Note: This week, I will be reviewing a New Age publication. We’ll be back to our regularly-scheduled review of the Old Testament shortly…
I have often heard the claim from within the sceptic community that, while there is certainly an anti-science streak in North American culture, science still carries enough legitimacy for its trappings to be used by pseudo-scientists in the marketing of their claims. So when I picked up an issue of Tone at a psychic fair I recently attended, I recognized a perfect opportunity to see just how much weight New Age magazine contributors attribute to “the white lab coat.”
Disclaimer: This study is in no way scientific, nor is it meant to be. This was a fun way to fill my time and possibly (hopefully) provide a bit of entertainment!
During my reading, I was primarily interested in two factors: how often the appearance of science was used to support a claim, and how often science was demeaned. My goal is not to argue with the claims made in the magazine, nor am I necessarily assuming them to be false. Rather, my focus is on the use of science as a marketing strategy.
My source was the November 2010 issue of Tone (Volume 26, Number 3), a free magazine distributed in the Ottawa area. While the issue has a total of 88 pages (including front and back covers), I dismissed the 23 page event listing and service directory section, leaving me with 65 pages to investigate.
One of the greatest difficulties I had during this project was settling on what would be counted as pro-science and what would not. I have tried to indicate my criteria in the article that follows, but please let me know if you disagree with any of the choices I made. In addition, I tried to categorize the articles and advertisements by subject, but the “holistic” nature of the magazine’s focus meant that most of the materials could legitimately be filed under multiple categories. Because of this, I opted for the subjective “best fit.”
Here are my findings…
There were a total of 109 advertisements in the 65 pages examined.
33/109 are selling medications or medical services.
- Of these, 9/33 (27%) use the legitimacy of science to bolster their claims. For example, 3 use the term “quantum,” 2 use the phrase “evidence-based,” and one indicates that “this technology is for real. I’m not selling snake oil” (the latter selling an “Ultra Immune Booster,” a machine the author built that “no doctor, naturopath, hospital, clinic or scientist […] has this knowledge and technology in the world”).
One ad for a yoga class uses the phrase “scientific studies have shown…”
One ad uses scientific imagery, showing a large double helix in the background (the purpose of the ad is unclear, although my best guess is that it is promoting a book).
In total, 12/109 (11%) advertisements use words or imagery that invoke science as part of their marketing strategy. I did not count words like “certified or “licensed,” nor the parading of degrees beside a name.
17/44 are about therapy/psychological healing, relationship advice, or “inspirational.”
- Of these, 6/17 (35%) use science to convey legitimacy.
14/44 are about physical healing, warning about a health risk, or promoting beauty-enhancing treatments.
- Of these, 7/14 (50%) use science to convey legitimacy.
1/44 article is about religion (more specifically, about the origin of the Kabbalah). It describes Kabbalah as an “ancient science.”
The remaining 12/44 articles cover the topics of clairvoyance, yoga/meditation, descriptions of past events/gatherings, UFOs, marketing, aromatherapy (with no claims of psychological/physical benefits mentioned), and gardening.
- Of these, none use science to convey legitimacy.
In total, 14/44 (32%) use science to increase the reader’s perception of the article’s legitimacy.
7/44 articles express anti-science sentiments.
- 6/7 (86%) either claim that the medical establishment is wrong in a particular area, or describe a case in which medical doctors were unable to diagnose or misdiagnosed a patient’s condition.
- 2/7 (29%) claim that there is a deliberate conspiracy not to investigate an issue or to withhold a known truth from the public.
- All 7 are located within the “physical healing” category.
- 4/7 (57%) use both science in a positive way to add legitimacy to their claims and demean science or the scientific establishment, while 3/7 (43%) denounce science only.
I divided the ways in which science was being used into six categories:
- 9 use at least one of the following words: “science,” “scientist,” “scientific,” or “study” (in the context of a research study).
- 2 indicate that the author of the article was “sceptical at first…”
- 7 use statistics (or the word “statistics”).
- 2 use the word “quantum,” while 1 uses the acronym “DNA.”
- 3 use some variation of the phrase “experts say…” or “studies show…”
- 1 juxtaposes science and religion, claiming that “I [the author] reassure my mlients [sic] that I am not inviting them to engage in exorcism, which is so closely associated with the Catholic faith and/or religious superstition […]. I share with them that the understanding and psychic healing that can take place is quite scientific and is at the cellular consciousness level.” (Black Hole Healing, p. 4)
For comparison, I also counted how many times Eastern philosophy is used as a marketing strategy.
- 2/44 (5%) use the phrase “Chinese medicine.” Both in a positive way, and both articles are in the physical healing category. One of these articles explicitly denounces (Western) science, while the other does not.
- 4/44 (9%) use the word “chakra.” One of these articles is about clairvoyancy, one is about yoga, and two are in the psychological healing category (one of which also uses science positively).
- 1/44 (2%) talks about Feng Shui (which I’ve placed in the psychological healing category).
- 1/44 (2%) is about Buddhism (which I’ve placed in the yoga/meditation category).
- Altogether, 8/44 (18%) connect their legitimacy to Eastern philosophy while 14/44 (32%) use science (with 1 overlap).
When looking at the numbers, I found that 32% of the articles were generally pro-science (at least as a discipline, even if they disagree with the conclusions made within a scientific framework) and 16% were anti-science. Comparatively, only 18% are pro-Eastern philosophy. While science is clearly a hotly debated topic within the New Age community (as it is represented by Tone magazine), it still seems to carry more weight in legitimizing claims than do appeals to Eastern philosophy.
I can honestly say that I found this result to be rather surprising. I expected to find at least an equivalent number of pro-science and pro-Eastern themes, and I expected more anti-science claims.
My conclusion is that scientific legitimacy is not dead, and appeals to research and the scientific method in the promotion of scepticism is still an appropriate strategy. With a focus on improving scientific literacy and critical thinking skills, I believe that North American anti-intellectualism can still be reversed.
There are several words and phrases used in Tone that are clearly meant to have meaning for the readership, but that I could not decipher given the context. I have called them “emotional buzzwords,” words that are used because they elicit an emotional reaction rather than because they efficiently convey a desired meaning. Here are some examples:
- Potential (often combined with other words to give us such gems as “unlimited potential” or “hidden potential” – both things that must apparently be “unlocked” or “accessed”)
I was amused by the number of advertisements that claim to offer “immediate enlightenment,” or a method to “neutralize negative emotions at their source – instantly!” One ad even promises to enable the reader to “say goodbye to feeling bad about anything ever again.”
The presence of organized religion was nearly non-existent, although I did find it interesting that the author of the ad selling time on an “Ultra Immune Booster” (mentioned earlier) felt that it would lend credence to his claims to mention that he is a “very strong Christian” (and that this means he wants “to do as much good on this earth as I possibly can”).
I also wanted to touch briefly on one of the articles that appears near the beginning of the magazine. Try as I might, I found it impossible to read with a straight face. The article is called Black Hole Healing and is located on page 4. Here are some quotes:
I gently invite clients to explore further into this black hole, after checking with them to see if their trust in our relationship is strong enough to allow them to relax into their abyss without undue fear and trauma.
Once the crucible of trust or sacred space has been created and clients are in a relaxed state of consciousness, it is possible to travel deeper into their black hole…
I think it only adds to the hilarity to point out that the author of this article is male.