Wednesday, 19 November 2008


The last couple of times I’ve visited Glastonbury, I’ve had lunch at a rather good vegetarian café. The food’s better than the salty, processed mush which often passes for food in the UK, the atmosphere is relaxed and there’s an attractive courtyard garden round the back which is perfect for sitting out in on a sunny day.

I’m not a veggie myself, but I do understand the motivations of some vegetarians. There’s a lot of cruelty and suffering involved in packing the supermarket shelves with affordable meat. In terms of food production in a hungry world, you can produce a greater quantity of food by arable farming than you ever will by trying to turn the equivalent amount of plant material into animal flesh. Finally there are the health benefits of eating more fruit and veg. This is where I do part company with the veggies (especially the pale and sickly looking ones) – a lot of us would benefit from eating more fruit & veg and eating rather less meat, but cutting out meat (not to mention eggs and dairy) altogether doesn't seem like a good move. Meat & dairy are good sources of protein and iron and I’m not convinced that it’s easy to keep well whilst abandoning the omnivorous diet our bodies have evolved to run on.

Still, two out of three good reasons to go veggie ain’t bad. I just wish that a lot of the other stuff being promoted in Glastonbury was as understandable as vegetarianism. The café I’ve mentioned is surrounded by shops selling books on ley lines, crystal healing, faries, homeopathy, colour healing and a host of other unlikely-sounding subjects. The small ads in the shop windows are for services such as angel readings (whatever they might be), reflexology, tarot readings, feng shui advice, clairvoyant services, Chakra balancing and astrology.

I’ve no doubt that a lot of the people offering and consuming these volumes and services are sweet, gentle, fluffy, would’t-harm-a-fly people, but I still can’t escape the conclusion that what they’re getting involved in here is a load of gibberish.. I’ve tried dipping into some of this stuff, just to try and find out what people are getting out of it, but it leaves me completely baffled.

Flicking through Whispering Winds of Change by New Age Guru Stuart Wilde, for example, I read that the average speed of humanity circa 1700A.D. was lower than it is today “perhaps hovering at twelve thousand cycles per second”), but the band of separation between the highest and the lowest was not great. By 1960, apparently, human and etheric metaphysical vibrational speeds were spread over a much broader band of between twelve to fifty thousand cycles per second. “Etheric” apparently refers to the electromagnetic field produced by the human body. According to Wilde, you can train yourself to see the etheric energy field surrounding people by concentrating on your peripheral vision and tilting your head slightly. If you want to try this at home, dusk is allegedly the best time to see etheric energy. Oh, and it’s also important to remember that the vibrational speed is only a hypothetical speed – “of course”, Wilde points out, the real speed must be much higher, since “light oscillates at the very high frequency of about 1015 cycles per second” but apparently we don’t need the real speed to understand the concept - “a hypothetical speed will do.”

Make sense of that if you can. There are a few places in the book where he expresses himself a bit more clearly – at one point he suggests that by the simple measure of abolishing all taxes we would all be a lot richer. At least it’s a bold, simple and easily grasped idea, although I suspect that economics of running a functioning state without any form of revenue might be a little more difficult than he seems to think. Come to think of it, he might have been suggesting that we should allow the state to collapse and let the evolving Planetary Group Soul take over its functions – I can’t say for sure because after a immersing myself in this stream of New Age Speak for a little while, I was losing the capacity for rational thought.

What a very strange set of things for any sane person to believe in. I’m indebted to a number web sites and blogs for tirelessly picking though a lot of this sort of stuff so I don’t have to – Ben Goldacre’s splendid Bad Science Column is always a welcome antidote to the tide of nonsense and I was impressed by a fairly recent post at I Kid You Not with some thoughts on visiting a New Age shop.

Why do people believe in this stuff? I don’t know, but we don’t live in an ideal world. I’m guessing that belief in an “alternative” set of values and beliefs is the reaction of people unsatisfied with society as it is, with its meaningless jobs, unsatisfactory relationships, relentless commercialism, atomised society, eroding civil liberties, the obfuscation of democracy with spin and manipulative half truths, environmental degradation, poverty, war and injustice. Not a bad impulse – I wouldn’t give you tuppence for anybody who didn’t want the world to be a bit better than that. But what seems to have happened is that somehow rationality has taken the blame for all that’s wrong with the world and abandoning critical thought has become the “alternative” prescription for everything that’s gone wrong. And that’s profoundly worrying, because critical thought and trying to see the world as it really is, are absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to change things for the better.

Knowing what’s really going on is the best start if you want to change things. An example from the recent history of ideas springs to mind. When autistic spectrum disorders were first identified, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts developed a theory to account for the symptoms. They hypothesised that autism in children was caused by cold, perfectionist parents, who didn’t emotionally nurture their offspring. There was even a shorthand term for a parent who “caused” her child’s autism – the “refrigerator mother” (sorry mum, but it's all your fault). A plausible enough theory for the “open-minded” to accept. Unfortunately, it proved to be dead wrong.

The precise causes of autism are still not well understood, but subsequent research has shown the condition to be caused by physical problems in brain development, perhaps associated with mutations and the interaction of different genes. Although researchers don’t know exactly what leads to these effects, it’s now as certain as any fact can be that the problem exists at the level of the physical structure of the brain and has a genetic component. The current understanding of the true basis of Autism only emerged in the 1970s and slowly began to come into the mainstream thereafter, although the syndrome had been recognised since the 1940s.
So, for at least 30 years, parents who were distressed by their childrens’ strange behaviour, who were struggling to understand what was going on, trying to communicate with and support their child were being consistently mis-diagnosed. They were having the agony of being unable to interact with their own children compounded by being told that the problem stemmed from their own lack of parental affection and intimacy. All in the name of a theory that turned out not to stand up.

Compared to some new age explanations of the world, the “refrigerator mother” theory wasn’t particularly wacky – especially given the fact that the tools needed to uncover the true explanation of the condition weren’t available when autism was first identified as a condition. If a theory which has a ring of plausibility about it can be so damaging and counterproductive, what hope can we have from the scribblings of new age gurus whose respect for critical thinking seems to be non-existent? However benevolent your intentions, subscribing to any weird theory about the world which floats your boat isn’t a neutral act. If what you believe in, or cause other people to believe in, is factually wrong, or plain bizarre, then acting on it at best won’t change this unsatisfactory world of ours for the better and at worst could cause the sort of distress suffered by those so-called “refrigerator mothers”, labelled and stigmatised by psychoanalytic gurus who were utterly confident in their particular pet theories.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

A very good night

I've not blogged for a little while - there's been loadsa stuff going on which has taken up what little spare attention I've got and may continue to do so in the near future, so posts may be quite sparse and /or truncated for a while.

Meanwhile, in the big, wide world, some significant things have been going on. Although I'm naturally a bit suspicious of smooth presentation which may hide a lack of substance, I was coming round to the idea that Barack Obama's rhetoric had a bit more substance behind it than I'd given him credit for as we came up to election day. When he won, I was swept up in the general tide of optimism and goodwill. Now the dust has settled, I still think it was an excellent result. Maybe I'll be disillusioned, but I hope not.

I think one good reasons to be cheerful about the President-elect is the fact that he can string a sentence together and doesn't appear to be embarrassed by the fact. I share Orwell's view that there is a link between clarity of thought and clarity of expression - I agree wholeheartedly with this New Yorker article that the night of the victory speech was "a very good night for the English language."

Combine that with the powerful image of a black person* finally accepting the top job in a country founded by people who believed that all men were created equal, but still kept slaves and where the civil rights movement is a comparatively recent memory and it was also a very good night for America.

Finally, consider the fact that this guy has lived abroad, knows the wider world and knows that non-Americans, too can just be regular folks trying to get on with their lives and that adds up to a very good night for the world.

* mixed race, if you want to be pedantic, but don't tell me he's not black enough to know that all folks haven't been treated equal, however they were created.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Compare and contrast

I'm still not sure that when Barack Obama says he stands for "change" I really know what that would mean in concrete terms. But, unsurprisingly, if had to choose between him and the other guy, I'd vote Obama anyway. Now I've found a better reason for wanting him to win (originally seen on The View From No. 80:

Well said, Sir - most of the stupidities of our age could have been avoided had the proposals in question been "subject to argument and amenable to reason."

Speaking of the stupidities of our age, compare the eloquence of the passage above with this classic observation from Sarah Palin:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

And did you hear the one about the Canadian practical jokers who phoned her up, pretending to be the President of France and and a couple of his aides? The killer quote from the merry pranksters has to be this one, explaining what happened when they called her staff:

We started making phone calls at the beginning of the week .... We realized it might work, because they didn't know the name of the French president; they asked us to spell it.

If Obama doesn't walk this one, the world (or at least a significant portion of the Western Hemisphere) must have gone utterly mad.