My date-for-life, Kandace, is taking a psychology course and sent me this quote from her textbook:
“Earlier in this chapter, we saw how Descartes’ radical new idea separating the spiritual mind from the physical body enabled scientists to start identifying biological bases for behaviors, thus challenging the pseudoscientific ‘common sense’ that attributed certain behaviors to mysterious spiritual forces. Today, psychology continues to dispute the unfounded claims of pseudoscience, which range from palm reading to psychic predictions to use of crystals to heal physical ailments.
“What makes psychology different from these pseudopsychological approaches to understanding people? Not one of them has survived trial by the scientific method, which is a way of testing ideas against observations. Instead, pseudopsychology is based on hope, confirmation bias, anecdote—and human gullibility.”
– Psychology: Core Concepts (7th Edition) by Philip G. Zimbardo, Robert L. Johnson and Vivian McCann
The separation that Descartes proposed allowed science to look at essentially biology and behavior independent of spirituality and mysticism, and therefore free of the medieval church’s control and influence over such subjects, and the authors of course go on to explain that contemporary science has reunited these metaphorically separate elements into the single biological entity we know as the brain. (Albeit mind/body debates still occur in some quarters, among the religious, the spiritual, and philosophers – you may insert your philosopher joke here, but I will leave ticking off philosophers to my friend Lawrence Krauss for the time being.)
While running some errands earlier today, I was considering this historic breakthrough in thinking and the accompanying debt we owe to Descartes – meanwhile stopping by an outlet of the large retail chain, “The Sports Authority.” As I entered the shop I passed a two-sided display that caught my eye. Have a look:
Yes, you’ve seen it all before. Magical trinkets with all the power to heal of a shaman’s magic beads or a new age shop’s crystal pendants. These however are packaged in modern guise – titanium necklaces and bracelets, and of course the notorious Power Bands, not unlike the product we tested for the Million Dollar Challenge at TAM 2012 (we still have the million). And these products are pitched at sports enthusiasts, endorsed by prominent athletes, who probably do actually wear the products and may well believe in the magic they represent.
Note however that the fine print offers the necessary legalities, which in this case amount to essential truths: “Not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” Well, I’m not sure what other intent there could be, but certainly we shouldn’t expect any of those impossibilities to occur. Similar disclaimers are in place on every item.
Why are these products so insistently popular, three-and-a-half centuries after Descartes’ innovative idea?
Recently the JREF posted on YouTube my 2013 TAM presentation, entitled “Credit the Con Man.”
In that talk I consider some of the reasons why people still make the kinds of errors in thinking that lead them to fall for ancient scams, be it streetside con games, psychic con artists, or Ponzi schemers – or Power Bands. We humans are pattern-seeking animals, programmed to seek cause-and-effect while hunting large dangerous animals millions of years ago on the African plains. Old habits die hard.
The guy we tested at TAM 2012 didn’t get the million, but he didn’t stop believing in his magical trinket.
We humans don’t make these thinking errors simply because we’re stupid or stubborn, and those explanations should not suffice for skeptics. We make these errors – and one way or another we all make thinking errors – because we are human. We make these errors based on, as the textbook suggests, “hope, confirmation bias, anecdote—and human gullibility.” Yes, that too.
Which is why that humming vibration you hear might just be old René spinning in his grave. Who could blame him?
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.