Is the rise of esotericism and pseudo-science worrying?

Esotericism and the whimsical use of scientific discoveries —French talk of patasciences— are booming commercially. Enough for scientific magazines and news weeklies to look into the subject, with a major dossier in L’Express this week. Should we really worry about it, or is it just a necessary and transitory phase of our social evolution?

The targets of quackery

Quackery has always existed. Isn’t it just more enlightened by social media, which no longer keeps anything in the shadows? The gurus with discreet addresses are today influencers with flashy YouTube channels. The customers are always the same: people with neither mediocre nor specialized education, ill-protected and ill-informed not so much because they frequent the pseudo-scholars of the net but because they do not seek information elsewhere.

At least four reasons:
1) Real researchers rarely present their findings in such an digestible and captivating way.
2) Science journalists do it but quality information is paid for, unlike commercial information on the net. The information fast food has become the most common mental diet.
3) To be gullible is to lack self-observation and the adult hardly gains any more, believing that she has finished her education. She is particularly sensitive to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the bias of seeking to confirm his convictions even when they are untenable.

4) Communication experts

The last reason is the least known and yet the most insidious and effective. Successful influencers are experts in the art of convincing. The content of the speech is often less important than the manner of presenting it. A good communicator can pass off enormities as proven facts. But being a good communicator has become easy, with the help of books revealing simple and effective manipulations. For example, read Jonah Berger’s uplifting ‘How to Change Anyone’s Mind’, at least to guard yourself against the methods exposed… and use them yourself in return.

Self-convinced charlatans

All of this is nothing new. Charlatanism has always impoverished the most credulous segment of the population. The most educated were not concerned about it until then. What worries them today is that the gullible no longer delegate expert judgments as they once did. Before the networks it was easy to open your eyes to naives. Now it is exhausting and disheartening. Because naives are grouped into alternate worlds where esotericism becomes reality. Stranger to these worlds? Your criticisms are no more listened to than if they were in an unknown language. The phenomenon does not only concern followers but also leaders: most deeply convince themselves of the correctness of their statements. It is easy when the circle where this discourse is well received widens and becomes a world in itself. It is no longer necessary to confront one’s despisers. Thought is deified.

This explains this paradox: pseudo-sciences are exploding while the real charlatans, those who are aware of cheating their clients, are in decline.

The weakness of the stake

Patascientific networks are thriving but their tightness is not so good. Those easily hung there can be just as easily drawn elsewhere. Just use the same weapons of seduction. Or that the stake is worth it.

Surveys show that many believers are sensitive to the charge of credulity. Statements are of the type: “I don’t really believe it but it could be true”, or “It amuses me”. The public is rather feminine and the women, more associative, camp less on radical positions about the truth. But especially the esoteric beliefs and the practice of patasciences are not the object of a real stake. It is rather a distraction, a search for identity, often badly tempered in a society that has become very protective of its citizens. Our lives are much less painful and less marred by disasters than those of our ancestors. We should probably be happy about it, but the adverse effect is that our souls are less assured. So we’re looking for even more little fights and rebellions against the protective order to remedy it. “Discovering what one is deep down” is in fact “injecting deep down identity determinants”.

Still good judges of the stakes… for how long?

Fortunately, however, we are not entirely blind to the value of the stakes. The horrors have not disappeared from the planet. If we experience them much less ourselves, we experience them more by proxy. Thus, before worrying about the rise of patasciences, it is necessary to judge the importance of the stakes for the followers. Most of them are weak. Only a minority is ready to invest large sums or undertake major actions. The cores of convinced patascientists are small. The number of subscribers to a YouTube channel is a very rough estimate of the real impact of influencers.

To illustrate this problem of stakes, I will talk about my generation, that of the boomers, who grew up with science fiction literature. We drank in extraordinary stories like whey, well enough shot to look like anticipations: not yet realized but who knows… It hardly led to a drift in everyday life. I used my verified and non-speculative knowledge. SF was a game. I didn’t stop going out at night because I was reading flying saucer abduction stories. No stake in doing the cloister.

Extravagant ideas are precious

Same thing for current generations. Science, having performed many miracles, is less dreamy and has been replaced by magic in adolescent literature. Today Generations Y and Z consider esotericism and patasciences as only “possible”. They integrate them into their way of life mainly because there is no really important issue. Why deprive yourself of inconsequential dreams?

What is the real root problem revealed by the patascience craze, in fact? It is certainly not to adopt extravagant ideas. Imagination is our most precious talent. The most admirable and noticed among us are those who propose bifurcations to thought. Passing the obstacle contains the obligation to get out of the impasse. It is therefore anything but the originality of the discourse that we must blame our congeners for. The problem is: What do we do with these alternative theses?

The Inner Observer

Living together forces us to establish a consensual synthesis. Consensus is not, as is too often believed, the victory of one thesis over the others. It is its adoption in a given collective context. Nothing prevents you from thinking A or B when you are alone, but together you have to think C, more consensual. Who says you have to think C? Not exclusively the supporters of C but the mental faction, in each of our minds, which wishes to participate in living together. This faction is our own inner observer, whose task is to confront A B and C and understand why C is the consensus.

This faction, which I’m going to call the Observer, is what makes us different from each other, more than outlandish ideas. Imagination and intelligence are strongly innate. They already diversify us a lot. However, in a society as complex as ours, their differences considerably amplify the divergences between life paths. However, it is always at the present end of this path that the Personal Observer floats. It is strongly acquired, and constantly evolving. The Observer manages the most complex aspects of our existence. Its versatility makes the diversity of the aspects of our personality. Its flexibility and completeness are our success when habits struggle to get us out of trouble. And this, regardless of the faculties of imagination and intelligence that genetics initially endowed us with.

The Acquired Observer struggles to move the innate

The performances of our Observer reflect those of the educators we met younger, parents and teachers, as well as the readings and questions that our desire to understand has imposed on our minds. The field of knowledge has become such that it is impossible for our Observer to be an expert in everything. However, its very principle, which is to build levels of synthesis, encourages it to establish an evaluation of its own competence. A good Observer knows when to stop ranting and listen.

Whatever the theses supported, the consensus is easy between evolved Observers. It is not a question of erudition, only of the ability to transfer expertise to someone more erudite than oneself when necessary. Problem: delegating expertise can strengthen or threaten our identity, depending on whether the conclusions strengthen or challenge our existing beliefs. An effective Observer therefore sometimes challenges our own identity, and this is the most difficult, much more than the acquisition of knowledge. The mind has no difficulty in adopting a belief on a blank subject, but hardly ever gets rid of an established belief, except by devoting sustained effort to it. We never realize to what extent what was engraved during childhood, on this blank slate that was our mind, impacts the slightest aspect of our consciousness without it being possible to go back. We must continue to build Observation on top of it, which requires a rare courage.

The Observer is awakened by crises and major issues

If I insist on the role of the Observer, it is because it is at the heart of the more insidious problem posed by patasciences: the vulnerability of the least sagacious people in the face of influencers of all kinds. Their reluctance is showered. The vague certainties they may have had on a subject are erased or manipulated to put consciousness back on a blank slate. The Observer gets screwed. The spirit has opened like a flower and is being fertilized by the injection of patasciences, which will produce babies around your followers.

But influenceable spirits have always existed. Why do they seem to multiply today, to the point of devoting a file to the esoteric epidemic?

The influx of new knowledge, enabled by the extension of the net, has temporarily exceeded the ability of our Observers to sort through it. Extravagant ideas manage to take over consciousness, because the context allows it. No major issue. These are the crises that wake up the Observer, force them to free themselves from reflexes that prove to be ineffective, encourage them to make a new synthesis of the situation.

Why has Covid skewed our Observers?

Why, then, has the Covid pandemic favored antivax? Isn’t this typically a crisis situation? Shouldn’t she have silenced the voice of the patamedics, and cautiously put away all opinions behind the official experts? No. Many reasons. The crisis was not so serious. The media overplayed the show as usual, and the politicians had to follow. With public opinion operating in chaos mode, it takes a truly brutal and major catastrophe to unify it. An Ebola pandemic, with 50% mortality, would have immediately extinguished antivax efforts against an experimental vaccine. But the Covid is a mortality close to 1% concerning people with already compromised life expectancy. Not the apocalypse.

The field of opinion has therefore turned into zones of high and low esteem for health policy, like chaotic atmospheric phenomena. Another important reason is that the zones have formed around titled leaders, as the Patamedics now count themselves among the official experts. A diploma is not a guarantee of quality Observer. Some scientists are too agitated by their petty neuroses and their hopes for personal glory to agree with the consensus. Covid has also revealed this most worrying incursion of esotericism and patasciences into expert circles.

Small crises disorganize and large ones reorganize

In the end, Covid reveals a paradoxical phenomenon: low-severity crises, which are becoming the norm in our hyper-organized society, degrade our collectivism. Whereas a truly major crisis, in the sense that it immediately threatens every aspect of everyone’s life, would increase consensus. The reason for this paradox is that we behave too much like sheep, regardless of the shepherd followed, regular or rebellious. This docile alignment prevents the birth of the wisdom of the crowd, which is the agglomeration of our inner Observers giving their opinion in complete independence… then lining up with the majority opinion when a common policy is needed. Only a major crisis restores our full independence.

Our Observers are overwhelmed by the flow of information to process and too easily delegate their role to the first influencer to come, whether competent or charlatan. Until now, this weakness of the Observer has only had an impact on personal life: suckers pay the price for their stupidity, to put it bluntly. But today, with democracy operating in an anarchic mode, the consequences have a severe impact on the collective. By delegating to any chubby or self-convinced crank of her patascience, we create chaos.

Let’s seek our own alternative thoughts

To claim the power to choose is to have at the same time the responsibility to protect the collective from decomposition. We have a duty to bring consensus to life. And for that, there is no alternative but to improve the quality and independence of our Observer. Seek alternative thoughts and not submit to alternative thinkers who want to impose theirs on us.

I wrote this article especially for the population of New Caledonia, of which I am a part. The islands are more closed societies and ideal breeding ground for patasciences. I am convinced that Western societies will spontaneously reorganize themselves to make abuses more harmless, as individual Observers become more competent. However, the islands are following the same path many years later, and the exploitation of islanders by influencers unfortunately has a bright future ahead of it, as shown by the success of antivax in New Caledonia and overseas in general. Let’s wake up! Let’s stop eating this bad information fast food that floods local networks.


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