Jun 20 2009

Woo-peddling? In MY province??

I need to do something about this.  I need to do something, and I don’t know what else to do, so I’m going to start off by blogging.

A few days ago, in amongst the three inches thick bundle of flyers that we get regularly, was included a small business promotion flyer called the Apple Valley Scoop. It’s an eight page long magazine full of advertisements for local businesses, with a few “articles” written oftentimes by the purveyors of the particular business. By virtue of the respectable veneer of being marketed as a magazine, people are more likely to read it, I guess.

It's not all good, Dad... It's not all good at all!

It's not all good, Dad... It's not all good at all!

When I first saw this, I thought, “Huh. Another example of advertisement being forced to trick people into reading their stuff, by confusing actual content with what they want to peddle.” We’ve all seen it before — full-page ads in magazines claiming to be an article about a product, with the only clue being the word “advertisement” written in 4-point font somewhere in the margins. So the tactic isn’t unfamiliar or anything, nor was this case particularly repulsive to me.

That is, until I read the shameless bit of self-promotion article on the front page, and remembered that scam artists can make use of pay-to-play setups like this just as easily as legitimate businesses.


Already seething, I turned to page 7 as instructed.


Wow. Seriously. I could get a meal worth likely around $7 a plate, get my chakra cleansed, learn to meditate, take a yoga class probably chock-full of mystic mumbo jumbo, AND do a workshop on The Secret, all for $40!

(And this isn’t even the only outright scam within the Scoop’s pages proclaiming itself to be the secret to health, wealth and happiness, either.  But it’s the most galling.)

The hilarious part about this advertisement is that the only part of it that is proven to have any effect whatsoever is the yoga, and THAT’S the part that’s optional!

Let’s forgo the easily vilified “chakra cleansing” and such for now.  The article makes a big deal out of one part specifically, and so shall I.  For those of you who don’t know anything about The Secret, here’s their publicly released 20-minute promo from their video — they want us to pass it around for free, so I’m doing so now. You may want to pause it frequently if you have a brain and high blood pressure.

It’s self help writ large — and run amok. This is unadulterated, facile, puerile crap that not only misinterprets the “power of positive thinking” but codifies a massive-scale selection bias. And even better, it’s not even a fucking secret!  The idea of karma has been around for millenia! The Secret teaches you that the universe works via karma — only instead of karma, which actually takes a smidgen of work, it’s like karma for lazy people: you don’t actually have to do something to reap untold rewards, all you have to do is THINK about them.  Imagine yourself rich, and you’ll become rich!  Imagine yourself surrounded by beauty, and you’ll be surrounded by beauty!  You’ll turn yourself into a karma magnet, just by thinking really positively all the time!  Of course, if you’re a positive person, and nothing special happens, then it’s just because you weren’t positive enough — you weren’t clapping hard enough, you weren’t praying long enough, you didn’t have enough faith.  Sound at all familiar?  And if you happen to get rich because you wrote a book, it’s because you thought positively about getting rich!  (Never mind the fact that you had an idea, ran with it, and it turned out to be successful, that has nothing to do with it.)

On top of that, the flipside is that anyone who gets cancer, or raped, or murdered, attracted it to themselves. This is codified blame-the-victim. It also suggests that if you GET cancer, you can “dissolve” it by thinking it away. Never mind that it means you’re thinking positively about it while you’re being treated medically for it. A guy gets his bike stolen in this video because he locks it up, thus ensuring the universe knew that the thought of it being stolen was foremost on his mind. And to tell a gay man that all he has to do is stop worrying about being mistreated, and the homophobes will simply disappear, that’s reprehensible. It’s putting all the blame on the victim of the harassment. I suppose Hitler persecuted the Jews because they were worried about being genocided all the time, according to this theory. I suppose the young girls that get abducted, raped and murdered all over the world, were picked by some cosmic intent because they were being negative all the time. Or worse, because their parents were worried about the kid being abducted. So from now on, parents, stop worrying about your kids, otherwise something bad might happen to them! Don’t fuss after them to not talk to strangers, or wear warm clothing in the wintertime, or look both ways before crossing the street, or not touch a hot stove. That’s just begging the universe to make them get abducted, frostbite, hit by a car, or severely burned!

Now, once you’ve accepted that you need to think positive to have good things happen, you’re installing a selection bias and a short-circuit into your thought process. The selection bias means that every time you accidentally think something bad, and something bad happens, you will remember it, but you’ll never remember all the times you’ve thought something bad but nothing happened, or you’ll assume that it’s all cumulative — all the bad thoughts you’ve had have eventually built up to something bad happening.

I don’t doubt that positivity has a number of very tangible effects on a person’s life. Being positive about something means you won’t unintentionally self-sabotage your efforts, it means that people around you will be more likely to react positively to you when you speak with them (yes, including your partner in a relationship!), and it means that if you need help with something, people will help you.  If you’re about to go under the knife for a major operation, being positive about the outcome ahead of time may well have a small but demonstrable effect on how likely you are to fight through it and survive.  Of course, I don’t know of any scientifically controlled study proving that, but at the very least if you get knocked out while being positive about the whole experience, your last moments of consciousness on this earth won’t be marred by doubt and negativity, so even if you DO die, there’s a small and tangible benefit to being positive about it all.

I guarantee you right now that if I *don’t* worry about how many people get duped by this ridiculous karmic version of Amway, and don’t post this entry, even more people will fall prey to the scam, pay their $40, and have nothing tangible change in their lives whatsoever except that they’ve had their ability to think and perceive reality corrupted by a short-circuit, and they’ve made themselves that much more prone to magical thinking in the future. Oh, and their wallets are $40 lighter, and a woo-peddler is exactly that much richer.

If you want to do yoga, there’s lots of good yoga videos on Youtube. Everything else about the show is complete and utter tosh, I promise. Probably including the meal.

I’m going to think really hard about everyone passing this blog post around. Retweet my link tweet. Send the URL around to anyone thinking of attending this show. Because I’m thinking really hard about it, and I’m really positive that it’s going to happen, that means it’s going to happen, right? Except that my personal selection bias is that if it happens, then great, if it doesn’t happen, then that proves my point that just thinking positively about something is nothing compared to actually doing something about it.  Either way, I win.

So go out there and spread the word!  And be positive about it, will ya’?  Last thing I need is all my friends getting stricken with cancer because they didn’t think happy thoughts.

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