When skeptics respond to woo
Daniel Dennett in SI Vol.40 No. 5 (p 54) recently wrote in his fine article “Authority and Skepticism” that we skeptics “need to walk the tightrope between appropriate impatience with self-congratulatory ignorance on the one hand and on the other open-mindedness so tolerant that nonsense is granted “respect” that is mere lip service in any case.” Dennett asks us to strike the proper notes in discussion with people that express and believe nonsensical or woo claims. He is also hoping that skeptics can be change agents for the good, for the sake of a more reasonable society. A good idea, but how do you engage, for example, chiropractor X’s client B who also gets Reiki treatments from X at X’s office and has practiced a technique of meditation for two years?
The immediate problem is that B has quit her job and plans to move to India to a famous guru G’s GM ashram indefinitely. B believes that GM’s scientific studies prove that applying GM’s patented form of meditation brings world peace and a host of health and wealth benefits. When GM does not seem to work, B blames inappropriate application of the technique. B is 31 years old and has a master’s degree in counseling. B’s brother, 35, and his wife wish to hire you to try to educate B about the true nature of the GM organization and the false nature of its claims.
This case about B addresses a more extreme situation than most skeptics will choose to encounter. My primary career 1986 through 1998 was about meeting with people like B usually by surprise to try to help them re-assess commitment to something a relation deemed nonsensical and deceptive if not dangerous. On occasion, I still conduct interventions. By most accounts, I have been pretty good as an interventionist. I do not have room here to describe the complexity of preparation for interventions, nor the ethics of surprising B with her family at her going away party. Let us say that after some negotiation, a perturbed B understood that she could call this meeting off at any time and that she was always free to leave. B agreed to not call GM headquarters until we had an hour or so to outline the main concerns and how we might respectfully proceed.
A Manual for Atheists by Peter Boghossian (2013) offers some advice for “street epistemologists” to conduct “mini-interventions” directed at disconfirming faith in a deity. My review link is below, but a comment I made applies here: “If a sensitive [believer] detects your underlying disdain, you will find yourself talking to yourself in short order during a street intervention.” So, how to eliminate this underlying disdain with what Dennett called “appropriate impatience?” The question is disdain for what? For all things woo? What is woo? Is it everything that does not stand to reason or cannot be tested? Boghossian points in the right direction by utilizing epistemology or how we know stuff. What he missed entirely is the category of epistemology that is key to developing a sensitivity to engaging woo believers.
Woo is often less about faith than it is about that instinctual knowledge or gnosis that some New Age cult leaders called knowingness and Robert Heinlein labelled to “grock” something in Stranger in a Strange Land. I will use a model presented by Wouter J. Hanegraaff in his article “Reason, Faith, and Gnosis: Potentials and Problematics of a Typological Construct.” My use of this model goes beyond Hanegraaff’s analysis, but we agree that reason, faith, and gnosis are categories of “knowledge claimed” that occur in science and religion as well as in art and literature with differences in degree of emphasis only.
There is a stream of esoteric tradition in the West called Gnosis, but that historical label is not what is meant by gnosis here. Gnosis is primal awareness as funded by evolution into human awareness and is the very foundation of how we know anything. It is the nothing from which epistemology emerges from ontology; what the mystic Jacob Boehme called the Ungrund. We can see this more clearly in animals and insects that appear to just “know” how to behave without instruction, manifesto, creed, or reference library. Ancient peoples often viewed wild animals as having godlike qualities. Words including instinct, natural, intuition, and Tao indicate our awareness that woo is operating without reference to faith or reason.
There remains a serious problem here for skeptics who view reason as the angel in epistemology and faith as the devil. Hanegraaff’s typology is helpful. He offers three analytical categories of knowledge as Reason, Faith, and Gnosis. Each shares in two characteristics listed as Communicable and Verifiable/Falsifiable. Reason is both communicable and verifiable. Faith is communicable but not verifiable. Gnosis is neither communicable nor verifiable. I know, a fundamentalist skeptic will balk at this characterization of gnosis—that is the problem.
We can approach extensions of knowledge as reason and faith coming from gnosis with a pragmatic strategy. Reason is the tool we use to separate belief from false belief. We can believe the story or creed that the Buddha was enlightened about solving the problem of suffering, but we should not believe that his Eightfold Path solves the problem of suffering without reasonable application—what Buddha called right action. Jesus, another big name from the woo world, pragmatically indicated the same: By their fruits will you know them. In others words, we should be able to assess the value of faith claims by examining faith behaviors.
So, getting back to our client B, the approach should not be impatient. Impatience reveals itself to woo clients as a guard dog on a leash, so skeptics that use Dennett’s “impatience” no matter how “appropriate” or tamed will broadcast a threat: We will unleash this dog if you violate our reasonable territory. Woo folks if anything are hypersensitive to being called nutty, stupid, or ridiculous. I will tell you that, initially, B clients tend to be friendly but in a passive aggressive sense, smiling at you as if you don’t “know” gnosis because you have not experienced “it.” They will smile you into crying uncle after you offered your clearest reasonable arguments with a friendly “You have your truth and I have mine.” At that point you will want to unleash your dog!
The goal in discussion with B is not to dismiss woo but to embrace it totally as the ocean of being emerging in an awareness called life. B is not a fish that you are trying to hook to bring to land. B is a fish living in a fish bowl in the ocean with an obvious way out if B would only “rise above” the imagined safety of the container.
Long before reason appeared in human form, life presented an awareness of being in myriad forms. This awareness funded gnosis into proto-humans. It lately emerged as symbol-making through language, art, and behavior (dance, ritual, cults) communicated into a creed as faith in something. These fantastic faith stories expressed through architecture, technology, and aesthetics with attendant cults helped organize groups into cultures. Reason was that aspect of knowing that refined faith-based behaviors and made them more viable. Reason as science proves what is real about faith claims derived from gnosis. Social evolution depended on well-organized behavior surrounding faith in something. The misapplication of woo is the problem. Does B’s guru have a refined or elegant expression of the faith? How does it square with the better interpretations of Hindu tradition? What is the actual history of the guru? How is G better than other gurus? What do former members say? What does real science say about the guru’s publications, Reiki healing, and chiropractic? In other words, I suggest to not open with that last question.
Wooing people away from woo as such is a pointless game. Try convincing a fish to live out of water. Nonsense is not always a bad thing. Comics make their living with it and we benefit from a good laugh. Woo as gnosis emerges as good in good science and not so good or bad in sorcery. Sir Isaac Newton spent an enormous amount of “scientific” effort with alchemy and Biblical prediction during his brilliant life (Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer by M. White, 1999). A better example is Srinrivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) or “The Man Who Knew Infinity” as depicted in the recent film based on the 1991 book. Ramanujan was a largely self-taught prodigy in math early in his career in India, but later managed to stun the academy in England by presenting remarkably useful theorems and new solutions as if by intuition. Ramanujan was not a fake or false believer. B’s guru was both. We as skeptics are not so much addressing nonsense as we are bad science, lousy ethics, and deception.
There has been a decline since the 1980s of the so-called “secularization thesis,” that notion that human kind is moving away from faith toward reason since Enlightenment times. We know now that religion is not being marginalized as much as reinvented in New Ageism and the democratization of religion. Individuals continue to create designer spiritualties that meet their tastes and tastes change. New cults continue to emerge because cult and religious behavior has always driven human social evolution. It is the bad and unhealthy expression of woo that skeptics need to address.
Think about it: When you brush your teeth before dawn and take your dog for an early run along a forest trail, most of what you do and experience is possible because of what has been funded you by evolution, and that includes your ability to appreciate the experience without faith or reason. That ability is a taste of gnosis. You are made of a lot of woo too, no less than B.
 Clashes of Knowledge: Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in Science and Religion. Peter Meusbuger, Michael Welker, Edgar Wunder, Editors (2010)