Category Archives: Skepticism

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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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!

Continue reading

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Filed under Cognitive Biases, Excellent Books, Metaphysics, New Age, Skepticism

9. Unraveling

After nearly two years of study (and that final wake-up call from my Atlantean pelvis alien), I was so alarmed by the implications of my support of New Age ideas that I slammed the brakes on my career.

I cancelled all of my workshops, stopped doing consultations, edited my website, and turned down a number of book contracts. I made these changes as quietly as possible because I knew I’d get very little support or understanding from anyone. I also cleaned out my snail-mail and e-mail files and reread thousands of pieces of correspondence from people all over the globe.

Until I did that – until I reread all of those letters and e-mails in a row, I hadn’t noticed how alike they were. They were all from New Age people who – no matter their age, gender, educational status, or nationality – were wrestling with the same basic difficulties in protecting themselves from misinformation, untestable claims, untrained teachers and healers, and general confusion (including confusion about my work, which veered significantly from many accepted New Age ideas).

photo of Sisyphus and his rockI had originally responded to each of these concerns as unique, and when I answered each one, I know I was thinking to myself: If I can just write well enough, if I can just present models that will help people think clearly, if I can just help people find safe resources, if I can just….

I see now that I was like Sisyphus of the Greek myth, endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, only to watch it fall back down every time I got to the top. Though I meant well and was honestly trying to protect people, I finally saw that I was doing no lasting good.

I saw that by just using New Age jargon, or talking about unverifiable metaphysical concepts of energy, or imagining that there is another world and that people survive beyond death, I was helping people maintain their confirmation biases and support their motivated reasoning.

The ideas of the New Age are interesting, but they unfortunately exist within a framework that can invite all sorts of confusing and even damaging information into people’s lives. Though I realized that people needed to be responsible for themselves, and that I didn’t hold a hypnotic sway over my readers, my concerns were intensified because I knew my audience. I knew that many people in the New Age, spirituality, and metaphysics were there because they were in pain, because they didn’t fit in, or because they hadn’t been able to find help or comfort anywhere else.

It’s important to understand that alternatives become necessary when the conventional fails.

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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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7. The New Age Laws of Energy

Let me give you some back-story about energy. My work in the New Age was based on the concept of healing with energy. In the New Age, this energy is referred to as chi (or qi or ki), prana, or the life force (among other things). The idea is that this energy is what flows through us (like blood in our veins), holds the universe together, animates life, and connects us to each other. It forms the basis of most metaphysical and New Age philosophies and healing practices; the health of your energy is thought to be the basis for your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health and survival.

photo of Your Aura and Your Chakras bookIn my own psychic readings and healings, for instance, I used my capacity to sense my clients’ energy (I used my energy to sense their energy and diagnose any problems) inside the area of their peripersonal space (also known as the aura). With the information I gathered, I might move my clients’ energy around with my hands if they or I felt that it was blocked.

I could also pick up specific things about my clients’ emotional health, their attitudes, and their personalities, based upon what I felt in their personal energy field. Nearly all New Age and alternative healing modalities are based on the concepts of energy flow and energy blockages – and thousands of people like me have built careers by creating untold numbers of energy cleansing and diagnostic systems to address these blockages.

This concept of energy is absolutely central to New Age philosophy, where people make endless distinctions about different kinds of energies. For instance, there’s the physical energy of your body, the energy of your emotions, the energy of your thoughts, and the energy of your immortal spirit. Each type of energy ostensibly has its own pattern, speed, and frequency (in many areas of the New Age, the body is seen as containing the lowest or basest frequency, while the spirit is seen as containing the highest or most valued frequency).

In my area of the New Age, we also made distinctions between the energy of the aura (your peripersonal space), the energy of the chakras (energetic vortices that are thought to maintain and distribute energy throughout your body and your aura), and the energy of angels, devas, fairies, gods, goddesses, the spirits of dead people, extra-terrestrials, and the Supreme Being (in my area of the New Age, God was not a human-like creature, but was rather the primordial sentient energy from which all other energies arose).

We also identified the distinct energies of all of the inhabitants of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms*, as well as the energies of all of the stars and planets in the galaxy. Everything had its own distinct, purposeful, and meaningful energy. Continue reading

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Filed under Cognitive Biases, Energy, Metaphysics, New Age, Skepticism