure of examining the natural world with analytical eyes.

But my biological mother was emotionally unwell. My scientist father had no answers for that. He was fine with volcanic eruptions of the KT Event but mute in the face of volcanic emotions. His being lost in that unknown area prompted me to want to know more about the mind.

By the time I was 6, at a Christmas pageant, it dawned on me that God did not exist, that Jesus' life as a mythological figure, rather than as a human being, and the Christmas pageant itself were created for some weird grown-up reason, likely a manipulation to keep children obedient, brainwashed for some power-play purpose that made no sense to me.

Then there was discovering there was no Santa Clause, no Easter Bunny, no Boogey Man, no Tooth Fairy, no fairies, no elves, no ogres, no fairy godmothers, no See Dick and Jane cartoon reality. What was all this shit people have been telling children? Why set up a template of false beliefs that a child needs to discard? Why teach a child to believe in lies from the get go? Once children have been taught to believe in fairy tales, cartoons, maybe it feels safe and good as an adult to believe in lies again? Some sort of hearkening back to a cocoon of childhood ignorance-is-bliss?

By 10 I read the basic Buddhist tenets in a book about the history of India and was deeply moved by the thinking that went into the Four Noble Truths: that of suffering, of the origins of suffering, the cessation of suffering, the path. Yes, I wanted some of that serenity, that peace of mind, less suffering.

Meditation as a way to better know my own mind made sense, as well as contemplating the impermanent nature of reality, of thoughts, of the importance of being kind, of how attachment and craving can be sources of suffering. I loved the Buddhist concept of relative truth, not preaching. Love welled in my heart with this new peace of mind.

However, the Tibetan culture in which I was learning Buddhist philosophy and practice was packed with beliefs, rituals, that made no sense to me. For several years I fell deliberately into the cult of Tibetan Buddhism because my Buddhist teachers asked me to do this, to give into the woo woo. The Tibetans kowtowed to men on golden thrones, kowtowed to golden statues, talked about and kowtowed to allegedly reincarnate humans who could control their rebirth. But after a number of ugly incidents I observed the men on thrones were all too human, and in not so nice ways. Basically Tibetans had not studied science. Teachers, respected by Tibetans, believed the Earth was flat, that it was dangerous to land on the Moon (Goddess).

But there were also some good questions like if one sees a slab of meat in the butcher, how could that flesh possibly be what contains or generates the extraordinary mind? And if the flesh is not the generator of the mind, then after the flesh is dead does the mind move elsewhere? And what about weird stuff like tummo?

No, I needed to take the Buddhism out of the culture entirely, then prune away culturally entrenched concepts, get to the conceptual basics.

Pared down Buddhism, plus the science mindset which includes wonder, that's what works for me; wanting to be of scientific mind and also exploring the mystery with an open heart.
posted by nickyskye at 4:07 PM on August 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


There are some things any reasonable person should be skeptical about, but unless you really understand how "western" medicine works and is used I wouldn't be so quick to use it as a backdrop for your skepticism.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:27 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Decani, you're acting like a jerk. Please cut it out.
posted by cortex at 5:04 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah man, you guys killed grapefruitmoon

Oh hell no. This will not stand. Nope. I am become grumpy destroyer of moods.

Please don't stay gone too long gfm.

Pretty please!
posted by quin at 5:18 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah man, you guys killed grapefruitmoon!

Goddamnit it. I hope she's just taking a break.
posted by homunculus at 5:29 PM on August 13, 2010


*Santa Claus even

and oops, bad editing...Numbers, things, facts, the measurable, all that can be recreated in a lab, have their place.
posted by nickyskye at 5:49 PM on August 13, 2010


Ah man, you guys killed grapefruitmoon!

Yeah, way to go, assholes.
posted by Snyder at 7:34 PM on August 13, 2010


You absolutely have no idea how irrelevant that is to who's right? Really?

I've said it before and I'll say it again, antinomianism is my favorite heresy.
posted by Snyder at 7:53 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


> You absolutely have no idea how irrelevant that is to who's right? Really?

I'm not sure what rock you were under, but kindly crawl back there and stop polluting the joint with your supercilious and specious ranting.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:20 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


"You absolutely have no idea how irrelevant that is to who's right? Really?"

If it's irrelevant, why do it? I mean, aside from gratifying your righteous contempt. But isn't that kind of jerking off really best done in private?
posted by klangklangston at 11:34 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


nickyskye:

Numbers, things, facts, the measurable, can be recreated in a lab aspect have their place, an important place. But they are not everything, not the whole of life. … There also seems to me something dangerous, small minded, mean and plain stupid in trying to say facts, numbers, laboratory provable anything is the sum total of life. Those who insist that there's only facts …

I'm not defending any of the specific people or arguments in this thread, but as a description of the skeptical position, this is a strawman. And a rather threadbare one, at that: it seems to get trotted out in every conversation on this subject. "But science can't explain everything!" No one claimed otherwise. "Life is more than just logic!" No one's contested that point. "Emotions are important too!" Of course they are. Show me where anyone has actually made any of these arguments.

The reason skeptics are unimpressed with these arguments is not because they deny them—I think you'd find that most skeptics agree with them. We're unimpressed with them because they have zero bearing on the truth or falsity of any of the material claims at hand. Admitting that imagining unreal things can have value does not contradict the position that mistaking unreal things for real ones is undesirable.

I have no problem with symbolism, metaphor, poetry, and ritual in and of themselves. I only object when people start asserting that these things have literal truth.

That's a dangerous error to make, in ways large and small—even when made by a person of good will. Good will doesn't count for much if a distorted understanding of how the universe works leads you to cause harm instead of good. I don't doubt that many fundamentalists, of the sort that everyone in this thread would be happy to condemn, sincerely believe that they're doing good. Their evil doesn't flow from a desire to do evil: it flows from a desire to do good, expressed according to a deeply broken understanding of how the universe works. If you really believe that gays are agents of Satan, bent on raping your kids and spreading AIDS and destroying your marriage, then kickin' the shit out of homos makes perfect sense as a path to good. If you really believe that it's written irresistibly in the genes of a particular race to be criminal parasites, then deporting them or subjecting them to social and legal prejudices is perfectly reasonable.

Most unskeptical beliefs don't lead their believers that far astray, of course. But I can't think of a single scenario where believing an unreal thing to be real would be preferable to, y'know, not doing that.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:06 PM on August 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure what rock you were under, but kindly crawl back there and stop polluting the joint with your supercilious and specious ranting.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:20 AM on August 14


And this, presumably, is the sort of insulting remark directed at a specific person that is acceptable on MeFi. As opposed to the sort of remarks I made, which nowhere involved any direct personal insult to a specific MeFite, but which, apparently make me a jerk. Or someone who is *acting* like a jerk, at least.

Man, this old place doesn't change much.
posted by Decani at 4:58 PM on August 15, 2010


The food is terrible, and what small servings.
posted by klangklangston at 9:42 PM on August 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Morning ixohoxi. I appreciate the civility of the tone of your response and delighted to participate in a conversation about this.

Karla McLaren's article is about the culture clash between the two mindsets of skeptics and New Agers.

Talking about this thread with another MeFite on the phone last night, one of my gripes is that the skeptic set are, in my observation of them, bullies in their expression of being proponents of the literal truth. They bully as meanly, as harshly as fundamentalists of the worst kinds, using contempt, hatred, ridicule to cudgel the other side.

There is an important place for blunt truth, for fighting for the truth. But there is also a place for civility and that's one of the points I think McLaren's article is making.

Privately, on the phone or in email, I've spoken with a number of MeFites who are closet Christians on the blue. They are afraid to discuss their Christianity because of the bullying mindset of hardcore atheists here. I'm a non-theist but as long as I'm not being bullied into anybody's belief system, whatever it may be, it's okay by me to discuss belief systems. In fact I like it, enjoy thinking about beliefs from all angles.

So, let's see where this ramble is going. Is it helpful to discuss the nature of reality here? What is true or real? Is that what this is about?

You say my talking about emotions, symbols etc is not relevant to the skeptic mindset but emotions and symbols can be taken literally in reality based ways. They impact life literally, physically. Santa Claus, though he doesn't exist literally has a huge impact on millions of people around the planet as a symbol every Christmas, literally in terms of money, time spent talking about 'him', looking at images of 'him', hearing songs about 'him'. Every physical sense is assaulted with the experience of Santa Claus for over a month. No, 'his' existence is not literal but the impact of 'his' symbol is.

The American flag, though only a symbol, is used literally to die for in war, for example.

Let's see, where does one catch hold of the right part of this topic to talk about this?

Thoughts themselves are not literal. Where do they exist except as electrical activity n the brain? But to the thinker they are real experiences.

I think the skeptics vs New Agers argument in the article is about people, skeptics, who examine the reality of their belief system scientifically and New Agers, who believe in things without examining their reality scientifically. The root of the argument is, imo, about the willingness to examine reality with a scientific mindset. Interestingly, some of the great scientists of the last century were devoutly religious God believers.

Bullying, put-downs are creating a greater chasm, as Karla McLaren's article discusses. I'm not sure what it would take to offer a person an alternative to their cherished belief system or what it takes to make converts to skepticism.
posted by nickyskye at 6:10 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Talking about this thread with another MeFite on the phone last night, one of my gripes is that the skeptic set are, in my observation of them, bullies in their expression of being proponents of the literal truth.

I don't see how it's possible or reasonable to have a civil discussion as long as I'm being treated as a bully. For a few years now, I've pretty much given up on trying to debate issues of literal and other truth, and more focused on asserting that I should have the right and privilege to speak for myself.

Unfortunately, the calls to civility inevitably turn out to be one-sided, and I'm uncomfortable even broaching issues of emotion, symbolism, myth, and ritual until there is a consensus that these things are meaningful and possibly valuable on both sides of the chasm.

You say my talking about emotions, symbols etc is not relevant to the skeptic mindset but emotions and symbols can be taken literally in reality based ways. They impact life literally, physically.

I think this is a misunderstanding. I don't disagree that these emotional and symbols are subjectively important. I'm skeptical that those emotions and symbols map to objective truth. Miracles attributed to my grandfather are important for many people in my family, but I have a nagging and reasonable doubt that it is objectively true that my grandfather caused a power outage or appeared as an eagle.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:44 AM on August 16, 2010


And I could attend funeral services for my grandfather and find them powerful, moving, and symbolically meaningful, while experiencing doubt that those services involved anything supernatural. One of the great requiem masses was written by a non-religious person after all.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:40 AM on August 16, 2010


I'm being treated as a bully

Who is treating you as a bully? If you have a civil conversation with me I will have a civil one back. Fair n' square? Deal?

Yes, I think people do have a right to speak about their own beliefs. I prefer civil, tolerant, patient and open minded discussion.

Since I'm not a New Ager, I cannot help you with any consensus for their side of the argument. I can only speak for my perspective outside both sides of either skeptics or New Agers as I don't relate to either mindset. I do see the chasm between those two mindsets though. I am a science minded, non-theist with a deep interest in spiritual practice, enjoyment of those who take their spiritual path seriously as a personal path, not as something with which to control or influence others, personally favoring meditation and examination of the nature of reality.

I'm skeptical that those emotions and symbols map to objective truth.

Neuroethology is a controversial and, imo, interesting examination of the neuroscience of spirituality.

Miracles attributed to my grandfather are important for many people in my family

huh. That's interesting. I wonder why it's important to them? Why do you think it's important to them?

His capacity to perform miracles seems, imo, unlikely. Your doubt seems reasonable to me too.

Since spiritual experience is about more than laboratory provable objective truth, it seems necessary to bring the topics of emotions, symbols and subjective experience into the arena of discussion. Perhaps it is necessary to work on defining what is the yearning people have, have had for millennia, to want to experience spiritual truth, whatever that may be or however it may be defined? And then to define what it is that goes into the religious mindset, people who want to belong to a religion. Some people want to hand their own power over or feel connected with what they consider a higher power and that this offers them deep psychological comfort.

Then again, McLaren makes such a superb point in her essay, mentioned previously:
In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers.

Perhaps New Agers are not spiritual so much as needing to ascribe "Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet [as having] a specific metaphysical or mystical cause." In my opinion that is not reality based. I would say that the flip side is that hard core skeptics want to ascribe laboratory, objective, provable double blind certainty of facts to everything. And I don't think that is reality based. Rigidly applying mystical causes on the one hand or rigidly applying objective certainty on the other. Both seem to be more about control - or fear of being out of control- than thinking clearly, fully or sanely about the complex reality that exists for human beings in their entirety.

I don't think skepticism as a belief system is a wholesome way of knowing, as a significant part of human intelligence is, imo, being open to the unknown.
posted by nickyskye at 8:29 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


nickyskye: Yes, I think people do have a right to speak about their own beliefs. I prefer civil, tolerant, patient and open minded discussion.

I'm skeptical that this is possible if you've stacked the deck with, "You're all bullies" from the start.

huh. That's interesting. I wonder why it's important to them? Why do you think it's important to them?

I'm certain they can speak for themselves on this matter. I think it would be disrespectful for me to beanplate their belief system in their absence. I'm comfortable with it being understood that we have a difference of opinion on that.

Since spiritual experience is about more than laboratory provable objective truth, it seems necessary to bring the topics of emotions, symbols and subjective experience into the arena of discussion.

I have mild objections to the framing of "spiritual" because I'm never quite certain exactly what that means divorced from the concept of a supernatural "spirit." If your point is merely we should include emotions, symbols, and subjective experience, well I don't think we can do that as long as one side is stereotyped as treating them with contempt.

Perhaps New Agers are not spiritual so much as needing to ascribe "Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet [as having] a specific metaphysical or mystical cause." In my opinion that is not reality based. I would say that the flip side is that hard core skeptics want to ascribe laboratory, objective, provable double blind certainty of facts to everything. And I don't think that is reality based. Rigidly applying mystical causes on the one hand or rigidly applying objective certainty on the other. Both seem to be more about control - or fear of being out of control- than thinking clearly, fully or sanely about the complex reality that exists for human beings in their entirety.

I don't think skepticism as a belief system is a wholesome way of knowing, as a significant part of human intelligence is, imo, being open to the unknown.


I don't think this is a fair criticism of either "hard core" skeptics or new age beliefs, and I don't think you can build bridges as long as you insist on ridiculous exaggerations of both sides.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:57 AM on August 16, 2010


I'm skeptical that this is possible if you've stacked the deck with, "You're all bullies" from the start.

I've repeatedly observed skeptics on the blue, when in a conversation about belief systems that are not theirs, being bullies, using ridicule, even threats of violent intimidation and ad hominem attacks. If you read the thread - from the very first sentence- you can see that plainly and the reaction to it.

It is exactly that which creates a chasm, rather than an atmosphere of open discussion.

I think it would be disrespectful for me to beanplate their belief system in their absence. I'm comfortable with it being understood that we have a difference of opinion on that.

This discussion, based on the article in the OP, is based on why there is a chasm between skeptics and New Agers, the cultures of both mindsets. You brought members of your family up who have beliefs that you doubt, as an example of why you are a skeptic. Why is it beanplating, ie overthinking, to examine your example? Wouldn't analyzing why another person has a belief system in the first place be relevant to this discussion?

I included the Wikipedia links about secular spirituality and spirituality as fairly thorough definitions.

Though you denigrate my opinion -If your point is merely - yes, mere or not, I do think we should include emotions, symbols, and subjective experience in a discussion on belief systems.

You may use ridicule by saying "ridiculous exaggeration", but the author of the OP made the point in regarding to New Agers: "Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet [as having] a specific metaphysical or mystical cause."

She's saying that these people's culture (or mindset, or habits, or way of seeing things, whatever) makes the approach and language often used by skeptics less than effective.

Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate Joakim Ziegler's excellent points: She's saying that these people's culture (or mindset, or habits, or way of seeing things, whatever) makes the approach and language often used by skeptics less than effective.

She's not saying that it's above criticism, on the contrary, she's saying it should be criticized, because she's convinced it's wrong, but she thinks it should be criticized in a way that makes it more likely that the people there will actually listen, which seems to me to be eminently reasonable.

posted by nickyskye at 12:07 PM on August 16, 2010


This discussion, based on the article in the OP, is based on why there is a chasm between skeptics and New Agers, the cultures of both mindsets. You brought members of your family up who have beliefs that you doubt, as an example of why you are a skeptic. Why is it beanplating, ie overthinking, to examine your example? Wouldn't analyzing why another person has a belief system in the first place be relevant to this discussion?

No, I brought it up as an example of how I can participate in ritual and find it meaningful in my own way. It's not my place to analyze belief systems I don't share and participate in, and doing so without a dialog with those people strikes me as rude. I can talk about what those rituals meant to me, about what people said to me during and after those rituals, but I'll try not to talk about their worldview because it's not mine to share.

Though you denigrate my opinion -If your point is merely - yes, mere or not, I do think we should include emotions, symbols, and subjective experience in a discussion on belief systems.

I didn't denigrate your opinion. I said that I have a mild objection to framing these things as "spiritual" in the absence of a supernatural spirit.

You may use ridicule by saying "ridiculous exaggeration", but the author of the OP made the point in regarding to New Agers: "Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet [as having] a specific metaphysical or mystical cause."

Well yes, I think the OP is exaggerating as well. I'm not trying to use ridicule here; I'm pointing out that I don't think your generalizations are fair or accurate. Perhaps we should start instead at looking at how we approach issues of emotion, symbols, and subjective experience differently rather than starting from the premise that I don't consider them at all.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:06 PM on August 16, 2010


I've repeatedly observed skeptics on the blue, when in a conversation about belief systems that are not theirs, being bullies, using ridicule, even threats of violent intimidation and ad hominem attacks. If you read the thread - from the very first sentence- you can see that plainly and the reaction to it.

It is exactly that which creates a chasm, rather than an atmosphere of open discussion.


I've seen the same thing from religious people -- you can see that in this thread, also. Yet only one side of the argument is declared to be "bullies" and "jerks". A lot of people seem to want their own beliefs to be off-limits to discussion, unless the discussion is positive, in which case discussion is welcome... and that's just as much a barrier to open conversation as over-aggressive atheists are.

The point of the article was that there's a conversational chasm which extends from both directions, not that skeptics are just too mean to express their beliefs. I've seen plenty of anti-religious comments which were neither rude nor mean get shouted down as if they were... and while I try to be polite in my own posts about this issue, after a certain point it's hard not to wonder why I'm still bothering.
posted by vorfeed at 1:16 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


KirkJobSluder, I apologize for accusing you of being a bully. I didn't understand the extent to which you felt under attack.

I assume that both you and vorfeed are being sincere. I'm still somewhat baffled. Some people in this thread have stereotypical views of science, or just don't get it, but I'm not seeing the attacks, bullying and insults against atheists that you're seeing. Can you explain how you saw atheists being attacked in this thread or on MeFi generally?

I'm asking this question sincerely.
posted by nangar at 3:45 PM on August 16, 2010


KirkJobSluder, you said: I'm skeptical that those emotions and symbols map to objective truth. Miracles attributed to my grandfather are important for many people in my family, but I have a nagging and reasonable doubt that it is objectively true that my grandfather caused a power outage or appeared as an eagle.

Then you said: No, I brought it up as an example of how I can participate in ritual and find it meaningful in my own way. It's not my place to analyze belief systems I don't share and participate in, and doing so without a dialog with those people strikes me as rude.

You brought up your family's beliefs, it seems, as an example of something you doubt. Since none of your family are here but you consider it rude to talk about their beliefs, why did you bring up your family's beliefs in the first place?

That's confusing.

You denigrated and ridiculed what I said in describing the points I was making as, "merely" and "ridiculous".

I agree with your objection: I have a mild objection to framing these things as "spiritual" in the absence of a supernatural spirit.

I really don't like the term spiritual at all. Don't know what other word to use for that non-material experience or need. I wish there were a better term for "a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world." ..."While atheism tends to lean towards skepticism regarding supernatural claims and the existence of an actual "spirit", some atheists define "spiritual" as nurturing thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are in harmony with a belief that the entire universe is, in some way, connected; even if only by the mysterious flow of cause and effect at every scale."
posted by nickyskye at 4:43 PM on August 16, 2010


nickyskye: You brought up your family's beliefs, it seems, as an example of something you doubt. Since none of your family are here but you consider it rude to talk about their beliefs, why did you bring up your family's beliefs in the first place?

You're asking me to speculate on something I don't fully understand, when my whole premise is that people should really only talk bout their own beliefs. I'll talk about my own skepticism, but I can't talk about their experience of belief in anything other than general terms.

You denigrated and ridiculed what I said in describing the points I was making as, "merely" and "ridiculous".

I'm not certain how we can have a civil discussion if you interpret disagreement as ridicule. I'm skeptical of attempts to describe my experience and world as "spiritual," and I object to your attempts to stereotype that experience away from my atheism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:15 PM on August 16, 2010


nangar: I generally object to being stereotyped as anti-social, unwilling to deal with psychological affects on health, and hostile without good cause.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:17 PM on August 16, 2010


KJS, Civil disagreement does not include using terms of ridicule, like "ridiculous exaggeration" or refer to a point I make as "merely". If you are unable to be civil I'd rather not communicate with you.

The very fist sentence of this thread is: I'm four sentences in and I already want to punch her right in the FACE.

That's an anti-social statement. It's also misogynistic, violent...and bullying. It is an excellent example of why there is a chasm of non-communication between skeptics and New Agers. That type of bullying only serves to increase ignorance and non-communication in the world.

Skeptics say they are on the side of reason, of truth, of rationality. Then why not communicate rationally, rather than with violent emotions of hate and intimidation? (All the while denying the significance of emotions and subjective experience when it comes to talking about reality.)
posted by nickyskye at 5:36 PM on August 16, 2010


Can you explain how you saw atheists being attacked in this thread or on MeFi generally?

I'm asking this question sincerely.


My problem is not with the attacking, but with the double-standard which surrounds it. The idea seems to be that anti-religious beliefs are "intolerant", "rude", and/or "uncivil", no matter how they're expressed (for examples, just try ctrl-f "intolerant" or "civil" in this thread, or better yet, this one or this one), while pro-religious beliefs aren't. This leads to the delicious irony of being called an "asshole" and a "dick" by people who are simultaneously yelling "be civil! You have to be civil!"

or, on preview, the irony of having one's opinion called "anti-social, misogynistic, and bullying" by someone who's also claiming that "civil disagreement does not include using terms of ridicule".

Sometimes I wonder why people don't just cut to the chase and post "why don't you stop hitting yourself, huh? Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!"
posted by vorfeed at 5:43 PM on August 16, 2010


nickyskye: KJS, Civil disagreement does not include using terms of ridicule, like "ridiculous exaggeration" or refer to a point I make as "merely". If you are unable to be civil I'd rather not communicate with you.

Well, now you're acting in bad faith if you're picking words out of context to object to. I was merely pointing out that I have mild objections to definitions of spirituality that imply a supernatural component. No offense was intended or meant by my mere choice of word.

As for "ridiculous exaggeration." I'm at a loss. I feel that your statement involved untrue and unfair stereotypes of both New Age religious practice and atheism. It's a statement that I find deeply offensive, and I'm merely trying to find a civil and polite way to express that I don't think you really appear understand who you are talking about here. I can't exactly have a civil conversation about my "spirituality" with someone who denies I'm have one.

That's an anti-social statement.

Sure, it's also a statement you should probably take up with the person who made it, rather than holding completely unrelated persons responsible for it.

Skeptics say they are on the side of reason, of truth, of rationality. Then why not communicate rationally, rather than with violent emotions of hate and intimidation? (All the while denying the significance of emotions and subjective experience when it comes to talking about reality.)

The harshest thing I said to you was that you made what I find to be a ridiculous exaggeration, and you're doing it again here with people who are willing to engage in that conversation with you.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:21 PM on August 16, 2010


You disagreed with what I said about skeptics being bullies. That comment I referred to is an example of the bullying by skeptics. And it is an example of what the OP is about.
posted by nickyskye at 6:45 PM on August 16, 2010


Yeah, what Vorfeed said. It's a pretty strange notion of "civility" get bent out of shape when a stereotype is called into question and then throw out "anti-social, violent, misogynist, and bullying."

You disagreed with what I said about skeptics being bullies.

Yes, and why should I trust you with some deeply important and tender parts of my soul, spirit, or psyche now that you've accused me of being a bully? Now certainly I've been known to get unreasonably angry when I'm repeatedly hammered by this sort of thing. But that's generally a bad way to start a conversation.

What do you want for us hard core atheists to do? Talk about our spiritual lives, or accept communal guilt? With me, you can't have the latter, but you might have the former if you're willing to have a good-faith conversation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:53 PM on August 16, 2010


*rolls eyes
posted by nickyskye at 7:14 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


*rolls eyes

Seriously. What do you want? Do you want a conversation about how atheists are bullies? Or do you want a conversation about your spirituality?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:17 PM on August 16, 2010


About our spirituality.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:22 PM on August 16, 2010


Actually, I should just limit my attempts to have these conversations to family, UUs, and perhaps the pages of The Humanist.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:32 PM on August 16, 2010


Seriously. What do you want? Do you want a conversation about how atheists are bullies? Or do you want a conversation about your spirituality?

About the OP.
posted by nickyskye at 8:15 PM on August 16, 2010


nickyskye: As I've said up-thread, in my experience the accommodation needs to come from all sides. I can have these conversations with family and friends who love me. I can have these conversations with UUs who put their values for pluralism above the altar. I can read these conversations in Humanist periodicals. I can read these conversations in the later works of Merton.

But apparently I can't have these conversations on the Internet where I'm accused of both denying my and uncivil behavior when I, without ridicule, object to deeply offensive stereotypes.

Which is a crying shame because I've spent the last 20 years arguing that the Internet had the potential to change these relationships for the better. Well, I guess I was wrong.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:39 PM on August 16, 2010


denying my spirituality that is.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:40 PM on August 16, 2010


If you'd like to discuss the OP, I'd like to discuss the OP.
posted by nickyskye at 8:50 PM on August 16, 2010


I just did. McLaren's thesis is that both sides need to learn about each other if that chasm is to be bridged.

But you win. I can't have a civil discussion with someone who changes the topic and every other post, so I'll save my energy for the people who honestly care about this issue.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:59 PM on August 16, 2010


KirkJobSluder and verfeed, thanks to both of you for your replies.
posted by nangar at 2:52 AM on August 17, 2010


nicksyskye, I don't think it's true in general that skeptics or scientists deny "the significance of emotions and subjective experience of emotions and subjective experience when it comes to talking about reality."

I think sometimes in discussions like this we end up arguing for or against a sort Positivist cartoon version of science. Yes, there've been some people in this thread arguing that psychological treatment of pain is bunk because it's psychological, but you're forgetting that there are real scientists who research this kind of thing, including blatantly "woo-woo" stuff like medical hypnosis.
posted by nangar at 3:55 AM on August 17, 2010


Yes, it's wonderful neuroscientists are now exploring emotion.

huh. It's considered that medical hypnosis is woo woo? Wonder why Stanford University has a program in it?
posted by nickyskye at 9:48 AM on August 17, 2010


It's considered that medical hypnosis is woo woo? Wonder why Stanford University has a program in it?

I meant that it's something kneejerk skeptics would be likely to dismiss as woo, despite the fact that there's a pretty solid body of research behind it, and researchers have a reasonably good idea of how it works. And some people do reject it as woo just on face value.

Responses to something like hypnosis is a reasonably good indicator of whether somebody is just copping a supposedly "scientific" attitude or actually cares about research.

I wish I'd brought this up earlier in the thread when the discussion was still active. I'd have been curious to see what some of the participants had to say about it.
posted by nangar at 10:36 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


nickyskye: Yes, people in medicine, psychology, and neuroscience have been exploring the relationship between psychology and health for a few decades now. The stereotype that skeptics don't deal with emotional states probably should be discarded before trying to build bridges.

But I get the feeling that the chasm is being dug not only by atheists and theists, but by so-called middle-ground advocates who would rather scold both sides than actually build relationships.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:38 AM on August 17, 2010


So that's where that quote came from.
posted by nangar at 10:49 AM on August 17, 2010


nangar: I meant that it's something kneejerk skeptics would be likely to dismiss as woo, despite the fact that there's a pretty solid body of research behind it, and researchers have a reasonably good idea of how it works. And some people do reject it as woo just on face value.

I think both Michael Schermer and James Randi are on record that both hypnosis and meditation have some effects. I don't think this is a particularly radical view within the skeptical community, although if you go on to claim that hypnosis and meditation do more than just aid in pain and stress management and cure the common cold, then you'd be expected to provide more evidence. I'm honestly baffled as to why this rather innocuous subject keeps getting brought up as a "lolskeptics" argument.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:50 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not making a lolskeptics argument at all. Hypnosis has been accepted by the medical community for pain control for over a century, and there's been a lot of research on it, so, no, it's not a radical view in the skeptical community.

if you go on to claim that hypnosis and meditation do more than just aid in pain and stress management and cure the common cold ...

I don't. Hypnosis works for fairly short-term pain control and control (or management, if you prefer) of other purely psychological symptoms like craving for a drug in the early stages of drug treatment. Hypnosis does not work for the common cold any better than it works for cancer or broken bones. These are physical problems. Hypnosis is purely psychological. Using medical hypnosis may help a person deal the pain caused by a physical problem, but it will not cure the underlying problem.

I did not mean to include you when I talked about "kneejerk skeptics." I think you're on the side of people who "actually care about research" (as I put it). I did not intend this as any sort of comment about skeptics in general, or atheists.

You seem to be doing the same thing to me that you've done to other commenters on this thread - assuming I'm on 'the other side' and responding accordingly, with anger and disregarding what I actually said.

I think we're mostly agreed on the topics we've actually been discussing, and (based on a few comments you've made since I insulted you) I suspect we're both UU.
posted by nangar at 12:42 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm confused about why hypnosis is relevant to this discussion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:54 PM on August 17, 2010


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