B2 High-Intermediate UK 316 Folder Collection
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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 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,
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
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,
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
That was gullibility.
It should be like a sieve — applying a critical filter to what we're told,
and rejecting what unjustified.
After a pseudo-thoughtful pause,
the course leader cheerfully announced that she was a bucket.
It was an asinine response.
It was also untrue,
as she proved countless times.
For instance, she was pseudo-analysing me one time,
and I happened to cough.
She pounced on it,
saying her comments had clearly touched on something.
I pointed out that,
as she well knew,
I'd had a chest infection for five weeks.
But she'd already formed a theory about this cough that confirmed
her analysis, and wouldn't entertain any other explanation.
Had she been the bucket she claimed to be, she would've been able to hear
other explanations. She was worse than a bucket.
She exemplified another defining feature of pseudoscience:
rampant confirmation bias.
In his famous paper 'On being sane in insane places',
Rosenhan showed the damaging effects of confirmation bias in
psychological assessments.
He organised the admission of eight fake patients into 12 different
psychiatric hospitals.
On arriving, they complained of hearing voices, which seemed to say the words:
'hollow' and 'thud'.
That's all.
They gave genuine accounts of their life histories,
changing only their names and professions.
Upon admission, they ceased reporting any abnormal symptoms,
and behaved on the wards as they normally would.
They followed instructions --
but didn't ingest any medicine --
and they engaged in conversation and journal-writing,
to pass the time on wards where there was little to do.
In 11 out of 12 cases,
subjects were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Rosenhan noted that the fake patients' life histories were distorted
by the staff to fit popular ideas about schizophrenic onset.
Normal negative reactions to mistreatment by staff were taken as
manifestations of disturbance.
With three patients, even their journal writing was pathologised.
Rosenhan also observed that just sitting outside a cafeteria
a short while before it was due to open
was diagnosed by one practitioner as indicating
'oral-acquisitive pathology'.
The pseudoscience institute I attended was rife with these
pathologising biasses.
Mistreatment by staff was consistently deflected back on the students with
pseudo-analytical nonsense.
When I complained to the heads of the institute about one staff member's
serious violation of ethical guidelines, they suggested my problem with her was that
she reminded me of someone else --
possibly my mother?
I couldn't quite believe the clichéd drivel I was hearing.
I said, 'I'm sure if I came over there and slapped you round the face,
we could have a fascinating discussion about the people I remind you of --
but the fact would remain
I slapped you round the face.
Just like the fact remains that that staff member violated ethical guidelines.'
I could appreciate why most students became apathetic about challenging
these deflections -- it's hard to convey the sheer volume of them,
or the sheer stubbornness of the staff.
But I resolved to bulldoze through every deflection that came my way.
Predictably, resistance increased at first.
At times I'd have three staff members firing interpretations at me all at once.
But over time,
resistance slackened as I made it clear I wouldn't be sidetracked.
Of the many instances of abuse I witnessed and experienced,
the stand-out conflict was a series of exchanges I had with a supervisor about my throat.
Last year, in part one of my miniseries on death,
I shared that I had a throat problem which was initially suspected to be cancer,
but found to be benign.
The condition means my voice gets tired faster than it used to,
and with prolonged use over the day, it can become uncomfortable,
then painful.
I've learned to cope by taking periods of rest and just not overdoing it.
When I shared this information at the institute,
to my bewilderment,
one of the course supervisors deliberately pushed me to do quantities of
sustained reading in her session
that I'd indicated were
out of the question.
Our exchanges fell into a pattern.
I would decline to read.
She would become insistent and argumentative until I got angry
and shut the interaction down.
the very same thing would happen next time.
I got in touch with the accrediting body of the course,
who were appalled
and told me her behaviour was not only unethical,
but illegal.
Professional or educational institutes are legally obliged to make
what are technically termed 'reasonable adjustments' to accommodate
any physical incapacity that prohibits certain activities.
In my case, that simply meant someone else reads.
More to the point,
pressurising me to read
could be construed as harassment.
I took this to the heads of the institute.
They fumbled a meek defence that my supervisor had interpreted my throat condition
as a psychological condition --
a manifestation of some unconscious anxiety.
I said that was completely unacceptable!
I'd made it absolutely clear to her
that it was a diagnosed condition, for which I'd had extensive tests.
I said, I hadn't asked for her opinion, and she was not medically qualified to give one.
I was furious.
They nodded gravely, and assured me my throat condition would now be respected.
But I knew this supervisor was directing students to disregard their
clients' medical conditions in similarly damaging ways.
For instance, one student had a client who'd lie on the floor during therapy
because he found sitting painful.
Without any medical enquiry, this supervisor directed the student to get
that client to sit in the chair,
declaring that the client's avoidance of the chair was 'an unconscious attempt
to sabotage the therapy'.
The student privately expressed serious misgivings,
but nonetheless
did as he was told.
Steven Weinberg famously said that 'for good people to do evil things,
that takes religion'.
But the same could easily be said of pseudoscience.
These students were good, sensitive people.
I felt sad for them.
But I felt much sadder for their clients.
And that's what makes me angry.
The horrendous abuse of clients.
Chantale Lavigne was reported to have been 'cooked to death' as part of a course run by
self-styled self-help guru Gabrielle Fréchette.
The session in which Lavigne died was part of a seminar aptly entitled
'Dying in Consciousness.'
in which Fréchette --
who claimed to channel a biblical figure called Melchisedech --
had left Chantale, along with eight others, covered in mud,
w wrapped in plastic, then covered in blankets, with boxes over their heads
for nine hours,
with the instruction to hyperventilate.
Normal body temperature is 37 degrees. Chantale arrived unconscious
at hospital with a temperature of 40.5.
It was reported that Fréchette denied responsibility,
that she felt her duty was fulfilled by calling 911,
and that she continued to offer bookings.
Chantale had spent nearly $19,000
on this fatal course.
Bruce Hines recounted how his Scientologist sister died from
breast cancer.
She'd achieved the highest possible level in Scientology at the time --
Operating Thetan 8.
Hines explained that, in the 'almost God-like' Operating Thetan state,
you were supposed to be able to leave your body at will,
to be assured of your immortality, and to suffer no physical troubles.
His sister's cancer was slow-moving and easily operable,
but while Hines acknowledged that many cautious Scientologists take
normal medical treatment, his sister chose not to, believing that 'auditing would
ake care of it'.
She died aged 55.
Candace Newmaker was just ten years old when she was suffocated in a session
of pseudoscientific attachment therapy.
This vile practice
involves the forcible psychological regression of children who've failed to bond
with a parent.
Candace was pinioned under a blanket by four adults, and directed to push herself
out of it, in a simulation of rebirth, to encourage her to bond like a baby
with her adoptive mother.
Despite Candace screaming that she couldn't breathe, and that she was dying,
there was no respite.
One of the pseudotherapists, Julie Ponder,
even taunted her, saying,
'Go ahead and die right now.
For real.
For real.'
After forty minutes,
Candace had spoken her last word and stopped moving.
Even so,
onder continued the abusive ranting,
calling her
a 'quitter'.
When we attempt to run before we can walk,
we fall over.
And that's what we see with pseudoscience all the time -- people falling over.
Into abuse,
bankruptcy, illness and death.
I suspect that will continue
until we learn to respect
the gaps in our knowledge;
to approach them with curiosity and discipline, rather them fill them with
the easy answers of pseudo-knowledge.
In short, to become
Which brings me to scepticism. Scepticism
is not only the most intellectually

honest position,
it actively crowbars a gap of thought
between stimulus and response so that we

don't react in pat,
non-thinking reflexes. We stop to

we act with more awareness
and spontaneity.
Scepticism could've crowbarred a gap of thought into Candace Newmaker's killers,
who might've stopped to investigate her cries, rather than numbly dismiss them.
Scepticism could also help chickens evolve to fly long distance --
if they streamlined
their billowy excesses
and started applying serious discipline to their lazy,
wack theories.
In view of everything I've said about pseudoscience,
don't think me a hypocrite if I end by proposing a new metaphorical
pseudoscience of my own.
A kind of avian alchemy.
Let's turn these kiwis and chickens
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'Science' of the gaps

316 Folder Collection
Arbbian published on October 1, 2017
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