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  • It's sometimes put to me that my work is mono-focused on religion.

  • I say look at the cloud behind that cloud.

  • My driving interest is psychology --

  • particularly issues around manipulation.

  • Religion crops up so much of the time

  • purely because it constitutes arguably the most systematic implementation of

  • psychological manipulation we're likely to encounter in our lives.

  • It's a smorgasbord of exploitation

  • but it's far from unique.

  • Here's another one:

  • pseudoscience -- systems of belief and practice falsely presented as fruits

  • of scientific method.

  • Like clouds, religion and pseudoscience can drift into each other.

  • But generally-speaking, there's no requirement in pseudoscience to believe

  • in any gods.

  • Nonetheless, the social and psychological parallels are remarkable.

  • Like religion,

  • pseudoscience offers the false promise of easy answers to complex questions,

  • through unsubstantiated claims of esoteric knowledge.

  • Like religion, its proponents deflect criticism with all the same

  • fallacious defences.

  • Most ironic of all are the defences that denounce science,

  • when pseudoscience itself seeks recognition based on claims of evidence.

  • And like religion,

  • pseudoscience also shines a torch on the tremendous difficulties we have

  • in acknowledging our ignorance and vulnerability.

  • When we look at the areas of life occupied by pseudoscience,

  • it should come as no great surprise that it's all the same territory occupied

  • by gods --

  • ie the gaps in our knowledge.

  • We find pseudoscience mapping out false futures through prophecy;

  • proposing false communion with the heavens;

  • we find it offering false hope to the sickand grinding out an endless stream of

  • false psychological gurus.

  • If we take a closer look at those gurus, we see that, just like religion,

  • pseudoscience can be also practiced by true believers,

  • genuinely convinced of the validity of their work,

  • or by non-believers — people acting for personal gain

  • who have no belief in what they preach.

  • As with religion, these populations can migrate either way,

  • with some non-believers coming to believe their own publicity,

  • and some true believers

  • waking up from their illusions, only to discover they don't have skills in

  • any other trade,

  • leading them to continue in a profession they privately reject.

  • A religious example of this is the clergy project --

  • an online community of priests who hold no supernatural belief,

  • and whose membership ballooned from around 50 in March 2011

  • to over 400

  • in March 2013.

  • Pseudoscience comes in two broad categories, which we might call kiwis

  • and chickens.

  • As the name suggests,

  • kiwis are totally flightless.

  • They provide no results,

  • no evidence,

  • no testable theory.

  • Typically, phrases like 'vibrations'

  • and 'cosmic harmonics' get bandied about, with requests for practical definitions

  • or these terms leading only to 'ignotum per ignotius' responses --

  • ie explanations even more obscure than the thing they purport to explain.

  • Examples of kiwis include Crystal Healing,

  • Homeopathy,

  • Reiki,

  • Feng Shui

  • and Astrology.

  • Kiwis serve as armchair pseudo-entertainment,

  • or as window-dressing to cash in on the placebo effect.

  • Then we have chickens -- concepts that can take flight for short distances,

  • with great flapping. This type contains some vestige of workable material,

  • whether by design or happenstance. But it's weighed down by a lack of rigour,

  • an indifference to validity,

  • the introduction of insupportable elements,

  • and the corruption of any reasonable componentsfor instance, when metaphor gets

  • taken literally,

  • or when phenomena that occur in some cases

  • are overgeneralised to all cases, such as treating all illness as psychological

  • in origin.

  • An example of a chicken would be Scientology,

  • which employs lie-detector-like technology called e-meters

  • that pick up subjects' physical reactions during explorations of memories

  • and associations.

  • These sessions are called 'auditing',

  • and emotional responses show up as various swings of the e-meter needle --

  • the goal being to nullify traumatic responses.

  • There are echoes of other therapeutic practices here --

  • after all,

  • therapy often involves the revisiting of painful memories. Phobia treatments

  • in particular involve sustained psychological confrontation with

  • feared subject matter,

  • until the fear reaction dies away. But Scientology's chicken status is betrayed

  • by its underlying theory.

  • Scientology founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard asserted that the human mind was plagued

  • with 'engrams'.

  • These are mental recordings of past traumas, purportedly made when we're unconscious.

  • Hubbard claimed that, during this downtime, we continue to process

  • every sensation around us, to the last detail. Hubbard claimed these

  • unconsciously recorded 'engrams' are the source of our irrationality.

  • The aim of auditing is to rid people of all their 'engrams',

  • at which point they're said to achieve a state of 'clear',

  • and to possess formidable mental faculties --however, this might

  • take some time,

  • as the individual's whole existence is explored.

  • Birth itself is considered an 'engram',

  • which is why Hubbard advocated silent birth .... but it stretches

  • back further. Events before birth can generate 'engrams'.

  • And even events before conception.

  • Hubbard spoke of

  • 'sperm dreams' -- memories recorded when the individual was a sperm.

  • Hubbard failed to provide any explanation of how a brainless gamete

  • can perform the sophisticated cognition of recognising itself as a sperm,

  • let alone record its experience in memory.

  • But we're soon drifting back further,

  • into past lives.

  • And not just human lives.

  • Hubbard's medical officer Jim Dincalci recalled a drug-fuelled session

  • where Hubbard fed amphetamines to his son to the point where he claimed

  • to have regressed

  • to a clam.

  • Should you have the time and money to audit these prolific 'engrams' to

  • the state of 'clear',

  • you'll then move on to auditing immortal alien spirits known as

  • 'body thetans', which Hubbard claimed are stuck to us in clusters,

  • and keep us from our full potential.

  • From alien spirits to past lives

  • to sperm dreams to detailed unconscious recordings,

  • none of these concepts bear even a postcard relationship to science,

  • despite Hubbard's frequent non-specific reference to 'laboratory evidence'.

  • Pseudoscience seems

  • irresistibly drawn to the concept of 'the unconscious'.

  • I'm not a fan of the term.

  • I prefer to talk about 'things we do outside of our awareness'.

  • This puts the focus on the things we do, which anchors discussion in

  • observable material.

  • When we start talking about 'the unconscious', and speculating on what

  • 'it's trying to tell us',

  • we're already starting with a dubious, assumption-laden metaphor.

  • And in the undisciplined hands of pseudoscientists,

  • this unanchored foundation is liable to drift clean away into

  • unadulterated fantasy --

  • taking the client with it.

  • During her therapy, Nadean Cool, from Wisconsin,

  • became convinced she'd been in a satanic cult,

  • eaten babies, been raped,

  • and had sex with animals.

  • She came to believe she'd developed over 120 personalities,

  • including children, angels,

  • the bride of Satan,

  • and a duck.

  • She was hospitalised over 30 times because of extreme suicidal feelings

  • brought about by the thoughts and images generated in her therapy.

  • She also confronted her father with accusations of satanic abuse inspired by

  • her therapist,

  • Kenneth Olson.

  • Any chance of future reconciliation vanished a week later,

  • when her father died of a heart attack.

  • In March 1997,

  • Nadean won a $2.4 million settlement against Olson.

  • As a result of the trial, several other former patients came forward,

  • with matching implanted fantasies.

  • 'The unconscious' was an exalted entity in the pseudoscience I found myself immersed in

  • on a recent course.

  • As I've indicated,

  • psychology's been a driving interest of mine.

  • I took it up academically at school --

  • and pursued it at university.

  • After my degree, alongside a career in publishing,

  • I continued my training, taking courses and workshops,

  • which culminated in a final post-grad course, through which I qualified as a

  • therapist several years ago.

  • The staff were passionate about evidence and research,

  • Then, a few months ago, I felt like stretching myself, and applied to

  • what appeared to be another great course, offering seminars on a huge range

  • of subjects.

  • The course began with a module presented as 'developmental psychology'.

  • I looked forward to discussing some juicy research papers. Instead, we were fed a welter of

  • undisciplined hunch and assumption,

  • on subjects like what the fetus was thinking in utero.

  • The nadir of that particular discourse came when it was suggested that

  • consciousness

  • began at conception.

  • The speculations on the baby's mental life

  • got truly bizarre.

  • I'd highlight particularly egregious passages from the course literature

  • to read out loud in the seminars.

  • For instance, this gem,

  • commenting on the moment babies discover their parents have a

  • separate relationship.

  • 'An early realisation of the parents' independent relationship is experienced

  • by the baby as a gigantic combined figure,

  • penis joined with breast,

  • stomach, mouth or vagina in endless mutual gratification,

  • creating ever new riches in the form of

  • faeces babies.'

  • After reading out that passage,

  • I said, 'Now, far be it from me to throw out the faeces baby with the bath water --

  • but what a load of shit.'

  • But the staff member we were with had drifted into a reverie of admiration,

  • remarking on the 'wonderfully rich language'.

  • As befits a chicken,

  • there were islands of supportable concepts.

  • Defences, for instance, represent entirely observable behaviours.

  • We can see people 'splitting' experience into false dichotomies of

  • black or white, saints or sinners,

  • virgins or whores,

  • heaven or hell.

  • We can see people 'displacing' onto more acceptable targets.

  • The late Christopher Hitchens observed another common defence:

  • 'reaction formation' --

  • as demonstrated in the almost clockwork regularity with which anti-homosexual

  • polemicists get discovered in flagrante delicto.

  • Models were also offered that acknowledge how we re-enact in therapy our behaviours

  • outside it.

  • Again, no problem. Well, it's a bit obvious isn't it?

  • Client complains that people always let him down.

  • It becomes clear they 'let him down' because he asks unreasonable favours.

  • Requests to borrow unfeasible amounts of cash,

  • r drive him to the airport right that second.

  • Am I surprised when I start 'letting him down' too? No.

  • It's one of the games he plays with people --

  • and chances are he'll play it with me.

  • Concepts like these are observable.

  • But pseudoscientists aren't satisfied confining themselves to the observable.

  • Like Icarus,

  • they try to fly higher than their false wings will take them --

  • in this case,

  • wings of intuition. And like Icarus, the result is a big burned bird.

  • Throughout the course, as with all pseudoscientific enterprises,

  • there was no interest in criteria for establishing validity.

  • Instead, it was suggested that we should simply stick with the ideas

  • we personally liked.

  • Me and another student from a scientific background were

  • very outspoken in our criticisms.

  • But, in contrast to previous courses,

  • criticism wasn't welcome.

  • As is characteristic of pseudoscientific practitioners,

  • instead of engaging with criticism, course leaders sidestepped it,

  • became defensive,

  • dejected,

  • passive aggressive and resorted to personal putdowns.

  • In response to my criticisms of Jung's coincidence-denying concept

  • of 'synchronicity', rather than address the content of my comment,

  • one course leader told me I should be more open-minded.

  • I replied that having an open mind meant being willing to hear new ideas,

  • not having to accept them.

  • I said the mind shouldn't be like a bucket — letting everything in without

  • discrimination.

  • That was gullibility.