Thursday, August 26, 2010

The siren song of pseudoscience

Many freethinkers are accustomed to opposition in the form of bigoted homophobes, scientifically ignorant creationists, etc. But every so often, irrationality comes in a really attractive package that seems to beg you to pick it up, if only for a moment.

I've been having many conversations lately with someone about past-life regression. As you might guess, I think the whole thing is nonsense. Interestingly enough, many Hindu groups seem to agree with me on this. While they certainly believe in reincarnation, they generally don't consider it worthwhile to investigate the events of past lives. So while the idea of reincarnation has its roots in Hinduism, past-life regression seems to be mostly a New Age thing.

Of course, there are several people out there who bill themselves as "regression therapists" and will, for a fee, take you through some of your past lives. You can find the source of your problems and maybe even your long-lost soulmate!

Now, I totally understand the appeal of this stuff. It absolves us of responsibility for things in this life. If someone's your soulmate and you're meant to be with them, why would you want to do something so mundane as work on your relationship or (gasp!) show some consideration to your partner? If your problems can be traced to past lives, then you don't have to be honest with yourself about how you've contributed to the situation in this life.

It shouldn't surprise you that high-profile cases of so-called regression that have been closely examined have been debunked, such as Bridey Murphy and the Bloxham tapes. While the concept is appealing, generally cases can be attributed to factors in this life. Don't give these charlatans your money. If you want some feelgood treatment, book a massage instead.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hope you enjoy my new direction

When I first started this blog, I'd recently had a birthday and had made it a goal to figure out where I was spiritually by my next birthday. That next birthday has come and gone, and I've come across some interesting developments. I still have a lot of questions about things, but I've found a great community that supports me in my search, which may be more important than any conclusions I reach (I'll expand on this in a future post).

While I'll continue to post my thoughts on these matters, I'm not inspired to write about religious or spiritual topics as frequently as before. So I'd like to expand the scope of this little blog and talk more about other aspects of my life. This will probably include a lot about technology and my experiences in graduate school. I'll still post spiritually-themed articles occasionally; they just won't be the main focus anymore.

In the next day or two, I'll post something about the official beginning of my second attempt at graduate school (including an explanation of why it's my second attempt). Even at a seemingly inconsequential event like a department orientation, important lessons can reveal themselves. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

NPR piece gets a bit elitist even for me

I usually love NPR, but they screwed the pooch on this story:

The gist of the piece is that Western psychiatric treatment isn't widely available in India, and many Indians seek treatment through faith healers. You might think that my main objection was to the reliance on faith healing over conventional mental health treatment, and I do object to those practices.

However, the tone of the article is what made me cringe more than anything. It’s symptomatic of a sort of meme that has bugged me for a long time: the idea that Indians are inherently more superstitious than Westerners. This is utter bullshit. Uneducated Indians are superstitious, as are uneducated Westerners. The educated Indians I've met are no more or less superstitious than their Western counterparts.

For instance, I've talked a bit about my involvement in the Vedanta Society, which, at least at our local branch, is mostly comprised of Indians. But the education levels are generally higher than those of the people depicted in the NPR story (we even have some doctors in our group). I have not seen any anti-science sentiment among the leadership, and very little among the laity (almost any group has a few New Age types). In fact, when someone asked one of our most senior monks about focusing mental energies on an illness, the monk advised the person to see a doctor! So I think superstition is much more a function of education level than of nationality.

If you don't believe me, go to some of the less-educated parts of any country and see what kind of crazy beliefs you find. Hell, go to the halls of your nearest high school and just listen for all the supposed things that if you do after sex, you won’t get pregnant (my personal favorite is doing a handstand and having your partner pour cold water down your vagina). While you're at it, search YouTube for "cast out demons" and then tell me how that’s so much more sophisticated than going to a Shiva temple.

Also, the cost of psychiatric treatment is hardly a trivial matter. While the faith healers do charge ridiculous sums, those sums are still much cheaper than counseling and medication, which could go on for the rest of a person's life. That’s a problem in this country, too, and probably every country that doesn’t have socialized medicine (I’m referring strictly to end user cost; I’m not commenting one way or the other on whether socialized medicine is a good idea). And if you think there’s no stigma in this country associated with seeking mental health treatment, you need to pay attention or get out more.

I'm not in favor of faith healing by any means, at least not to the exclusion of medical treatment. But condescending crap like this doesn't help. It perpetuates stereotypes and gives the audience a false sense of superiority, which can take the focus away from the problems we have in this country regarding superstition and mental health treatment. And that would be a damn shame.