In his 1902 tale" a double barrelled detective story", Mark Twain describes a scam he pulled on his readers. The scam involves the following paragraph -
"It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind nature for the wingless wild things that have their home in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of woodland, the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere, far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.
- "A Double Barrelled Detective Story"
Twain apparently received a huge number of letters from curious readers, all of them perplexed by what exactly an oesophagus was. Twain later published a letter pointing out that in fact the entire paragraph was nonsense.
"alas" he lamented "if I had left that one treacherous word out , I would have scored. Scored everywhere; and the paragraph would have slidden through every readers sodden sensibilities like oil, and left not a suspicion behind..."
I'd love to say that we've come a long way in 100 odd years , that our critical thinking faculties have improved and we now read with a more sceptical eye. But if the drivel spouted by the new age healing movement is anything to go by we've still got a long way to go. All of which is a longwinded way of saying ; Bullshit still baffles brains.
Of course if Twain were to write a parody of new-age guru speak, he'd have to add a few new words to his vocabulary. Words, many of which were not in common usage when he wrote this piece but are thrown about with gay abandon nowadays.
I thought I'd take on the challenge of writing a Twain-style nonsense paragraph, but with a modern, "new age" twist.
"the consciousness of the universe is a consciousness of love. To create healing in a truly holistic sense we must embrace the quantum universe. Toxins cannot exist in an environment of love, because love is a vibrational frequency that does not resonate with toxicity. Change your vibration and you change your whole organism, move and the universe moves with you"
Ok so I'm no mark twain, but in fairness neither are the jokers I'm parodying.
But I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the key words that crop up again and again in the "alternative" world, what they really mean and why they are used.
Quantum- nowadays , the word quantum is used to make a statement sound complicated and sciencey, to confuse and obfuscate. Homeopaths talk about their treatments working "at a quantum level", although whatever these quantum level effects are they appear indistinguishable from a placebo.
"Quantum" is also used by proponents of The secret to "science up" their particular brand of bog standard positive thinking. essentially it functions as shorthand for "this is very complicated science stuff, you wouldnt understand, best you just take what I say as fact and not question too deeply lest you look thick"
If you can find a genuine, credible physicist who believes that The Secret represents real quantum mechanics, by the way, I'll eat my own leg.
The fact that quantum mechanics is so impossibly complicated, so much so that only a hand full of people on the planet truly understand its workings, makes it a fantastic tool for quacks. Simply use the term randomly, with total confidence, and many people will just assume you know what you're talking about. See also: vibration, frequency, resonate
Toxin- This continues the trend of words with specific technical meaning , in this case a poisonous substance produced within living cells, being appropriated by the alternative movement and broadened to include anything deemed harmful to health or not natural.
Thus things like wheat and sugar are branded toxic , and we are encouraged to "detox" by removing them. I obviously have no problem with removing unhealthy things from the diet, I think it's a great idea in fact, and this is what detox diets tend to do.
It's one thing to say eat more green vegetables and eat less synthetic rubbish, that's a totally sensible course of action. But I have a problem with the the use of detox as a marketing term and the very specific claims that tend to come with it, many of which are simply made up. In the world of nutrition, simple advice is not enough. The need to commodify common-sense healthy eating means we must come up with sciencey sounding terms to make our program sound proprietary, unique, specific and therefore worth paying money for.
I'm a trainer, I charge people for training and diet information. But I feel the value I provide comes not from the Top Secret information I have, but my ability to get the client to change their behaviours and the other interpersonal aspects that hopefully make training with me the high point of their day...or so I tell myself.
Holistic- quacks like to talk about being holistic. This supposedly means that they "treat the whole person" and "treat the cause of disease", unlike medicine which, we're told only treats the symptoms.
There are a few points I want to make here so I'll be brief.
1- why is it that no matter what illness you have, the cure is the exact treatment that the alternative practitioner you've consulted with just happens to provide? Doesnt matter if you've got cancer or colic, crystal healing people will heal you with crystals, faith healers will heal you with God and back-crackers will crack your back. This doesn't sound terribly holistic to me. It sounds more like a case of "when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"
2- there are a number of illnesses, phenylketonuria springs to mind, where a reductionist (the opposite of holistic) approach is by far the most sensible. Constantly taking a holistic approach is itself in danger of becoming reductionist. Stick that in your traditional Navajo indian pipe and smoke it.
I'm all for prevention of disease through healthy living, that's right and good. But holistic has become a buzz word and a stick with which to beat real medicine. God knows our medical system isn't perfect, it's run by humans and put under massive strain, pharmaceutical companies engage in secretive bastardry, that's not paranoid conspiracy theory, that's true. but at least it's not based on something someone just made up.
See also; natural, healing
Universe - you know what the universe is right? At least you should, it's where you keep all your stuff. But apparently it's more than that, it's actually like a sort of giant, cosmic personal assistant. all we have to do, we're told by shiny toothed Americans beaming at us from an infinite number of self help manuals, is to focus on what we want and the universe will provide it.
This is a very effective method of separating desperate, gullible people from their money. It would be wonderful if simply focussing on what we want would make that thing manifest, but if that we're true I'd have married Kelly Brook about ten years ago.
But sadly no, if you want something you have to work for it. Or be Danny Cipriani.
This has been a pretty belligerent post. One of the dangers of being an ultra-rational sceptic, of believing that you are objectively right because the evidence supports you, is that you can come across as a smug, hectoring prick. I want to point out that those I've come across in my industry who believe this stuff are generally nice, genuine people. I'm not saying "if you believe this you are an idiot". I'm currently going out with someone who reads star signs for God's sake (she also read the Mark Twain paragraph and thought it made perfect sense, maybe I'm the idiot?)
My point is ; I never wish to attack individuals, but an integral part of science is attacking ideas. Science at its most basic, is coming up with an idea, testing it by trying to disprove it, and then asking others to do the same. If you want to use the language of science you should be prepared and secure enough in your ideas to have them rubbished and torn apart by your peers.
Attack the idea , not the person.
Ad hominem is the lowest form of argument. Got that you bloody hippies?