From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 14 No. 8
"The only thing stopping a river of wealth flowing your way is the relationship you have with money."--Mitch Behan, convicted drug dealer now high on himself
Dictionary entry: noni fruit and juice.
Exploiting Human Potential & the Empowerment Delusion
Self-help guru, life coach, mind science master, human potential motivator--call them what you will--they're everywhere, these vivacious, bouncing-off-the-wall happy, exuberant, exceedingly self-confident men and women who want to help all paying customers discover what is hindering them from achieving their full potential and living more satisfying lives. Many of you may think this movement started with Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), whose 1952 bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, had few original thoughts and what few it did have were errors. It's still not true that positive thinking ever cured a mental disorder or polio. The belief in the power of the mind to control reality began long before Peale's manifesto, but it wasn't until the 19th century that the first mass movement based on this delusion flourished. The New Thought Movement deflowered many a fine mind striving to unlock the secrets of the universe without having to know how nature actually ticks. Thousands of New Age promoters surround us today, all of them banking on the value of Barnum statements like You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.
Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866) is known as the father of New Thought. He was a New England clockmaker and a follower of the methods of Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), one of the masters of controlling people through suggestion and belief. Like Mesmer, Quimby had a substantial number of followers who believed in his powers of healing. Quimby came to believe that the healing ability was due not to animal magnetism, as Mesmer had thought, but to a god, and that they'd stumbled upon the healing technique of Jesus and other faith healers. They probably had. The power of suggestion, the optimism of the healer, the strong motivation of the sick to be rid of their various ailments (many of them transient or psychological), the faith of the patient in the healer and in the cure, and the rituals and theater of the healing all combine to produce what we now loosely call the placebo effect. Quimby called his healing practice by many names, including Christian Science, which was appropriated by one of his patients, Mary Baker Eddy.
In addition to promoting delusions about the ability of people to cure others and themselves of horrible diseases by the power of thought, the New Thought movement encouraged delusions in other areas of life. Outside of the healing arena, New Thought beliefs contribute to what might be called the empowerment delusion: the false belief that feeling empowered, or believing you are empowered, is the same as being empowered. The empowerment delusion leads people to believe that they can create health or wealth or anything material by willing it or asking a god or the universe to will it. A corollary is the delusion that poverty or sickness is their own fault: their bad thoughts, stinkin' thinkin', negative ideas, lack of faith, etc., cause all misery. The empowerment delusion is fed by appeals to nonsense like the law of attraction and the belief that the universe is animate and has desires and goals. Some self-help gurus claim to understand quantum physics and how to apply this science to their gibberish (Deepak Chopra, Rhonda Byrne, & a host of others). A common teaching among these folks is that you must have faith in faith. In this they resemble faith healers and prosperity preachers like Reverend Ike or Joel Osteen. Ultimately, the billion-dollar self-help industry is largely driven by the empowerment delusion.
The previous two paragraphs are based on my article on New Thought. They should serve as sufficient background to understand the two self-help gurus I am about to introduce: Pam Grout and Mitch Behan.
Pam Grout is the author of many books, including E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality. (The title may be a take-off of Rupert Sheldrake's Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. Perhaps I should write a book called Eight Experiments that Expose the Delusions that Drive the Self-Help Movement.) Grout seems to be a true believer in notions such as reality is malleable, consciousness trumps matter, and you shape your life with your mind. The Grouts of the world are not philosophical idealists; nor are they concerned with the obvious ways in which consciousness shapes reality, i.e., by constructing perceptions and memories in such a way as to make experience possible.
Behan, on the other hand, runs seminars that are based on preposterous claims that seem to have been simmered for years in cynicism and loathing. Grout represents the chirpy, cheery side of the self-help movement. Behan represents the vipers. Both sides aim to help their paying clients fulfill their hearts' desires and set loose their untapped potential.
I have no quarrel with people who try to help other people achieve their goals or overcome their fears. Teaching others things they don't know that can help them improve their lives is a noble thing. I especially have no quarrel with those who try to help others see that many of their beliefs are toxic. Who could be against encouraging people to throw off the shackles of prejudice and bigotry that various groups in society have forged regarding our gender, our size, our race, our religion or atheism, or our sexual orientation? Who can be against helping people see through the illusions created by advertisers and celebrities that encourage you to believe you should always be happy and that you can't be happy unless you are wealthy, good looking, admired by millions, and possess inordinate amounts of machinery, electronic gadgets, and brand-name articles of clothing?
What I object to is the next step after helping people realize that much of what they believe is in fact preventing them from being happy or successful in relationships, jobs, and life, and in being comfortable with who they are. In my view, the next step should be to provide people with the means to make good decisions about what to believe and what to do. In short, teach people how to think critically. Teach them about the cognitive biases that plague us all. Teach them about logical fallacies that lead us into error. Then teach them coping skills and other useful things. Instead, the Grouts and the Behans of the world pack a whole new set of beliefs into the heads of those they are trying to help. I'm all for the self-help teacher who sees the student as a cup filled to the brim with a hodgepodge of thoughts that needs to be emptied. What I oppose is the next step self-help teachers actually take, which is to fill up the cup with new thoughts that are delusional or toxic. The universe does not care one whit about who you are or what you make of your life. And, no matter what the vipers tell you, it is not generally true that you need to cut yourself off from your family unless they join you in the cult. Yes, some of the gurus, like Behan, run what are called Large Group Awareness Training Programs that seem to be little more than cults. Their "counselors" hound you with phone calls and threatening messages to attend more seminars and to recruit your friends and family members to attend. Behan, in one of his incarnations, encouraged females who had the misfortune to sign up for one his seminars to "lose themselves in sex" because this "is what the Universe wants for you." Any self-help mentor who is encouraging promiscuous sex is probably out to help himself not his paying customers. Behan advises sex-abuse victims to look for the "blessings" in their abuse. The universe wanted this to happen to guide them, just as the universe wanted him to go to jail for drug dealing. It was a way of setting him up for all the great things ahead.
Grout, on the other hand, really believes there is some sort of invisible energy that connects us all and that you can tap into and control to help energize yourself and drive you to positive thoughts and the achievement of happiness, love, health, you name it. Behan claims he believes that sex attack victims secretly desire assault and that rapists should not be condemned because they teach us to love our unloved parts. Behan also claims to believe what most of the self-help coaches believe: that you're responsible for all the bad things that happen to you. For example, Behan claims that cancer is caused by out-of-balance perceptions, whatever that means. External circumstances beyond our control play a large role in whether any of us are successful at anything. To deny this is to live in a delusional world; yet, this notion is encouraged by all those who claim that diseases, unhappiness, failures, and lack of fulfillment could be avoided if only we had the right beliefs.
Whether their intentions are good or sinister, self-help coaches exploit the empowerment delusion that lurks in the hearts of many people who think their lives should be better and that these coaches know the secret way to achieve that better life. What I find most intriguing about self-help coaches is that the only thing they do is motivate others to find success and happiness. I guess that is how they find success and happiness. Their desire is to help others fulfill their desires. They are like Moses, leading people to the Promised Land but not entering, choosing rather to return and lead more people to the edge of success. The vipers among them don't care what happens to those they recruit. They just want their money, their friends' money, and their family members' money.
I don't doubt that some of these hypomanic motivators do some good and have many satisfied customers. Even so, much of what they preach is nonsense. Your thoughts don't create reality, but they certainly affect how you live and deal with people and events. Your thoughts can hold you back from achieving your goals, but your thoughts are not the reason you have cancer. Your thoughts did not cause and will not cure your schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. You did not get bullied because you desire to be bullied. You did not get sexually harassed because you wanted to be harassed. There is no body of scientific evidence to back up any of the claims of the self-help coaches that you create reality by your thoughts. Of course you can't cook an omelet without thinking about how to do it, but your thoughts did not create the eggs or the finished product. Only in the most trivial, obvious ways do your thoughts create reality, i.e., you have to think about things if you are going to do them. You're not going to create good health by just thinking about it any more than you are going to solve world hunger or global warming by thinking about it. If you don't think about something, of course you are not going to bring it about. It is obvious that thoughts lead to actions but thoughts don't create actions. If your life coach encourages you in pursuit of your goals, fine. But if she teaches you that your negative thoughts are offending the energy of the universe and until you get in harmony with your energy you will be doomed, she is deluded and so are you if you believe her.
It is unfortunate that in addition to the true believers who are kind and loving like Pam Grout, there are the cynical scumbags like Mitch Behan. It would be easier to dismiss these remnants of the New Thought movement if they were all like Behan whose latest scam involves claiming he knows the "laws of money" and will teach you how to get rich. He says he can do this in one weekend no matter who you are, as long as you are willing to pony up a substantial amount of cash. You might call this the Reverend Ike law of money: you've got to give money to get money and there are no refunds.
For the record, my earliest encounter with self-help garbage was when an aunt gave me a copy of Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-Cybernetics in 1963. I don't remember reading the book, nor do I recall its main message. Wikipedia says that Maltz was a cosmetic surgeon and that the main message of his book is "a person must have an accurate and positive view of him- or herself before setting goals; otherwise he or she will get stuck in a continuing pattern of limiting beliefs." Perhaps Maltz and Peale influenced the self-esteem movement, a pony that one of our California legislators rode into the ground. I can't really say that I have ever been a fan of the self-image or self-esteem movement. I remember somebody once noting that Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein didn't seem to suffer from lack of self-esteem or from not having an accurate or positive image of themselves. I don't think this is much of an issue for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, either. In a way, I suppose, you could say that these evil characters created their own reality with their thoughts...and words and deeds and the help of their minions and satisfied customers.
Rick Simpson Cannabis Oil Cures Cancer Scammers
I received an email from S.B. who claims he was conned out of $1,080 by someone claiming to be a doctor selling authentic Rick Simpson hemp oil. [Amazon.com sells oil for a lot less, by the way.] S.B. says he agreed to stop all medical treatments (he doesn't say what he was being treated for) and sent some stranger the cash for a 3-month supply of oil. Instead of the cannabis, however, he got a bill for $2,000 from someone identifying himself as Geri Buckman (GB). He balked at the demand for more cash, but GB informed him that he risked death if he didn't get the oil, which is what happened (said GB) to one of his Swedish patients. For some reason, S.B. emailed me about this because he thought I could help him publicize the scam.
I Googled 'Geri Buckman' and third on the hit list was this: "Beware of e-mail address -... - Hemp Oil Cancer Scammers," which took me to a Facebook page devoted to hemp oil scammers. Apparently, there are some people out there who are preying on cancer patients looking for hemp oil. The demand for this product from cancer patients is due in large part to the marketing efforts of Rick Simpson, a completely unqualified deluded blowhard with a large following. Simpson claims that cannabis can cure just about anything, including cancer. The snakes in the grass have been quick, it seems, to seize on the opportunity to exploit desperate cancer patients with false claims about oil delivered right to your door. Adding the touch of claiming to be a doctor and advising the buyer to stop all medications adds a layer of maliciousness indicating just what kind of vipers you may be dealing with should you venture to search the Internet for your cannabinoid medicine. The vipers see Simpson adoration society members as easy marks deserving to be ripped off while suffering physically and psychologically as well as monetarily. These venomous thieves even post their false stories of cannabis cures on the Facebook page devoted to exposing the scammers! (Here's a link to the story that was at the top of the page on September 13, 2015. It's a testimonial from someone who claims he cured his liver cancer with cannabis. Note that the only comments on the testimonial page are from someone claiming he was "CURED OF HIV with the help of Dr.Boadi's Herbal Medicine." I wonder if he was cured of AIDS as well.)
Some of you may know that last year I announced that I was diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. I have received only two hate emails expressing hope that the cancer kills me soon. One was from someone who didn't like what I had to say about cannabis; specifically, he didn't appreciate my noting that the evidence that cannabis oil cures any kind of cancer has not yet been produced. The other was from someone who didn't like what I had to say about "natural cures."
May these jihadists for magical and wishful thinking live forever.
For more on what the data show for cannabis and cancer, see the SD entry for Rick Simpson. For more on the kinds of nonsense people believe will cure their cancer "naturally," see the SD entry on natural cancer cures. For a short description of the difference between pancreatic adenocarcinoma and pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, see Lauren's blog.
Science-Based Medicine in South Korea
Nearly four years ago, I received an email from Uiwon Hwang who described himself as "one of the leaders of a movement in the Republic of Korea" that aims to promote science-based medicine and critique "oriental medicine." He asked for permission to translate some of my articles (e.g., acupuncture, cupping, and the like) and post them on a website. Recently, I received a notice from Hwang that some of the translated articles have been posted. (For an example, see this page on science-based medicine with translations of my SD entry on that topic and an article by David Gorski, M.D. on "integrative oncology." Several other SD entries feature prominently in the Korean website postings on integrative oncology, integrative medicine, and "alternative" health practices.)
Why has Hwang reached out to me and others outside of South Korea for articles critical of Eastern medical practices? Because, he says, criticism of these sacred cows is virtually non-existent in Korea due to the fact that they are considered part of the Korean national heritage. It would be unKorean to even cast doubt on the practice of acupuncture. He says he is ashamed that these "Oriental" treatments are covered by their National Health Insurance. Little does he know that they may soon be covered here as well under Obamacare. Shame on us.
Quackery may be prevalent in South Korea (as it is here!), but there can be no quarrel with the tradition of Asian art. At least I have no quarrel there. The photo here is of me with a few gifts sent to me by Hwang. (This photo was taken after I'd been on chemotherapy for 14 months.)
For more on Hwang, see this article posted on the CSI site entitled "South Korean Skeptics Work to Promote Science-Based Medicine." He is quite ambitious, as you can tell by the list of projects he is involved in, all of which aim to promote science and critical thinking and debunk superstition in his homeland. Sounds familiar.
Big Placebo refers to the companies that manufacture and sell homeopathic, naturopathic, and other placeborific "health" products. According to RationalWiki, the term was coined by Lindsay Beyerstein in 2009. Just how big Big Placebo is is difficult to measure. But here are a few guesses from various prognosticators and extrapolators:
- A U.S. government report based on a 2007 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of more than 23,000 adults nationwide estimated that Americans spend about $34 billion annually on alternative medicine (one-third of those surveyed said they use alternative medicine);
- About 44 cents out of every dollar spent on alternative medicine was for products like fish oil, glucosamine, and Echinacea. Spending on these products was nearly $15 billion, or about a third of what Americans spend out-of-pocket for prescription drugs;
- $3 billion was spent on homeopathy;*
- $11.9 billion was spent on some 300 million annual visits to chiropractors, massage therapists, and other non-physician caregivers (about a quarter of out-of-pocket spending for traditional doctor’s visits);*
- In 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimated that Americans made 9 to 12 million visits per year to acupuncture practitioners and spent as much as $500 million on acupuncture treatments;*
- Americans spent more than $23 billion on vitamin, herb and other supplements in 2007;*
- Big Herba is often owned by Big Pharma, so it's hard to compare, but one of the largest Big Placebo companies, NBTY Inc., sold $2 billion worth of supplements in the United States alone in 2008. Its brands include Nature's Bounty, Vitamin World, Puritan's Pride, and Sundown.* The Pharma giant Wyeth makes Centrum and other supplements, and Bayer HealthCare of aspirin fame makes the One A Day line. Unilever, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, and other big pharmaceutical firms also make or sell supplements.
It's anybody's guess how much is spent on cannabis products to improve health.
It may be true that billions of dollars are wasted on prescription drugs, but it can't be denied that many prescription drugs actually benefit millions of people daily. How much benefit comes from placebo medicine is highly debatable, but my guess is that the benefit is miniscule compared to the cost, especially for things like homeopathy. And I'm not the only one who feels this way. Consider this email from Graham Wilson, an Australian who:
spent 22 years as a professional intelligence officer, in and out of uniform, and learned not only to leave no stone unturned, but also to instantly recognise a bucket of steaming bull crap when it's offered to me. Needless to say, I've developed a healthy disrespect for this "alternative" garbage, but most especially for homeopathy - I don't think it's overstating the case to say that I actually loathe homeopathy. Have these people never studied logic? Alternatively, is there an as yet unidentified "common sense gene" that these people are lacking.
Wilson went on to describe an unpleasant experience he had with a drugstore clerk who sold his daughter a homeopathic concoction "equal" to serotonin, which his grandson needs to help him sleep due to cerebral palsy. The homeopathic potion didn't work and cost Wilson's daughter as much as a week's groceries. He was not pleased.
Once I'd got the full gist of the story over the phone I hit the roof. I drove to my daughter's place, gave her money for groceries, got the bottle of homeopathic moonshine off her, then drove to the pharmacy for a frank and open discussion with the senior pharmacist. The discussion started off civilly enough; however, the more this bloke kept pushing the homeopathic/naturopathic line to me, the crankier I got. I spent 26 years in the Australian Regular Army and the bloke finally managed to punch my parade ground voice button and I lost my rag, bellowing at him about his betrayal of 2,000 years of scientific development of pharmacology and pharmacopoeia and my disgust at his purveying of voodoo mumbo jumbo just to make a few extra bucks. In hindsight, I think I'm lucky he didn't call the police on me. The outcome was he refunded me the cost of the bottle of sterile water his junior had sold to my daughter the previous night and was good enough to ring around to find a pharmacy that had serotonin in stock and arranged to have it delivered to his pharmacy within 30 minutes.
I went off to have a coffee and calm down and half an hour later went back and paid for and collected my grandson's serotonin. The pharmacist and I parted on quite civil terms and I think I know the reason why. I did some research subsequently into that particular pharmacy chain's supply arrangements and, lo and behold, "head office" has sold out to "Big Placebo" and forces the individual pharmacies to stock and promote "natural", "alternative" and "homeopathic" magic spells. The poor bloke was only toeing the party line.
I'll think of Mr. Wilson losing his rag every time I pass the Placebo Aisle in Costco, Walgreens, CVS (kudos for dropping tobacco, though), Rite Aid, Target, and the like.