Desultory Phillipic: Pseudo-Science Source Material Revealed!

. . . who can bend spoons!

. . . who can bend spoons!

WC enjoys public lectures. But WC does not enjoy the kinds of lectures where you know what every word in a sentence means, but the sentence still makes no sense. When the speaker says,

To navigate the story is to become one with it.

Or something like,

Consciousness consists of supercharged waveforms of quantum energy.
“Quantum” means a flowering of the consciousness-expanding.

Actually, that’s not what “quantum” means. But never mind; how about,

The goal of electromagnetic resonance is to plant the seeds of spacetime rather than delusion.

It’s New Age gibberish, and it is a waste of time and energy to even attempt to parse it. If you really, really feel the need to wallow in the stuff, there’s a handy on-line New-Age Bullshit Generator you can use to create your very own meaningless aphorisms and mantras. It saves you money, too, if you are inclined to this stuff; otherwise, you have to buy those self-help and New Age books.[^1]

It gets even worse when this New Age bullshit moves over into pseudo-science. Some years ago, an acquaintance[^2] inflicted one of these on WC. It involved the impact on humans of “ectohormones,” which the speaker defined as “any substance that is secreted into an individual’s environment and affects the behaviour or activity of another individual (of the same or different species) in the manner of a pheromone.”[^3] The speaker went on to describe how these “ectohormones” influenced our behavior. The speaker described walking into a nightclub as “wading into a sea of ectohormones.” Um. Not really.

The real definition of ectohormone:

A parahormonal chemical mediator of ecologic significance which is secreted, largely by an organism (usually an invertebrate) into its immediate environment (air or water); it can alter the behavior or functional activity of a second organism, often of the same species as that secreting the ectohormone.

It’s really, really hard to find absolute evidence of ectohormones in vertebrates. There is a single class of ectohormones, “pheromones,” seen in vertebrates, usually as a part of courtship and reproduction. There’s no consensus among scientists as to what pheromones are, but loosely speaking a pheromone is a substance released by an organism into the environment and received by olfactory organs in another organism and provoking behavior change in the second organism. If you’ve ever seen a male dog react to the scent of a female dog that’s in heat, you know there’s something like pheromones, even if scientists can’t agree on exactly what the chemicals involved are or how they work. In fact, no scientific study has ever proven conclusively that mammals have pheromones.

The bigger problem is that there is absolutely no evidence of pheromones in humans. Sure, we stink. Just ask WC’s dog, but there’s no evidence that the various fumes wafting off of us alters our behavior in a meaningful way. None. Zilch. Seeming indirect evidence for human pheromones – menstrual synchronicity in close groups of women, for example – haven’t withstood statistical analysis. That hasn’t stopped everyone from WC’s driveling lecturer to Cosmopolitan magazine from acting as if human pheromones exist. It’s pretty profitable. As Slate magazine wrote,

“The whole pheromone thing got picked up by the mass media,” says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Research Center and author of The Great Pheromone Myth. It feeds into our need to believe, he said, that there “is all this subliminal stuff going on that is affecting us—who we mate with, who we want to be with. It’s this mythical perspective.” And marketers, like women’s magazines, are only too happy to exploit that myth. That’s how a whole junk-science industry of pheromone-perfumes, pheromone-soaps, and pheromone-cosmetics managed to spring up from a strange menagerie of misconstrued mammal studies.

So, basically, it’s pseudo-science. New Age pseudo-science, only very loosely related to science, but used quite successfully for marketing. It has about the same relationship to true science as the New-Age Bullshit Generator has to the Collected Works of David Hume.

The mix of uncritical thinking and wishful thinking is discouraging. And may explain how otherwise sensible people can vote for someone like The Donald.

[^1]: Louis Menard did a nice take-down of self-help industry recently in New Yorker.

[^2]: Mrs. WC wants to be clear she was not the person who dragged WC to the lecture.

[^3]: WC’s acquaintance stopped WC from raising his hand and asking the lecturer if we were talking about farts.


One thought on “Desultory Phillipic: Pseudo-Science Source Material Revealed!

  1. WC, I think you are spot on about the farts. The more I experiment with my gut-brain axis, the more I catch the symbiont within analyzing wafts from my environment for traces of B. longum life forms — but please… the turboencabulators make good sport!

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