Swimming in a Sea of Pseudoscience

This past weekend, I was out at brunch when I saw a rack of free magazines in the restaurant’s foyer. I picked out one of them, which as it turned out was a promotional brochure and schedule for something called the New Life Expo to be held in New York City this coming weekend.

I read on, and the further into it I got, the more appalled I was. If you thought that humanity was entering a new and enlightened age, this magazine will force you to reconsider. If you took your impressions of the human race from these pages, you’d have to conclude that we’re barely keeping our heads above water in a sea of irrationality, one that freely blends religious mysticism and pseudoscientific gibberish alike. Every kind of nonsense that human beings have ever invented is bursting from these pages – and I don’t doubt that this expo will attract legions of the duped, the gullible, and the woolly-headed to feed from the trough.

One of the recurring themes among presenters at the expo is 2012. They’re all tremendously excited by the imminent arrival of this year, and they’re certain, with the infallible certainty of all good apocalyptic prophets, that something momentous is going to happen. The amusing thing is that they don’t agree about what it is. Among the possibilities touted are life-threatening catastrophes and pole shifts, the battle of Armageddon, the emergence of an Antichrist-led global tyranny, life-altering waves of light, the creation of glorified bodies by the Archangel Metatron, a great cosmic awakening, and more:


Some of the presenters at this event, I’m sure, are simple con artists who are cynically exploiting the gullible by learning the right buzzwords to stir into their word salad (“ascended”, “enlightened”, “indigo”, “vibration”, “natural”, “angelic”, “harmony”, “dimension”, “shamanic” and “consciousness” are perennial favorites). But it’s the sincere ones that concern me more. At least some of these people are probably mentally ill, but they’re not getting the help they need because they’re surrounded by fellow-believers, creating an environment where psychiatric delusions are normalized and rewarded rather than recognized as symptoms. Here are two likely examples:

Like the demon-obsessed evangelicals who treat mental illness as an event of religious significance rather than a medical condition, New Agers are discouraging the genuinely sick from seeking help and treatment. Their endless doctrinal flexibility and limitless tolerance for the absurd are part of the reason for this. But I can’t believe that no one among the organizers of this event noticed the symptoms or drew the obvious conclusion. It’s more likely that they just see this as an additional source of income, whatever the consequences.

And money, of course, is a huge motive of the expo’s organizers and presenters; they’re not even shy about it. Ironically, some ads rail against the profit-driven corporatocracy and the greed of the mega-wealthy while hawking their own products and charging hundreds or thousands of dollars a pop for seminars and private consultations. Others promise that they can teach conference-goers the infallible way to acquire fabulous wealth for themselves, using the law of attraction, astrology, or whatever other fashionable nonsense is in vogue. Still others run the classic snake-oil salesman’s game of enriching themselves by selling false hope to the desperate, promising good health with no effort or magical cures for incurable diseases. The cures on offer run the gamut: psychic powers, prayer, ionized water, “far infrared light” (a new one to me), fad diets, “detoxification”, and classic scams like the Rife machine. One unintentionally hilarious ad apparently touts a raw-food diet as a means of healing gunshot wounds.

Most of the ads also display the credential inflation so common among pseudoscientists. Since most of their “specialties” require no knowledge and no certification, why not claim as many as you can? If one kind of bait doesn’t hook a potential client, maybe another one will! In that vein, here’s one who claims to be an MD as well as “an ordained rabbi in the Baal Shem Tov lineage, clan chief of the Lakota Spirit Dance, a Native American Sundancer, and a lineage holder in the Nityananda liberation tradition, and acknowledged as liberated by his two recognized enlightened spiritual teachers. He is an in-depth teacher in Advaita Vedanta, japa yoga, bhakti yoga, nada yoga, and karma yoga.” (Busy fellow! – and he must be absolutely up to his eyeballs in student-loan debt.)

Like the Learning Annex, the organizers of the New Life Expo believe that appealing to the lowest common denominator is a can’t-miss money-making strategy, and they’re not wrong about that. For the most part, human beings are eager to be swindled, and lack the critical thinking skills needed to tell the difference between science and bullshit. I’d like to say that, unlike the theocratic believers organizing to take over the state, their brand of woo is harmless – but to people who let psychics make all their important life decisions, who rely on colonic cleanses rather than chemotherapy, or who encourage and enable psychotics and schizophrenics, it’s not harmless at all.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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