Category Archives: Sociology

Bright ideas revisited

Continued from part 1

Hello and welcome back!

I’ve been away: I did a couple of years of research, wrote my thesis on autism and the enforcement of normality, got my master’s degree, and am now training and licensing people in my applied work: Dynamic Emotional Integration®. It’s been an intense couple of years, and though I haven’t been updating this blog, I’ve still been thinking about everything here, and continuing to study paranormal and metaphysical ideologies.

Now I’m back, and following up on my previous post, where I wrote about entering a compounding pharmacy in my county, and stepping back 40 years into the shockingly evangelical era of alternative medicine. I had the opportunity to revisit that era again this year, this time with slightly different results.

Alternatives become necessary when the conventional fails, continued

The Caduceus, a fascinating mistake. This is actually the staff of Hermes, and it's related to commerce, and not medicine.

The Caduceus, a fascinating and telling mistake. This is actually the staff of Hermes, which is related to commerce, thievery, and undertaking — and not to healing or medicine.

Street drug serenade: I’m still supporting the friend whose prescription I was picking up at that compounding pharmacy back in 2013. My friend’s condition is serious and ongoing, and she and her doctors have tried everything on-label and off-label to address her chronic illness. She’s been on more medications and therapies than we can count, and though her doctor is conventional, he will often try alternative medications and treatments if he thinks there’s a chance that they might help.

There is a very, very off-label medication that I discovered for my friend’s condition; it’s known primarily as a street drug, and it needs to be administered by IV. We learned about this medication a few years ago, and tried to get my friend into a trial at the National Institutes of Health, but it didn’t work out, and we couldn’t find a local doctor who would even consider providing a trial treatment. There was one doctor in Los Angeles who offered to fly up to Monterey and provide an hour-long IV infusion for $1000 a visit, but the drive from here is 3 hours each way, and it just never came together.

Last month, my friend’s doctor discovered a clinic in a nearby county that offers IV infusions of this drug for $175 per treatment! So we went there together (my friend is not allowed to drive after the IV), and surprise! It’s the health spa where my mom worked when I was a teen and we were camping under the stairs at her friend’s house. The spa has a new name now, and though the giant 70s redwood hot tub is gone, the leaky skylight has been repaired, and the smell of chlorine had faded long ago, it’s old home week for me every time we go.

But let me not mince words — this place offers deeply questionable intravenous treatments (see below) based on the discredited idea of detoxification, superfoods, megadoses of vitamins, and other alternative approaches that promise to return people to perfect health.

I grew up in that detoxing, miracle food, megadosing, obsessive exercising, perfect health community, and let me tell you: these beliefs are extremely seductive and powerfully habit-forming. When I went cold turkey on all of my miracle foods and treatments back in 2003, my health didn’t change at all; however, the underlying issues that I had been obscuring with all of my obsessive-compulsive health rituals became apparent.

My actual healing from my true difficulties only commenced when I finally let go of my alternative medicine lifestyle. Continue reading

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Filed under Alternative medicine, New Age, Sociology

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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Filed under Agnosticism, Alternative medicine, Cognitive Biases, Energy, Metaphysics, New Age, Skepticism, Sociology

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