A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: est &  Landmark Forum

14 Mar 2002

Thanks for your lively and informative "skeptics dictionary" ! I'm also enjoying the music on your homepage quite a bit. We've got a lot of folks here in Toronto who like Irish dancing etc.

I hope you don't mind my writing to you. There are a few minor errors I'd like to comment on in the S.D., in your pages on Landmark Forum and LGAT. I've studied the topic quite a bit, and I hope your dictionary can benefit from my research.

Concerning Landmark, the S.D. entry says that people who take the course "are not necessarily normal, healthy adults". While participants may have a higher level of impact of recent stressful events, this should not be confused with psychological disturbance. Writing about growth groups including specifically the Landmark Forum, Lieberman [1] found that "Based on psychic distress (symptoms) and impairment measures, those who sought out growth groups were not overly represented by those who were particularly disturbed or impaired in their lives". He found that people participate at a time "when they are experiencing in the normal course of life, events that they define as stressful". Presumably, normal people who already happen to be experiencing some stressful events, are more likely to be overwhelmed by the addition of further stressors in the Landmark program. ( [1] M. Leiberman, "Growth Groups inthe 1980's: Mental Health Implications", Chapter 15 in Handbook of Group Psychology, A. Fuhriman & G.M. Burlingame, eds., NY, Wiley, 1994. )

The S.D. entry on Landmark also discusses Landmark's notice that the program is not for the mentally unstable or those in need of psychotherapy. The S.D. entry essentially argues that this notice reduces Landmark's culpability in cases of breakdown. However, there are several reasons why the notice does not mitigate the problem of mental breakdown related to participation. One is the widely accepted "thin skull doctrine" of law, which holds that an exceptionally fragile physical state of the client does not mitigate the liability of a vendor if an injury occurs due to negligence. To the contrary, the burden is on the vendor to take sufficient care. A second reason the notice fails to be effective is that clients cannot self-evaluate their mental condition -- and cannot be expected to do so. An appropriate standard for a program that relies on psychological stressors, is to first assess the client's ability to handle stress. Landmark does not meet this standard.

Concerning the S.D. entry on LGAT, there is a little slip-up in the last paragraph, containing the phrase "many people benefit greatly from such programs". It must mean, "many people feel they have benefited greatly". As discussed by Langone in [2], the research evidence is that perceptions of LGAT benefit are not matched by actual benefits as measured by changes in behavior. ( [2] Michael Langone, "Large Group Awareness Training Programs", Cult Observer, v. 15, n. 1, 1998. )

Incidently, readers of these entries in the S.D. might be interested in http://www.100megsfree4.com/apostate/

Steve B.

13 Nov 2000 
I have always been a critical thinker, as critical thinking was a process taught to the children within our family from early ages. I am logical, reasonable, and highly critical of pseudoscience, a member of CISCOP, and an ardent opponent of those who utilize ad hominem argumentation. I am also a magician member of the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, and respect Mr. Randi immensely.

This being said, and because I really, honestly, do respect you and the work you have put into your website, I am a bit hesitant to inform you that you are definitely wrong on one portion of your website.

I refer to your comments about the "est" training. You see, I was a participant in the "est" training in the Los Angeles area, many years ago, mainly from skeptical curiosity, not from any "belief" that it would improve my life in any manner.

The actual one-weekend and two evening "training" was nothing like you describe. There was no intensive "punishment," nor any deprivation of anything. In fact, it was a very comfortable atmosphere, and the "trainer" was simply an individual who was imparting some very good information about knowing one's self well, a lot of Independent Living information, and challenging those who were not critically thinking in a rational manner about their own lives.

You, yourself, in your book, mention the fact that critical thinking is essential to making the right choices in one's life, and for the avoidance of making unreasonable errors. This is the same information that the "est" trainer essentially gave to the participants. The participants were encouraged to examine their own lives, recall the errors they had made by not thinking critically, and to learn how to think critically to avoid such errors (and others) in the future.

Frankly, the "bathroom" thing was no different than any other long-term seminar meeting. There were scheduled breaks in the seminar. If an individual could not wait for the scheduled breaks, they simply told the seminar coordinators that they needed to go to the bathroom, and they would return to their seat, and there was no objection at all to "going to the bathroom" at unscheduled times. (I know because I did it myself a few times, and I wasn't seated in a "special section" or in a "back row."

If people were seated for special needs in a different row, it would have been only for the reason that the seminar coordinators were notified in advance that they would be getting in and out of their seats more frequently, and they would be seated in a special section, possibly nearer the restroom facilities or the outer door, simply so they would not bother others who were able to follow the scheduled activities. In the same vein, persons who need to go out of a movie theater more often will sit on the aisles closest to the outer door so they don't unduly disturb others in the theatre. This isn't a situation for vehement criticism.

It is obvious that you had not participated in the earlier "est" seminars, nor have you actually interviewed anyone who has told you the truth about the internal seminar sessions. Thus, as a former participant, I am obliged to notify you that the information you have published on your website is essentially incorrect.

I have also seen the results of the "est" seminars on persons who had no significant critical thinking skills prior to their participation. The changes in these individuals, in terms of understanding and really thinking about their own lives, was impressive. They were more targeted toward logical, reasonable goals, and much more responsible and attentive to their own lives. Their attentiveness to their job responsibilities, as well as time management abilities, also improved significantly.

The training focused primarily about taking personal responsibility for one's own actions. And I did see that this training actually worked on many of the participants who had been making unreasonable excuses about their failures in their lives.

The training did not have any significant effect on me, since I already had been trained to take personal responsibility in all areas of my own life. But I found the experience quite interesting in terms of observation of other persons, and by reviewing my life at the seminar, I found a few, rather small, logical errors I had made in my own life, which I have corrected.

There is nothing wrong with attending seminars that cause people to examine their own lives. The seminar environment removed influences from the "outside world," for a weekend, in order to give people the opportunity to examine their lives, in a supportive environment.

All of the people received proper food and nutrition, during the frequent breaks. If people were tired, some fell asleep during parts of the seminar, and no one bothered them at all. In fact, all of the participants were encouraged to make their experiences as comfortable as possible, and bring pillows or cushions with them to make their seats more comfortable. Does this sound like an environment or organization targeted for "deprivation" and abuse?

And there was definitely no "verbal abuse" of any kind. If an individual made an illogical statement, that statement was challenged, simply to cause the person to engage in more critical thinking. It was a good example of the "Socratic method," and nothing more. It simply caused people to think.

Frankly, I attended law school later, and there was more outright verbal abuse from the law "Professors" in law school courses than I ever experienced or observed at an "est" seminar.

I believe you would agree with the statement that no one should assume information that is not actually in evidence. And, considering your interest in debunking pseudoscience, I believe you would also agree with the fact that no one should make comments or cricitisms about something one does not actually know, or has not personally experienced.

Yet, in the article you wrote about "est," you are doing exactly these things -- you are writing without personal experience, and you are quoting others who also have not had personal experience with the "est" training.

The "rumors" about what happens in the "est" training are untrue. Certainly, it was "expensive," but it was far better, far more useful, and far less expensive than going through years of costly "psychological therapy" for simple problems or failures to critically assess your own life.

In addition, no one with a diagnosed or known psychological disorder, who had received treatment, was permitted into the "est" seminar, without their psychologist's or psychiatrist's written permission. This was absolutely not a "psychological treatment" session of any kind. The "est" seminars were meant for people who simply wished to make their lives better, more responsible, and more successful, but needed more information on how this could be accomplished.

I would submit that your training of your own students in personal responsibility and critical thinking skills is not much different than the "est" training, in an overall perspective.

Frankly, it is due to the verification of the fact that I was actually correctly determining my own personal goals, which I received at the "est" training, that has given me the impetus to continue to achieve greater things in my own life. I am now a Ph.D. candidate, and I don't think I would have achieved this step in my life, or had the determination to complete my dissertation, if I had not attended that "est" training many years ago.

After the "est" training, I did not participate in the "additional seminar" series, and I have not had any contact with the "est" organization since the early 1970s. They contacted me a few times after the training to announce the "additional seminars," but when I told them I was not interested, they respected me and stopped contacting me.

(Believe me, "est" is DEFINITELY NOT like "Scientology" in any respect whatsoever. I live fairly close to the Hollywood, California "headquarters" of Scientology, and those people are truly scary, and quite dangerous. Your information about them is definitely correct. Your information about "est" is incorrect).

Sincerely, Paulette Caswell

As an addendum to my previous message, I also wish to inform you that the "seating in a special section" issue in the "est" training was also for a very good reason. There were people at the training who had notified the seminar coordinators, in advance, upon request, of special needs, such as a need to take medications at specific times, etc. Those people were seated in a special section, and the seminar coordinators made sure to remind those people at the exact times they were scheduled for medications or other special needs, throughout the days of the seminar and training. I have never seen a more responsible and attentive group of individuals running a weekend seminar, and they ensured that all of the participants were not disadvantaged in any way.

In fact, when we went to lunch, we had a limited time period for the lunch break, enough to eat well, but not enough to withstand long delays. And this was a seminar in downtown Los Angeles, where restaurants are regularly overcrowded at lunch time. The "est" seminar participants gave us all a list of the restaurants they had contacted in advance, to ensure that all of the ones on the list had agreed to seat us on priority status, so we could eat in a leisurely manner without worrying about restaurant delays or overcrowding. There were many choices of very affordable restaurants within easy walking distance from the seminar location on that list, all of the seminar participants had a wide choice of lunch locations, and all received priority seating and a leisurely lunch break. Those with special needs were notified of restaurants that would meet special dietary requirements, if possible. Of course, people could bring their own food, if necessary, and the seminar participants ensured that the food was properly stored, and then retrieved responsibly for the lunch and snack breaks. All of the seminar participants arrived back at the seminar location precisely on time after all breaks.

This type of care and attention has never been given to me at any other seminar I have ever attended.

reply: I guess we could say that you felt you got your money's worth.

15 Nov 2000 
I get this strong *psychic* feeling that Paulette Caswell & I have crossed paths, since I used to live within just blocks of her and we may have attended some of the same events.

She says, "[Est] was far better, far more useful, and far less expensive than going through years of costly 'psychological therapy' for simple problems or failures to critically assess your own life."

So one expensive, unproven method is better than another expensive, unproven method, eh? Sounds like a religious argument to me.

"I did see that this training actually worked..." "The changes in these individuals, in terms of understanding and really thinking about their own lives, was impressive."

Not the kind of words one expects from the true skeptic she claims to be. I guess one person's "fulfilling experience" is another's wasted weekend filled with gobbledygook.

I never attended an Est seminar, but I did go to a Nichiren Shoshu (chanting) meeting once! (A girlfriend dragged me to it. Afterwards we broke up.)

 Laddie Chapman

20 Jun 2000
You were way too soft and "nice" to that "est" apologist. Don't get taken in by that "bathroom" apology. I took "est" in the 70s, to get on the bathroom list you had to have a medical reason. If you did not, you were "confronted" and harassed. Forcibly making people sit so they can "get" the training is brutal. People would crap in their pants; I myself could not pay any attention to what was being said because my bladder was bursting. They quietly dropped the "bathroom" rule in the "Forum".

I found out that people who espoused "integrity" were the most unreliable, people who were "honest" to be cruel and tactless, and people who "supported" the "work" environment good for spouting psychobabble and being nonproductive. "est" was an embarrassing experiment in deceiving oneself. I would like to see this site keep being "skeptical" and not become a mouthpiece for "est" apologists.

reply: If the apologists for est have something interesting and intelligent to say, the skeptics ought to listen. There is little danger of this site becoming a mouthpiece for anything but my own musings.

18 Jun 2000 
Part of the story you don't mention is Erhard's late-in-the-game convergence with R. Buckminster Fuller -- shared platform at Madison Square Garden etc. I realize you can't include everything, but that particular thread will probably have longer term relevance to intellectual history than many others having to do with est (my personal assessment).

reply: I don't know why it would. Fuller was very open-minded and supported lots of things, but he, too, seems to have been a flash in the pan. It is always risky to predict the future but I doubt if either Fuller (except as architectural anecdote) or Erhard would be remembered in one hundred years if it were not for the Internet.

As for me, I was pointed towards est by Dr. Walter Kaufmann, the Nietzsche scholar, then at Princeton (me too, as an undergrad). Kaufmann had done est over the summer and had found much to admire -- he liked hard-hitting stuff and wrote a lot about "life at the limits". est was designed, in Erhard's terms, to be a "number one experience" (meaning one of those experiences that makes a lasting impression and wherein it appears your survival may be in some way at stake -- even if not physically), "twos" and "threes" being mostly reminders of "number ones". I think this is what gave est so much (mostly negative) press: it really was tough, not just semi.

reply: It is not surprising that Kaufmann would find est attractive, since in some ways it was "applied Nietzsche."

As for the bathroom business, as logistics supervisor for the Centers Network (the business entity behind the training) in both New Jersey and New York, I can attest that those folks with a need for more frequent visits to the bathroom than average were given access to the back row and had their names on the "bathroom at will" list -- they could go any time (plus take their prescribed medications, stand or stretch as required etc. etc.).

The purpose of having others agree ahead of time to not snack or take bathroom breaks except at announced times was to (a) keep people from using 'I need to go' as a way of getting out of an uncomfortable situation and (b) give people sharing from the heart an opportunity to get the undivided attention of 250+ other listeners, without having folks going "excuse me, excuse me" down through the line, squeezing between seats (distracting at the movies when it happens). I really think the media made much too big a deal of this aspect of training logistics.

reply: The rule makes sense in the context of the program.

The media will always make too big a deal out of such matters. Those of us who write for edification and entertainment--myself included--are prone to distortion to make our ruminations more memorable. It is a weakness and a fault that is difficult to overcome because it is so pleasurable. There is an ineffable joy that accompanies the smug self-satisfaction of feeling you've skewered someone you don't admire. It is a layer of skin we should shed, but are only able to in moments of transcendence.

Also, your article talks a lot about what est promises, in terms of making you successful if you just rewire or reprogram or whatever it is. I don't quite go along with this "positive thinking" portrayal -- it wasn't in the terminology or formal presentation of the philosophy. In many ways, I'd characterize est as austere, stark, and in some ways "hopeless" (in the sense of offering no hope -- the meaning of "this is it", plus there was "nothing to get"). This indeed connects to Zen sensibilities and rhetoric, about taking life straight, as it is etc. etc.

reply: You may be right here. I have been wondering whether I have put too much attention on people like Erhard, Robbins, etc., and not enough on the people (and their expectations) who take the seminars. What the guru hopes for or thinks is going on may be quite different from what the disciple experiences.

The presentation and philosophy really integrated a lot more tightly than the hodge-podge characterization. For est to be a "number one experience" (somewhat traumatic), and pull it off, training after training, it had to be very precise and well-designed. The trainer's role was to be deeply challenging and undermining of whatever beliefs (a skeptic would not necessarily have felt out of place watching this), while at the same time offering a model wherein the individual assumes responsibility for whatever beliefs he or she wants to keep.

"Responsibility" was the key term throughout the training and the challenge was see how far one could go towards willingly experiencing oneself as causative vis-à-vis a world full of suffering and pain. Responsibility was distinguished from blame or fault. Clearly it's one's experience of "self" that might be transformed in this context (using the jargon): as some guy living in Portland, I don't cause starvation around the world, but as a collectively unconscious humanity, with a long, violent history and reflex-conditioning to match, I maybe sense my inappropriateness and mismanagement on a grander scale -- I'm not all that awake and coordinated.

To see oneself as ultimately responsible is to awaken a deeper sense of mental currents and processes which filter through the media at many levels.

reply: Your comments in the last three paragraphs reflect what I meant by saying est was, in some ways, "applied Nietzsche."

I do agree with your playing up of the Alan Watts connection, and think your references to Zen are right on. Given your purpose is to register skepticism and not get suckered by bogus stuff or charlatans, I'm not expecting you to ever significantly alter the tone or content of your article. It's actually fine the way it is. People like me who have other points of view have ample opportunity via the internet to present our perspective.

P.S. I know next to nothing about Landmark Forum, have not participated in any Forum events.

20 Dec 1999 
I took the training in New York in approx. 1986 and I would like to know if there is any additional training or assistance I can provide Werner Erhard with as far as input as to how the training has effectively affected my life personally. "Ain't life Grand"! Thank you and Merry Christmas.
Sharon Bryant

reply: Sounds like it worked for you! Landmark is the next step, but the people there swear that Werner is not involved.

9 Jul 1999
This may not be the kind of feedback you're looking for, but I just have to share with you my (second-hand) experience with a Landmark Forum devotee. I am a software developer at a major home mortgage company here in Los Angeles. The Executive Vice President of the my section of the Information Technology Division (we'll call him "F") is actively involved with Forum and I find him to be an insufferable clod. F's head is so filled with lemons-into-lemonade platitudes that he is scarcely able to contribute anything of practical value to the organization. He tries to get my team to do little cheers that he makes up for us like "Together, we can make it happen!" We have serious technological challenges, but he believes in seeing everything as a morale issue. We do not have a morale problem. We are a pretty well disciplined group of 100 or so analysts and engineers who make, with a few exceptions, $70,000 to $150,000 a year with stock options and an end-of-year bonus in the 3% to 10% range. We're happy! We work hard! We're doing fine, thank you! But his efforts to "motivate" us (such as his "enthusiasm awards" and monthly ice cream social) are actually contributing to people leaving the company (myself included).

At least he's trying, right? Some companies don't pay well or bother to be nice to their people. Free ice cream is not a punishment by any stretch. And, by golly, the guy who got the enthusiasm award sure is enthusiastic (surprise: it wasn't me). My manager was first runner-up in the enthusiasm awards -- for some reason, he's not proud of that. But wouldn't it be smarter to fit the rewards to the context and culture of the people involved? My manager, for instance, deserves the "Person Who Works His Ass Off" award. These amateurish, naive, and childish forms of appreciation are not commensurate to the efforts and individuals being acknowledged. Rather, they serve to disorient and devalue by asking us to shoehorn our square peg value systems into the round hole of one man's half-baked, flavor-of-the-month, feel-good hokum.

Well, is F getting a personal lift out of the Forum? Has it improved his self-esteem? His confidence? It would seem so. I would describe him as shameless. He'll share anything he's "feeling," any time -- ad nauseam. The problem is, what is it doing for the rest of us? How much are the rest of us expected to endure for the sake of his healing process? And what is his offensive presence going to cost the company in the end? I actually long for the old days when you had a complaint and your boss said, "I don't want to hear it." At least he was being honest. At least you were entitled to your critical opinion. The Forumization, if you will, of dialogue feels to me like some revival of Victorian pretense and censorship.

I suppose that if F grows into a more capable technical manager and keeps his optimism and up-with-everything demeanor, it might not be the worst thing. And yet, especially in light of the comments you've posted from Michelle, Mr. Sarvan, and Mr. Lell, I have to think that there are more effective, long-term therapies (pharmacological, for instance) which help a person to develop inner strength with more of a grounding in, and tolerance for, the objective reality the rest of us inhabit.
Charles A. Chagno
Los Angeles, California

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