In a world in which "wellness" reigns over health and empirical facts are continually being dethroned, I am beginning to feel sick about the rise of all things woo woo.
What exactly do I mean by "woo woo?" It's short-hand for anything slightly silly, trendy and/or new agey that exists for the primary purpose of making people (almost always privileged white women) feel better about our bodies and minds.
Crystals are woo woo. As is aromatherapy, colonics and Reiki. Astrology is woo woo, as is faith healing, fasting, acupuncture and fecal transplants (yes, it's a thing). I'm not saying these things are bad per se, I'm just pointing out there's no reliable science to back them up.
I've actually tried many of them with predictably mixed results, though not that last one. For most of my adult life, I have availed myself of the woo woo in much the same way many middle-class women acquire unnecessary numbers of shoes and handbags: A lymphatic massage here, a sound bath there, what harm could it do? It was all just a bit of fun in the service of that most abused concept: "me time."
But increasingly, such harmless nonsense is offered up and sold en masse without an iota of irony or pause. Whether it's Gwyneth Paltrow evangelizing about leech therapy at her recent week-long Goop festival in Culver City, Calif., or Donald Trump expressing his view that exercise is actually bad for you, bad science has gone mainstream.
As the wellness trend has taken hold, so have a number of medically baseless ideas of new-age healing. One of the most foundational and persistent is the so-called "Law of Attraction," a notion made popular by the massive self-help bestseller, The Secret. The idea behind this apparent lost law of physics is that in order to get the things you want in life, you must "attract" them first by drawing them to you with the force of positive energy.
On face value, there is something to this. People who are upbeat and energetic tend to get more stuff done. If you never declare your ambitions, it's unlikely you'll succeed in them. This isn't magic, it's just common sense.
What's pernicious is the implication that we are all entirely in control of our own successes and failures – and that people living miserable or impoverished lives are wholly where they are because of their inability to "attract" a better one.
The Law of Attraction is to poverty as faith healing is to cancer – a cure that conveniently blames the sick person when it fails.
This is true of most woo woo things, whether it's jade eggs, cold-pressed juices or freeze-dried placenta tablets. When the mystical curative powers of such things work, it's almost always for people who fervently believe in them to begin with: What makes them effective is the human psyche's well-documented predisposal to cognitive bias, our tendency to accept evidence that supports the convictions we already hold and refute that which contradicts it.
Cognitive bias is, of course, inextricably linked to the placebo effect and, in many ways, explains why it is so powerful and well-documented. Did that acupuncturist really help my shoulder pain in 2004? It seemed like it at the time, but actually, it's impossible to tell since, a) you can't prove a counter-factual and, b) the placebo effect is for real.
Pushers of new-age cures embrace the placebo effect as proof that they work, but good science tries to do the opposite. Instead of trying to prove the things we already want to believe, science tries to disprove our most fervently held assumptions.
This is why we need to make a clear distinction between medicines and remedies that have been scientifically proven (chemotherapy) and those that haven't (an alkaline diet). It's also why we need to hold leaders – whether celebrities or politicians – to account when they begin spewing non-truths which also happen to confirm their own heavily biased world view.
Sensible women, listen up: We need to stop reading horoscopes and having our energy manipulated and eating our ruddy placentas. We need to indulge in less woo woo and hold firm to the facts as we know them – not as we feel them – to be.
The woo woo might seem silly, a harmless dalliance for the privileged few, but it is clearly more dangerous than that. The woo woo will lead us down the rabbit hole of our own confirmation bias, deeper into the post-truth world, a place we must resist going at all costs.