Monday, June 29, 2009

Woos and Victims

Used to, when I ran into woos espousing the power of positive thinking, the idea that if you want something bad enough, you'll get it, I'd just take it as fluffy naive stuff, and generally move onto more directly harmful sorts of woo. I ended up reevaluating that attitude around the time I started blogging. The particular triggering incident involved an advocate of The Secret who saw no problem with an implied reversal of the hypothesis: If you're doing badly, it's your fault because you obviously attracted misfortune with negative thoughts. It got up to sickening levels when rape victims and the Holocaust came up.

I haven't heard as much from the Secretards over the past year, and I hope that's a sign the hype is dying away. At least until the next positive thinking fad gets a guest on Oprah.

Blaming the victim is one of woo's favorite ways to deal with failure. Much of the time it's not deliberate: Most woos are true believers, and when their pet magic fails, one of the easiest excuses to formulate is "you're doing it wrong!" With science-based things, it's a possibility, but there's always something to examine to figure out where the problem lies. No such luck with woo: There's always large realms of vagueness, and many give excuses to claim what the victim was thinking.

Of course, the knowing frauds take full advantage of this meme: If they can blame the people paying for their services and make them believe they're the ones to blame, the huckster doesn't have to worry about getting any results whatsoever. They can prosper from inaction and deception.


Dark Jaguar said...

Regarding that rather disturbing notion that failure is your own fault for just not "wanting" it enough, I've often thought the same thing about karma.

Scott Adams, who often gets involved in nonsense himself these days, said it most hilariously when that Dogbert guy said "Karma means I can do whatever I want to you and assume you deserve it.".

People who believe in karma laugh but the fact is, that IS the direct consequence of their belief. Now of course finding something unpalletable in this way is not evidence it's wrong, but it's certainly a good way to point out that things like karma and "the secret" aren't super sunshine solutions as their believers propose them to be.

I'm also pretty sure that it's observations like this that earn me descriptors like "cynic" and "negative". Still, who's more negative? Me, for pointing out logical consequences of these beliefs and not believing them to begin with for lack of evidence, or the person who says that a single spec of doubt is more powerful than 99% confidence?

That's the big thing I often wonder about with the believer in these or any other sort of thing where doubt is capable of nullifying their magics. It suggests that doubt is far FAR more powerful than faith. It suggests that while they go on about the power of belief, in reality they think that even the tiniest iota of disbelief can totally override the otherwise totally committed believer to result in destroying their magic effect utterly.

Further, I've often thought that the Freudian unconcious has got to be the most abused concept of these "the secret" types. Now considering that a lot of Freud's ideas have been more or less tossed out over the years, the biggest hanger-on seems to be his idea of a secret mind in one's mind that "wants" things and controls us to get them in spite of our unawareness of those goals. This is more or less a fiction. Oh, there's a truth in a sense. Most of what our brain does IS in fact unconcious, such as image processing and prejudgements on various things and managing our breathing and such, but to the extent that the Freud follower suggests? That's just not accurate.

I recently watched a video between Richard Dawkins and another biologist discussing evolutionary psychology and he made a point of people often misunderstanding what he means when he talks about evolutionary reasons for behavior. When he suggests, for example, that there is an evolutionary basis FOR a moral behavior that is selfish at a genetic level, he does not literally mean that secretly in our brains we do things only for ourselves. In reality, our brains really ARE doing it because we want to HELP someone and not for selfish reasons. The reason is simply because the genes don't need to put the REASON for our behavior in our brains. It's far more expediant to simply put the RULE in there by itself, and evolution is nothing if not expediant, doing only what need be done at that moment in time. The proof of this is that we constantly circunvent our "selfish" genes. The rule "help children" is there, but not the reason for that rule, so we adopt children in spite of it being against our genes. In fact, Dawkins puts it well saying "my genes can go jump in a lake".

(Ran out of room, posting the rest in another post.)

Dark Jaguar said...

Anyway, that sidetrack was just to point out the lack of any real evidence for this "subconcious doubt" excuse that "the secret" followers often resort to. If I point out that people believe and expect things that happen differently all the time, they'll just say "well okay yeah but SUBCONCIOUSLY they still doubted it". Okay, so apparently if I miss a step walking down stairs, it's because I subconciously EXPECTED to trip? Sorry, but that's not how it works. My subconcious was MANAGING my walk down the stairs. Me missing a step is because my subconcious DID NOT expect me to trip, as it was running the same "walk down the stairs" routine it has for years, otherwise it would have corrected for it and I would NOT have missed that step!

Further though, it presents a problem. The fictional subconcious they present is essentially a second personality lurking in your head working "against" your desires often enough to be used as an excuse. Why can't the desires of the "concious" override the desires of the "subconcious"? Why is this other person being in my skull marking it any more special than the people walking around on the outside? Heck why don't "will crashes" happen all the time between people with differing desires and expectations?

...Actually "Will Crash" is a great term for a Japanesy RPG style battle system, like one with psychic power battles that rewrite the entire field of battle completely as things go on and the fissure between the enemy and your character is the "crash point"... Yeah, that could work...

Dunc said...

I think you're conflating subconscious motivations with autonomic processes (eg breathing) and motor memory (eg walking) there, DJ - they're completely different things.

While I know that Freud's model of the subconscious has been completely trashed, I was under the impression that the basic concept (i.e. that the motivations for our actions are not fully accessible to our concious minds) was still a (if not the) fundamental element of all modern psychology. If you have cites to the contrary, I'd be very interested...

Bronze Dog said...

I do think there's a subconscious, but it's nowhere near as self-loathing as woos make it out to be. It's pretty much the biases we're not aware of and how they color our perception. We can make ourselves more aware of those mental habits if they go nasty, like catastrophic thinking, bigotry, and so forth.

Woos just latched onto the idea of the subconscious because it's an easy source of blame: The subconscious isn't easily observed, so there's always some place where you can shove the blame.

Dark Jaguar said...

Oh don't misunderstand me. I'm aware of a subconcious. It's the freudian one I'm talking about here. It's not just motor skills, as I mentioned it's the prejudgements and preprocessing our minds do all the time. There's also basic rules like "see food, eat food" and "see cute thing (as pulled from the other part of the brain that defines cute things), protect cute thing". The point I was making there was when people go further to say things such as "well secretly we are only protecting babies to pass on our genes, that's what we're REALLY thinking", when in reality that's not what we are "really" thinking, even if that's the evolutionary basis, there's no reason for the original motivation to get programmed into our brain as well.

And yes, extra rules would get added over time from experience, most notably our experience with the physics of every day life. I mean that's the best explanation we have for why optical illusions work.

At any rate, I think we can all agree that a darker "doubty face" subconcious that seeks to ruin all our expectations is a phantasm in the minds of woo types and not anything with any reality to it.

Dark Jaguar said...

Actually, what I'd like to find is some lovely "bad psychology" site run by someone who actually knows what they are talking about. I've yet to find something like that. Psychology more than most sciences is a pretty huge nest of bad ideas hiding away the good science to the point where the lay person, such as myself, has a hard time sifting the wheat from the chaff.

Bronze Dog said...

Yeah, I think that would be a good resource. Hollywood certainly doesn't help anymore than the woos do.