Seb Pearce

Notes on code, learning and teaching English.

On the New Age Bullshit Generator and parodying woo

15 April 2014

Link to the Generator:
(Yes, it’s open source: GitHub link)

A while back, I was on a philosophy debate binge. Watching Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens annihilate their opponents with precision and wit is my idea of a good night in, and YouTube’s “related videos” are a deep, dark rabbithole.

I stumbled upon two debates involving Deepak Chopra: one alongside possible alien Jean Houston against Sam Harris and Michael Shermer called Does God Have A Future? and one against Richard Dawkins at the Dangerous Ideas festival. I had never seen Chopra speak before, and I was only familiar with his name from cheesy-looking self-help titles. As I watched the debate, his childish behaviour and smugness amazed me. He constantly interrupted and talked over the others, usually to make cheap shots or have the last word instead of making a sound argument. He got weirdly defensive when Harris pointed out that nobody at the debate was qualified to talk about quantum physics — quantum is one of his favourite buzzwords — and boasted that he was the most qualified one there because he’s an MD(!). It’s clear the man isn’t used to being challenged.

The thing that really impressed me, though, was his command of the vocabulary of woo (short for woo-woo for those not in the skeptic scene). This word is a blanket term for pseudoscience, New Age thinking, dubious alternative medicine and other things that reek of the heady fumes of snake oil.

Here’s a sample of Chopra’s sermons taken from Does God Have A Future?:

Science is now in a process of overthrowing the climactic overthrow of the superstition of materialism. That everything that we call “matter” comes from something that is not material. That the essential nature of the physical world is that it’s not physical.

Science tells us that nature is a discontinuity, that is, an on-off phenomenon. That there are gaps between every two 1s where you find a field of possibilities, a field of pure potentiality. Science doesn’t call it God, but what is God if not the immeasurable potential of all that was, all that is, and all that will be? Science also tells us that there’s a field of non-locality where everything is correlated with everything else.

There is hidden creativity; there are quantum leaps of creativity. There is something called the Observer Effect where intention orchestrates spacetime events which we then measure as movement and motion and energy and matter… You have the resources within you to intuitively grasp this mystery.

Just dreadful.

The sad thing, I realised, is that if the younger, scientifically illiterate, spiritually frustrated, eighteen-year-old me had heard this type of nonsense, I would have likely been taken in by it. It’s so full of hope and wonder and impressive ideas that you want it to be true — and for people who feel powerless, that’s more important than whether it is actually true or just a quack trying to sell a few books. After that, confirmation bias sets in and they’ve got you hook, line and sinker.

So after enduring a few hours of this nonsense and feeling profoundly irritated at the applause given to it, I had an idea.

People like Harris and Shermer and Dawkins are taking care of the rational side of things in the war on woo. They listen patiently to the babble from the other side and painstakingly try to take it apart piece by piece, dealing with each fallacy as it arises. For people who are inclined towards logical thinking and don’t have a huge emotional stake in woo, this is excellent. But what about the others?

Sometimes, there is a better way to pull your head out of the clouds and the charlatans’ hands out of your pockets. All it takes is a sneaking suspicion that this doctrine you’ve come to defend, fund and worship is, all things considered, perhaps a bit silly. Ridicule can be more persuasive than reason when it’s done right. I know this because it was the first thing that tipped me off in my early twenties.

As I sat there listening to the debates, I thought to myself, “This all sounds like random sequences of buzzwords. I bet I could write code to generate it.” It seemed like not only a fun side project, but a great way to prove how easy it is to make hogwash that looks compelling. It might help show that it’s the language games and emotions that lure people into this stuff. I started scribbling down any words I could think of that evoked a feeling of bullshit: quantum, growth, matrix, path, potential, flowering

And thus the New Age Bullshit Generator was born.

I put it on Facebook and a few friends shared it. Then I put it on Reddit, and it exploded on the Internet. There were 50,000 likes within 4 days. I must have scratched some sort of itch, because the comments it generated were full of praise and people said they’d been waiting for something like this to come along. I was even getting donations. It seems almost everyone knows someone who has been suckered in.

Thanks to everyone who shared the link around, commented, followed me and donated — you gave me my first taste of Internet fame. Thanks also to those who created spin-offs and blogged about it.

Lastly, to the people it offended: don’t worry. This is just a digital manifestation of the infinite being mocking itself through quantum pulses of energy. And who is the “I” who is offended, anyway?

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