Showing posts with label superstition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label superstition. Show all posts

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Autosuggestion

This seemed to be the word I was looking for, but maybe it isn't. I'm thinking of the process by which an individual attempts to bring about a certain situation simply by wishing intensely that it should arise. My Swedish friend Eric M Nilsson is, without a doubt, an individual to whom all sorts of fascinating and less enchanting things have happened in the course of his existence. Funnily enough, Eric has told me that, whenever he would like such-and-such a situation to come about, the best approach is to refrain completely from hoping explicitly that it will happen. The best example of this situation occurred long ago when Eric (a filmmaker) would have liked to shoot some kind of particularly spectacular event in Stockholm. But, the more he hoped to come across a spectacular event, the more he found himself faced with totally boring situations. So, in a fit of apparent craziness, he decided to abandon all his conscious desire to find an interesting scene. In concrete terms, he achieved this absence of intentionality by getting up very early in the morning, at a time when almost nothing could possibly be happening in the city, and simply pointing his movie camera at an empty square. The video camera had been recording nothingness for a few minutes when, all of a sudden, a little man in an overcoat emerged from a hole in the ground (a subway exit), looked around stealthily to make sure that nobody was watching him (he hardly noticed the presence of Eric and his camera), then took out a can of aerosol paint and sprayed a message on the wall: something along the lines of Screw all cops! Then he disappeared back down into the subway, and Eric shut down his camera. In refusing to search intentionally for an event, Eric had simply found one. Or was it rather the event that had found Eric?

Over the last few days, I've been involved in informal conversations about homeopathy and its corollary, the so-called placebo effect. This morning, on the phone, Christine pointed out (if I understood her correctly) that the tiny white pills of homeopathy serve as a focus for an act of intense autosuggestion, and that this situation is vastly superior to the alternative solution of consuming authentic pharmaceutical products whose effects are not necessarily totally positive. I think that Merisi [click here to visit the beautiful blog of this Viennese photographer] was saying much the same thing. Although I dislike all forms of quackery, I'm obliged to realize that there are intelligent observers who disagree with the combat against homeopathy that is being fought by outspoken scientists belonging to what we might call the Dawkins School.

To my mind, things such as prayer, astrology and homeopathy work most efficiently, if not exclusively, when the autosuggestion process is based upon a solid thick layer of impenetrable ignorance.

For example, Bernadette Soubirous probably needed to be exceptionally simple-minded and unschooled in order to persuade herself that she had encountered a lovely lady in blue who just happened to be the virgin mother of Jesus. And today, I would imagine that sick pilgrims who flock to Lourdes with hopes of being cured miraculously also need to be endowed with a profound gift of ignorance and gullibility. I hope that readers understand what I'm trying to say. I don't claim that "miracles" never happen. But I'm saying that their existence necessitates a process of autosuggestion founded upon an ample layer of simplicity and cluelessness. The smarter and more informed you are, the less chance there is that you'll give your powers of autosuggestion sufficient liberty enabling you to pull yourself up into the air by tugging on your shoelaces.

The thing I find difficult to understand is how intelligent and educated individuals, knowing full well that homeopathic substances are practically devoid of active molecules, could nevertheless assemble within themselves a sufficiently intense field of autosuggestive forces to instigate a self-healing process. Maybe such individuals have a kind of poetic vision of the notion of the absence of active molecules. That's why I referred recently to the anecdote about a French scientist who had claimed, a few years ago, that ordinary water might be capable of retaining memories of past events. Maybe, their imagination is so vivid that they can succeed in convincing themselves that infinitesimal quantities of an active substance can remain concealed in the interstices of the diluted product. Maybe, they end up believing that the more you dilute the product, the more these tiny gremlins of active substances are obliged to become defiant, hiding ever more deeply within the obscure matrix in order to save their tiny souls from getting washed away. And the more defiant they are, the more powerful they become. Finally, when there's only a single gremlin left, he's as proud and defiant as hell, and he's sufficiently powerful to cure people of their ills. In any case, if certain individuals are capable of thinking that way, then maybe they're in an excellent state of mind to unfold their personal forces of autosuggestion. Honestly, I don't know if that's how things work, because I've never been capable of believing truly in minuscule gremlins or sprites.

Alternatively, maybe some people have the vague feeling that the active molecules in a homeopathic product have been transformed mysteriously into some kind of bacteria. After all, it's not so long ago that people believed in the spontaneous creation of living organisms. When I was a child, I seem to recall that somebody tried to make me believe that tadpoles came into existence miraculously, out of pure moisture, up in the clouds. Insofar as the microscopic world is indeed mysterious, and infinitely more so if you care to soak up a few notions of modern chemistry, then people might well be prepared to believe that their homeopathic pills do indeed contain infinitesimal organisms, of a mysterious kind, that are capable of doing them a lot of good. And, once they believe that, they're in an ideal state to set the autosuggestion ball rolling.

What I've just been saying is very much like religious belief. Since nobody can ever prove that God or the Great Spaghetti Monster don't exist, many people carry on leaving a tiny place open in their mind, ready to welcome a friendly divinity if ever he came along looking for a warm bed for the night. We become incapable of accepting the idea that nothing means nothing. Instead, nothing (like the quantity of active molecules in a homeopathic preparation) is interpreted as meaning "extremely small" but possibly "extremely powerful".

In my recent article entitled Health-giving drugs [display], the word "placebo" made an appearance, but I believe that my article and this term have generated confusion. So, I'll make a rapid attempt here to rectify the situation. The experimental situation in which I found myself is described as a double-blind trial. That means that the guinea pigs are divided into two groups, known as the experimental group (receiving the active molecules) and the control group (receiving a trivial substance that I would refer to, not as a placebo, but simply as powder). The expression "double-blind" means that neither the experimenters nor the guinea pigs know in which group each guinea pig is located. Why do they do this? That's where the word "placebo" enters with its correct usage. If a guinea pig knew that he was in the experimental group, receiving the active molecule, then he might become like a believer taking homeopathic pills, or praying at Lourdes. That's to say, his health might improve through autosuggestion, regardless of whether or not the active molecule was in fact efficient. So, to discourage guinea pigs from becoming over-confident in the positive effects of the active molecule, everybody is kept in the dark, right up until the end of the experiment.

I wrote the above-mentioned article as a kind of joke. (I even included the keyword "offbeat" at the end of the article.) So, much of what I said was in mirth: a case of my slightly weird sense of humor. For example, it's not true at all that the length of my penis increased through my confidence in a mythical molecule, and it's not true that I was struck by nausea when I forgot to take the tablets. I think my readers realized that the article was basically a joke. To be perfectly truthful, I was constantly aware of an almost comical aspect of this kind of double-blind test: namely, the fact that, for the needs of scientific objectivity, certain guinea pigs were obliged to consume inert powder, assiduously, every day for several years. I find this situation highly amusing, and this brought out a kind of playful but evil streak in me. The experimenters were constantly asking us whether it was boring to take the tablets every day. Then, towards the end, they even asked each one of us whether we had imagined that we were taking the active molecule or inert powder. In telling a lie and pretending that I was utterly convinced that I was being cured by a miracle product, I was viciously aware that I was being a bad boy, as it were. For, if it had turned out that I had in fact been receiving the active molecules, the experimenters would have had lingering doubts about what had actually kept me alive. Was it because of the authentic power of the molecules, or because of a placebo effect (my autosuggestive self-healing)? In a similarly playful spirit, I used to amuse myself during their annual medical visit. It included an Alzheimer test in which you're asked to give the names of animals for twenty seconds. A normal person will reply, say: lion, tiger, elephant, giraffe, camel, etc. An Alzheimer candidate will reply: horse, cow, horse, calf, cow, etc. I liked to give them my special list of animals (all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small): cockroach, toad, worm, wasp, eel, flea, rat, jellyfish, louse, etc. It amused me to glimpse the startled expression on the face of the nurse.

In fact, the metaphor that often came into my mind when I thought about the experiment was the notorious bet imagined by Blaise Pascal. He said that since you've got nothing to lose by believing in God (even though he might not exist), and everything to lose by not believing in him (if he did in fact exist), then it's a sound gambling approach to decide to believe in him. Incidentally, I was amused by the disgusted reaction of Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great [display], who declares that Pascal's "theology is not far short of sordid". Hitchens says that, if he were to find himself face-to-face with God, he would say: "Imponderable Sir, I presume from some if not all of your many reputations that you might prefer honest and convinced unbelief to the hypocritical and self-interested affectation of faith or the smoking tributes of bloody altars." I'm inclined to agree with Hitchens. God has always appeared to me as a kind of gentlemanly chap, no doubt brought up in refined circles and educated in a good school for boys.

My Pascalian gamble in the case of the alleged tablets of omega 3 and vitamins was that I had nothing to lose by thinking of them as miracle molecules (even though they might be inert powder), whereas I would have egg on my face if I said they were powder and then discovered that these powerful little tablets had in fact saved my life. So, like a Christian who goes to church solely as a good bet on eternal bliss, I pretended at times (when I had nothing better to do, or when I took pleasure in making fun of the experimenters) that my tablets were indeed the body and blood of my Savior.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Snake oil

I've always suspected that one of the reasons why certain disgruntled customers complain that snake oil doesn't cure all their ills, as it's supposed to do, is that they simply forget to obey the all-important instructions on the label: Shake well before use! Applying a reputable brand of snake oil without having shaken the bottle vigorously for a sufficiently long period of time would be as silly as swallowing a suppository instead of inserting it into an appropriate orifice... or vice versa in the case of an aspirin for a headache. I think it was Confucius, or one of those wise old guys, who put it nicely in his famous dictum about not stuffing pearls up the rear end of swine, or something like that.




I've just heard that, on the final day of January, in the UK, there'll be a massive happening that's as potentially dangerous, for each of the 300 participants, as it would have been to drop in for a cocktail and salted peanuts with Jim Jones at the Peoples Temple in Guyana back in 1978. The event that's planned at 10.23 am on January 30th is a little like a cross between Russian roulette and a nation-wide rave party. Let me give you the ghastly details of what all these crazy folk plan to do. All together, at exactly the same instant, they're going to stage a mass homeopathic overdose session. In other words, they plan to gulp down, deliberately, huge quantities of homeopathic products: enough milligrams to cure a horse of herpes.

And why are they doing this? Well, in a nutshell: simply to let the world know whether or not they can survive this terrible ordeal. Statistically, some of the participants will have indigestion or back aches at the start of the experiment, whereas others are likely to be constipated or maybe suffering from flatulence. Well, believe it or not, they don't even care whether this massive homeopathic treatment will cure them or not. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. Who knows? Maybe there'll be miraculous switch-over cases in which a fellow who hasn't achieved anything whatsoever on the throne for at least a week will suddenly find himself gurgling melodies like the Paris Pétomane. [If ever you've never heard of the latter gentleman, click here to obtain information about him on Wikipedia.] As I said, the daring participants have nothing to win or lose. They're participating altruistically in this operation for science alone, like Louis Pasteur inoculating himself against rabies. [Did he really do that? I'm not sure he did. Maybe I'm confusing him with another hero. But it sounds like a nice idea, whether or not it's a fact.] Through the selfless participation of these 300 brave souls in this operation, future researchers will have access to vital raw data revealing what happens when a group of volunteers receives a massive overdose of homeopathic snake oil. In any case, I suggest that it would be fitting if we onlookers were to accompany them, in this ordeal, with our prayers.