10/9/13

Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much


Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

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11/24/12

Another popular myth debunked: moon doesn’t make crazies


Craxy lunar ideas“Myth Debunked: Full Moon Does Not Increase Incidence of Psychological Problems,” says the headline on a story on Science Daily. I was amused by the notion that, in 2012, anyone would seriously believe that the moon affected human psychology – especially supposed educated people.

In this case, it was very serious and resulted in a paper with the lengthy and ponderous title, “Impact of seasonal and lunar cycles on psychological symptoms in the ED: an empirical investigation of widely spread beliefs.” The abstract says:

This study evaluates the impacts of seasonal and lunar cycles on anxiety and mood disorders, panic and suicidal ideation in patients consulting the emergency department (ED) with a complaint of unexplained chest pain (UCP)… Patients with UCP were recruited from two EDs. Psychiatric diagnoses were evaluated with the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule for DSM-IV… Significant seasonal effects were observed on panic and anxiety disorders, with panic more frequently encountered during spring [odds ratio (OR)=1.378, 95% confidence interval (CI)=1.002–1.896] and anxiety disorders during summer (OR=1.586, 95% CI=1.037–2.425). Except for one significant finding, no significant effects of lunar cycles were observed. These findings encourage ED professionals and physicians to abandon their beliefs about the influence of lunar cycles on the mental health of their patients. Such unfounded beliefs are likely to be maintained by self-fulfilling prophecies.

Whew. Although the full text of the report isn’t available to non-subscribers, the article on Science Daily explains:

…researchers … focused specifically on 771 individuals who showed up at the emergency room with chest pains for which no medical cause could be determined. Psychological evaluations revealed that a sizeable number of these patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.
Using lunar calendars, the researchers determined the moon phase in which each of these visits occurred. The results of their analyses revealed no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases.

That struck me as the study’s face-palm moment, the time when the Simpsons’ “Doh!” should have been shouted by the researchers as they smashed their palm into their heads.

“Geez,” one of them must have said as the data came in, “I’ll bet if we explore this further, we’ll also find out Friday the 13th is no more unluckier than any other day. What next? Black cats aren’t bad luck? We can safely walk under ladders? We don’t need to toss salt over our left shoulder when we spill it? Saying “gesundheit” when you sneeze doesn’t keep demons away? When will it end?”

That so-called “link” between behaviour and lunar cycles is merely a hangover from the discredited pseudoscience of astrology; it oozes from our ancient past when superstitious cave people believed the planets and stars were gods and demons and could affect our lives. Believing lunar phases can affect psychology today is akin to believing magnets or crystals can make you healthier. Pure and simple balderdash. It’s not a great leap from believing astrology to believing in creationism and Scientology, or that vaccines are a government conspiracy to enslave you.

The researchers also found that “anxiety disorders were 32% less frequent during the last lunar quarter.” Their analysis of this statistical oddity?

“This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account,” suggested Geneviève Belleville. “But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems.”

Coincidental? You think? What’s the other choice? That the moon made people less anxious one week every month? Come on… what next? Lycanthropy?

But what’s scary is that, according to the study, the majority of medical professionals BELIEVE that the moon affects personality and mental health. These are the people into whose hands we entrust our well-being! We expect them to be scientific, observant, and logical – even skeptical and suspicious (skepticism is what drives intelligent inquiry). Not medieval, not superstitious, not silly. If I want that, I can find it in copious amounts on the Net. When doctors start believing in astrology, I expect them to trot out the “healing crystals” for my bad humors, or kill a chicken to cure my possession.

This study’s conclusions run contrary to what many believe, including 80% of nurses and 64% of doctors who are convinced that the lunar cycle affects patients’ mental health. “We hope our results will encourage health professionals to put that idea to rest,” said Dr. Belleville. “Otherwise, this misperception could, on the one hand, color their judgment during the full moon phase; or, on the other hand, make them less attentive to psychological problems that surface during the remainder of the month.”

“Color their judgment”? Break out the ouija board then next time you go to your doctor, because if he or she believes the moon is influencing your state of mind, you better contact the spirits for answers. Or better yet, run for the exit.

Oh wait. There are no spirits. No ghosts, no goblins, no orcs, no Easter Bunnies, no demonic possession, no vampires, no werewolves, no angels, no psychics, magic crystals don’t cure disease and magnets don’t make you healthier. Astrology is bunk. Palmistry is bunk. Phrenology is bunk. Sorry to have to break the news.

Wait a second. This isn’t the first study to debunk this particular silliness. It’s the umpteenth. According to the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver (1996) examined over 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded that the studies have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation (i.e., one not likely due to chance) between the full moon, or any other phase of the moon, and each of the following:
-the homicide rate
-traffic accidents
-crisis calls to police or fire stations
-domestic violence
-births of babies
-suicide
-major disasters
-casino payout rates
-assassinations
-kidnappings
-aggression by professional hockey players
-violence in prisons
-psychiatric admissions [one study found admissions were lowest during a full moon]
-agitated behavior by nursing home residents
-assaults
-gunshot wounds
-stabbings
-emergency room admissions [but see]
-behavioral outbursts of psychologically challenged rural adults
-lycanthropy
-vampirism
-alcoholism
-sleep walking
-epilepsy

Gosh. the moon doesn’t affect ANYTHING*. Must be bad research. Let’s try again… maybe justify our research grants… when do we stop repeating this stuff?

Okay, folks, let’s agree that this issue is finally settled with this, the umpteenth-and-one study. Don’t waste any more time chasing shadows, not on my tax dollars. It’s been debunked many, many times. Let it rest and focus your attention on real science. Please don’t follow this up with a study on black cats or Friday thew 13th.

~~~~~

* Also from the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Many believe in lunar myths because they have heard them repeated many times by members of the mass media, by police officers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and other people with influence. Once many people believe something and enjoy a significant amount of communal reinforcement, they get veryselective about the type of data they pay attention to in the future. If one believes that during a full moon there is an increase in accidents, one will notice when accidents occur during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when accidents occur at other times. If something strange happens and there is a full moon at the time, a causal connection will be assumed. If something strange happens and there is no full moon, no connection is made, but the event is not seen as counter evidence to the belief in full moon causality. Memories get selective, and perhaps even distorted, to favor a full moon hypothesis. A tendency to do this over time strengthens one’s belief in the relationship between the full moon and a host of unrelated effects.

09/10/12

Do “psychics” make you laugh or cry?


Crystal ballA small handout for a local “psychic studio” that arrived in my mailbox offers “Superior PSYCHIC and Spiritual Cleanser.” I never know whether to laugh at the silliness of these people or cry over how they continue to bilk gullible, superstitious fools. We are still so Medieval in our thinking, in so many ways.

Here’s an entire “studio” – apparently a one-stop shopping centre for balderdash where you can go and get all your superstitions cleansed, or whatever it is they do (aside, that is, from cleansing your wallet…).

Apparently having a “studio” is all the rage among “psychics.” You can’t just have a table in your living room, maybe some Wal-Mart Hallowe’en decorations scattered around for atmosphere. You need a whole studio. Maybe a ‘no-waiting, no appointment necessary’ studio where numerous “psychics” are anxiously waiting for you to roll up and open your wallet. Yes, I found some of those advertised online.

I Googled “psychic studio” and came up with 11,600,000 results. I spent an hour or so reading the outrageous claims of dozens of charlatans and hucksters selling their “psychic” wares: “…experienced clairvoyant medium who works directly with your guides and angels to give you the guidance that you are seeking. Each session is unique, guided by the invisible realms and tailored to suit your individual needs.” What undiluted claptrap!

But turning back to the flyer, despite my skepticism about the subject matter, I had to chuckle over the wording and the bizarre, seemingly random capitalization on the handout:

“She will READ you like an open BOOK and tell you why You came and what You need to know with No Questions asked.”

Why can’t “psychics” read grammar books as well as “READ” people? They must get their language lessons from cell phone text messages. Maybe her angel or spirit guide doesn’t give guidance in punctuation or language usage. Apparently writing properly or competently is not a skill set necessary for “psychics.”

“Do you or someone you Love have Problems with Drugs, Alcohol, Legal Matters, Immigration, School, Work or Financial Problems.”

Not even a question mark to end that question. She sure covered just about all the bases, though, but I’m not sure people have many problems with financial problems. Unless they’re taking accounting courses.

“I Can and Will help you.”

Better, I suppose than “I can, but won’t help you.” Or “I can’t but will help you.”

What happened to the third-person “she” of the first sentences? Now it’s in the first person. What gives with the change of voice? Are there two voices here? We’re told she is “Professional and accurate.” Obviously not if you want a written reading from her, because any grade-school kid can write better.

What exactly is a “professional psychic”? One who charges the same rates as lawyers and architects? Is there some university degree I am unaware of for “psychics” that shows they have studied for years and achieved some academic success? I Googled that term and came up with more than 2.7 million hits, but could not find anything related to training, standards, testing, scholarship or a program of recognized education. One site tells me,

Being a professional intuitive can be a very rewarding career. There are many positive and exciting benefits, including helping people by offering them insight into their lives, working from home, and setting your own hours.
But becoming a professional psychic involves a lot of commitment and training. While it’s helpful if you have a genuine gift for intuitive insight, many training programs can help anyone to increase their natural skills regardless of your present level of psychic ability…
In addition to the four main skills, you may want to learn specific applications of those skills, such as:

  • Psychometry
  • Soul Reading
  • Telepathy
  • Healing/Medical Intuition
  • Mediumship
  • Channeling
  • Dowsing
  • Past Life Regression

So a “professional psychic” is someone who knows all the scams, the cons, the nonsense? Is there a professional organization that tests your ability to bilk customers?

Psychometry is a bit confusing here. There is a real, academic discipline called psychometry, which refers to, “the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational measurement. The field is primarily concerned with the construction and validation of measurement instruments such as questionnaires, tests, and personality assessments.” (Wikipedia).

What the author means is the non-academic, unverifiable flimflammery that goes by the same name: “…also known as token-object reading, or psychoscopy, is a form of extra-sensory perception characterized by the claimed ability to make relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with that object. Supporters assert that an object may have an energy field that transfers knowledge regarding that object’s history. Psychometry is commonly offered at psychic fairs as a type of psychic reading. At New Age events psychometry has claimed to help visitors “meet the dearly departed” (a form of spiritualism).” (Wikipedia)

“With over 25 years Experience there is NO PROBLEM TOO BIG OR SMALL One visit will convince you she is superior to all other PSYCHICS.”

Whew. So many mistakes. Not sure why the italics, or why there isn’t punctuation after “SMALL”. It’s a mess of random capitalization. Does the writer somehow think that by writing in big letters makes a problem bigger? So why isn’t it written as BIG and small?

The sentence, or rather the latter portion, supposes that the reader has been searching for answers from all sorts of snake oil sellers in the past and found them wanting. Otherwise, how would you know the difference between a superior and inferior “psychic”? Is it dependent on how much money they get you to spend?

Our local “psychic” professes to specialize in several fields: “Palm, Tarot Cards, Crystal Ball, Planetary re-alignment, Chakra Cleansing, Handwriting, Face, Meditation, Aura, Astrology, Spiritual Healing, Water and Candle.”

Planetary re-alignment? I thought that took the effort of the Olympian gods. Even NASA with all its technology and space vehicles can’t budge a small asteroid, yet here’s a woman who can move planets around like marbles. Mars lost its oceans to a planetary realignment a billion years ago. Imagine the power of this woman who can do this all by herself!

You have to wonder how anyone specializes in face or palm. I suppose in the same way one cam specialize in elbow and big toe. Ditto with water and candle. I suppose if I can specialize in tequila, a “psychic” can specialize in water. But candle? I prefer specializing in light switches.

Meditation? Is this woman a Buddhist? Or has she learned meditation from a Buddhist or Hindu teacher? How can one specialize in meditation without years of training and practice? Meditation requires effort, practice and training, just like writing. You might be able to learn some of its basic principles from a book, but it’s like learning carpentry from books. I am reluctant to believe that anyone engaged in the “psychic” game would read any serious books on Buddhism. After all, a serious study of Buddhism – which encourages free inquiry and intellectual investigation over blind faith – might point out too clearly the real nature of the “psychic” racket. Perhaps there are New Age comic books that teach meditation for psychics instead.

I suspect the low calibre of the writing probably mirrors the calibre of the advertised meditation skills.

I find most modern Western descriptions of chakras a garble of pseudo-science, New Age obscurity, and pseudo-Hinduism; a mix of poorly defined notions. This millennial-old belief has, like so many ancient beliefs, been usurped by the New Agers and turned into a farcical practice based on gibberish, looneyism and balderdash.

I have read both ancient Hindu texts and more modern explanations of the chakras – the imagined energy centres of the body. Personally, I have no faith in their existence. My own skepticism needs empirical evidence before I accept claims about things that cannot be clearly seen, touched, measured, photographed under controlled conditions, or otherwise identified. Chakras, angels, spirit guides, auras, demons, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot… all sorts of imaginary things fall under my skeptical microscope. I have yet to find proof of any, but I’ve only been searching for about five decades.

Here’s a quote from one site about so-called chakra clearing:

“Practice clearing your chakras in the bathtub or shower at least once each week. By being in water, you will be able to rinse your hand after each chakra releases. You will notice a lightening of your vibration and an overall easier sense of well-being. If you are working with someone else, rinse your hand into a bowl of water after each chakra clears. Water is fluid and the energy will just be released easily into the water without any effect on you or the person you may be working with.
• Place your open hand, palm side down, on your forehead. Men will use their right hand and women will use their left hand. Spread your fingers wide open to receive the energy easily. If you are working with someone else, place your open hand about two inches above each of the chakras, being cautious not to actually touch their body.
• Now tell yourself to release into your hand every single thought, feeling, and emotion that you have never been able to show or express. Releasing this energy may feel like thousands of tiny ‘hits’ on the palm of your hand. Leave your hand over your forehead until you are certain there is nothing more to be released.
• Next, move your hand above your throat. Release into your hand all the times that you have been killed in the past for speaking your truth, all the times that others have criticized you for sharing your words, all the times that you wanted to scream, and all the times when you did scream and no one heard you. Also release all the words you regret speaking and all the words spoken to you that you wish you had not heard.
• Just release all that energy into your hand, from your throat, from the back of your neck and from your shoulders.

Yeah, me too. My eyes rolled around in my head when I read that silliness. Do people actually believe this or are they all sharing some private in-joke, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster? But I digress. Back to the mini-flyer.

Handwriting? After reading this poorly-written and awkward piece, I wonder why someone with such poor literary skills would advertise handwriting as a specialty. Perhaps she writes by hand better than she types?

Anyway, the best part is at the bottom (the shouting is in the original): “AVAILABLE FOR HOME BLESSINGS & HOUSE PARTIES”. “Psychics” and house parties; what a mix. That really defines credibility, doesn’t it? Come on over for a party Saturday night… We have a keg of beer, a DJ and dance music, a case of Jack Daniels, a little weed and a “psychic”…

And, of course, “All Help is Guaranteed with Results in 24 hours.” How one guarantees help provided by a “psychic” is an amusing discussion all by itself. So why the 24 hour wait? What, your crystal ball has a wait time? It’s on dial-up to the spirit world? Come on…

Laugh and cry. That’s what this little flyer did for me. Laugh at its poorly written presentation, cry because I know,as you do, dear reader, that there are those who will take it seriously and waste their money on such nonsense.