Tag Archives: Magical thinking

Are We Seeing the End of Homeopathy?

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

Several years ago, during a lecture on Science-Based Medicine, I noted that if there were one medical pseudoscience that was vulnerable to extinction it was homeopathy. Homeopathy is perhaps the most obviously absurd medical pseudoscience. It is also widely studied, and has been clearly shown to not work. Further, there is a huge gap in the public understanding of what homeopathy is; it therefore seems plausible that the popularity of homeopathy can take a huge hit just by telling the public what it actually is.

Further, homeopathy is in a precarious regulatory position. Homeopathic products are presented and regulated as drugs, but clearly they are not, and they are also not supplements, herbal drugs, nutrition-based, or natural products. They are simply fraudulent drugs riding a wave of ignorance.

In the last few years homeopathy has had a rough time. While the industry is still growing, there are signs of clear trouble on the horizon. Let’s review:

Some Background

homeopathy 803_250pxHomeopathy is a 200 year old pre-scientific system of medicine based upon magical thinking. It is mostly based on two notions, the first of which is that like cures like. In other words, a substance that causes a symptom can cure that symptom in extremely low doses. There is no scientific basis for this, despite the desperate attempts by homeopaths to invoke vaccine-like analogies, or their new favorite, hormesis.

The second notion is that you make a remedy more powerful by diluting it to extreme degrees. People have fun making comparisons, such as the need to drink a solar-system’s worth of water to have a 50% chance of getting a single molecule of active ingredient. No problem, say the homeopaths, homeopathic potions contain the magical “essence” of what was previously diluted in them. It’s turtles all the way down.

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Deepak Chopra tries his hand at a clinical trial. Woo ensues.


By Orac via Respectful Insolence

Of all the quacks and cranks and purveyors of woo whom I’ve encountered over the years, Deepak Chopra is, without a doubt, one of the most arrogantly obstinate, if not the most arrogantly obstinate. Sure, a quack like Mike Adams wins on sheer obnoxiousness and for the sheer breadth of crankery to which he ascribes, which includes everything from quackery, to New World Order conspiracy theories, to Scientology-like anti-psychiatry rants, to survivalist and gun nut tendencies, but he’s so obviously unhinged, as well as intermittently entertaining, that he doesn’t quite get under the skin the way Chopra does. CHOPRAThere’s something about that smug, condescending, incredibly arrogant manner of Chopra’s that grates even more in its own way than the clueless arrogance of ignorance of a person like Adams, Vani Hari (a.k.a. the Food Babe), or Joe Mercola (who appears to be far more about the money than actually believing in the quackery he sells). When Chopra tries his hand at science, woo ensues, as we shall soon see.

Perhaps the best recurring example of Chopra’s smarmy condescension coupled with magical thinking comes in his ongoing war with skeptics (most recently illustrated by his hilariously off-base “million dollar” counter-challenge to James Randi) and atheists, in particular Richard Dawkins. Given that this particular war seems to have heated up again, with Chopra having declared that he’s “pissed off by Richard Dawkins’ arrogance and his pretense of being a really good scientist,” it seems the perfect time to bring up a project of Chopra’s in which he pretends to be a scientist. But first, let’s get a flavor of why real scientists like Richard Dawkins (who, regardless of what you think of his ill-advised and offensive Twitter ramblings, is nonetheless a scientist in the way that Chopra will never be):

Boasting is not becoming of a beacon of inner peace, and Chopra knows it. I don’t want to hear him talk trash, and I ask him why he can’t just let Richard Dawkins go.

“With Dawkins, I am just pissed off. I am pissed off by his arrogance and his pretense of being a really good scientist. He is not,” Chopra says. “And he is using his scientific credentials to literally go on a rampage.”

But it’s more than that, I suggest. Chopra sits back and raises his hands, palms upward, smiling.

“I totally agree. It’s my last challenge,” he says. “It may be a very strange psychological issue.”

I don’t think there’s anything particularly strange about it. It’s incredibly obvious. Chopra, who started out as a real physician (an endocrinologist, actually) somehow got into quantum quackery and turned into a pseudoscientist and quack. Dawkins is a prominent real scientist who reminds Chopra that his blather  .  .  .

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Dowsing (a.k.a. water witching)

Via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

dowsing1Dowsing is the action of a person–called the dowser–using a rod, stick or other device–called a dowsing rod, dowsing stick, doodlebug (when used to locate oil), or divining rod–to locate such things as underground water, hidden metal, buried treasure, oil, lost persons or golf balls, etc. Since dowsing is not based upon any known scientific or empirical laws or forces of nature, it should be considered a type of divination and an example of magical thinking. The dowser tries to locate objects by occult means.

Map dowsers use a dowsing device, usually a pendulum, over maps to locate oil, minerals, persons, water, etc. However, the prototype of a dowser is the field dowser who walks around an area using a forked stick to locate underground water. When above water, the rod points downward. (Some dowsers use two rods. The rods cross when above water.) Various theories have been given as to what causes the rods to move: electromagnetic or other subtle geological forces, suggestion from others or from geophysical observations, ESP and other paranormal explanations, etc. Most skeptics accept the explanation of William Carpenter (1852). The rod moves due to involuntary motor behavior, which Carpenter dubbed ideomotor action.

In the 16th century, Agricola described mining dowsers using a forked twig to find metals (De re metallica). He didn’t think much of the practice. A miner, he wrote:

should not make us of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for … there are natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs. (Quoted in Zusne and Jones 1989: 106)

Despite this sage advice, dowsers continue to dowse, claiming that they have a special power and that what they are dowsing for emanates energy, rays, radiations, vibrations, and the like.

Does dowsing work?

Some people are less interested in why the rods move than in whether dowsing works. Obviously, many people believe it does. Dowsing and other forms of divination have been around for thousands of years. There are large societies of dowsers in America and Europe and dowsers practice their art every day in all parts of the world. There have even been scientists in recent years who have offered proof that dowsing works. There must be something to it, then, or so it seems.

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The Dangers of Magical Thinking in the Martial Arts

By Jeff Westfall via Violent metaphors

Recently on Facebook I saw a video of a Finnish martial artist named Jukka Lampila who called what he did Empty Force or EFO, and claimed that with it he could control an attacker without touching him. His Facebook page proclaims him the founder of EFO. The video begins with clips of Lampila fending off ‘attacks’ from his students. blue_hands_on_glass_250pxHe waves his arms; sometimes he twitches, and in each case the ‘attacker’ seems to be magically thrown to the mat without ever being touched by Lampila. He also shows an example of ‘controlling’ someone on the ground. He kneels calmly beside a supine student with the back of his hand gently resting on the man’s chest. “I don’t need to use any energy” he asserts as the student appears to try with all his might to regain his feet to no avail. It is a sad display of martial arts charlatanism.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lampila, a group of skeptics were in attendance this day, and several of them volunteered to be ‘controlled’ by Mr. Lampila. His chosen method was to have the volunteer try to push him. He failed in each case to stop them from doing so. The skeptics were admirably polite, giving Mr. Lampila an ample number of opportunities to prove his claims and not demonstrably gloating at his failures. When one of them calmly asked him if he would like to demonstrate his defense against a punching attack Mr. Lampila declined. He later invited everyone to pay for and attend his seminar the next day!

I’ve been involved in the martial arts since 1971. I’ve been teaching martial arts since 1975. In this time, and long before I became aware of formal scientific skepticism I grew to see that a lot of people are drawn to martial arts styles that are based on pseudo-science. The arts that are the biggest culprits by far are the arts that base their claims of effectiveness on developing and manipulating a purported form of internal energy.Tantra_prana Whether you label it Chi, Ki, Prana, “The Force”, or Empty Force it has never to my knowledge been proven to exist through robust, double-blind, replicated scientific experiments. If it is energy, where are the scientific instruments that can detect its levels? Is this energy chemical, radiant, nuclear, kinetic, electro-magnetic, mechanical, or ionizing? Is this energy in the form of waves or particles? At the risk of building a straw man, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that practitioners and apologists for these arts would say that science doesn’t know everything, and that “chi power” is as yet unexplained by science. If this were plausible, wouldn’t it follow that a large number of physicists would be pursuing a future Nobel Prize by attempting to prove the existence of this vital energy?

In the last 43 years I’ve seen quite a few ‘demonstrations’ of this power. I have yet to be impressed. Mostly what I’ve seen were sad carnival sideshow tricks, many of which I can easily explain if not reproduce, without resorting to magic. The rest were feckless displays like that of Mr. Lampila.

I assert that on the rare occasions when practitioners of these styles defend themselves effectively it is through properly applied principles of leverage and body mechanics, and not the magical power of Ki.

This phenomenon raises further questions. First, what possesses people to train in such a system of martial arts? Second, what is in the minds of people who already train in such systems and continue to do so after seeing their ‘Master’ embarrassed as Mr. Lampila was in the video?

As for what draws people in the first place, I will cite what scientific skepticism has taught me.

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superstition broken_mirror_02_600px
Via Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids

In a nutshell: Superstitions are beliefs about the power of things to bring about good or bad when there’s no logical or scientific evidence for the belief.

superstition 140_300pxA superstition is a belief that something can cause good or bad to happen when there’s no scientific or logical reason for believing it.

It seems that everybody is superstitious about something. Ask anyone if they would wear a sweater worn by somebody who has done the worst evil thing you can imagine. Even though there is no rational or logical reason for believing that an evil person’s sweater would feel any different from any other sweater, most people don’t want to even come near the sweater of someone they think is evil.

Even grownups who think they are not superstitious will get chills or a good feeling when they touch something that belonged to someone they greatly admire. There is no logical or scientific reason why anything touched by anyone you admire should have any special effect on you. Yet, people will go to great lengths to get an autograph or to visit the home where someone they think is great was born or used to live.

The world does not divide up into the ones who are superstitious and the ones who are not superstitious. We’re all superstitious, but not always about the same things. We might laugh when we read about people who used to beat their drums to make the moon give back the sun during an eclipse. superstition 143_200pxBut they’d probably laugh at us for trying to touch a rock star or for buying clothes with the name of some singer sewed into them.

Many superstitions start by observing some things that happen by coincidence. You forgot to wash your socks before a baseball game and then you hit a home run. From now on you don’t wash your socks before you play a game. You wore your blue sweater to school on the day you aced a test. Now the sweater is your “lucky sweater” and you wear it whenever you have a test. Instead of accepting that things happen by coincidence, we make one the cause of the other. If you stop to think about it, you know there’s no logical reason dirty socks should help a baseball player hit a baseball. Wearing a sweater can’t substitute for studying for a test.

Many athletes are superstitious. They’ll wear twisted ropes around their necks or rubber bands with holograms around their wrists. Why? Not because they think they look good in them, but because they think the ropes and rubber bands can improve their playing. Not likely, you might think. But, if the player really believes his necklace or bracelet helps him, it might relax him and put him in a good mood. Maybe he plays better when he’s relaxed and in a good mood. So, magic jewelry might help some people sometimes, but only because of their superstition!

Some superstitions are due to magical thinking. Believing that something evil stays in the sweater of an evil person is type of magical thinking. Thinking that things that look alike share some sort of magical connection is also magical thinking. Just because a plant looks like a kidney doesn’t mean it will be good medicine for kidney problems.

Some people think that if they make a doll to stand for some person they can help or hurt the person by helping or hurting the doll. Some people think you can help a person by doing acupuncture on a doll that stands in for the person. Some think that you can make a person feel it if you stick a pin in a doll that stands in for the person. These are examples of more magical thinking.

Magical thinking seems to be based on a belief that there is some sort of energy or essence that things can magically transfer to other things.

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