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Oprah: The Queen of Unreason

The Oprah moment may have faded for now, but I have little doubt that it will return, in which case this Slate piece by Kurt Andersen (and, no, I don’t agree with his jibe about Reagan) will be one that it is well worth retrieving when Oprah 2020 picks up again.

An extract:

Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

I’m no fan of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering, to put it mildly, but we’ll have to see which, over the longer term, proves more dangerous. There’s also, incidentally, an argument to be made that Winfrey’s own, uh, flexible approach to objectivity reality may have done its bit to contribute to the rise of Trump.


Oprah went on the air nationally in the 1980s, just as non-Christian faith healing and channeling the spirits of the dead and “harmonic convergence” and alternative medicine and all the rest of the New Age movement had scaled up. By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counterestablishment. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized a “channeled” book of spiritual revelation, A Course in Miracles: The author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, had claimed that its 1,333 pages were dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea was that physical existence is a collective illusion—”the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic best-seller. Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his 30s to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization and in 1989 hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.

Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: Rationalism is mostly wrongheaded, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s countercultural relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the oppressive charlatans-in-charge. But now they had become mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”

Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey….

Most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the New Age realm owe their careers to Winfrey…

It’s one thing to try to experience more peace of mind or feel in sync with a divine order. Mixing magical thinking with medical science and physiology, however, can get problematic. A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream. As with so many of the phenomena I discuss in my book Fantasyland, it’s driven by nostalgia and anti-establishment mistrust of experts, has quasi-religious underpinnings, and comes in both happy and unhappy versions.

And has been brought to you by Oprah Winfrey.

In 2004, a very handsome heart surgeon, prominent but not famous, appeared on Oprah to promote a book about alternative medicine. His very name—Dr. Oz!—would be way too over-the-top for a character in a comic novel. After Harvard, Mehmet Oz earned both an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, then became a top practitioner and professor of heart surgery at Columbia University and director of its Cardiovascular Institute. Timing is everything—young Dr. Oz arrived at Columbia right after it set up its Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the 1990s.

Soon he was bringing an “energy healer” into his operating room, who placed her hands on patients as he performed surgery, and inviting a reporter to watch. According to Dr. Oz, who is married to a reiki master, such healers have the power to tune in to their scientifically undetectable “energies” and redirect them as necessary while he’s cutting open their hearts. When the New Yorker’s science reporter Michael Specter told Oz he knew of no evidence that reiki works, the doctor agreed—“if you are talking purely about data.” For people in his magical-thinking sphere, purely about data is a phrase like mainstream and establishment and rational and fact, meaning elitist, narrow, and blind to the disruptive truths. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” Oz told Specter, then added a kicker directly from the relativist 1960s: “I have my religion and you have yours.”

After that first appearance on Oprah, he proceeded to come on her show 61 more times, usually wearing surgical scrubs. In 2009, Winfrey’s company launched the daily Dr. Oz show, on which he pushes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, and psychics who communicate with the dead. He regularly uses the words miracle and magic. A supplement extracted from tamarind “could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet and exercise.” Green coffee beans—even though “you may think that magic is make-believe”—are actually a “magic weight-loss cure,” a “miracle pill [that] can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.” For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.

Oz has encouraged viewers to believe that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses—as did Winfrey on her show before him. In 2007, long after the fraudulent 1998 paper that launched the anti-vaccine movement had been discredited, she gave an Oprah episode over to the actress Jenny McCarthy, a public face of the movement. That was where McCarthy gave the perfect defense of her credentials: “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!”

… Discussing my book a couple of months ago on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, I was arguing that the realm of Fantasyland is, when it comes to politics, highly asymmetrical—the American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true, a fact of which President Donald Trump is a stark embodiment.

Say what you will about Trump—go for it—count me unconvinced that the “American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true…”

In fact to believe quite that so firmly is to suggest that Andersen may be just a little guilty of what he so eloquently (and rightly) condemns.

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Wanting to Believe

Religion or, to put it more loosely, “spirituality”, will always be with us. The only question is the form that it will take. This entertaining piece from the Daily Telegraph about crop circles is, in its own way, a reminder of just that:

Ask Francine what she gets from the circles and she replies: ‘A sense of wonder. Which is something not many people feel these days. We’re so dull, so suspicious, so limited in our way of thinking.’ She speaks, tenderly, about the beauty of the circles, of how the lain corn seems to ‘flow like water’, of how each formation teaches each person something more about the field they’re expert in: the American Indian finds a message from Gaia, the Tai Chi guru a new form of Tai Chi, the physicist – well, one physicist said to her: ‘Quantum physics? Forget quantum physics. This is far beyond.’…

…Irving [Rob Irving, the main author of The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making] thinks people want to take ‘a vacation from rationalism’. And, he adds, it’s particularly the case that ‘people associate certain landscapes with legends. That’s why circles come to sacred sites: Avebury and Stonehenge galvanise this idea of mystery. I see it as a feedback route: people go to a certain place with certain expectations. Then something happens and they leave satisfied.’

…We move back towards my car. A couple appears and the woman asks if we’ve been at the circle. They’re Inga and Erik, and they’re Dutch, over here to look at circles. They were at Chisbury yesterday, and it was perfect: they’re very keen to see the Cley Hill formation. And what, I ask, do they think brought the circles into being? Inga smiles, knowingly. ‘You mean, are they man-made, or not?’ She smiles again. ‘That’s mystic: that’s a mystery.’ And off they go, ready for a sense of wonder.

And if all that’s too much for you, just enjoy the comments from Doug Bower. Along with Dave Chorley he created the first crop circle back in the 1970s in the wake (apparently) of a session in the pub discussing UFOs. The two pranksters finally went public in 1991. As the Daily Telegraph’s writer notes, Doug told television cameras that there was nothing like being in a field of English corn at two in the morning, after a few pints and some cheese rolls, stomping corn.

Indeed there’s not. And yet still people believe. Or like to. Read the whole thing.

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Casper The Friendly Social Worker

If true (can the Dutch have gone quite so crazy?), this is the story (via the Daily Telegraph)  of a scheme so loopy that Orrin Hatch could probably be persuaded to use taxpayer dollars to fund it over here:

Dutch prisons are using psychics to give jailed criminals guidance by putting them in touch with their dead relatives. Paul van Bree, a self-styled “paragnost” or clairvoyant, has been hired by the Dutch prison service to teach prisoners how to “love themselves”.

“I tell them that dead relatives are doing well and that they love them. That brings them peace. Big strong men burst into tears,” he said…

… The Dutch employment service has also looked beyond the normal to use “regression therapy” and tarot cards to help the jobless.

Uncooperative welfare claimants have been told they will lose benefits unless they accept the guidance of a regression therapist to help them get in touch with their past lives.

In 2007, 42,500 Dutch people signed up to state funded spiritually-based “personal development programmes”.

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Spirituality, real and imagined

The sweat lodge deaths have focused scrutiny on the New Age community in Sedona, which over three decades has become a magnet for spiritual seekers thanks to spectacular scenery and links to Native American rituals. The Angel Valley retreat center, which hosted the five-day Spiritual Warrior event, offers a menu of services like soul retrieval, vortex healing and dolphin energy healing.

(From the New York Times, reporting on an October 8 sweat lodge ceremony intended as a rebirthing experience that left three people dead from dehydration.) 

I know that this is wildly unrealistic, but how about if people satisfy their “spiritual” longings with what we actually have: the human spirit.    There’s plenty of evidence that it can survive death.  Aeschylus’ Oresteia, for example, has lasted thousands of years through a transfer of custody as marvelous as any soul channeler could dream up.  Every time an orchestra starts the terrifying opening chords and palpitating, yearning arpeggios of the overture to Don Giovanni, Mozart’s spirit is given living form. 

Several years ago, the religious apologist David Hart wrote an essay celebrating America’s most zealous forms of religious enthusiasm.  Speaking in tongues and snake-handling showed America’s still robust faith and “spiritual” fiber, so different from Europe’s religious apathy, he argued.    My reaction is the exact opposite: I find such foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy repugnant.  I know that I am merely revealing my own limitations here, but consciousness at its most normally functioning seems to me not just an adequate way of inhabiting the world but a superb one as well. (more…)




Superstition Watch: Among the Unbelievers

New York’s young and hip seek assistance from fertility candles and “magickal seals.”  The New York Times’ fashion editors are intrigued.  A friend buys a “dressed” candle and lands an acting gig.   “Coincidence?”

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