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Response to Maia Szalavitz's article When Does Self-Help Actually Help?

thoughts & comment — 01 Aug 2014

Scientific AmericanTHE ARTICLE, written by Maia Szalavitz and which appeared in July's Scientific American, berates the self-help industry for the fact that "more than 95 percent of [its] books and programs have never been subjected to scientific scrutiny" — a fact originally highlighted by Professor Norcross from the University of Scranton.

The article sets the scene with the unfortunate case of a 38-year-old woman called Kirby Brown who unfortunately died, along with another participant James Shore, during a sweat lodge retreat run by New Age guru James Arthur Ray in the Arizona desert. According to Wikipedia, eighteen other participants, all of which had paid $10,000 dollars each for the privilege, were "hospitalized after suffering burns, dehydration, breathing problems, kidney failure, or elevated body temperature," one of which died a week later, bringing the death total up to three.

Those who know my writings will know that I am generally critical of gurus, although it is obvious in this case that Ray did not intend to kill or injure anyone. And the fact that he charged so much money for his services, which I personally find repellent, is more a reflection of the American way rather than specifically highlighting a greedy or immoral individual. Ray was living the American guru dream, which seems to necessitate the massive accumulation of wealth as proof positive that the guru's advice works. (Success in any profession in the US is largely assessed by bank balance.)

But what concerns me about Szalavitz's article is that she is bemoaning the fact that the US's $12-billion self-help industry is largely unregulated scientifically. She says that self-help programs that promise too much too quickly should be avoided (a pretty obvious statement) and that:

"… good programs have independent data showing their effectiveness, not just anecdotes, and they are generally adapted from techniques shown to work in more conventional therapy administered by professionals. If there is no published literature supporting a program — no matter how popular it may be — that is a red flag."

Szalavitz obviously suffers from a rose-tinted view of science as the arbiter of truth — that somehow scientific approval or endorsement is necessary to keep us safe. In the real world, however, science is dangerously mixed with politics and prejudices. And the softer the science, the more politics and prejudices are present. You cannot argue with Boyle's Law regarding gas expansion, but when it comes to psychology there is plenty to argue about because the system is too complex and subjective for absolute assessment. That is why there are no laws of psychology and medicine whereas there are laws of physics and chemistry.

We know what happens when soft sciences become closed clubs that monopolise an area of study or treatment. Take cancer, for example. In the UK we have the insidious Cancer Act which basically gives the medical establishment a monopoly in cancer treatment. (Similar restrictive legislation applies in most other countries.) As a result of this monopoly, cancer treatment by "professionals" (as Szalavitz would condone) is a disaster, with financial considerations taking precedence over patient care. That is why a treatment such as chemotherapy — which is very expensive and therefore profitable — can have just a 3 to 5 percent success rate (by the admission of the medical establishment itself) and still be considered "effective" and "the responsible thing to do". What would Szalavitz say to the countless individuals who have died from scientifically-assessed chemotherapy rather than the cancer they were suffering from? Wouldn't that be a more important article to write, instead of focusing on a handful of deaths in the self-help industry? (Sorry, I forgot, if you wrote that one you would no longer find yourself published in the mainstream media.)

It is far safer for mainstream media journalists to take pot-shots at New Age gurus whilst ignoring the elephant in the room — that the scientific system itself can hide terrible agendas that are far more dangerous to the general public than the wacky New Age industry. I do not disagree that the deaths of three New Age retreat participants is not tragic, but I think the public is at far greater risk from large corporations that ostensibly play by the science rules, like those in the pharmaceutical and biotechnological sectors.

If you get many different competing theories and interpretations even in hard sciences like physics, then you can imagine how open to subjectivity research is in the soft sciences. This leeway provides the opportunity to manipulate soft science to far greater extent than the hard sciences, so that they become Trojan Horses for political, social and corporate ends. This is why soft sciences can be the mediators of such terrible abuse. They assume a scientific objectivity that is not actually present, and this is used to seduce the public into accepting political and corporate agendas that are not usually in their interest.

So if we allow science to be the decider of what is good and bad New Age therapy or alternative medicine, we will find that all sorts of other agendas and controls will come into play, and pretty soon we will find our freedom sacrificed on the altar of pseudo-objectivity.

The final point I would like to make on this is the issue of safety and protecting the public from these sorts of abuses in the future.

We all like to feel safe — although there is a buzz that keeps us feeling alive when we do things that are unsafe. For example, if you have ever parachuted or taken a strong psychedelic then you will know what I mean. It is important for human beings to push boundaries into territory that is considered unsafe. Otherwise we end up allowing safety to dictate policy. Look how our politicians have used the terrorist threat, a threat largely engineered by them in the first place by their constant meddling and manipulation of resource-rich developing countries, to create Big Brother legislation that has trashed many of our human rights and freedoms, freedoms that previous generations literally died for in conflict. The safety issue has become the leading modus operandi of rogue politics, and the same is true in the soft sciences.

If we allow a group of people (in this case psychologists and the like) to determine what we should and should do in the self-help industry on grounds of what they consider "safe" then we politicise the industry, infantise the general population, and open the door to large-scale potential abuse. Even if it is just in an advisory capacity, this can lead to abuse. Consider the cancer industry and how we can still refuse to have conventional treatment, but in the milieu of orthodox medicine refusing treatment like that is a suicide wish, which is why most people blindingly follow their doctor's advice, despite the fact that doctors themselves would not opt for the toxic treatments they recommend.

There is a knee-jerk response to death to legislate in order to stop the same thing happening again. Is the general public really so stupid and naive that they need to be prevented from making unwise choices? Those deaths in that sweat lodge will have had a strong impact on the New Age community… that is certain. But let that response be organic. Let people make their own choices and face their own dangers. For the alternative — making everyone safe — infantises the general population, a process that is far more dangerous than any sweat lodge as it opens the public to mass political abuse and psychological manipulation. (Children are more susceptible to propaganda than adults.)

To develop as conscious human beings we need to face dangers; we need to run with wolves. That is what makes us whole. And if we loose a few dear souls along the way, so be it. This is just the unfortunate price we have to pay for wholeness… otherwise nobody is whole and society is energetically crippled. For the greater danger is always to wrap society in cotton wool so that it remains helpless and unconscious. Let people grow up by facing dangers, for only then might they be mature enough to use their democratic rights to elect governments that truly support freedom and peace, rather than electing a big daddy substitute government to protect us all from people in strange clothing.

When tragedy happens and people die, we must not allow fear to close us down and rob us of the opportunity for greater awareness. Facing dangers is a vital component of living life to the full. It gives reality its sharp edges.

So if you want to do a therapy and there is no published literature supporting the program… well just use your intuition. And if science says that something is dangerous or useless, do not necessarily dismiss it without your own investigation. Always remember that science has been used to condone murderous acts, including the holocaust, as well as dismiss activities that authorities disapproved of (remember all the scientific proof that LSD cooked the brain?). So scientific involvement in anything but the hard sciences does not remove prejudice.