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Category Archives: Pseudoscience

Sending a Scientology stress-o-meter into the red

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I receive a tip-off that at Southbank – amongst the human statues, shirtless parkour boys, atheists trundling off to the Global Atheist Convention and God botherers chalking retaliations on the pavement – a couple of plucky Scientologists have gathered with some stress monitors.

These ‘E-Meters’ claim to read your stress levels as you focus on different areas of your life. Once you’re diagnosed as a neurotic ball of angst, you’re referred to a counsellor for a lifelong personality audit.

This stand at Southbank doesn’t mention the word ‘Scientology’ anywhere, although the Dianetics DVDs and books for sale would alarm and alert any but the most sheltered passer-by. I take a seat opposite Gavin, who immediately looks a bit alarmed himself. He regains his composure. I place him at somewhere between 16 and 20 years old.

Gavin gives me some copper tubes to hold, through which a minimal electrical current is said to pass. It passes through me and then onto the E-Meter, which has the pseudoscientificfantastic word ‘Quantum’ on it.

“Think about people that are stressing you out,” Gavin instructs vaguely.

“What, all of them?”

“Just one at a time. What’s coming up for you?”

I focus on stroking Mr Thumpy, my relaxed, furry rabbit. The stress-o-meter goes through the roof.

“What were you thinking of?” Gavin says in excitement.

“My mother,” I say obediently.

“Ah,” he says, and asks me a host of probing questions that I sidestep. He gives the meter a flick and it moves.

“What’s that?” he says. “Something came up there.”

“I was just thinking the sun felt nice,” I admit. We’re on a lovely spot by the river.

“What about work?” he says. “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a journalist,” I say, and he leans back off his arms and shifts in his chair. When will I learn to lie?

“Oh right,” he says, stalling. “Yes, I can imagine that would be a stressful job.” Suddenly the dial swings again, apropos of nothing, and he points it out in great triumph.

“Does the dial tend to swing whatever subject somebody focuses on?” I ask.

“It depends on the person,” he says. “We just had a man come through who – every single question; family, work, health – the dial stayed completely dead. So he was obviously completely stress free.”

“Well,” I say. “I’m not going to buy anything here, but what would the next step be?”

“That’s absolutely fine,” he says, and hands me a DVD. “You can read the back of this. That basically explains everything.”

“All it explains is that there’s something called an ‘audit’.”

“Yes,” he says, and hands me a book. “If you read that it tells you all about that.”

I flick through the contents page, with pseudo-gump words littered throughout it, as well as a chapter on ‘prenatal’.

“So Scientologists believe stress goes back to being an embryo?”

“Yes.”

“Or before that?”

“No, just to being an embryo.”

Well, that’s something.

I think Gavin’s patter needs work, but they’ve got him while he’s young (taking pops seems cheap, but it’s certainly true…), so I’m sure that will improve.

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STALLION, the snake oil spoof

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So there I was, Googling ‘Menstronomy’, wondering if anyone had invented hogwash like ‘the science of forsoothing and vibrating the menses’ yet (if not, I was about to), when I stumbled across STALLION.

Part new age guru, part motivational speaker, part illusionist (“in front of a packed auditorium and James Randi himself I bent a spoon with my mind and will be spending the $1,000,000 they now owe me so that I can touch you with my Magic as never before. Stay tuned!”), he’s 100 per cent snake oil spoof.

STALLION is like the David Copperfield of the personal development circuit. He’s “constantly pursuing new psycho-spiritual disciplines and neuro technologies for personal development and self discovery. This results in intriguing metaphorical applications in his performances”.

At his website you can enjoy his esoteric poetry, take some tips in seducing the opposite sex (he’s a pickup artist in the vein of LA twat Mystery, who inspired Neil Strauss’s The Game), and then following through with his bedroom moves – he conceived the Tantra-trouncing ‘Majudo’, with which you can “learn how to treat your lady like a Golden Squaw with STALLION’S five-point simultaneous 20-digit massage”.

If you baulk at panpipes and synth piano, best not peruse his YouTube portfolio.

Homeopaths threaten journalist with bodily harm (diluted by a squillion)

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Ben Goldacre.

Ben Goldacre is the Lord Flashheart of science journalism, lancing the boil of pseudoscience and fashioning meaningless hyperbole into a frilly bonnet.

As a bona fide doctor he’s got a bone to pick with anyone passing themselves off as having a medical background in their effort to hawk holistic wares and sell the spiel to lazy journalists. His most bloody battle is with homeopaths (followed closely by ‘Doctor’ Gillian McKeith). Homeopaths have, in fact, threatened him with bodily harm; presumably at only one part to a squillion.

Known for his exposé column in The Guardian, his website and a book, Bad Science, he uses terms like “bollocks du jour” and concocts ways for you to try your own experiments at home to see if various holistic health breakthroughs really work. (No.)

Your average 30C homeopathic preparation, he points out, is a dilution of (according to the Society of Homeopaths) “one part per million million million million million million million million million million”. Homeopaths claim (as do David Icke and Masaru Emoto) that this dilution won’t affect treatment, as water has memory and will have taken and retained an impression of the original molecules.

“If water has a memory,” brays Goldacre, “then by now all water must surely be a health-giving homeopathic dilution of all the molecules in the world. Water has been sloshing around the globe for a very long time, and the water in my very body as I sit typing away in London has already been through plenty of other people’s bodies before mine. Maybe some of the water molecules sitting in my fingers as I type this sentence are currently in your eyeball.

“How does a water molecule know to forget every other molecule it’s seen before? How does it know to treat my bruise with its memory of arnica, rather than a memory of Isaac Asimov’s faeces?

“I wrote this in the newspaper once and a homeopath complained to the Press Complaints Commission. It’s not about the dilution, he said: it’s the ‘succussion’. You have to bang a flask of water briskly ten times on a leather and horsehair surface, and that’s what makes the water remember a molecule. Because I did not mention this, he explained, I had deliberately made homeopaths sound stupid.”

My question: Why don’t homeopaths just up the ratio of herb to brandy and dispel the ‘there’s nothing in it’ argument? Or is it the brandy alone that gives you that warm glow inside?

SOME OTHER TAKES ON ThetaHealing™

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Having not even heard of Vianna Stibel’s ThetaHealing™ till two days ago, I now discover it’s as entertainingly reviled as Scientology.

Rational Wiki (a familiar looking online encyclopedia dedicated to “analyzing and refuting pseudoscience”) says: “It was developed by Vianna Stibal, a naturopath who claims to have healed herself of cancer instantly in 1995. Not that IT CURES CANCER!!! or anything, except her followers think it does.”

Here’s a blog from Vianna’s ex-daughter-in-law, called ThetaHealing Revealed: The Fraud – The Cult – The Truth: To Protect Those Who Innocently Investigate ThetaHealing, which seems to have been created just for me.

Stump up the $550 and I’ll take the Basic DNA ThetaHealing course in January. That way we can speed up the process of finding out whether I will remain your sturdy-ish skeptic, or will insist on being addressed thenceforth as ‘Bindi’.

HAVING MY DNA RESTRANDED WITH THETAHEALING

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It started innocently enough

“Write about my story and you will become famous,” beams Maria. I meet this soft little babushka in a Byron Bay backstreet, where she beckons frantically when I threaten to walk past her fragrant shop front.

As she administers a vigorous back massage, Maria tells me the condensed story of her life: she grew up in Russia, became very sick with radiation poisoning after the Chernobyl disaster, but completely healed herself. “My blood – all clear.”

When she learns I want to stop smoking, she becomes gleeful. “Oh! Then we’ll use ThetaHealing™,” she enthuses. “More expensive but you have already paid now. Lucky. Turn over!”

“I’ve got a live one here,” I chuckle to myself, rolling onto my back. I mentally kiss goodbye to eighty bucks worth of relaxation and prep my mind to simultaneously take notes and be in the moment.

ThetaHealing™ cures cancer, etc

So far as smoking goes, it turns out I couldn’t be in better hands, because ThetaHealing™ purports to both rewire genetic behaviour and cure cancer. Head to the official website, set up by ThetaHealing™ inventor Vianna Stibal, and you’ll find explanations like:

We believe by changing your brain wave cycle to include the ‘Theta’ state, you can actually watch the Creator Of All That Is create instantaneous physical and emotional healing

and

ThetaHealing™ can be most easily described as an attainable miracle for your life. ThetaHealing™ is also best known for the 7 Planes of Existence; a concept to connect to the Highest Level of Love and Energy of All That Is

Under Vianna’s guidance, a newb practitioner can expect to work with guides and guardian angels, balance seratonin and noradrenaline levels, and pull heavy metals and radiation out of the cells.

That’s Vianna.

I don’t know any of this yet though, as I’ve just come in for a gloopy massage, which is now off the cards. But I like Maria, and I’m happy to see what she pulls out of the hat.

With warm hands, Maria cups my heels and tugs gently on them every few minutes. This is nice enough, and it’s raining, so I’ve got nothing better to do.

“Now I’m going to look at your DNA,” she says, or something. I’m confused – particularly as Maria has a lovely thick purr of an accent – but some Googling later totally clears things up. Maria is “activating the 12 strands of DNA. The chronos, or youth and vitality chromosome is activated, the telomeres are strengthened to reverse the aging process, and students experience an opening to the Unconditional Love of the Creator.”

Back to me on the table

Maria pulls up a stool so she can peer into my face. She explains that a person absorbs their parents’ fears and neuroses while still amoebic, and thus needs to be genetically separated from them.

While asking me questions about my family, she applies her fingers to acupressure points on my feet. At first it hurts, but after a series of stroking of the side of my hands and feet, and some inaudible incantations intended to fill me with unconditional love (ending in “it is done, it is done, it is done”), the discomfort wears off.

Maria questions what I most dislike about each parent; information I feel funny about giving up, lying here on my back with a stranger poised to perform a genetic separation manoeuvre. She tells me I mustn’t take responsibility for them, nor anybody else, nor judge them, nor believe their behaviour will determine mine. It’s fairly standard therapy speak; only therapists don’t stimulate your pineal gland at the same time.

“It is your life’s mission to be happy,” she says. “No, it’s not selfish – you need to give yourself unconditional love, or nobody else will be happy.”

I’m asked to make a ring shape with my forefinger and thumb. Then she loops her own finger and thumb through it, makes a statement, and tries to break my grip: “I am worthless” (you’ll always get this; it’s any therapist’s favourite), “I am special” “I am just like my father” “I cannot give up cigarettes” she intones, and asks me to repeat each one. If her fingers easily break through mine, I apparently believe this statement to be true. If I hold the circle, bully for me.

“It’s not hypnosis,” she corrects me as I offer my opinion, “it’s kinesiology.”

Oh bugger. The first and last time I had kinesiology, the therapist took to my childhood with a pickaxe while waving crystals and sloshing Bach Flower Remedies around, made me converse with my 10-year-old self, and plunged me into such lethargic depression that I went home and split up with my husband. But I digress.

Now, the funny business

You’ll scoff in disgust at this point, but it has to be said. Our session ends without fanfare, as Maria takes a call on her mobile and I wander out having a bit of a private titter. But as I walk away, towards the sea, I feel insanely, incredibly good. I feel like a mass of buzzing energy that’s greater than my physical form. If you’ve ever accidentally partaken in a snifter of ketamine, you’ll be familiar with that fuzzy sense of expansion. I’m smiling like a loon and there’s a tremendous sense of well-being. You can’t buy good feeling like that any more; not in Australia anyway.

It’s incredible, but short-lived. My phone beeps. Don’t look at your phone, don’t look at your phone, I think. But I do, and I immediately zero into its little world, to its mewling demand for attachment and its drip-feed of stimulation. The expansive feeling wears off, and with that, drug injustice™ sweeps in. (Drug injustice: the keening, self-pitying sense of being ripped off when something isn’t quite enough any more. Sounds like a silent, anguished howl.)

I don’t know how that shimmering loveliness happened, if it was me or Maria, or a form of meditation, or a sudden warm front blowing in. The conclusion I’m heading towards is: I don’t care, as long as it feels good. Which funnily enough has always been my philosophy in life anyway.

File under: I don’t know what you did, but just keep doing it.

Or: If this is the placebo effect, sign me up for more placebos forthwith.

“Can you even cure a runny nose?” ThetaHealing gets a YouTube bashing

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A WORD FROM SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ON BELIEF AND PLACEBO EFFECTS

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Placebo effects can arise not only from a conscious belief in a drug but also from subconscious associations between recovery and the experience of being treated—from the pinch of a shot to a doctor’s white coat. Such subliminal conditioning can control bodily processes of which we are unaware, such as immune responses and the release of hormones.

Researchers have decoded some of the biology of placebo responses, demonstrating that they stem from active processes in the brain.

And from The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

The body’s neurochemical system affects and is affected by other biochemical systems, including the hormonal and immune systems. Thus, it is consistent with current knowledge that a person’s hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness.

Another popular belief is that a process of treatment that involves showing attention, care, affection, etc., to the patient/subject, a process that is encouraging and hopeful, may itself trigger physical reactions in the body which promote healing.

While it may be unethical to knowingly package, prescribe, or sell placebos as magical cures, complementary and alternative medicine folks seem to think they are ethical because they really believe in their chi, meridians, yin, yang, prana, vata, pitta, kapha, auras, chakras, energies, spirits, succussion, natural herbs, water with precise and selective memory, subluxations, cranial and vertebral manipulations, douches and irrigations, body maps, divinities, and various unobservable processes that allegedly carry out all sorts of magical analgesic and curative functions.

And, uh, Wiki:

Another factor increasing the effectiveness of placebos is the degree to which a person attends to their symptoms, “somatic focus”. Individual variation in response to analgesic placebos has been linked to regional neurochemical differences in the internal affective state of the individuals experiencing pain.

Those with Alzheimer’s disease lose the capacity to be influenced by placebos, and this is attributed to the loss of their prefrontal cortex dependent capacity to have expectations. Children seem to have greater response than adults to placebos.