About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

New Rationally Speaking podcast: Fluff that works

In this episode we tackle the curious case of pseudoscience or mysticism that works, or seems to, at least some of the times.

From acupuncture to chiropractic, from yoga to meditation, what do we make of instances where something seems to have the desired effect for the wrong reasons (e.g., acupuncture), or might otherwise be a perfectly acceptable technique which happens to come intricately bundled with mysticism (e.g., yoga)?


  1. What do we do of it. Nothing much, I'm afraid. Things you believe may induce some neurological and indirectly somatic response in your body, in multiple possible ways (enhancing the immune system, or shifting your attention away of some pain or symptom, or suchlike. Suggestion, it used to be called in the late 1800s.
    Apparently, religious faith can have such sort of effects, and also give psychological comfort, which led some otherwise skeptical guys (like D. Dennett) to announce that they believe in belief.
    Not much in it, believe me.

  2. thanks for the great podcast. I wanted to point out a situation where some fluffy thinking worked for me. I worked my way into a raw vegan diet coming from a low meat but standard american diet. The raw vegan diet eliminates all food that is cooked and of course animal products. I was doing this for health reasons (not as much to loose weight but i did). I also felt better at any one moment in the day. The theory behind it was that cooking food takes out nutrition and we will be healthier because our food has more of what we need to be healthy in it such as vitamins and such. I have to say i felt better but it was most likely because when i wanted snack food i could not grab chips or junk food but instead it had to make or eat something healthier. I also wanted to do it 100% so i did not cheat. It became part of my identity (I am a raw vegan) and the false belief that i would be less healthy if i cheated or ate ice cream once a week would stop me from doing it at all. It can also be a nice way to show yourself and others that you are a self disciplined person and change my view of what else i can do. All that said i am guessing that it is not any better to be raw than to not be but eating large amount of junk food before bed is not good for most people and this prevented it. Some of the side effects could be beneficial and these are a bit different then the placebo effect. The same could be said for yoga i imagine. If yoga is not better than any other form of stretching but i do it that could be its benefit. The fact that my friends do it or I have a class i like (or i identify as a yogi) i can do it, and it gets me a positive amount of exercise that i would not otherwise get could make it worth doing. This is much different than homeopathic medicine or acupuncture working on placebo. Raw food for me had to do with the environment we are in (and added will power) and not always the stated reasons of the act. I may eat less bad food because raw and am healthier because of this and not the raw aspect or work out more because I like the friends in and opportunity to do yoga and the mystic aspect even if the mystic aspect is not what makes yoga a positive experience. Because our minds are not perfectly rational the externality may in may cases cause a positive impact that is different than just a placebo. just wanted to share my raw food story. I do not recomend it but it did work.

  3. Interesting to hear Massimo come to the conclusion that chiropractic probably belongs in the dustbin. Of all of these practices, it appears to have become the most mainstream and the most readily accepted by medical professionals. I think he's right though.

  4. Respectfully, it's pro-pri-o-cep-tion: five syllables, not four (pro-pree-cep-tion?). After numerous utterances, it no longer could be simply an issue of accent. Making this point has nothing to do with making a personal attack. I only want people to know how it is spelled should they want to research it further (it happens to be a favorite word of mine). More importantly, it ties in nicely with a few brief comments made in the podcast about where thought takes place. Actually, it no longer is believed that thought solely is processed in the brain. Anywhere that there are neurons, like in the gut (aka, the Second Brain) and spine (as well as the brain itself), it stands to reason that thought can be processed in the those areas. This, of course, means that fMRI studies are necessarily incomplete. It also means that instead of "Body and Mind" it really needs to be reworded to “body INCLUDING mind." In other words, the "brain in a vat" analogy is defunct and should be relegated to the trash heap. A brain is only going to function as a brain (at least in the way that we typically perceive of it) if it has all the other parts of the body. To have proprioception, the brain needs appendages and/or appurtenances. It such things aren't in the vat and affixed to the brain, it's unlikely to develop in manner that would be familiar to us.


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