Thursday, September 3, 2009

5 signs of techno-babble

So, I recently ran into an adherent of NLP or Neural Linguistic Programming. This got me thinking about a few things.

Religions always spring up around scientifically unanswered questions, be they the source of volcanoes (Vulcan), the effects of drunkeness (Dionysis) or the existence of extra-terrestrial life (Scientology.) Based on this person I'd hazard a guess that NLP is apparently a religion built around unexplained psychological phenomena. Mostly hypnotic and suggestive phenomena.

Now, from a sociological perspective it makes a lot of sense that modern religions are being born on the fringes of science. Most of our big mysteries today are the areas of science we are still uncovering. And even places where we do have some information, in many cases its information that is hard for a lay-man to grasp and understand. This is fertile ground for mystery religions.

One thing all religions will do is try to improve their sense of legitimacy by tying themselves to the popular understandings and mysteries of the day. In the ancient world, people commonly believed in fate or destiny. That important people were destined from birth to be important. Thus, every story about an important person *had* to include a distinctive and unusual birth story. You can see this in the stories about such people as Alexander the great or Jesus of Nazareth, to name just two.

Today, people are swayed by words they think of as 'scientific' so any recent religion will cloak itself in nonsense phrases that "sound scientific." Here are some words that should flag your suspicion in any statement about the world:

  1. Quantum. People love this word even though they have no idea what it means. The "magic" of Quantum mechanics in the way it breaks with every-day experience has really caught the imagination of people. It seems to "make no sense" yet they know that it has real provable effects. In the common mind, that equals magic and techno-babble will very often try to associate itself with that by using the word Quantum in a totally nonsensical manner. As an example (from my friend the NLP true believer...)
    "This is the basis for what is known in NLP as quantum linguistics. It works differntly than you expect." (sic)
  2. Infinite. Another word common people know has meaning but generally can't really picture or comprehend. Calling something "infinite" is always good for an 'ooh' or an 'aah'. This is why there is an entire car company named "Infiniti". Again, another example from NLP psychobabble courtesy of my friend on the forums..
    What are you NOT thinking about sends your mind into a search for ALL the things you aren't thinking of. Which is infinite.
  3. Void. The opposite of infinite and again, something that people have trouble imagining and thus has mystical connotations. Like the "everything" of infinite, the "nothing" of void is outside of the common person's every day experience and is thus magical. Another example (amazingly these were all from one thread, most of them from only one or two posts.)
    When you break these containers you go back to the "one" or void.
  4. The Unity of Matter and Energy. This is, ofcourse, a direct invocation of the great god Einstien. ;) Eisensteinian physics is really the start of "you don't see it but its true" science in msot people's mind. (Although even Einstein was drawing in part on earlier observations and theories, most common people do not know this.) Einstein's theories are both mysterious and powerful-- everyone knows they led to atomic bombs which are powerful and scary things. If you can invoke Einstein then you can capture his "power"... or at least his power to engage the belief of the common man in things they cannot see or prove. So here is another example from the same source:
    everything is one piece of matter nade up from energy. creating labels splits it up and puts it into containers which we call reality (sic)

  5. Theory. Probably the most magical of modern day terms. And one again that common people do not understand. They know that scientists call their ideas "theories" and they have great faith in those scientists. Therefor anything else that is called a theory carries a weight of assumption of truth in their heads. Part of what they don't understand is that even scientists don't claim that their theories are actually true. Just that they are useful and seem to line up well with the known facts. This is one of the big differences historically between a religion and a science. A religion generally tries to prove its postulates truth whereas the whole approach of science is to try to come up with new ways to prove those postulates false. But call your unscientific notion a "theory" and all of a sudden it gains weight with the common man. This is why right wing christians call their creation myth a "theory" these days. And its used extensively in modern psuedo-science religions:
    The theory is that this transdiverational search eventually takes you to a place before language and the meaings existed in your mind into the "void" (sic)
    You have to love that one. "Theory", "void" a mystical place and an obscure multi-syllable programming term. Now THERE is a magical formula for you!

Those are 5 good examples of scientific techno-babble. In general these are words that should raise red flags in your mind when someone throws them at you out of context. Chances are even they don't know what they really mean. I'd like to end this with one more rule of thumb. This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but also has a lot of truth to it. I credit Harvard Professor Jim Waldo with this as that's who i heard it from...

"Any discipline that has to explicitly call itself a science, probably isn't one."

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