Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles [music] 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 sick; and 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 components — for 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.