The Terror of New Age Dogmatism

This past February, I traveled with my permaculture ecovillage VerdEnergia, to Envision, an alternative, transformational festival, located on a Pacific coast beach in Costa Rica. The vibe of the festival would feel familiar to anyone who has experienced the alternative festival circuit on the West Coast of the United States. Lucidity Festival is a pretty close comparison, and I was excited to attend Envision, although I was a bit skeptical of the quality of the workshops I would find. To my surprise, most of them were quite compelling, including Alex Lightman’s talk on energy and ketosis, Ian McKenzie and his partner’s vulnerable discussion of polyamorous and non-traditional relationships, Vicki Rox’s techniques to achieving effective connection and persuasion in business and personal settings (see photo below), amongst others.

You can spot me in the front row here of  Vicki Rox's  presentation. Photo by  Andrew Jorgensen

You can spot me in the front row here of Vicki Rox's presentation.
Photo by Andrew Jorgensen

But there was one workshop that terrified me in much the same way that a Jerry Falwell congregation would. Gwen Olsen, author of Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher, gave a talk titled “Alternative Health Solutions”, which focused primarily on the dangers of prescription drug use and the moral bankruptcy of the pharmaceutical industry. Many valid criticisms and objections to our current culture of overprescribing arose, and I enjoyed hearing from someone who had years of experience inside the industry. However, when she opened up the discussion to the audience for questions, a woman asked about the link between vaccines and autism, and Olsen was unequivocal in her response that, despite all available scientific evidence to the contrary, vaccines do indeed cause autism. I somewhat naively expected that this claim would have roused significant controversy in the audience and prompted numerous follow-up questions, but literally no one else in the audience appeared to have any objection to the claim. While I am irritated by contrarians and pontificators, I am relentlessly disputatious, particularly when I suspect anti-science woo-woo quackery to be concealing a baseless belief. At first, I kept my questions somewhat indirect, first asking for specific evidence and scientific research that supported her claims that vaccines cause autism. She referenced Andrew Wakefield’s discredited MMR study, which quite ironically, given Olsen’s claims regarding the essentially exhaustive corruption of scientists by the pharmaceutical industry, was proven fabricated for the sake of financial interest. Undoubtedly, Olsen would argue that this debunking is itself an action initiated by pharmaceutical industries and executed by a bought-off scientific community.

It has thus dawned on me that despite the New Age Movement claims to openness, new ideas, and the questioning of authority, the movement is hugely distrustful of scientific research, organizations, and perhaps scientific methodology itself as “reductionist”. I asked Olsen whether she believed in the science behind climate change, given that there is similar consensus there as there is amongst the enormous benefits and hugely overblown risks of vaccination. She was suspiciously dodgy of the question, and seemed to hide behind ignorance of any such consensus, quite likely to disguise her climate change skepticism at an event that purports to believe in the necessity of combating climate change with changes in human behavior. She hinted at some kind of corporate conspiracy behind the movement for the carbon tax, despite the monstrous financial behemoths working to avoid just such a tax.

Upon later reflection, it became evident to me that Olsen and others at the event have little interest in scientific investigation and will believe anything that fits their narrative that everything released by major scientific and regulatory organizations is a lie, that we are all naively led astray by an unspeakably vast army of paid shills. To shield ourselves from these lies, we should instead ascribe to the naturalistic fallacy, the various dogmatisms of astrology, tarot card readings, chakras, positive thinking, tribalism, and all other baseless claims of New Age cults.

A New Age Rainbow Gathering in Bosnia in 2007.

A New Age Rainbow Gathering in Bosnia in 2007.

What I find far more disquieting than Olsen and other anti-vaxxers (she denied being an anti-vaxxer, but after refusing to acknowledge that vaccines have ever, in any case, been a net benefit to humanity, I think she’s earned the title) claims themselves is the mass of people who are ready to accept them as truths as undeniable as the roundness of the earth (I’ve met insufferable flat earth theorists in my time here as well). It is a disheartening irony that a culture that prides itself on its cool alternativeness, and its questioning of authority and the mainstream, peddles just as many mythologies and dogmatisms as the culture they claim to stand against. There was someone at Envision who referenced “The Age of Aquarius” as if it were a tautology like all bachelors are unmarried. Fortunately, the movement does possess a small minority with the self-awareness and modesty to realize that many of their claims lack evidence or a plausible correlation with reality. 

While at first I believed that this New Age movement offered an alternative to the indoctrination of religion and mainstream thinking, much to my disappointment, I have just found it in another form. After many in this movement have assured me that I must distrust scientific research and conclusions of scientific organizations, I’ve asked them whom or what I should trust instead: myself, they say. Very well, but what of topics in which I have no expertise or experience, am I simply to believe whatever fits my preferred narrative? This is why we have science and why I will continue to believe in it, while yes, acknowledging its limitations and that scientists can be influenced by political and financial interests. Science has led to enormous improvements in the quality of human life, and is the best methodology we have ever come up with for disentangling our own biases and assumptions from the truth. As Freud put it nearly a century ago,

The riddles of the universe reveal themselves only slowly to our investigation; there are many questions to which science to-day can give no answer. But scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves. It is once again merely an illusion to expect anything from intuition and introspection; they can give us nothing but particulars about our own mental life, which are hard to interpret, never any information about the questions which religious doctrine finds it so easy to answer. It would be insolent to let one’s own arbitrary will step into the breach and, according to one’s personal estimate, declare this or that part of the religious system to be less or more acceptable. Such questions are too momentous for that; they might be called too sacred…We believe that it is possible for scientific work to gain some knowledge about the reality of the world, by means of which we can increase our power and in accordance with which we can arrange our life. If this belief is an illusion, then we are in the same position as you. But science has given us evidence by its numerous and important successes that it is no illusion…No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.

— The Future of an Illusion

Read The Future of an Illusion