Die Esoterische Verführung: Angriffe auf Vernunft und Freiheit (The Esoteric Seduction: Attacks on Reason and Freedom) Gerhard Kern and Lee Traynor, eds., (Aschaffenberg - Berlin: IBDK Verlag, 1995)

A book review by Elisabeth Fraser

Hiervon gibt es auch eine deutsche Version.

Germany is the source of three "alternative" therapies - homeopathy, phytotherapy and anthroposophy. The medicines for these three health cults are not required by the German government to be shown to be effective, as are normal pharmaceuticals. (Skeptiker 2/95, p. 65) This is why other European health authorities aren't too keen on subsidizing them. There are concerted attempts being made to erode this resistance, however, and the European parliament is coming under increasing pressure from the German alternative medicine lobbyists, the Zentrum zur Dokumentation fuer Naturheilverfahren. (Skeptiker 3/95, p. 83). This is one reason why the German skeptics are so badly needed, both nationally and internationally. The skeptics are called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Parascience (GWUP). Many of their leading members have contributed essays to the new book, Die Esoterische Verfuehrung (The Esoteric Seduction).

It was a disappointment, therefore, to discover what else is in this book: for every well- researched and clearly-written essay from a skeptic, there is a long-winded, ideological rant from a non-skeptic. The authors of these latter essays are not members of the German skeptics, but are associated with an atheist group. The problem with these people is that they are down on religion, not because they wish to avoid ungrounded faith, but rather because they have a different faith than the Christians: namely, a murky brew of Marxism, Freudianism and the "politically correct" brand of feminism. Like Fundamentalists who see anything nonreligious as a dangerous distraction from the wiles of Satan, these Marxists disapprove of anything nonpolitical that could divert one's attention from creeping Fascism.

Their interest is not in the facts, but in formulating the right party line to deal with modern mysticism. With the confidence of theologians reinterpreting the Scriptures in the light of modern conditions, they apply their Marxist and Freudian Eternal Verities to the 1990s. Thus instead of straight, old-fashioned Capitalist-bashing, we now find tracts against New Age and Eco-Feminism - but the arguments and even the tone remain the same. Some of these authors concentrate on making an unconvincing case for an anthroposophic political plot while they completely ignore the very real damage being done every day by anthroposophic medical treatments. Health, because it is nonpolitical, apparently isn't important enough to merit their attention. Ideology, however, is Sacred Writ, and there they really go to town. This is a random sample of their deathless prose:

The subject only comes into existence in the perception of the dialectical interrelations of subject and object and also the object sharpens its contours when it quasi-elevates itself together with the subject out of the totality of the general, in that the differentiation confronts the totality and contrives its dissolution. (p. 19)

Isn't this bafflegab a pretty good example of "seduction by an esoteric doctrine"?

German Communists like to define themselves as freedom fighters because they opposed Hitler, and they try to demonstrate their continued political relevance after the fall of their Wall by finding ominous signs everywhere of a resurgence of Nazism. In one unintentionally funny essay almost the entire German political spectrum is depicted as forming a dangerous "spider web" which threatens to usher in "neo-racism". (The Reds are the only ones who aren't under the bed.) And if some of these parties show no sign of racism? That's easy: they've simply "sublimated" it - which indicates how deeply ingrained it really is! (p. 157) If you can't prove what you want to with Marxist metaphysics alone, just add a bit of Freudian double-talk - and you're homefree.

And then there's the wonderful essay where men appear to be the political enemy number one. Here we get a funny little potted course on world literature, designed to show how the prehistoric veneration of the mother goddess got progressively undermined by male propaganda. From the Gilgamesh Epic we leap to Hansel and Gretel - which we are assured was no folktale, but was purposely disseminated by conspiring troubadours in order to propagandize the workers and peasants.(p. 217) Next comes, of all things, the libretto of Mozart's Magic Flute, which seems to have something to do with a Freemason plot to maintain the patriarchy. This curious chronology ends with Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, which we are assured is "a further step in the direction of contempt for women" (p. 220).

The author seems to forget that most of the world's women during that period were subject to things like slavery, concubinage, purdah, devadasi prostitution, foot-binding, lip-plugs, genital mutilation, deformation due to stacks of copper neck-rings - you name it - and that it was precisely the European women of the Renaissance who were taking the first small steps towards equal rights. But the author is herself a European woman and obviously enjoys imagining that her lot has been going from bad to worse. After all, how can mere historical facts compete with an ideology of self-pity?

Turning from the ideological tracts to the skeptical essays is like entering a different world. The skeptical contributions deal with a broad spectrum of pseudosciences. The psychologist, Rainer Wolf, for example, has written an excellent article on sensory deception. He shows how leaping to false conclusions has been a successful survival strategy: it was better to misconstrue a branch in the wind at night as a tiger than the other way around! This same propensity, of course, gives rise today to sightings of "ghosts". (p. 39) He also gives the current scientific explanation for the "unconscious" mind, that curious entity which has been pressed into service by both Freudian metaphysics and New Age mysticism alike. The right half of our brain operates unconsciously and automatically and when its endless combinations of data produce something interesting, an internal monitor lets the new solution into our conscious left brain half, where it appears as a sudden inspiration. (p.49) This was attributed by the Greeks and Romans to a "muse", and by many modern Germans to the "soul".

The article on astrology is by the sociologist, Edgar Wunder, who attacks the subject in a systematic, empirical manner. (When German thoroughness, "Gründlichkeit", isn't wasted on metaphysics, it gets results!). He shows how astrological predictions depend upon fanciful associations based on the arbitrarily-given name of the planet and have nothing to do with observation. This "name fetishism" is especially clear in the recent instance of an astrologist refusing for the time to talk about the influence of the newly-discovered smaller planets. Names like "1992 QB1" just didn't give him enough to go on and he wanted to wait until they had received their "proper" names! (p. 84) Although astrology is ancient, Wunder also points out that modern astrology has a different social function than in the past. It now concerns itself less with prediction, and more with defining one's individual personality. This new "psychological astrology" is a response to the modern freedom to find one's own identity. (I presume that he means the following: this freedom is wonderful if you're a rugged individual who has an identity to express. But if you don't, your new social duty to be an individual can be a bit embarrassing - and it's comforting to be able to define yourself as, say, "a sensitive, creative Pisces".)

Another essay, written by Heinrich Eppe, is an interesting historical account of the socioeconomic status of German racists and astrological mystics before 1918. Since human vanity hasn't changed since then, this article furnishes interesting clues to the present wave of mysticism. He points out that the then fashionable crackpot theories were espoused preponderantly by the social and educational elite. He makes a good case that they felt threatened by the erosion of their privileges and sought to bolster their self-esteem by becoming the apostles of a new esoteric movement. The movement gave them a mission: they no longer felt like relics of the past, but rather like the intellectual vanguard. They loved the pompous little initiations to ever higher mystical ranks: it lifted them above the mass of the uninitiated. They also loved to feel that through astrology they alone were personally in tune with the Universe. Dr. Eppe is scholarly and circumspect and leaves it at that. However, doesn't this remind one of the jilted pride of many arts graduates who feel left out of a scientific universe which they cannot understand? They derive great satisfaction from proclaiming that science is limited and old-fashioned and that knowledge of Deeper Reality is only open to "intuitive", "non-linear" people, who are unsullied by a rational, materialistic outlook - people, coincidentally, who are just like them!

Another skeptical essay deals with subliminal cassettes; it is written with verve and humour by the psychologist, Colin Goldner. The voices on the tapes are supposed to cure not only physical and psychological problems, but even, for example, to bring wealth. On these cassettes voices intone, "My energy is collecting itself in the form of money...Money is good...I shall become a magnet for attracting wealth...." No wonder Dr. Goldner's own studies found that some of his (more intelligent?) subjects were driven wild by the messages' sheer banality. (p. 168) And then there are the tapes with the "unhearable" messages. Dr. Goldner had some of these tested in various sound studios in Munich. The result was nil. So now we have nonexistent messages influencing a Freudian "unconscious" by means of a dubious mechanism - and all to the tune of millions of Marks.

Homeopathy is the subject of a further skeptical contribution to this book by the American psychology professor, Mahlon W. Wagner. It is one of the three German health cults mentioned above. This "new" therapy is actually 200 years old. Its inventor didn't believe in atoms and thought that matter could be endlessly divided. Hence the standard argument that many attenuated homeopathic medicines probably don't contain so much as a single molecule of their "active ingredient" wouldn't have bothered him a bit. Dr. Wagner also points out (p. 180) that all studies to date that appear to indicate the effectiveness of homeopathy are defective - but that these studies are continually cited even by those proponents of homeopathy who declare that clinical studies aren't necessary in order to establish its validity.

Lee Traynor, also a member of the German skeptics, has written the contribution on electrosmog. This nightmarish threat cannot be heard, seen or smelt, and is supposed to first make its presence known only when we succumb to cancer or to a destroyed immune system. So far, however, there are no proven effects, let alone harmful ones, of magnetic and electomagnetic radiation on either animals or people. Problems only appear when the animals are disturbed by the loud humming of a powerful electromagnet or when the people are worried quite literally sick by the presence of high-tension wires or microwave ovens.

The article on paranormal communication is by Amardeo Sarma, one of the driving forces behind the German skeptics. He has had the delightful idea of granting the existence of extrasensory effects for the sake of argument and then asking, "What sort of physical source would be necessary to give rise to these messages?", "How could they be transmitted?" and "What sort of sense organ would we need to pick up them up?" As a telecommunications engineer he is able to set forth in a businesslike fashion the conditions which an unknown force or an unknown sense organ would have to fulfill. He lays it on the line: one either has to make one's speculations about psi compatible with science or one has to offer a better explanation for the world than science has - and that means for the whole world, and not just for a few alleged paranormal effects. Not only are there physical and physiological impossibilities involved in paranormal claims: it is also "not clear where the evolutionary advantage would lie in being able to discover water at depths of hundreds of meters"! (p. 258)

Another leading light in the German skeptics is Juergen Moll, who also has an engineering background. He has contributed an article about divining rods and earth-rays. Earth-rays are a German "discovery" from the 1930s and the divining rod is touted as a means of locating this supposedly injurious radiation. To test the ability of divining rods to find things, however, it is better to let the diviners search for something that actually exists! To this end the German Skeptics, in conjunction with the Hessian Radio and James Randi, carried out a double-blind, properly-analysed study in which self-proclaimed diviners tried to find both hidden objects and water flowing in underground pipes. The results of the study were at strictly chance levels. This, of course, did not prevent a psychologist, Suitbert Ertel, from trying to find some sort of pattern in the random data, a pattern which had nothing to do with what the experiment set out to test. This is rather like reading shapes into clouds, and is therefore not a legitimate statistical proof for claiming an effect. Dr. Ertel's blunder is that he doesn't make it clear that his calculations are just speculations.

The last of the contributions to the book is from Rudolf Henke, another expert from the German skeptics, who has specialized in the study of UFOs. It is the report on a demographic investigation of belief in UFOs which he himself paid for and which was carried out together with two Austrian psychologists. The results appear to bolster the idea that belief in UFOs can be a substitute for religion. In comparison with skeptics the UFO-believers had far more frequently changed their religion or had left the church altogether. Yet in spite of this they were more inclined than the others to characterize themselves as "religious". Replies to his questionnaire also indicated some increase in skepticism among the undecided after hearing a lecture which questioned the existence of UFOs. However, it's not known how long this skeptical attitude persisted when his subjects were again exposed to the one-sided stories in the media.

The pity is that all these excellent articles from the skeptics find themselves here in such strange company. On the face of it the idea sounds good: let those who are skeptical about pseudoscience team up with those who are skeptical about religion - and who happen to own a publishing house, as well. But this is Germany, a land long ruled by princelings, bishops and dictators, both right and left. All of them tried to keep the Germans in line by forcing upon them various self-serving ideologies. This has resulted in a taste for unproven worldviews: many Germans now find an ideologically upholstered world cozy ("gemütlich"), and they often reject one ideology merely in order to make way for another. This is why the down-to-earth empiricism of the German skeptics is so needed here - and also why it is such a shame that in this book their articles should be buried among nonsense.
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Last update: June 9 1999