In our quest for the spiritual life, many of us are inclined to look for the unusual. I was that way for many years. I went down a lot of dead ends (which I will not enumerate, in deference to those who may have found their own answers where I did not). I have written elsewhere how my search tended toward snobbery — none of that old stuff for me — and how I did not begin to become comfortable with my own spirituality until I finally gave in and began considering ideas that were two and a half millennia old.
On my journey, I found myself discarding a number of paths because I was able to discern that they were — to put it bluntly — simply bogus. I am fortunate to have training in logic and science that enabled me to see through some of the blatant nonsense that masquerades as spiritual concepts, and it saved me wasting my time with metaphysical quackery on several occasions.
Spiritual disciplines need precisely that — discipline. They need to be at least internally consistent; if too many things contradict each other, or require explanations with undefined terms, there’s something wrong. Spirituality should simplify life, not make it more complicated.
Pseudo means “fake.” The best way to spot a fake is to know as much as possible about the field. In the case of spirituality, that means knowing as much as we can find out about the mainstream paths — to mix a metaphor — before traveling too far afield. Does it make sense, after all, to reject the thousands of years of thought that have gone into the major spiritual paths, simply to be different? Taking a good look at the mainstream will allow us to better evaluate the alternatives.
I don’t intend to tear down anyone’s beliefs here. Buddhists believe that all paths will eventually lead to the same place. What I want to do is give you some tools to spot quackery wherever it raises its head. Most of what I’ll be writing about is applicable to other areas, in addition to spirituality. Please don’t take these remarks personally. If they make you wonder — well, perhaps you should be.
Many people have the wrong idea about science, and about scientific theories. In common usage, theories are problematic. If I say that something is true “in theory,” you immediately know that I’m not all that sure.
Scientists use the word in an entirely different context. A scientific theory is an attempt to describe, as accurately as possible, a body of fact that exists independently of the theory. Good theories explain reality; poor theories bend reality to fit the theory, or obscure it with fancy language that explains nothing.
All flimflam jobs and mistaken ideas about the world tend to have certain things in common. The presence of even one of these should arouse suspicion. On the other hand, material displaying none of these flaws might still be bogus, because people invent new ways to fool themselves and others every day.
We need to remember that there are such things as sociopaths — people who lack a conscience. We “normal people” are ready prey for such, since we cannot ourselves imagine feeling (or not feeling) that way. Many con men or women are sociopaths. They don’t care what happens to you, they care only for the game of manipulation and for personal gain. Many of them become political and “spiritual” leaders. Many folks are honest disciples of the con men — good people led astray because they want to believe, and either lack the skills to discern issues clearly or are hearing what they want to hear.
Things To Look Out For
Questionable Credentials: We ought not be fooled by PhD’s, doctorates, diplomas, certifications, etc., unless we have personally checked out their validity and applicability. I can whip myself up a perfectly believable PhD in a few minutes with Office Depot supplies and PhotoShop. So can thousands of other people. Even disregarding outright fraud, just how hard is it to become certified in a specialty that hardly anyone has ever heard of, and who handles the certification? Could be worth checking into.
One of the most egregious hoaxters in my experience, whose “expertise” in physics had purportedly led him to literally earthshaking conclusions about the future of the Earth and mankind, claimed to have been employed by NASA in a “high level” position. This turned out to be reasonably true. He had been a director of human services at a NASA installation, and had a PhD from a reputable university — in Sociology. He had no credentials in physics at all — immediately discernible to anyone with even a smattering of scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, his first book was successful enough to spawn a second, and then a third.
At the request of a friend, I once investigated the certification of a couple of “experts” in my area who were offering fairly expensive courses in a so-called “spiritual discipline.” Lo and behold! Both of them had been degreed by the same institution that they were shilling for, and that institution was not accredited as an institution of higher learning by its own, or any other, state. One was the President, and the other President Emeritus. Even assuming that these people weren’t out for a buck at the expense of their trainees, how much credence can you ascribe to degrees that were conferred on the holders, by the holders? Look for diplomas from known institutions. They can be faked, too, but they’re easier to check.
Indifference to facts: Instead of citing standard reference works or detailing their investigations, advocates simply spout “facts” where needed. The vague ideas and mis-stated assumptions are usually central to the concept they’re trying to sell. If the ideas get fuzzier the closer you get to the basics, it calls assumptions based on those ideas seriously into question. You cannot, for example, prove anything in physics without stating it mathematically. Claims that can’t be backed up with sensible explanations are the sure sign of a faker. Look for published work in texts or peer-reviewed papers.
Purveyors of bogus ideas rarely revise. The first edition of one of their books is almost always the last, even though the book may remain in print for a long time. Compare this to science textbooks that see a new edition every couple of years because of the rapid accumulation of new facts and insights.
Bogus premises do not take into account opposing ideas. They begin with a hypothesis that is often appealing emotionally and spectacularly implausible, and then looks only for items which seem to support the basic premise. Conflicting evidence is ignored, and those who present it are made out to be prejudiced, or misinformed. Generally speaking, bogus spirituality rationalizes strongly held beliefs, rather than investigating alternate possibilities.
Research is invariably sloppy. Proponents clip newspaper reports, cite hearsay, refer to other similar books (never standard texts), and pore over arcane religious or mythological works. They rarely or never cite an independent investigation, indicate that they have rigorously checked their sources, or provide references to accepted scientific research (except, perhaps, by taking data out of context). They often defend this by claiming that the mainstream folks are against them. Paranoia is usually a sign of problems ahead.
Emphasis is not on meaningful, controlled, repeatable experiments. Instead it is on unverifiable eyewitness testimony, stories, hearsay, rumor, and dubious anecdotes. In areas dealing with the sciences, genuine scientific literature is either ignored or misinterpreted. Gobbledygook and jargon such as “vibrations,” “astral planes,” and “other dimensions” are tossed about, without any explanation of what they are, and lacking scientific or mathematical descriptions.
Go into your investigations determined to find the truth, rather than simply what you want to hear. Listen, read and think critically. Do not assume that sincere people know what they’re talking about simply because they are sincere. Look for the root ideas, and examine them carefully.
Don’t let fuzzy thinkers lead you around by your thoughts. This isn’t a dress rehearsal.
More about Fact and Opinion — Telling the Difference.
While it is true that what’s right for me is not necessarily what is right for you, it is a sure thing that someone else messing with our head is not what we need when our primary purpose is to get it on straight, so to speak. So, on with the anti-medicine show…
Subjective Validation: This is an important concept in understanding how the shamans are able to influence our thinking. Say I have a headache. I put some jello on my head. My headache goes away. Did the jello do it?
Apart from a possible placebo effect, we really can’t say. I may have thought the remedy would work, relaxed, and so the pain went away because it had been caused by tension. Lots of other things were happening at the same time. An airplane flew overhead, I was wearing my green shirt — and, of course, my headache would have gone away eventually anyway. How do I decide which was the cure?
Or were any of them? Without a controlled experiment: several dozen people with headaches — half of whom don jello, and half of whom don’t we can say nothing about the power of jello. If, however, the jello-heads all have relief, while the similarly miserable but much less messy control group continues to suffer, we can say tentatively that there may be some therapeutic effect from the application of flavored animal collagen and sugar.
Subjective validation is one of the ways mistaken notions about reality — superstitions — come into being. Another factor is arbitrary conventions of human culture, rather than unchanging regularities of nature. Taking astrology as an example, we find that many of its interpretations are based on the names of the heavenly bodies. If other names had been given to the constellations by the ancients, astronomy would be quite unaffected, but astrology would be entirely different. The same would be true if the planets had been named differently.
If I see an attractive person at a gathering and stare hard at them, willing them to come over and talk to me, there are two possibilities: nothing will happen, or they will come over and talk to me. The odds are 50/50. If nothing happens, I tell myself, “well, he/she just isn’t receptive to my vibes.” If contact is made, my efforts are validated.
I fail to consider several other possibilities. Someone may have seen me staring and mentioned it to the other person, who became curious. He or she may have noticed my interest without my knowing it, and become curious. They may have turned, caught my eye, and made a quick decision to come over as an excuse to leave the conversation they were in. My body language may have projected my interest. Finally, it may have been pure chance. After all, the number of possible combinations of people at any gathering is finite. Unless all of these variables are accounted for — preferably by an unbiased observer — there is absolutely no reason to ascribe the meeting to my mental efforts.
We tend to believe what we want to believe: In that way, our behavior parallels and often reinforces the behavior of those who would mess with our heads.
Experimental Validation: The purveyors of bogus ideas never carry out meaningful experiments themselves, and they generally ignore the results of those done by others, unless they can be shown to validate whatever thesis they are pushing. If one of them claims to have accomplished something in such-and-such a way, the others will not attempt to duplicate it, or check the premise for accuracy. They will, instead, “build on” the work of their colleague, following up on the untested hypothesis with what amounts to wishful thinking, and building their own false hypotheses on top of it. This is in extreme contrast with science, where crucial experiments are repeated by scientists all over the world, and where hypotheses are rejected if follow-ups do not elicit significant agreement.
Self-contradiction: We may read in some grimoire that wands should only be made of, say, willow or rowan wood, and then find a few chapters on that they are often made of crystal, metal, even plastic! If called on such inconsistencies, the author will take great pains to indicate how these are very personal issues, and what is right for one might not be right for another. No doubt.
Deliberate Manufacture of Mystery (Parallel trick: inner circles of initiation): Just about anything can be made mysterious if you leave out enough information about the details. A listener without the information necessary to formulate questions must accept or reject an idea in its entirety. This may be very difficult, especially if it is something in which we really want to believe. Which is more reasonable, to believe that people were abducted by creatures that no one else has ever seen, then returned to Earth with amnesia, which then mysteriously cleared up, leaving hazy memories of the experience, or to assume that such folks might need special care? Is the vague outline of a face on a window (or in a cloud) a miracle, or just another demonstration of human beings’ ability to discern faces in a variety of circumstances: ceiling cracks, wood grain — even grilled cheese sandwiches?
Bogus ideas rarely progress. Little or no new information is uncovered. New theories are seldom proposed, except in the rare cases when someone manages to come up with a new scam. Old concepts are rarely modified or discarded in the light of new “discoveries,” since the pseudo-spiritualists can’t afford new discoveries that call their old conclusions into question. The older the idea is purported to be, the more respect it deserves.
No New Proofs: No pseudo-spiritualist has ever come up with a new, provable idea not known to science. Indeed, many of the tools they use to boggle minds are well-known and understood by scientists, but not the general public — proving once again that ignorance is a fat target for con men and other thieves.
Rhetoric, propaganda and misrepresentation are used, rather than valid evidence. If they are questioned, they are likely to accuse their questioners of these very tactics. They also love devices such as the “Galileo Argument,” where the proponent compares him/herself with Galileo. However, Galileo’s ideas were immediately tested, verified and accepted promptly by his scientific colleagues. It was the common people — influenced by church leaders who perceived Galileo’s ideas to be a threat to their power — who failed to grasp their accuracy and import.
Arguments from ignorance, to ignorance: Many base their claims on the incompleteness of information about nature or science, rather than what is actually known. No claim can possibly be supported by an information vacuum, but that doesn’t stop them from giving it a shot. The fact that people don’t recognize what they see in the sky means only that they don’t recognize what they saw, not that flying saucers are from outer space. The statement “science cannot explain” is common in their speech and literature. In most cases, science has no interest in their issues because they cannot be scientifically tested and there is no true evidence that the phenomenon exists, merely anecdotes or wishful thinking. In other cases the scientific explanation is well known and well established, but the purveyors of bogus ideas either don’t know this or deliberately ignore it to create the mystery on which their business thrives.
Appeals to false authority: People are accepted as experts in areas they have never studied, or have studied only cursorily, in courses that convey unsupported information. Science fiction writers found religions. Psychiatrists present themselves as experts in anthropology and history, even though their claims may be inconsistent with everything known in all of those fields. A physicist says a psychic couldn’t possibly have fooled him with simple magic tricks, even though he knows nothing about magic and slight of hand.
Emotional appeals are common: “in your heart, you know it’s true.” When confronted by inconvenient facts, they simply reply, “Scientists don’t know everything,” or things aren’t always as they seem!
Arcane vocabularies with ambiguous meanings: “Biocosmic energy,” “metapsychic vibrations,” and similar gobbledygook. Quack healers would be lost without the word “energy,” but their use of the term has little in common with its literal, scientific definition.
Inability to produce consistent results is usually passed off as “the powers are unwilling to act at this time,” or something similar. Phenomena appear only under certain vaguely specified but vital conditions, such as when no doubters are present, when the “vibrations” are right, or perhaps only once in human history.
Genuine phenomena must be capable of study by anyone with the proper equipment, and all procedurally valid studies must give consistent results. There is no way to construct a TV set or radio that will function only when no skeptics are present. A man who claims to be a concert violinist but owns no violin is most likely lying.
Appeals to magical thinking are common. Inexplicable influences and connections between things are assumed from the beginning. Eating heart-shaped leaves is good for your heart. Rams are aggressive, so someone born in the sign of the ram is aggressive. Some people are simply more “spiritual” than others, so things “work” for them. Anyone can learn how to use these (powers, energy, talents) but few are motivated. Such abilities can be “blocked.” Unlike the world at large, where something that doesn’t work is presumed not to work, there are always excuses.
There are many other aspects of bogus spirituality, far too numerous to even begin to cover here. These, however, may give you some means of measuring — or at least becoming nervous about — some concepts to which you may be exposed to on your quest.
Finally, we come to the wisdom of Noam Chomsky, the renowned MIT professor of linguistics, who stated that if you want to understand the world, look to see who benefits from a particular set of circumstances. Where is the money? Where is the prestige? Who gives and who gets, in the material sense. As my old anthropology professor told me back in 1963, “Find a shaman who is gaining little or nothing from his profession, and he may be worth listening to.”