11 July 2007

The Power of Positive What?

One of the most irritating things I've found about being an entry-level skeptic without years of experience combating the cranks of the world is that stunningly brilliant debunking retorts don't roll off my tongue precisely when they do the most good. So often I find myself in a conversation with someone who is committing every logical fallacy in the book, and yet unable to muster much more than "um...I don't think that logic is sound" -- that is, until about 2am, when I sit bolt upright in bed and exclaim "true Scotsman fallacy with a side of ad hominem!!!" to the bogeyman in my closet.

Well, just the other day I scored a minor victory in that regard by actually coming up with the right thing to say at the proper moment, and so I thought it might be worthwhile - if only for my own sake - to start keeping a log of successful canned ripostes to be referred to when necessary.

So I was speaking to this older fellow - an otherwise fairly rational person, but nevertheless long time fan of the self-help genre - who said something along the lines of:

Well, you know...I've heard a lot over the years about how much control the mind really has over things. I mean, not just the placebo thing either - but having a certain frame of mind about things will really help to make those things come about. I know it's worked for me, and I hear people talk about it all the time.
I really don't do him justice here: it sounds like feel-good empowerment garbage straight out of The Secret, and you're right to think so, but there was a tone in his voice that suggested that he felt it to be rather incredible too, but that since so many people are talking about it (the ability to judge the merit of information sources is a rare art that should be taught to more people) he's willing to at least entertain the possibility. Now, clearly, I'm not going to let this go without throwing my two cents in, which were roughly as follows.
Well, that's partially true. The placebo effect is one thing - the mind does have some influence on the biological processes of the body, although to what extent we're not sure. But if you're talking about the mind having an effect on real-world events outside of the body, you have to remember that it's not just a straight shot from glauben to sein; things don't just happen because you believe they're going to happen. The reason people can get away with pushing this argument is that a certain set of beliefs will often - but emphatically not always - translate into a certain set of actions, which in turn can help being about the desired circumstance. You can't think yourself rich, slim, or popular - but your belief that these are goals worthy of your unflagging commitment might cause you to take actions toward them. But if you forget about that middle step, then you'll keep sitting on the couch trying to think yourself rich, wondering why it didn't work, and then rushing out to buy the next best-selling self-help tome that feeds on your insecurity to help some sleazebag bullshit artist fulfill his own dreams of becoming a multi-billionaire. Belief can't do crap without actions to back it up.

Ok, well, perhaps I didn't collapse into such vitriolic vitriol at the end there, but I was thinking it.

I think the skeptical community could stand to pay more attention to the self-help industry -- because if my own personal experience is anything to judge by, then it really is crippling the soul of the nation. I just read a rather interesting book by Tom Tiede called Self-Help Nation: The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to the Snake-Oil Peddlers Who Are Sapping Our Nation's Soul. The beginning was delightfully nasty, but I have to say that Tiede degenerated in the last few chapters into a more generalized crotchety-old-man Jeremiad that was hard to get through (especially since, although this man is clearly a liberal, his old-mannishness made him sound like a conservative, throwing my world-categorization system all out of alignment). I will agree, then, with the statement of his subtitle; it really is a long-overdue and entirely justified 'up yours' to the unscrupulous dreck-peddlers who are emotionally crippling the nation's middle class and bleeding them dry -- but it could be done better. The community is already doing a number on that Chopra fellow, and for that I thank you - but we need to cast our nets wider. Dr. Phil, Norman Vincent Peale, Peter McWilliams, Rhonda Byrne, Patrick Snow, and the Chicken Soup people - ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

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