Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture by Chris Edwards

Fallacy (noun):
1. A false or mistaken idea
2. An often plausible argument using false or invalid inference
(Merriam Webster dictionary)

Recently, I was happy to hear of another local talk and book signing by an author who embraces skepticism.  On Friday, September 2nd, local author Chris Edwards gave a brief talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, then fielded  questions prior to signing his new book, Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture.

On a personal note, I came by my skepticism slowly over time.  I can remember many a time – from when I was growing up – watching certain tv programs featuring pseudoscience (the ones that I remember most were those related to Erich von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” series of books  – dealing with the now familiar ‘ancient aliens’ theories – and also the Leonard Nimoy narrated “In Search Of…” tv series, which hit all the traditional crypto-zoological and paranormal hot spots).  While we were watching, my Dad, a mathematician by training and a schoolteacher by vocation would periodically grunt an editorial “Bull!” when claims on these programs got out of hand.

In my youth, however, I have to admit that my friends and I ate all this stuff up.  We loved the paranormal speculation that was so easy to find in books or on tv.  We followed what I’ve since learned is a normal learning curve.  Those who have garnered a little bit of knowledge are even more likely to believe a lot of fringe claims and fallacy-supported propositions than those with very little education at all.  Later, though, as we gained even more knowledge, we began to see pseudoscience for what it is (and what the name implies).  It reminds me of a famous quotation that I want to attribute to Benjamin Franklin but suspect that is not correct (help me here if you know!).  It runs something like this:  “If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, how much must I have then so as to be out of danger?”

Then in recent years, I have become a fan and regular listener of the podcast “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” hosted by Dr. Steve Novella, who has become kind of a hero of critical-thinking for me.  Skepticism, it is important to remember, and as the author quotes Michael Shermer as saying, “…is a method, not a position.”  If I only had a dime for every time someone criticized my skepticism by pleading “well, if you just had an open mind…” or something similar.  As Novella says (and I’m paraphrasing here), critical thinking and scientific literacy is like an inoculation against being taken advantage of in modern society.

So, all of this is kind of my way of saying, I guess, that Edwards’ book is kind of preaching to the choir in my case.  Oh well, on to the book itself…

Edwards approach in the book is to examine a particular popular book, movement, or belief in each chapter.  Applying the harsh light of reason to the claims of today’s fads.  One critic described the book this way: “Watching Chris Edwards wield his critical thinking skills is like watching someone walking a brace of pit bulls. . . . No folly escapes unmauled, and no reader will want to miss the fun.” Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry

The “victims” in the book include:
Robert Pirsig’s philosophical attacks on science found in the popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Edwards humorously points out that he’d like to “provide maintenance for his (Pirsig’s) logic.”  Coincidentally, my book club read this book in the past year, and I guess I spent so much effort just trying to understand it, his attacks on science were lost on me.

Michael Crichton’s “Intellectual Defense of the New Age”
I’ve read many of Crichton’s books, and was unaware of his embracing new age philosophy.  Edwards is a fan of his also, and I could tell when reading how ‘disappointed’ he was in finding that a favorite author so blithely stood in “the enemy camp.”

“The Celestine Fallacy”
I’d of course heard of James Redfield’s bestseller – at least by title, but had never learned anything about what the subject matter was.  After reading Edwards’ book, I will happily avoid The Celestine Prophecy.

Rhonda Byrne’s bestselling book, The Secret
Edwards is merciless in exposing The Secret for the pure, unadulterated  bullshit which it is. My Dad would’ve been proud.

Deepak Chopra’s & Dinesh D’Souza’s claims regarding “Afterlife”
In these chapters (and others) the author points out how happily the pseudoscientists have latched onto the science of Quantum Physics. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Aha! Scientists are uncertain!  Anything we say that can be called uncertain is okay now; we’re no different from scientists!”  Edwards laments the wording of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle but also points out how it’s so often misunderstood:  “In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, the cat never was both dead and alive.  It was either one or the other.”  An important distinction.  I was reminded of something I read elsewhere which said “If you think you understand quantum physics, then you don’t understand quantum physics.” (dang! I’m unable to attribute that quotation as well.  Anybody know?)

Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity”
This was the part I was most looking forward to reading, as I am somewhat familiar with futurist Ray Kurzweil, having read his The Age of Spiritual Machines many years ago and also enjoyed his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long enough to Live Forever.  Chris Edwards points out that he is “so frustrated” with futurists because “they have a tendency to attract very smart people.”  I also own (though haven’t yet read) Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near, where he postulates that, with the advance of computer technology, at some point the Universe will “wake up” and everyone may live forever.  Edwards points out the similarity between this and the eternal life promised in many religions.  He does the same thing with some of the claims of the New Age movement – they are simply retreads of age old myths or promises.

Edwards finishes up with a catalog of fallacies (false arguments).  These are good for logical, critical thinkers to know and familiarize themselves with (and in fact make a good companion to the other “skeptical book” I’m reading, Christopher DiCarlo’s How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass, which is a crash course in critical thinking.)

The book includes several chapters which were originally published as articles elsewhere, Skeptic magazine for example.  As a result, there is some inevitable repetition of his main points. This of course did not diminish my enjoyment of the book.