Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Elaborate nonsense

As harsh as I sometimes am about woo-woo beliefs, I understand how fear and lack of knowledge can induce you to accept counterfactual nonsense.  I also get how wishful thinking could draw you in to a set of beliefs, if they line up with the way you would like the universe to work, even though, as my grandma used to say, "Wishin' don't make it so."

This combination of desire for the world to be other than it is, and fear of what the world actually is, probably drives most superstition.  All, as I said, understandable, given human nature.

But what continually baffles me is how byzantine some of those beliefs become.  I can accept that it might be an attractive model for some people that the position of the stars and planets somehow guides your life; but I start really wondering once you start coming up with stuff like the following (from Susan Miller's astrology site, on a page devoted to predictions for this month for my astrological sign, Scorpio):
Sometimes, in about 20 percent of the cases, an eclipse will deliver news a month to the day later plus or minus five days.  More rarely, an eclipse will introduce news one month to the day before it occurs, but only in about 5 percent of the cases.  In most cases, 75 percent of the time, an eclipse will deliver some sort of news that things are about to change almost instantly.

This eclipse will be in Scorpio, 11 degrees, and will come conjunct Saturn.  This alone says that the decision you make now will be a big one, and that you will commit all your energy to this decision.  You will be in a serious mode, and it appears a promise you make now will last a very long time, possibly forever.  Mars and Pluto are your two ruling planets (Scorpio is one of the few signs that have two rulers), and remarkably both will be supportive by tight mathematical angles to this eclipse.  This tells me that the final outcome of this eclipse will be very positive.  Every eclipse has two acts, so see how events unfold in coming weeks.
Yes, it's bullshit; but it's really elaborate bullshit.  You might criticize these people for pushing fiction as reality, but you have to admit that they spend a lot of time crafting their fiction.

I ran across an unusually good example of this a while back on the Skeptic subreddit, which is a wonderful place to go for articles debunking pseudoscience.  The site I found posted there is called "TCM - the 24-hour Organ Qi Cycle," which immediately should raise red flags -- "TCM" is traditional Chinese medicine, much of which has been double-blind tested and found to be worthless; and "qi" is a pattern for "energy flow" through the body that basically is non-existent, making "qi" only useful as an easy way of getting rid of the "Q" tile in a game of Scrabble.

What this site purports to do is to get you to "balance your body" using information about when during the day you feel most ill-at-ease.  This then tells you what organ in your body is "out of balance" and which of the "elements" you should pay attention to.  And no, I'm not talking about anything off the periodic table; we're back to a medieval "Earth," "Fire," "Water," "Metal," "Wood," and "Ministerial Fire" model, although the last-mentioned sounds like what they used back in the Dark Ages to burn people at the stake for heresy.

So, naturally, I had to check out what my own out-of-balance part was.  I'm frequently awake, and restless, at 3 AM - 5 AM, so I rolled the cursor over the "color wheel" and found that this means my lungs are out of balance.  "The emotions connected to the lungs are Grief and Sadness," I was told, which makes sense for the time of day because if I'm awake then it means I won't be able to get back to sleep before my alarm goes off.  It goes on to ask me some questions, to wit: "Have you buried your grief?  Are you sad?  Are you always sighing?  It is most healthy to express your emotions as you feel them.  You may need to express your emotions by crying, writing and/or talking to a friend."

Well, thanks for caring, and everything, but I'm actually doing okay, and don't sigh all that much, except at faculty meetings.

Oh, but I am told that if I can get my lungs in balance, I'll have "lustrous skin."  And who could resist that?

On it goes.  If your small intestine is out of balance, you should eat only "vital foods chock full of enzymes."  If you have diarrhea, you need to "strengthen your spleen qi."  If your "kidneys are deficient," you won't have much in the way of sex drive, but you can bring them back into balance by eating black sesame seeds, celery, duck, grapes, kidney beans, lamb, millet, oysters, plums, sweet potatoes, raspberries, salt, seaweed, strawberries, string beans, tangerines, walnuts, and yams.

The entire time I was looking at this site, I kept shaking my head and saying, "How do you know any of this?"  The stuff on this website seems to fall into two categories -- blatantly obvious (e.g. "crying if you're sad helps you to feel better") and bizarrely abstruse (e.g. "engaging in loving sex keeps your pericardium healthy").

I suppose the elaborateness is understandable from one angle; if you want people to believe what you're saying, you'll probably have better success if you make your sales pitch sound fancy.   Convoluted details convince people, especially people who don't know much in the way of science and logic.  So the intricacy of some pseudoscientific models is explainable from the standpoint that the purveyors of this kind of foolishness will sound like scientists, and therefore be persuasive, only if they couch their message in terms that make it appear they've tapped into a realm of knowledge unavailable to the rest of us slobs.

Or, as my dad used to put it: "If you can't wow 'em with your brilliance, baffle 'em with your bullshit."


I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!

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