It’s hard to see someone relying on some belief that you feel is based on rather insecure premises. Worrying to see someone like my ex, who I think is genuinely committed to healing and helping others, risking doing them harm by not looking deeply enough into the new age therapies he is offering.
I’m not closed off to the possibility that there may be some worth in these treatments, though I’ve yet to see any evidence of benefits for most of them. But what I am sure about is that he’s not open enough to the possibility that they are useless, or harmful, to be able to tell the difference. It seems he’s too keen to believe that they’re true to look at cases when they might not have worked. And faced with sceptical questions, he gets irritated and defensive and feels personally attacked.
There’s also a “buy one get one free” tendency which worries me – for many people once they allow one new agey belief under their radar they tend to let in a lot more – from energy healing to orbs and crop circles. For me this all or nothing approach suggests, not that someone has discovered evidence that supports all these phenomena, but that they have relaxed their bullshit detection systems to the point where anything can get in.
Or perhaps, that they have uncritically accepted the words of “experts”, who set themselves up as teachers or practitioners of new age therapies. I find Derren Brown – Messiah? a fascinating programme on this issue – he goes to a succession of “experts” in different supernatural phenomena, fakes having particular paranormal abilities, and gains their enthusiastic endorsement. For me this clearly shows the inadequacies of the so-called experts’ criteria for believing something true. If you can’t screen out faked phenomena, how can you ever be sure about the phenomena you view as genuine? It’s one thing to choose these things yourself – but to advocate them to others surely requires a greater level of scrutiny and responsibility.
Sceptical principles – an alertness to how numbers and experiences can lead us astray through confirmation bias or the lack of awareness of probability and significance, and so on, were trained into me at an early age. Twice in my life I’ve found myself wanting to believe things for which there was no solid evidence – and twice, after a period of exploration, I found myself unable to accept them. On both occasions it was painful for me to have my hopes dashed. And yet that was the almost inevitable outcome – because I was encouraged to hope without any basis for that hope.
My experiences have confirmed the value of these sceptical principles. Yet do these new age beliefs really do harm? If they give people hope and comfort, shouldn’t I just let them get on with it. Once I did go with the live and let live approach. Yet that was before I had a relationship wrecked by false beliefs in new age principles. Before I heard of stories like that of the brother of a friend who came close to the brink of death through pursuing “alternative” cancer treatments. On a philosophical level, I think that truth is valuable – and that some ways of getting at the truth are more valuable than others. And that letting false beliefs persist, not promoting the sort of critical thinking that helps people make informed decisions, has a negative effect in the longer term, even if it brings short term comfort.
Knowing what I know now about how these beliefs can be harmful, I worry about people who don’t share the informed scepticism that now protects me.
I wish I’d said more about this to my ex at a time when he might have listened. I can’t now, both because of the breakdown in our communications (which is in no small part due to his misinterpretation of me based on his energy readings) and because he’s currently using his new age approaches to deal with a serious family crisis.
When you see someone packing a rope to go climbing, you may notice that the rope looks a bit frayed and unreliable. But they’re not in immediate danger, so it’s easy to let that pass. But the problem with that approach is that a time when there is no immediate danger is the only time to question the safety of the rope. Because when that person (and others dear to him) is dangling off a cliff on the other end of that rope, it’s a bit too late to point out the frayed bits!