Category Archives: Cognitive Biases

A new prophecy for 2012

photo of new year fireworks2012 is almost here, and this exciting and troubling 2011 is almost over. I hope you’re warm, safe, and well, and I wish you a Happy New Year!

As we head into a year that is being promoted by some as either the end of the world or the beginning of a new dawn in human development, I’d like to take an empathic, historical look at prophecies that foretell the end of the world, the end of an era, or the beginning of a new, Utopian society.

The never-ending story of the end of the world

Though end-time beliefs and prophecies may seem unusual in our post-Enlightenment age, they’re actually very, very common. Humans have written down end-times prophecies since the beginning of recorded history, and these prophecies continue to be a central feature in many communities. In fact, the end times are a basic tenet of Christianity on the religious side of things, while some form of end-times theorizing (the eventual supernova of our sun, for instance) is a basic tenet of astrophysics on the scientific side of things. Environmentalists and climate scientists have yet another series of end-time or dark-time scenarios.

The idea that the world will end and that humanity will cease to exist — this is a very common idea. What seems uncommon is the specificity we’re seeing these days, where people swear that the end is going to occur on a specific day (remember Harold Camping’s May 21st prophecy?), through a specific event (the Supermoon of last April), or in a specific year (2012).

But in fact, these end-times prophecies are made constantly, regularly, and almost predictably, as this centuries long list from the Frontline story of Apocalypse shows. End times prophecies are absolutely everywhere, and they’re actually sort of addicting, because once these terrifying and ecstatic prophecies get into you, it’s really hard to let them go.

Consider the Millerites, a group of nearly 100,000 Americans who believed the prophecies of Baptist lecturer William Miller, who told them that Jesus would return (and end the world as they knew it) in December, 1843. Though the world was supposed to end in 1843, Miller’s followers were promised a life in Paradise with Jesus. Miller’s prophecy filled his followers with terrible fear and glorious hope; the Millerites were a deeply devout and deeply emotional group of believers.

December 1843 came and went with no apocalypse and no sign of the Messiah, so Miller returned to his prayers and re-prophesied the return of Jesus for March, 1844. When that didn’t happen, Miller re-re-prophesied the return of Jesus for October of that same year. That third failure is now known as the Great Disappointment. Continue reading

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The Unfortunate Legacy of the Sokal Hoax

Continued from part 1:

The excesses and tortuous intellectual posturings of many postmodern philosophers created a backlash, both within the fields of philosophy and social science, and in the disciplines that were being targeted by the postmodernists and poststructuralists. In the “anything goes” atmosphere of postmodern thought, a lot of pretty loopy ideas gained ground and were supported in many cases by people wielding the twin weapons of faux intellectualism and truly awful writing.

In this explosion of chaotic ideas, bad writing, and uncareful thinking, a new narrative about science was created. This narrative was deeply conflicted, because it simultaneously labeled science as a human-created elite enterprise that was an integral creator of injustice, and it glorified certain sciences, especially quantum physics, as proof of the awesome truth of postmodern — and prescientific — ideas.  It got pretty damned wild up in there, I gotta say.

For instance, the idea that quantum physics proves the existence of things like ghosts, past lives, energy healing, and gods is something that arose from within the tumult of postmodern writings about science. As you can imagine, this made many actual physicists pretty angry, because the people writing about quantum physics had no training in physics whatsoever. One physicist did something to challenge the nonsense.

Some people called it the Sokal Affair, but since there was no sex or champagne, I call it a hoax instead Continue reading

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Truth is culturally relative – ow! Stop hitting me!

“That’s just cultural relativism,” he spat angrily as we walked through his neighborhood. I became very quiet but continued walking next to him, not knowing what to say next. It was early 2004, and I had just left behind my entire career as a psychic healer and returned to college. He was a psychologist and skeptic who had invited me up to his home for a weekend, and we had been having a lovely, intense, intellectually liberating time up until that moment. I had clearly stepped over a line….

I was shocked by his disgust, which was the kind you hear when some people say “welfare queen” or “bible thumper.”  What I understood him to mean was that cultural relativism leads to making excuses for everything and never holding anyone or anything to a firm standard.  So when I said to him that skeptics seemed very similar to evangelicals, except they had a different point of view to sell – or that within my New Age culture, judgment was considered extremely rude and therefore wasn’t used, my skeptical friend spat out the words “cultural relativism.”

He didn’t like skeptics being compared to religious fanatics, and he didn’t like me making what he saw as excuses for New Age people who didn’t use their judgment.  He also said something dismissive about postmodernism, but I didn’t know what that meant and was too embarrassed to ask.  I thought he was talking about cubist art or something.

We finished our walk and found more happy topics. After that weekend, I returned to college to find out what the hell cultural relativism and postmodernism were. If they could make my friend this angry, they must have been very bad ideas indeed.

Except that they weren’t

Strangely, when I started to study cultural relativism, I couldn’t find anything bad about it — at all. Cultural relativism is actually a ground-breaking, scientific way to observe human cultures. Continue reading

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Why I am not a psychic — or a skeptic

In 2003, after 32 years in the New Age, and after having published nine books and audio learning sets on psychic healing, auras, chakras, and metaphysical concepts of energy, I left my career to return to college. I made this decision after two years of self-directed study into many of the metaphysical and paranormal ideas I had based my career upon.

While leaving those ideas behind was very frightening and painful, it was a valuable learning experience (this is a joke you will understand further down the page).

I returned to college in 2004 to study the social sciences (history, sociology, criminology, psychology, demographics, economics, cultic studies, and anthropology) because I wanted to understand what had happened in my own life. I also wanted to understand how spiritual beliefs are formed, how ideas are created and change over time, how social movements arise and decay, how groups create their own realities … you know, simple stuff like that.

I graduated with a degree in Social Science in 2006. Though I focused on the sociology of work & occupations, the sociology of cults & high-control groups, the sociology of murder and criminology, and career testing & guidance (okay, I’ve got a lot of interests), I also studied religions and the New Age when I could. I am no longer working with paranormal or metaphysical ideas, though I continue to study them through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, history, neurology, and social and cognitive psychology.

While I am agnostic* about whether any paranormal, spiritual, religious, or metaphysical concepts actually exist, I now understand that I personally am not a psychic, and that there was nothing metaphysical or paranormal about what I did in my previous healing career.

*Definition for clarity: Agnostic means without gnosis or certain knowledge. It is different from atheism, which is merely a lack of belief in gods. Being an agnostic is sort of comical. When the question of religion was posed in a class and I answered, “I’m an agnostic,” a Christian student said loudly to the rest of the group, “That means she wants to believe in God, but she can’t.” Hah! I corrected her, “Actually, it means that I’m saying we can’t know because we are imperfect observers of the world. I am an atheist in regard to every human conceptualization of God (religion has always concerned me, which was why I was originally drawn to the New Age), but I’m able to leave room for a creative force that we aren’t yet capable of understanding. I’m open-minded.”

Some of my atheist friends think agnosticism is a lily-livered kind of fence-sitting, where you’re trying to keep all your options open just in case there’s hell in the offing. I say Hah! to that as well. I didn’t choose agnosticism because I’m afraid; I chose it because I’m willing to be surprised.

What I understand now after all this time is how culture formed my career as a psychic healer, but also how my natural abilities formed the core of my work. Through my rather excessive empathy, I was able to create a full-fledged psychic career, not because I was tricking anyone, but because I can read emotions, gestures, undercurrent, body language, and intentions to a greater extent than is deemed normal. I’ve also been through intense trauma in my life, and because of that, I’m able to understand things about emotions and the human condition that many people don’t understand at all.

The work I did wasn’t about magically reading the future or past lives; rather, it was a form of peer counseling based upon my own understanding of how to rebuild a life after extreme trauma. Continue reading

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Science vs. Religion and Other False Dichotomies

In the early days of unraveling my New Age career, I felt that if I could just find a way to help my readers understand and access critical thinking, I’d be doing a great service. I struggled to devise ways to introduce and then link to cultural skeptic’s sites (such as The Skeptic’s Dictionary or The Skeptical Inquirer, etc.)  from my own website, but I couldn’t find the words to prepare my readers for the painful experience I knew they were in for.

The communication style in the skeptical culture tends toward mockery and condescension (words such as fraud, sham, scam, dupe, charlatan, etc. are used regularly), and it can be a very harsh experience. I think I mocked up nearly a dozen web pages before I finally gave up in 2004 and pulled my entire website down for five years. There was just no way to bridge the chasm with words.

Since then, I’ve studied what I now call “conflict cultures”* of all kinds: skeptics versus New Agers; liberals versus conservatives; pro-choicers versus pro-lifers; Israelis versus Palestinians; Muslims versus Christians; atheists versus theists, and so forth. Though each conflict may seem distinct, the behavior of the people within the conflict tends to be similar — if not identical.

*Sociologically speaking, a culture is any group of people who consider themselves unified by shared referents. A culture can be as large as the human culture, or as small as the drama club at your local middle school. A subculture is generally regarded as a group that unifies around differences from the norm, as minority groups, disability rights groups, high IQ clubs, and political parties do. My term conflict culture refers to a subculture that organizes itself around opposition, as the New Age and skeptical subcultures do, rather than mere difference.

photo of an angry mobConflict cultures tend to encourage intense loyalty and cohesion because they have something to fight against. No matter which conflict culture you belong to, you can easily become ideologically enslaved; you may devolve into a true believer. You’ll learn to categorize and dehumanize people who do not share your views, and you’ll attack them as a matter of supposed honor. True believers and the behaviors they adopt can make the world a very ugly place indeed.

I know; I was a true believer as a young person. Western* medicine was cruel; science was hyper-rationalism divorced from ethics; the AMA was evil; the New Age and the East and alternative medicine had all the answers; nothing in the health food store could hurt you, but all conventional medicines were poison…

*My brother Matthew can’t hear the phrase Western medicine without laughing, because it brings up visions of cowboys riding into town, yee-ha! and whompin’ folks over the head with healin’.  I now call it conventional medicine so that Matthew won’t start giggling.

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10. Neither a Traitor nor a Reformed Sinner

As I wrote in Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures, I didn’t have a crisis of faith. I had a crisis of conscience, which is a very different thing indeed.

After that essay was published, I was branded as a traitor by many in the New Age. That was hard, but also sadly predictable, since people often read only enough to rile themselves up and cement their current views. However, it was interesting to contrast the reaction of my former New Age compatriots to the reactions I received from many skeptics.*

*I’m going to make a distinction here between cultural skeptics and people who are skeptical because it’s normal to be. We’re all skeptics, and we’re all skeptical; you don’t have to join a group to be skeptical. Skepticism is a function of having a brain, but a cultural skeptic is someone who identifies strongly with the skeptical culture, knows what skeptics are supposed to know, and shares a reliable set of references with other cultural skeptics.

When I wrote my essay, I unconsciously adopted the style of Shakespeare’s “Friend, Romans, countrymen…” speech, where I came in under the defenses of cultural skeptics, called myself out as their enemy, and told them I agreed with them. However, I also gently but persistently asked them why they were such complete failures at communicating their concerns. The response from the skeptical community was amazing. I only got one crank letter, and the rest were from smart and contemplative people who could not only take a punch, but actually suggested that I hit a little harder next time.

It was very freeing to write for people who weren’t thin-skinned, because my experience of the sensitivities of the New Age reader meant that I had to be so careful that I almost couldn’t write at all. Writing dissent material from inside the New Age (where dissent, judgment, and critical discernment are considered rude, unspiritual, and hyper-intellectual) was a linguistic challenge, but I think I did it fairly well.

When I wrote my piece for the Skeptical Inquirer, it was nice to take off the gloves somewhat, say some very challenging things, and then have readers take the challenge and run with it. It was fun to have people actually ask to be argued with and challenged!

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8. The fundamentals of a fundamental disagreement

photo of street signs called Faith and ReasonLet’s make a long, long story very, very short. What was going on in the total disconnect between scientific definitions of energy and New Age definitions was not connected to poor scholarship, misunderstandings, lies, duplicity, ignorance, delusions, or fraud. What I had stumbled onto was not just a personality clash between differing viewpoints – no.

This was a complete and fundamental disagreement about how the world worked and why.

In this disagreement, New Age and spiritual communities supported one set of ideas about the spiritual world and supernatural reality – while scientific and skeptical communities supported another set of ideas about the physical world and natural reality. And the twain not only did not meet; they didn’t even live in the same universe. And they certainly didn’t use the same tools of scientific inquiry.

For instance, when many New Age researchers study meditation, they will often test long-time meditators and then release glowing studies about the benefits of meditation (the same is true for prayer). I had always questioned those studies (even though I prayed and meditated) because they didn’t correct for any variables by testing other, non-meditative stillness-inducing activities* such as reading, resting, drawing, daydreaming, or walking in nature.

*One study from 1999 finally tested meditation against knitting and found that both produced similar improvements in heart rates, blood pressure, breathing rates, and subjective reports of relaxation.  I laughed at the time, because if I had been one of the knitting subjects, I would have disproved the benefits by cussing profusely at my needles.  I can’t knit!  However, the study had legs, because in May of 2011, a Google search of “meditation and knitting” returned over 3.5 million results (up from 2 million in August of 2008), including knitting meditation groups, Buddhist knitting groups, Yoga knitting groups with special knitting poses, spiritual knitting groups for men, knitting meditation blogs by the dozens, and numerous books on using knitting, prayer, and meditation together.  Favorite title: Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry.

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