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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    I would love to go all Margaret Mead and attend the show, but I’m nowhere near the place. And I’m also afraid that it may sound entertaining ahead of time, but the actual event would probably be amazingly depressing.

  • Dan

    I see Mr. Morton will be giving investment advice. I wonder if he’s registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission?

    The Archangel Metatron sounds like one of the Transformers! Will Ms. “Satori” be selling the toy version for kids?

  • http://www.politicalflavors.com MissCherryPi

    The Archangel Metatron sounds like one of the Transformers! Will Ms. “Satori” be selling the toy version for kids?

    Maybe she just has a really big crush on Alan Rickman.

  • L.Long

    You are much kinder than I.
    All these people are con artist whether the ‘truly believe’ or not.
    When someone tries to sell me a load , the 1st thing I ask is where is the double-blind test and results?
    If they cannot point me to it…they are cons.
    if they say you will not get this special offer again but must deal right now!…they are cons (Although of a different sort).
    In fact a Doc who will try to really push his method is also a con, even though his method may work just fine.
    I approach everyone trying to sell me something as a con artist.
    The nice part about being a pessimist, is that I am rarely disappointed and many times am pleasantly surprised.

  • kennypo65

    It’s my hypothesis that back in early human history, when we were scrounging out a living on the savanna, people this stupid were usually eaten by lions. Now they breed…and vote.

  • gmarcotte

    New plan: go to Mr Capers’ session, challenge him to a psychic mind battle, then imitate:
    http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/103833/the-real-psychic-detectives
    (good part starts at 1:35)

    Extra credit for getting the rest of the audience to join in.
    Take a friend to secretly record the whole thing, and you win at life.

    Sadly I’m not in NYC, but any takers? Anyone?

  • http://www.punkassblog.com Antigone

    It’s my hypothesis that back in early human history, when we were scrounging out a living on the savanna, people this stupid were usually eaten by lions. Now they breed…and vote.

    I’m sure you were being funny, but that’s probably not true. I mean, odds are just as well that we are bred to be trusting. If someone comes up yelling “Run, it’s a tiger!” the one standing there going “I demand evidence” is the one unable to out-run it. Just-so either way.

  • Jon Jermey

    Look at it this way: every sucker handing their cash over to the Sunflower Princess is one less fundie campaigning against abortion, gay rights and secular education. Let them all come! I’d much rather see hate crimes against invaders from other planets than the other inhabitants of our own.

  • HP

    Speaking of true believers . . .

    A few years ago, my then-girlfriend invited me to her brother’s wedding. Since he was a divorced Catholic and his fiancee was Protestant, the couple were getting married in a Unitarian-Universalist church. Or so they believed. We showed up for the service, and I turned to my girlfriend and said, “This is not a Unitarian church.” She gasped. “Don’t say anything. It’s not worth it.”

    Turns out they were married by a minister of the Church of Universal Life Triumphant, an offshoot of the Theosophy movement, complete with Ascended Masters, UFOs, a Hollow Earth, and enneagrams.

    It was a lovely ecumenical ceremony, and I had a wonderful time.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    The Archangel Metatron sounds like one of the Transformers!

    I was thinking of the Metrons from that Star Trek episode where Kirk fights the Gorn.

  • http://trikepilotadventures.blogspot.com/ John Cortesy

    How dangerous really are these con men? Separating fools from their money is probably the worst that they do. Other than the rare “sweat lodge” deaths leading to criminal prosecutions, you don’t hear much about the new age healers.

    I honestly can’t blame them for making a buck off of the gullible at events like this. Ministers and preachers do the same thing every Sunday.

  • Eurekus

    ‘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.’

    In a Seventh Day Adventist Church, when I did go there, I actually heard the leading elder preach that God doesn’t want the mentally sick to go to a psychiatrist, but to turn to Him instead. He was very clearly referring to the bible in his rant. It goes to show, despite all their pretend piety, Christians and New Agers are all thieves of the same standard. Ebon, you’ve nailed this right on the head.

  • kennypo65

    If I’m not mistaken, Metatron was once Enoch. Assuming I remember the book of Enoch correctly.

    Thank you Miss Cherry Pi for yet another “Dogma” reference.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Apropos of this, this organization called Eyes of Learning offers frequent lectures at Levittown Hall in Hicksville out here on Long Island. The next lecture, advertised for next Friday the 25th, features an Alan Steinfeld. The title of his lecture will be “The Secret Mysteries of 2012 Revealed Through Crop Circles.” However, these lectures are not free, so if you wanted to attend to present a contrary voice, you have to pony up $15.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    If someone comes up yelling “Run, it’s a tiger!” the one standing there going “I demand evidence” is the one unable to out-run it. Just-so either way.

    People who tried to outrun tigers typically died, too. The survival behavior for nearly all apes against most other large predators is cooperative attacks. It started out with throwing rocks, but has evolved into significantly better and better weapons.

  • cag

    Paging Harold Camping.

  • Demonhype

    “So he was shot in the head…and you gave him CPR for a bullet wound in the head? Yeah, I’d think that’s a perfectly acceptable treatment. Oh, yeah, people often overlook alternative methods of care. Like that blue guy who was shot in the foot in the battle? All I did was rub his neck with some aloe vera. He was fine!”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-0DInuDgD8&feature=related

    What’s sad is that this parody is not too far off from the reality.

  • Paul Soth

    If I may, a bit of my own personal experience.

    I once had a friend, I’ve known her for years. In fact, she was my first girlfriend a long time ago. She was always interested in the occult and whatnot, but never anything too serious.

    But then she started to get more serious. Perhaps it was the fact that taking up Yoga allowed her to be in better shape then she was in her entire life. Then there was the time that she said that a “natural psychic” told her that she wouldn’t be with her husband forever. Well, it would seem that she took that more as a directive and soon ended her marriage since she wanted to move out of state and he didn’t. She moved in with another man in a run-down house in an awful neighborhood. She kept going on about how she was “going through changes” and even trying to develop her own psychic powers. And then she asked if I was going to leave the state as well, since she was convinced that China was going to attack the United States in the near future.

    It was clear to me that she needed help, but was unwilling to listen to anyone who wasn’t telling her what she wanted to hear. I have not spoken to her since. I have no desire to watch her destroy herself any more, and she knows that I reject all of the new age crap that she’s drowned herself in. I miss her and still worry about her, but as long as she still refuses help, she’ll just keep hurting the people that care about her.

    So yes, this garbage hurts people. Not just the ones who believe in it, but those around them.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I see Mr. Morton will be giving investment advice. I wonder if he’s registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission?

    That’s a good point, Dan. In fact, this whole pamphlet appears to be missing the usual legal disclaimers that you find on alt-med and woo-woo products: “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”, “Results are for entertainment purposes only,” that sort of thing.

    @Jon Jermey:

    Look at it this way: every sucker handing their cash over to the Sunflower Princess is one less fundie campaigning against abortion, gay rights and secular education.

    I’d agree with you if I thought those two demographics were in direct competition, but I doubt they are. I don’t think there’s much overlap between fundamentalist Christians and the target audience for the New Life Expo. If anything, I think there’s more competition between them and us – many of these people are the ones who find traditional religion implausible, but haven’t been taught the critical thinking skills that they need to see through every con artist who comes along.

    @Paul Soth:

    So yes, this garbage hurts people. Not just the ones who believe in it, but those around them.

    Excellent point, Paul. Greta Christina has a post on a similar topic: she used to work as a counselor for a family planning clinic, and had a client who explained that the birth control method she was using was “visualization“:

    She and her partner protected themselves from unwanted pregnancy by visualizing a protective barrier of white light over her cervix, shielding it from the sperm.

    That’s bad enough if you don’t want to get pregnant. What if this person trusts the same method to protect herself from HIV?

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Demonhype: Hah, I love RvB so much :D great show.


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