SGU Episode 8

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SGU Episode 8
2nd August 2005

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
SS: Steven Salerno
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Show Notes


S: Hello and welcome, once again, to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. I'm your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me, as always, are Bob Novella...

B: Good evening, everyone.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi, everyone.

S: and Perry DeAngelis.

P: Hey! How is everyone tonight?

News Items[edit]

Haunted Dolls on eBay (0:25)[edit]

S: So, Bob, you sent me an interesting item that you found on eBay, last week. Tell us about that.

B: Yeah. This was–this was a great one. Actually, it was interesting and also got me a little upset. What it was was an auction, an eBay auction, for a haunted doll.

S: A haunted doll.

B: And–so this guy had this big blurb on the auction saying things that "I've been a paranormal investigator for 20 years. In the last four years I have," now these are quotes, "I have mainly studied inanimate objects, mostly dolls." Alright now, so this guy plays with dolls a lot. That tells you one thing.

S: That's his specialty, huh? Haunted dolls.


B: If a house could be haunted...

P: Dolls are good because they have faces and they're like little people and they're very emotional.

S: And you could sell them on eBay.

P: (laughter) Yeah, that's why dolls are good.

B: Right, well, he says, "If a house could be haunted, why not a doll?" Okay. So, he goes on, "There's only three documented haunted dolls out there in paranormal community." Now, I thought there was only two but he's telling me there's three.

P: (laughter)

B: "Vincent the haunted clown doll[1], Annabelle the haunted Raggedy Anne doll,[2] and Robert the haunted doll from Key West Florida.[3]" Okay.

E: Where do they get these names from?

B: I dun–I guess in the paranormal community that's kind of a well known thing if you're into dolls.

E: Is that like naming hurricanes, or?

B So–his doll is named Megan.

E: Okay.

B: And it looked like–looked like an average, you know, well made doll to me. And–so he's saying, that, oh, "Megan was very interesting and felt," he felt something "odd about her". I don't know what it was, but–"I don't know what it was but a presence was definitely there." Well, that's what he tried to write. He he actually wrote "a presents," as in E-N-T-S "was defiantly there", so I can only assume he meant presence was definitely there. So he doesn't have spell check apparently. Let's see, "What first got my attention was that you would sit her up and then she would always end up on her side." Well that sounds pretty wacky to me. Dolls falling over. So, he decided to tape it. He video taped it one night. He left the tape running, and he–he reassures everyone that nobody–no one was in the room during the time of the recording. He makes a point of stressing that. And he shows a video and it was an MPEG. And at first blush, just looking at the MPEG quickly, you're like, "Okay. The doll–the doll moved it's head." It kinda tilted it's head up and turned it slightly to its left. But I looked at the video a few times and I got real close to it. Now, to my untrained eye, there was definitely something a little unusual about the movement of the doll. It seemed like there was a little distortion, possibly even some sort of a–I don't know–like a, stop motion effect where it moved he'd stop the camera or something.

S: Didn't seem kosher, huh?

B: It just didn't seem kosher to me. And, of course, he had the timer–ya know the time counting up as it–as it was filming but, of–of course, that's an easy thing to fake assuming that this whole thing was fake.

S: Bob, you don't believe this guy?

P: What are you talking about?

B: Well, I–I didn't believe it–I didn't believe in him until...

P: He's got one of the three.

B: ...until the clincher. Of course at the end he hits us with, "I have studied Megan with EMF, Electro Magnetic Frequency meters, and have gotten strong hits from her." Well of course that convinced me. I mean, if it's–if an–if an EMF meter is going crazy, well, what other evidence do you need?

S: Yeah, it has to be haunted.

B: So after all this he got, last time I checked, he got over 40 bids and it went for over $610.

S: A $10 doll, basically.

B: Right. This is a $10 doll, and he got–now, before the–now the auction's over.

S: What a racket.

B: Now, Perry, you–you saw the auction end. It went for $610 or something?

P: Yes, it did. $610. It was the final bid. Yeah.

B: Now, since–since the auction ended I've tried to find it in the archive and it's not listed any more. Now I–I really wanted to write a letter and send it to eBay and say, "Hey. I mean this fraud."

P: Well, Bob, that's not a problem. There are–there are currently 114 haunted dolls for sale on eBay. If you do a search...

B: Oh really?

P: on 'haunted doll'. You'll come up with 114 of them.

S: But Perry, there's only three legitimate ones in the world.

P: Uh, these would be the illegitimate ones.


E: Right. These have names. I guess the other ones don't? I still don't get that.

P: And–Ya know, many of them with very dram–a lot of dramatic photos. A lot of ghost orbs here. Lot of, lot of blurry images. Lot of–lot of lens flash. Lot of camera cords.

B: I thought eBay was good with fraud but I guess this kind of fringe thing is–is kinda hard–ya know–hard to enforce. I mean it's–it's easy to determine that, yes, this Monet painting is indeed a fake, but how do you conclusively prove that...

S: Right.

B: that–you know–it's like proving a negative. You can't prove that this doll did not move at this point in time in the past.

P: Well–well, Bob, that's the whole point of the "evidence." I mean they have photos of the dolls, like, sitting. And–and have blurry, ya know, flashes and–and blobs around them.

B: Hey Evan–Evan, if I–if I got my hands on that MPEG I wonder if you–if you guys would be able to scrutinize it at work.

E: Yeah. Send it over. We'll see what we can make of it.

B: Just to see–to see if there was something...

S: Yeah. Now, I mean, with most of these dolls it's let the buyer beware, right? If you want to buy something because somebody else says it's, ya know, haunted, that's your problem. But if somebody doctored up a video at least you can make the case...

B: Right.

S: that that was a conscious, deliberate, deception. If he was using that to sort of establish a value for–for the object that it doesn't have.

B: Eh, eBay's not in the business of debunking the claims of–of what the people are trying to sell.

P: I mean they try and not have outright just fraud.

B: Of course.

P: Here–here's a doll that actually was able to issue some EVPs.

S: Electronic Voice Phenomenon, huh?

P: Yeah.

S: It was a talking doll. Gee, I've never seen that before.


B: I've been getting the strangest EVPs from this light in–in the house. When I bring the meter close to that light it goes off the chart. That light must be haunted.

S: EVP is Electronic Voice Phenomenon.

B: Oh.

S: Not–not an EM meter. EM meter is...

P: Right. This is...

S: would be a different phenomenon.


P: They–guy says that 'I captured three voices on the recorder very briefly. We believe one says, "Now." Then we believe one says, "Want to play some music?" There is also some rustling noise and, I think, a door slamming. Then you hear some more rustling and a voice saying simply, "Hello."' That–that's what he got on his EVP...

S: There ya go.

P: From this doll. From this picture of this haunted doll. And there's–you should see, I mean, the–in this particular doll, which is simply–the auction is entitled "Haunted Doll EVP" there's a–just a huge burst of light near the doll. I mean, in fact, it looks like it's right on the lens. It's quite–it's incredible. I mean it's very impressive.

B: Light on the lens?

S: So we actually had the privileged of seeing a haunted doll before. Do you guys remember this? We were in the most haunted location in the world.

P: It was one of the three that he mentioned, Steven.

S: Ed Warren's basement. Right.

B: That must have been the Raggedy Anne doll.

S: It was, luckily, for our protection it was locked behind a glass case.

B: Thank goodness.

P: It was.

S: And we were–we were warned not to taunt it. The last person did that died in a motorcycle accident leaving the museum. So we were very careful to taunt it as much we possibly could.

P: Right.

B: Well yeah. He–I mean, I remember Ed saying that don't touch anything in the basement, because just touching anything–ya know–you could–I–I don't know–get possessed or whatever.

P: Well–well he–he, but, Bob if you did do it by accident he had the cleansing ritual.

B: Right. But–of course I didn't do it by accident. I touched everything I possibly could when he wasn't looking.

E: Oh, yes.

B: And–and I'm still alive with ten years–no–five years maybe.

E: Eh, it's been about five six years, I think.

B: So–I mean, every day is just a–a bonus for me, ya know. God.

P: (laughter) That's true. That's true. You're living on borrowed time, Bob.

E: (laughter)

S: Well, later in the show, in a few minutes, we're gonna have Steve Salerno on, the author of a book called SHAM, about the self help and actualization movement, but before that we're going to do this week's Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (8:30)[edit]

VO: It's time to play Science OR Fiction.

S: So, here are the three items for this week.

P: How does this work, Steve?

S: Well, I'll tell you.


S: Every week I scour, scour the news and the internet for interesting items. Either science news items or science trivia facts. Two–I present two facts which are real and one I've made up. The–the challenge for my panel of skeptics, Bob, Evan, and Perry, is to sniff out which one is fake, and–from the two that are real. Are you guys ready?

P: Indeed.

B: Yes, sir.

E: Born ready.

S: Okay, let's play. So, listen to all three before you make your guess. Number one, scientists in Hawaii have discovered a new species of carnivorous caterpillar. Item number two, paleo-anthropologists have discovered the first evidence of Neanderthal Man in North America, or item number three, scientists have published the results of a key experiment demonstrating desktop cold fusion. Which two of those are real, recent news items–science news items, and which one is the fake science news item?

P: Cold fusion's fake.

B: Repeat that last one, Steve.

P: (laughter) Go ahead.

S: So, Perry, you're con–you're going to confidently vote for number three, that the desktop cold fusion is the fake.

P: Is it–well it's absolutely fake.

E: Well this–I mean, it sounds almost too easy, to choose...

P: I would have heard about it.

E: to choose the third–to choose the third one.

P: Bottom line is I would have heard about it. I didn't hear about it. It's fake. Carnivorous caterpillars? Sure. Neanderthals in North America? Sure. Look at some of our politicians.


P: But, uh, cold fusion on a desktop? No. No way.

S: Okay. Evan you concur?

E: I have to concur. But, I won't be surprised if I'm wrong. But I'll concur.

S: We're never surprised if you're wrong, Perry.

E: Thank you. I was right last week.

S: Alright, Bob, are we–are we gonna make it unanimous? Or you wanna try one or two?

B: Tell me them again cause I've got to vet your every word because sometimes the–the distinction can be so subtle, so tell me again.

S: This one–this one's not subtle. This is either true or false, this one. So it's not going to be like one inch versus three inch[4] kind of subtlety. Number 1 is scientists in Hawaii have discovered a new species of carnivorous caterpillar. Two is paleo-anthropologists have discovered the first evidence of Neanderthal Man in North America, and three, scientists have published the results of a key experiment demonstrating desktop cold fusion.

B: Desktop. Now–they did do–they did do a recent study–maybe not too recent, maybe–was it six months ago, they–they reassessed the cold fusion hubbub. Ya know, the–the experiments and it was still–ya know, they couldn't say 100% absolute nonsense, there was still some anomalous stuff that some people got. It wasn't–I was–I was actually surprised that it wasn't a clear cut–twenty years later this is still bologna, and really just put the final nail in the coffin and it didn't come to that. But that was like six months ago. That's not recent, and I haven't seen anything. Neanderthal? God, I didn't think they–they got as far as North America. I mean did the–the land bridge exist back then when they were...

E: (unintelligible)

S: they–they–you're talking about the land bridge that connects, essentially, Siberia with Alaska...

B: Right.

S: across the Bering Strait? Eh, comes and goes over the years, with the ice ages and whatnot.

B: Yeah, it's the–but wait the Neanderthal's did exist during the ice age, I think, so that's when it would have existed but, hmmm. I didn't see that–man, and cold fusion. Ah, you stink, Steve.

E: (laughter)

S: Everyone buys the carnivorous caterpillar, huh? You guys are just okay with that one.


B: Yeah, that's–yeah, so what? A caterpillar that eats a little meat, ya know?

E: Yeah. It's a giant caterpillar, 24 feet long, but...


B: You didn't say that.

E: otherwise totally normal.

S: Now that–you mean–It's attacking Tokyo right now.

E: (laughter)

S: Alright. Put your nickel down, Bob.

B: The cold fusion is too obvious. It–there might be some subtle thing going on there that–it's not like we're going to have Mr. Fusion in the–the back of our cars any time soon. I'm going to go with Neanderthal.

S: Okay. So let's dispense with the meat eating caterpillar first. That is true.

E: Woohoo!

S: A newly named species of Hawaiian caterpillar eats snails, which is probably the only thing slower...


S: than a caterpillar, would be a snail. So, yeah, that–that–that's true. The–the name is, Hyposmocoma molluscivora. The last one means it eats molluscs.

B: Gazuntite.

S: molluscivora. So...

E: Mollusks.

S: that one is true. That was presented to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. So, now which is it? Is it Neanderthal Man or cold fusion which is false? So let's talk about Neanderthal Man. Neanderthal Man was discovered over a hundred years ago, in Europe. There are many, many fossil finds of Neanderthal Man in Europe and the Middle East as far as Asia and in North Africa. In fact Neanderthal Man probably originated in Africa. But there is as yet no evidence that Neanderthal Man has ever ventured into North or South America into the new world. That one I made up. That one is fake.

B: Okay.

S: So Bob wins this week. That is correct. It would be the first evidence, if anyone did discover–I mean it's not–it's not implausible. You know, Neanderthal Man migrated quite far. They had fire. They certainly were able to survive and ice age. There's not reason why they couldn't have crossed the Bering Strait into North America.

E: We just haven't found the evidence, yet.

S: We don't know–maybe they didn't. Maybe there was never a population living there when the Bering Strait was–was frozen over, but to date there is no evidence that Neanderthal Man has made it into North America. Bob was confident that he would have heard that had that, in fact, occurred. So...

P: Alright, Steve. If there's no evidence of Neanderthal Man in North America how do you explain our politicians?


S: There's also no evidence that Neanderthal Man ever cross bred with modern man. So you can't-you can't rescue your–your hypothesis that way, either, Perry.

B: Yeah, didn't they–they actually got their hands on–what's it–some mitochondrial DNA or...

S: DNA from bone marrow from–from fossilized Neanderthal bones.

B: And it was pretty conclusive, right?

S: Yeah.

B: That–that there was no co-mingling.

S: Right. No co-mingling.

P: Alright. So you're going to tell me that cold fusion is real.

S: Well, listen, I–what did I say? I said that–I'll exactly read what I wrote.

B: Right. Right.

S: Which is, "Scientists have published the results of a key experiment demonstrating desktop cold fusion." That–that's actually the title that I took from the news report. And I looked it up to make sure the it was legitimate. But, this is–this is what happened. Researchers at Purdue University have published some new evidence supporting earlier findings–this is a replication of a study–of a device that can produce nuclear fusion reactions. It does not actually produce energy, yet. This is not a device that–that can produce a net bene–a net output of energy. As opposed to the–the Pons and Fleischmann experiment, where they were basing it on the fact that they were finding an excess of energy in their apparatus.

B: Right.

S: This one is not defined by a production of excess of energy but by other markers which are more reliable like the–the hallmarks of nuclear fusion, which are–let me...

B: Neutrons?

S: Yeah, the production of neutrons and, I think, gamma radiation as well. What–what they–what they do is they use sound waves to create...

B: Oh, sonoluminescence?

S: Yeah, sonol–exactly sonoluminescence. They basically, create these bubbles and the sound waves cause the bubbles to collapse very powerfully and very rapidly which produces a very, very intense pressure and heat in a very, very microscopic–very tiny space which is able to produce the forces required to cause some cold fusion to occur. It's certainly not yet a device that could be–again, we can't plug into this any time soon to produce energy.

P: So it's cold fusion that doesn't actually do anything.

B: (laughter)

S: Well, it's–it's–it's sort of a proof of concept, ya know, sort of getting it to occur. They said,
Researchers had estimated that temperatures inside the imploding bubbles reached ten million degrees Celsius and pressure comparable to one million earth atmospheres at sea level.
So I'm not sure if you can call ten million degrees cold but they're still calling it cold fusion probably because of–that's the buzzword and, I think the researchers are just using nuclear fusion in their more technical papers. I don't think they're really calling it cold fusion but I guess the apparatus is cold. You don't have to produce an environment of these temperatures, but it's still–inside...

B: It's not like you have a...

S: these con–which is again different than the Pons and Fleischmann, sort of, cold fusion claims. Inside these microscopic bubbles you are creating a very small area of intense heat and pressure.

P: What was the–what was the basic flaw with Pons and Fleischmann? Why were they so wrong?

S: They probably were...

B: Experiment design, wasn't it?

S: Yeah, they just were–their methods weren't...

B: Rigorous.

S: weren't rigorous enough and they were–they–they were–had not eliminated all non-fusion sources of the excess energy that they were requiring. I'm not really sure of the–of exactly what their methodological flaws was–flaws were, but it came to light when, basically every physics lab around the world tried to replicate their studies and when you set up the experiment the same way they did it and run it the same way they did it you did not get any evidence of cold fusion. No excess of energy. So they were doing something wrong. And that's why in science replication is critical. If something works in your lab you should be able to describe how you do it accurately enough that somebody following your procedure precisely should get the same results and if they don't then something's wrong.

P: And for some reason they bypassed the peer review.

S: Yes. That was...

E: That, yes.

S: that was their historic error.

P: Right.

S: Rather than trying to submit their results to peer review and the process of vetting in the scientific community they got so excited about their results and getting the Nobel Prize and being world famous and rich and all that stuff that they decided just to hold a press conference. And they basically became world famous boobs for doing that.

B: Oh my god, they...

P: (laughter)

B: essentially, well, I–I don't think you could say their careers are ruined but just saying Pons and Fleischmann, what do you think of? You think of quacks.

S: That–they will forever define that phenomenon. Just bypassing...

P: Yep.

S: peer review and going to the press prematurely with a sensational claim that turns out not to be true. That is going to be the–what people will remember about them. It will be...

E: Their legacy.

S: That's their legacy. I mean it will be very, very difficult for them, they really would have to do something, ya know, Watson and Crick like in order to–to break out of that legacy. They're... and it's sad.

P: It would still be mentioned.

S: It would still be a footnote.

B: Ya know it reminds me–it reminds me–alright, what–what is–what's Nobel, known for?

E: Dynamite?

S: The Nobel Prize. Although, he makes dynamite, yeah.

B: Well yeah–well, Nobel Prize. Everyone would say Nobel Prize. He–just an interesting little aside–little story. He–I guess his brother died, somebody with his name died, they thought it was him, he read his own obituary and it said the man who invented dynamite. And he did not want that legacy so because of that he–he set up the whole Nobel Prize fund and gave it tons money and set it up in perpetuity after he died and now when anyone hears Nobel they don't think dynamite they think...

B, S: Nobel Prize.

P: That's true.

E: Except skeptics.

S: Right.

E: We know the truth.

P: (laughter) Ah, that guy's nothing but a dynamite maker.

E: (laughter)

B: He thought dynamite was so powerful that it would essentially end armed conflict and wars, but, or course, it just made them bigger and better and louder and didn't end them, but he was kind of disappointed that it didn't have the anticipated effect.

Steven Salerno Interview: Self Help Movement (20:53)[edit]

S: Well, we have a guest this week, so lets move on at this time to our guest. We have with us tonight Steven Salerno. Steven is a author of the book SHAM which is an acronym for the Self Help and Actualization Movement. It's subtitled How the self help movement made America helpless. Steve Salerno was a freelance feature writer and essayist and an investigative reporter. He writes on business, sports, and politics, and the wider social ramifications. His articles have appeared in Harper's, The New York Magazine, Esquire, Reader's Digest, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers and journals. Steve, welcome. Thanks for joining us today.

SS: Thank you.

P: What–what's the genesis of S.H.A.M, Steve? Where did it start?

SS: I think that the American form–you had the Vietnam era was a pivotal time. It was a time of great social dislocation. You had young men who had plans for their lives being plucked out of their lives and sent over to die in a rice patty, ya know, five thousand miles away and I think that–at the same time this happened you had a book come out called, I'm Okay. You're Okay.

S: Yeah. Who wrote that? (quiet)

SS: And despite the optimism of the title the basic message of this book was most of us ain't so okay, that there are thing that happen to us early in childhood, or as a result of our family socialization that make us the way we are and lay the groundwork for all sorts of problems. And I think that the publication of that book–and it was a colossal best seller and it became a social ethos unto itself, the publication of that book in concert with the–the 60's Vietnam culture of just this total confusion and re-examining what are our values–I think that's what laid the groundwork for this sense of victimization, of being powerless in this hostile universe, and it really took twenty-five, thirty years before a serious backlash came from the empowerment side.

S: Right. But it also sounds like what you're saying to some extent is–this is a symptom of the fact the hippies have grown up and are now ruling the world.

SS: I think that–ya know, it's not just the hippies. It's the baby boom. In essence you have an entire nation that is reaching mid-life en masse...

S: Right.

SS: and this explains why now–the interesting thing about self help is that people are always predicting that it's peaked, and it never has, because as you suggest it's riding the curve of all of us Aquarians. Like I'm fifty-five, and most of the people I know are somewhere between thirty-five and sixty-five and mid-life being the time of re-examination that it is, everybody's always so hungry for, like, "Okay, where's my new path? How can I reinvent myself?" And the gurus know this and that's why they tell us what they do.

S: And then what they tell us is not what's good for us but exactly what we want to hear and what will sell.

SS: Yeah. Or they tell us something that is good for us but it's expressed so generically–and that's by design because if they gave us specific advice with a specific result then they could be impeached on it when it doesn't happen. So these people are–the people who really rise to the top of this movement are masters of treading that fine line between selling a message that seems actionable but it really isn't so there's no way you can go back to them and say, "Hey, I didn't get the results I thought I was going to get."

B: It's like vague psy–psychic predictions that are–that are...

SS: It's literally that.

B: Yeah. Right. Exactly.

SS: It's literally–no–I mean that quite–Sylvia Browne–Sylvia Browne now has become an icon in self help. She started out just the hardcore psychic stuff and now she's gotten into this, "How my psychic insights are going to help you lead a more fulfilling life" and she is–she has really–she's become dead mainstream in the movement now. She's not off on the spiritual fringe any more. She's right there.

S: Well, Sylvia Brown and others have essentially started from the premise that the power of the mind is unlimited.

SS: Well, you know there are websites. There's a website–I'm not sure of the pronunciation but I think it's probably out-en-house or oat-en-house. It's O-U-G-H-T-E-N. Their tag-line on the site is, "Change your DNA."

S: Mm hmm.

SS: And you're supposed to do this through the power of positive thinking. Now, it's–it's sad the number of people that want to believe something like that but that's such a seductive message. This notion, "You can do it. If you just learn how to put–how to get in touch with it and let me teach you how and here's my bill." And that's the message.

S: Right. Right. So, right which is sort of the other thing which is mind over matter. It's the idea that you can do anything with the power of your mind. You can alter reality, in a very real sense. And that's...

P: Or your DNA, apparently.

S: your D–or any aspect, your DNA, your–your health. Any problem that you have. It's basically just magical thinking, it sounds like.

SS: And remember, at some point down the road–you probably remember Uri Geller and the spoon bending and telekinesis...

S: Yes.

E: Oh, yes.

SS: and a lot of these things that were later debunked.

E: I've heard it once or twice.

SS: Even with people that I–that I've interviewed from the real hardcore mainstream psychotherapy movement, they concede that there's a lot of terrain that's as yet unexplored in the human mind so who knows what potential really is in there? But remember the premise of the book, what can we prove right now? And how do we compare that to these extreme messages being put out by the self help gurus and the bottom line is, right now, today, as we speak, there is no proof.

S: Right. And then they, again, similar to alternative medicine, they basically bypass the whole proof thing.

SS: (laughter) That's right.

S: Doing scientific research and trying to have these ideas examined in a critical way. They just go straight to marketing. Somebody basically invents an idea out of whole cloth, writes and article or a book about it, creates an institute, markets it, and that's it. They're off and running without ever gathering any data to test their ideas.

SS: But it's even worse than that because they're openly contemptuous of proof.

S: Yes.

SS: They claim that the very process of questioning it means you don't have the positive mental attitude that's going to help you triumph.

S: Right.

SS: So you're not even allowed to have that crisis of faith.

S: Which is just a callus way to inoculate themselves against disproof.

SS: Absolutely. Sure.

S: And I think it's very calculated. It's not–I don't think it's innocent. And then they also often will attack the experts that are in the best position to know that what they're saying is bunk.

SS: Right. And then they have the mixed message which, for example, there's a line in–well, I guess, the best example I can use there's Joe Jennings. Now Joe Jennings is a former gang banger and drug runner by his own admission. He wrote a book about it. He's been shot something like thirteen times. He speaks to schools and he talks to them about self esteem and specializes in inner city neighborhoods which is the milieu that he came out of originally. And he tells these kids–he says, "Nothing can hold you back. You can do whatever you want. The sky is the limit. You can all be President." Okay, that's the empowering part of the message, but then he throws in the caveat, but if you can't do it's because of racism.

S: Right.


SS: So, which is it?

S: Yeah.

SS: And the funny thing is all the kids applaud so you can expect that from kids but you have the administrators standing too, who are paying this guy, applauding and cheering. It's like doesn't anybody add this stuff up and see the inherent contradiction?

S: Yeah, that's interesting. It's kind of like the faith healers who say that they–with faith you can be healed of anything. Of course, sometimes it doesn't work if you don't–if you're faith isn't strong enough.

E: That's right. That's because you weren't devout enough.

S: There's always an escape hatch.

SS: Yeah, well, Dr. Phil–Dr. Phil, who's as good a representative of the empowerment wing as anybody, in his diet book, in fact the preface to it, he says that the diet book will help anyone who's really ready to embrace change.

S: Who is ready to embrace change.

SS: Right. Which is the same slogan that AA was using for years and years that we'll fix seventy-five percent of the people who are ready to embrace change.

E: (laughter)

S: Who are ready. So...

SS: Yeah.

E: Nice. Very slick.

SS: There's two things there. First of all compare that to another realm. Like if you went to a surgeon and you wanted to know what your chances were and said to you, "Hey, I cure seventy-five percent of the people who don't die on my table."

S: Right.

SS: The first question might be, "Exactly how many is that we're talking about?" you know?

S: Why didn't they just go for a hundred percent? If you're going to select only those–basically, if you're ready–if you improve then we improved you and if you don't improve then that's–it's your fault.

SS: But in the case of AA it's more serious than that again because when you're talking about the people who quote "are not ready to embrace change"– There have been studies done of AA–they have to be done in sort of a very covert way because AA has never cooperated with any investigation of its methods or its success rate...

S: Just for background, AA is Alcohol...

SS: Alcoholics Anonymous. Yeah. It's not the motor club.


S: It's Alcoholics Anonymous which is a–they basically are the original twelve step program.

SS: It's the prototypical twelve step program.

P: I imagine your critiques of AA, Steve–I'm sorry–I imagine your critiques of AA have drawn some very harsh comments your way.

SS: Oh, you should see my inbox, the inbox that's connected up to my website. And the funny thing is you'll get these rationalizations that say, "Look. If I think it works for me it doesn't matter if I'm still drinking." It's like, "Excuse me?"

S: Right.

SS: And again, it's that same paradox. But just to get back to and finish the point about AA. When you talk about the people who are "not ready to embrace change". Estimates are that as many of ninety percent of the people who go to the first meeting, and/or go to the second meeting do not show up for the third. So there's an enormous attrition rate, by every measure that's ever been used. So even if they fix–even if they do fix seventy-five percent of the people who are ready, and I'm dubious about that, there's a vastly larger universe of people that they don't even connect with in the first place. And when you're talking about a problem that costs America $185 billion each and every year in direct costs and lost productivity we need to know what works.

S: Right. Absolutely and the studies show that AA is no better than just quitting cold turkey. Than just going on your own and deciding that you're going to stop drinking.

SS: Right. It would have been nice to be able to have truly controlled studies where the same universe was being tested by the same controlled conditions in the same study. We don't have simply because AA won't cooperate.

S: Right.

SS: But, the largest retrospective studies that have been done at the National Institutes of Health appear to show that you have at least as good a chance if you just try to quit on your own and you almost certainly have a better chance if you indulge in traditional psychotherapy plus some of the newer chemical interventions like Naltrexone, which again, AA has actively fought the implementation of.

S: Yeah. Now the Antabuse type of drugs. The drugs that essentially...

SS: Right.

S: if you drink alcohol while you're taking them you have a very nasty side effect, so it gives you a physiological disincentive to drink. There is good evidence to show that they are extremely effective. More effective, certainly, than AA.

SS: Right. I have kind of the same reaction when I watch Oprah.

S: Right.

SS: I get that extreme physical reaction. But she's–she's been a king maker in the movement so, I guess–far be it from me to talk.

S: Now would you consider Oprah to be the queen of S.H.A.M.?

SS: (laughter)

P: The king?

SS: That's good I should have used that in the book.

P: (laughter)

SS: Well certainly the road to self help success leads through Harpo Productions. There's four people that I profile in one part of the book, three of them, their careers–they owe their careers to Oprah. Ya know, the day before they appeared on her show and the day after they appeared on her show, was two different worlds for them.

S: Mm hmm.

SS: And I think that's true of many people who have some sort of self help product to sell, particularly if it's in book form. And, of course, Oprah herself actively sings that message. This notion that you can change your life, that you can be so much more than you ever thought you could be and there's nothing wrong with that but there's no tactical component. There's no way to translate that into an action plan and that's really the biggest weakness in a lot of this stuff that's churned out every year.

S: Well, again, we are talking with Steven Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Self Help Movement Made America Helpless. A very, very interesting book, and entertaining read. I know Evan has been just, tearing the book up. Tell us what you've read.

E: Yeah, I've had the pleasure of going through this book and reading a lot of things. Steve wrote–in the introduction here, I mean, one sentence that we were just really having a hoot with earlier...

P: (laughter)

E: One sentence.
For a while during the 1980's a company called Potentials Unlimited was selling subliminal audio tapes to cure deafness.

SS: Yeah. The thing that struck me about that when I came across that fact...

P: (laughter)

SS: it was fairly late in my research that I came across that and the funny thing is I made a conscious decision early in the going that I was going to talk about programs that really just worked on your psyche as opposed to tangible products because if you get into tangible products, ya know, like StairMasters and stuff like that then anything can be considered self help. But I couldn't resist this one because if there is any single line or product that summarizes the absolute contempt for the consumer...

S: Right.

SS: that is built into so much self help that's it. Selling audio tapes to the deaf. Yeah.

S: It's like video tapes for the blind. Right?

SS: And this is the thing is–so many of these men and women think they're the Teflon gurus. Ya know, that it doesn't matter how outrageous they get–I'll give you another example that dates to just yesterday. I get an e-mail in my inbox from Tony Robins, of all people.

E: Hello?

SS: Well, it's not quite as special as that because see I'd registered for his discussion boards back when I researching the book because I wanted to see the kind of stuff that went back and forth among the members. So now he's spamming everybody in his community to sell these–this new product that he's got that teaches you how to keep the marriage–how to keep the magic in your marriage or how to keep the love alive and prevent the embers from going, ya know, whatever. And, just–the irresistible thing about this is that at this very moment Tony is finishing up a trial in Canada, which revolves around the circumstances under which he unburdened himself of wife one in order to hook up with wife two.

P: (laughter)

S: Mm hmm.

SS: Who, apparently, had been married to someone else round about the time–you know, we're not sure of the exact chronology here but clearly it was a fairly efficient switch from one to the other. And there again this has been–this has been making a lot of news. I mean, anybody who does a news search on Tony Robins, anybody who googles him, you're going to get this trial and all of the allegations about how he came to be rid of wife one and on to wife two, and yet he's spamming people with this message at exactly this time that this trial is reaching its climax.

S: It is incredible.

SS: Yeah. It's just like, it's this mentality, no one can touch me.

S: Yeah. But don't you think–they're justified in thinking that because the history has shown that you can basically sell ridiculous products and ideas and the public will by and large–enough of them, will buy it.

SS: Yeah. Well, I forget whether it was the New York Times Book Review or Publisher's Weekly but to use the word Teflon again they called self help publishing the Teflon category because it seems that no matter what state the economy is in people are going to buy these books, they're going to pre-order the next Dr. Laura book even if they had to cut down on their budget for milk or whatever the case may be. This is–they're gonna buy these books, and the thing is they have to believe.

S: Mm hmm.

SS: It's a compulsion. They will not accept your logic simply because it flies in the face of their need to believe no matter how absurd the belief.

E: Can I quote Benjamin Franklin when he said,
There are no greater liars in the world than quacks, except for their patients.

S: Except for their patients.


SS: That's good. That's good.

S: It's true. Would you say it's fair that your rank and file self help guru is a con artist to some degree? What would you say about that?

SS: Well, ya know, let's put it–I think that there is some degree of sincerity. There was a kernel of sincerity in most of the larger people who started out in this field, but I think what happens is they start believing their own PR.

S: Mm hmm.

SS: They see this tremendous money making machine that it is and it's again, it's the untouchable syndrome. They realize that they have this huge captive audience, like Dr. Phil. Or a better example would be John Gray. Now, John Gray, there are serious–John Gray is Mars and Venus, OK?

S: Mm hmm.

SS: There are serious questions about whether he even has the credentials to be talking to people about human relations and psychotherapy issues.

S: Credentials? What?


SS: Exactly.

E?: He's a doctor isn't he?


SS: No.


B: He's a scientitian.

SS: This book–let me point out this book was very carefully legally vetted by Random House's lawyers and I had to prove a lot of stuff. But, ya know, like, John Gray, he's got one degree from a diploma mill. The college was later shut down by the state of California. He's got his "advanced" quote unquote degree is from the world famous Maharishi University.

S: Mm hmm.

SS: And he spent–now this is a guy if you read Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, he spends a lot of time giving people the most precise step-by-step formats for foreplay. If she does this you do that. If she shows up in blue lingerie it means this if the lingerie's pink it means that. This guy for all intents and purposes was a celibate monk for eight years before he hit upon this formula. Is that the guy that you want to take foreplay advice from?

E: He had a lot of time to think about it, obviously.

SS: There ya go. And but again, to finish the point, not only do we know that he's really qualified to be doing that, but now he's doing diet, nutrition, and exercise, where he has no competency.

S: Everyone, everyone feels like they're competent to give dieting and nutrition advice.

SS: Yeah. Even Oprah.

S: Anybody. Anybody. I mean there doesn't seem to be any criteria necessary except that you eat occasionally.

SS: Oh, and they make stuff up. Again, it's not quite on the same order as the audio tapes to cure deafness but Tony Robins at a critical part of his seminars will talk about the importance of nutrition as it relates to achieving your potential. And he talks about the energy frequency of foods and how critical this is. There's no such thing.

S: Energy frequency of food.

SS: There's no such thing documented. I went to the top–I thought maybe, okay, maybe this some esoteric thing I never heard of. He made it up. He made it up cause it sounds good and proprietary.

S: Now you see–now I agree...

B: That word's a red flag.

S: I agree that... Energy. Yeah, energy is definitely–that's a buzzword. A lot–nutrition's a buzzword, empowerment's a buzzword, I mean they–they use a lot of the words that sell, basically. Now, I understand that we can't read minds. You don't know how much people believe their own BS, and often times no matter what you come up with, you will get so much positive feedback it's not–it's not hard to think that you're on to something, just because–if you give people almost any–anyone who comes to you for advice, or reads a book or article for advice, is probably, no matter what you say, there are certain psychological phenomenon at work where they're probably going to feel like they were helped to some degree. Just the fact that they're thinking about their life will make–and they feel like there's somebody that understands them, will make them feel better. So people–the gurus do get a lot of positive feedback no matter what nonsense they're spouting. But when you come out with things like the frequency of food, I'm sorry. That guy knows it's BS. He made that up because it sells. You just can't convince me that he has any belief in that nonsense.

SS: Right. But again I want to–not that I'm trying to nit pick you here during this show...

S: Right.

SS: but let's be careful about the distinction between–you said people come out of this feeling better. I think it's critical that we make a distinction between feeling better and doing better.

S: And thinking they feel better. Yeah.

SS: To make–Yeah, to make somebody fell better about a situation that needs be to be changed is not the same as changing the situation. And, again, one of my key gripes about self help is that it actually encourages stasis. People think that by–if they keep reading and thinking and thinking and reading and occasionally going to the seminars they–that becomes the replacement for the action that would actually make a difference.

S: Right.

SS: Like instead of all that why don't you go get your damn plumbers license and be done with it? Ya know, I mean, at least you'll have a trade.

S: No. I agree. Again I didn't mean to imply that people are actually helping–

SS: Right. I know.

S: it's more like a placebo effect where–but it's good to clarify that they will report they're better even when they're not.

SS: True. That is true.

S: Even as people are dying they think this is helping me.

SS: That is true. I'm dying happily.

S: Yeah, yeah. I've had patients get absolute pseudo-scientific quack treatments for diseases and I examine them and they're doing horribly. They're doing horribly.

SS: Right.

S: And they tell me, ya know, thank goodness I got this treatment I'm doing so much better on it. But by every objective outcome, or assessment, they're doing worse.

SS: Right.

S: So there's just some psychological aspect it–ya know, a psychologist would call it, at least one part of it risk justification. If you spend the money on the seminar you want to feel like it was worthwhile. So you will...

SS: Absolutely.

S: report and believe that that it helped you even if you're feeling worse, even if you're doing worse, even if you're still drinking. You spent all this time, all this emotional investment, all this money, it damn well better have helped you.

SS: And that's actually a very savvy observation because it applies to corporate America, too. You will see that companies–training managers who approve the check request for the fifty or a hundred thousand dollars that gets paid to a sports motivator instead of having somebody come in who can actually teach tactical skills.

S: Right.

SS: They feel that they have to document that something was accomplished.

S: Right.

SS: So you will see in the follow up, things like, I see a better spirit of camaraderie...

S: Right.

SS: Or these sort of vague soft sided improvements. You never see things like sales jump 17.6% because that does not happen.

S: Right.

SS: By and large.

S: But then their sort of guilty endorsement gets used as a sales pitch for the next sale. Right? Cause they say, look, this company thought this was wonderful and it helped them.

SS: Right. Meetings Professions–Meetings Professionals International, I'm sorry guys, it's late, MPI, they did a study two years ago where they asked training managers would you rather have somebody like a Tommy Lasorda come in or would you rather have somebody come in who's a real hardcore tactician to train your people? And when that was the was the choice was presented, either or, eighty-one percent went for the Tommy Lasorda type which to me is an astonishing stat. The idea that even at the upper echelons of corporate America people would rather have this raw, formless, ra-ra cheer leading than actually learning skills.

S: Right.

SS: It's an incredible comment on–on the direction the society is going, I think.

S: Yeah. I think there's a culture of self help which is sort of taking on a life of its own, but it's also some basic human psychology. People would rather have the magic easy answer to the complex problems than rather the answer being, which is almost always the case, well, it's a lot of hard work...

SS: Right.

S: There's no easy road or easy answers. It's gonna be a difficult analysis and just basically a hard detailed work all along. People don't want to hear that because it's hard work.

SS: Or there's no money for it. Which is one of the reasons–there's a number of reasons and I spend a whole chapter on it, but the self esteem movement in American education, particularly in inner city neighborhoods where a lot of the schools were just falling apart at the seams, it would have taken too much money and too much work to actually address the infrastructure needs and completely revamp the curriculum and just take a whole different approach, but it was relatively easy to simply say, "What don't we do this: Why don't we have an assembly every other Tuesday and have the kids come in and sing about how special they are." Ya know, that was a lot easier. "And then, what we'll do is, we'll give them a pizza party, every month, for perfect attendance." But an interesting thing happened which was that they weren't getting perfect attendance even for a month so they said, "Well, let's do this. Let's call it perfect attendance if they show up four days out of five."

E: Moving the goal posts.

SS: So, you see, what they're doing is...

S: Near perfect attendance.

SS: Yeah. They're dumbing everything down to the point where everybody can qualify for it. And you and I both know that is not real self esteem.

S: Mm hmm

SS: That's a Mickey Mouse, micro managed, contorted version of self esteem that really does not help anybody achieve any real success.

S: That's right. Yeah, because if people don't feel like they earned it, if they feel like it was–everyone wins.

SS: Right.

S: People know that that's worthless.

SS: Well, ya know, I still–I teach college still and I get students who come to me and they're doing C+ work, I'm a nice guy, I'll give them a B-, ya know, if they participated, and they'll say, "Hey. Ya know, Professor Salerno, you can't give me a B- because I'm Pre Med." And I'm thinking, "Well how is that my problem? I mean, you should have worked a little harder." But they're so used to having the track greased for them all the way through that when they run up against a standard that's the slightest bit inflexible they crash.

S: Right. But that's–would you say that's– this entitlement culture. Do you think that there's a relationship between the entitlement culture and the, sort of, victim culture and also the, sort of, self help empowerment culture? How do you see those fact–those societal factors working together?

SS: Well a really good example is a couple of lawsuits in Pennsylvania right now where you have students who are learning-disabled who are suing the colleges that they could not graduate from, for not being better at helping them graduate and preparing them to enter the work force.

E: Wow.

SS: Now, you see, it this was just reg–quote unquote "regular" students, and I'm not saying anything disparaging about being learning-disabled, but, the fact is, I think, objectively, there are questions about why a learning-disabled person, who cannot, by his own admission, read or add simple columns of numbers, why is this person allowed to be in college in the first place? And why is it the college's job to ameliorate all of the inherent problems this person brings to the table?

S: Right.

SS: And, so, there's nothing more dramatic that you see in American society today than where the self pity of victimization meets up the sense of entitlement of empowerment, because then there's no end to what this person expects.

S: Right. And it's–the empowerment-entitlement, if you will, is almost to the point where–it's like, not only does everyone deserve to be, you know, quote unquote "normal", everyone deserves to be above average.


S: And even–and end of the spectrum everyone deserves to be godlike in their power over reality. And if you suggest that, well, perhaps maybe, ya know, we all can't be above average or godlike in our power, then you're mean in some way.

SS: You see, what you have now is the exact converse of that situation we had about twenty years ago where everybody was dysfunctional.

S: Mm hmm.

SS: Now everybody is hyper-functional.

S: Right.

SS: So, we all live in Lake Wobegon. We're all way above average. And you obviously can't govern a society like that cause at some point you have to make value judgements about who gets what.

E: So, Steve. I was telling some people at work today that we were going to be interviewing you tonight for our podcast. Explained to them what your book is, and a little bit about it and what I've read, and the first question I got from one of my cohorts at work was, "Well, what about the people like Tony Robins who actually do really make a difference. A real tangible difference in just one person's life. Doesn't that mean, therefore, it's worth it in the end?" What do you think of that? I'm sure that's not the first time you've heard that.

SS: Let me throw this back to you. If cardiac-bypass surgery cured one person and killed the other five million each year, is that worth it? Is that worth an investment?

S: Yeah. Right.

SS: You're talking about an eight and half billion dollar industry, soon to be a twelve billion dollar and that's just the tip of the ice berg because a lot of this underground economy stuff. I think that when you're talking about the kinds of outlays that we're talking about that it behoves us to know what works and not just to rely on anecdotal evidence, because, as you guys know, you'll–I interviewed people who swore they'd been healed by distant prayer.

S: Mm hmm.

SS: Yeah, you know, where's the clinical validation for any of this? And I think another aspect of it, just because somebody says it works, for all the reasons we've already covered, doesn't mean it really worked for them. They might think it worked, they might have to believe it worked, they might not be able to face the fact that it didn't work, but that doesn't mean it worked. But there's no tangible evidence.

B?: Or they could be out and out lying.


SS: I suppose that's possible but I'm inclined to think that–I'm not saying–you know you can accidentally do the right thing. I mean, it's possible that somebody can go to a Tony Robins seminar or even get off the air with Dr. Laura and their can be something that happens that's good after that. But that–first of all, ya know–the old a priori reasoning just because it happened after doesn't mean that Tony or Dr. Laura was the catalyst. And even if it did happen, that's one person, that means nothing.

S: Right. And often..

SS: Not in the big picture.

S: ...the self help gurus will wrap their message around some pretty common sense everyday wisdom. Ya know, like, it's better to be a good person than to be a jerk. Some really basic concepts that anybody would identify as reasonable wisdom, so, somebody who really wasn't even thinking about–they have no insight into their life or what they're doing, and then you're giving them–just some basic rules of thumb about how to live your life. Again, it's not inconceivable that that could have a positive impact, but we have to look at the overall–the net effect. The risk versus the benefit and the cost effectiveness, right?

E: Right.

S: Is this really worth it, eight billion dollars a year? Could–maybe we could be spending that money a little bit better somewhere else.

SS: Right. And even on an individual basis, is it cost effective for any one individual?

S: Right.

SS: And then you have–we have the things that we think are innocuous, like, I call it "sports think" in the book, but I went to an hour long presentation by Tommy Lasorda who was one of the leading seminar speakers. He got fifty thousand bucks to deliver this speech. The entire speech, so far as I could determine, reduced to "You gotta want it." Another words that's his essential message.

S: I'll do that for twenty thousand dollars.

SS: There ya go. Now Tommy says something else too, though, cause I think we should just think about this briefly. Tommy says the guy who wins is the guy who wants it the most. That's that kind of fire and brimstone spiel that you hear a lot of coaches deliver. If you really want it you'll go out and win. Well, think about that for a minute? What does that say about the guy who loses?

S: Right.

E: That's right. Yeah.

SS: It says he didn't want it.

S: Right.

SS: And I think that–I interviewed like Bob Rotella, he's a leading sports psychologist. To indoctrinate that kind of message in impressionable young kids, like on, let's say high school baseball or football teams, they're not fully developed, they don't know how to deal with all the psychological stuff. And you tell a kid like that if you lose this game–in a fact what you're telling him, you lose this game it means you didn't want it?

S: Means it's your fault.

SS: Yeah, exactly. That you blew it for us, and I–I think that whatever good you can achieve by making people strive there has be some bad that you achieve by selling that kind of a guilt trip.

S: Right. Well, there's got to be some balance to it. I mean, sometimes you try your best but the other guy was just better or the fortunes did not blow your way, and you may still lose, or not succeed, and that's OK.

SS: When I played college football we had one of those fire and brimstone coaches and he would go–we had a particularly bad first half and we'd been missing blocks left and right, and he lined us up all against a wall in the gym and he's getting in our faces. "Are you ever gonna miss another," ya know, fill in the expletive, "block?" and he's going down the line and of course the only acceptable answer is "No." Well, I was too analytical for that. So, when he got to me I said, "Well, I'm going to try not to, but the odds are I will at some point."


E: That made heads roll, I'm sure.

SS: Now, that is a common sense true to life answer but that answer in many settings is simply not acceptable.

S: Mm hmm.

SS: It's not an acc–it's a logical answer but it's not an acceptable answer.

E: Not to a sports coach, that's for sure.

SS: There ya go.

S: Now getting back to the whole, risk versus benefit, and again it's important not to underestimate or to miss the real harm that the self help things can do. One–reminds me of one particular instance after 9/11, the grief counsellors descended on New York City. And I remember reading that–after the fact that they sort of did an assessment of what the impact of the grief counsellors were and, in fact, people who had had grief counselling did–were worse off than people who were just left to their own devices.

SS: Right.

S: Do you recall that?

SS: Yeah. The classic story–I interviewed Sally Satel who has a book out now about what she calls therapism. The rise of–the notion that everything that happens that makes you even the least bit sad needs to be treated somehow through grief counselling and she talked about this situation where they brought grief counsellors into schools after 9/11 and they descended on the kids and were so in their face about this that there were actually kids saying after a while, "Okay, can I–can I just go color now?" Ya know, they really–You know how kids are, they're pretty resilient even when some truly horrible things happen, but you're right, the–this notion that you should feel bad makes you feel bad after a while. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

S: Yeah. There are lots of self-fulfilling prophecies. I'm reminded of the repressed memory syndrome movement.

SS: Right.

P: I was going to mention–Do you cover that in the book, Steve?

SS: Yes, I do. I talk about the fact that–this I traced to being a part of victimization. When you had so many people persuaded that they were so screwed up because of something that happened to them in childhood...

S: Mm hmm.

SS: and then when you have compliant psychi–ya know, that became an industry. I mean, diagnosing sexual abuse in children became a cottage industry...

S: Absolutely.

SS: within the psychological profession. So when you have people who are trained to kind of extract this out of you we saw the societal phenomenon where suddenly every–ya know, people were turning in their neighbors, kids were turning in their coaches, it got completely out of hand.

P: Their parents.

S: It became a witch hunt.

SS: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

S: Yeah, and I think that–that phenomenon, the repressed memory syndrome, again, which is the basic idea that, traumatic events from our youth are repressed and then they manifest in our adult life, or later life as eating disorders, or anxiety, or psychological problems, so, and then the promoters of this idea, ya know, believe that fifty sixty, percent all women were raped as children, or abused as children. Just some ridiculous number, and they essentially preach that, ya know, if a fifteen year old girl walks into your office and she has an eating disorder, she was abused as a child, and it's your job to drag that out of her. So essentially, they had–they just came up with some idea about what was going on, they never subjected it to any kind of testing, or scientific study, they wrote the books, ya know, started the institute, started spreading the word, and they essentially were manufacturing a problem didn't exist. They were creating a problem by–by basically instilling in their clients false memory syndrome. They actually had to come up with a name for they were doing to these people, and the harm reverberated throughout their entire family and often their community. I mean, there are parents in jail for years because of accusations that were essentially made through "recovered" memories. Really scary stuff.

B: What caused that phenomenon to finally die out? What was the final...

SS: I think a lot of it was just debunked and, I think, a lot of cases were overturned on appeal as a result of overzealous prosecution, and some–especially in dealing with children. They–there was one famous case, the name escapes me, where they got hold of the original interview tapes and they played them and they saw what the interviewers had actually done to implant these memories...

S: Yes.

P: Absolutely.

SS: As opposed to extracting them. And that was the start of–the prosecutor was fired, there were all kinds of lawsuits and, I think, a new era of reason was restored to some degree.

P: (laughter)

S: And it was, as much as I hate to admit this, a lot of it was driven by the fact that former clients were turning around and suing their therapists for instilling these false memories. So it was really the threat of lawsuit that, I think, turned the tide against the repressed memory syndrome. But, it's still out there, still exists. These things never go away entirely. They only become marginalized to some degree.

SS: And I think the larger point here–it's kind of like Tony Robins with his energy frequency, and, what you were saying about–this automatic assumption. Somebody walks in who's anorexic, ya know, bingo. Child abuse. It's the positing of these things as fact that have no foundation at all and they're said with such authority. Dr. Phil–to kind of make a more pop culture ring to it, he has this line in his book Relationship Rescue. Your relationship is in trouble because you set it up that way.

E: Oh, boy.

P: (laughter)

S: Mm hmm.

SS: Now, incidentally for Dr. Phil that's an awfully victimization-based thought, but it was convenient for that point in the book. It made for a very sexy opening. But again, that's so simplistic. I mean, it allows no room for unforeseen circumstances, for quote unquote "growing apart", or any of the other environmental factors that can play havoc with relationships. And that's the sort of over simplistic, straight line, completely unfounded thinking that handicaps the S.H.A.M movement from start to finish.

P: But it makes it very profitable.

SS: Yeah. Exactly.

P: (laughter)

E: You bet.

S: So what's the solution if there is any? I mean, what do rational, reasonable people do to, ya know, to help themselves against this, their friends, their family, the culture at large? What's there to be done?

SS: Yeah. This is another thing that I've take a lot of hit for in the e-mails that people send me and some of the postings on this new blog that I've started to try to get a give-and-take going on this subject but, they say, "Well, if you're going to take the hope away from us, you gotta give us something." And, I didn't feel that that was my mandate in this book.

S: Right.

SS: I feel that we live in a culture where you are so immersed in this, you can't escape it. Every–ya know, the plots of movies have self help elements embedded, it's in your personnel policy manual at work, it's on Oprah. This book was written as a rebuttal and–just sort of like, look, "There may be another side here, let's think about this." Now that's really the tone of the book, and originally in my proposal I did have an appendix and the title was "Where to go for real help" and we decided at the end, my editor and I, to ditch that because we didn't want the book to be perceived as our own self help book.

S: Right.

SS: Thinly masquerading as a exposé.

B: Yeah. That would diminish your message.

SS: Yeah. Exactly. And I think it's going to sell less because of that, to be honest, because I think, there's people out–I think that there are more people who would read the book, who really need to read the book if I gave them something. And I don't, I give them nothing. All I give them is–is analysis through the book, but...

S: Yeah. But, I think, I mean, you–you are giving them something. You're giving them critical thinking and insight and doubt, which is–those are all good things, but they're perceived of as negative. And, I think...

SS: Exactly.

S: But, I think–again, of course in the skeptical movement we deal with that all the time. We're taking away people's beliefs and their cherished beliefs and what do giving them in return? Well, we're giving you some critical thinking. We're giving you reason and rationality.

SS: You know what the irony is–The irony is what you are giving them, although I almost hate to say this, because it sounds Dr. Phil-ish, but, you are giving them real empowerment, but they don't realize it.

S: That's right.

SS: Because they're not used to dealing with that. They're not used to dealing with the empowerment that involves critical thinking. They're used to dealing with this formless...

S: Magic.

SS: Yeah. Exactly. Push-button empowerment.

S: And that's how we do try to sell it. That skepticism is a good protection against being conned yourself, as we like to jokingly say, "Skeptics never get abducted, never get haunted."


S: There's a lot of advantages to it. But it's not, as you say, it's not push button empowerment. It takes a lot of thought and work and reading and it's a long, slow, difficult process, but those are the only ones that have actual, real, valuable rewards at the end.

SS: Right. It takes facing up to the fact that some of things that have gotten through, that are crutches, you're going to have to leave those by the wayside.

S: Right.

SS: But I really do think the long term benefit is more of a genuine self–sense of self esteem, of having looked at the landscape what's–of what's out there and having really decided what's best for you, instead of having somebody else preach it at you.

P: (laughter)

S: And change is painful. So people are scared of change.

SS: Absolutely.

S: So, again, they'd rather listen to the person who's peddling easy answers than hear the real answers which is, "You've got a lot of painful hard work ahead of you if you really want to make some serious improvements and fix these deeply embedded problems." Or even–sometimes I think it's just as simple that people need to have some sense of meaning in their life. I think that's probably at the core of most the mid-life crises as you were discussing earlier, is just some sense of meaning. I think the whole new age spirituality movement is all about that. It's just–here's some instant meaning we're going to impart onto your life.

E: Right.

S: And that is so tempting. And people have such a deep desire for that. I think there's always going to be a market for–for meaning.

SS: Yeah. I had an anecdote in the book that we finally cut at the end about my mother. My mother was one of these people who was so convinced she was going to win big at Vegas that she actually factored the money into her budget.


SS: And, of course, she never won, cause people like my mother never do, but she kept going and she kept saying–just like a good little affirmation girl she would say, "I'm going to win five hundred dollars." and, "I'm going to this," and the irony was that in the three years that she went to Vegas and made all these plans for all this money all she did was lose thousands and thousands of dollars and I kept saying to her, "Mom, if instead of going Vegas, you just took the money you would have blown in Vegas, you could have paid for some of those trips you thought you were going to go on, with the money from Vegas." I mean, that's the point of realization a lot of people never get to.

S: Right. It's like, if you actually invested all the money you used to buy lotto tickets throughout your life in a mutual fund...

SS: That's right.

S: By the time you go to like fifty, or by the time you retired you'd actually have a nice little nest egg there.

SS: Oh, or–or if you talk about the real hardcore Tony Robins junkies who are spending maybe eight ten thousand dollars a year...

S: Yeah.

SS: to go to his various off-site shindigs–that's serious money, now.

S: Could certainly put that to much better use.

SS: Yep.

S: Well, tell–have you investigated at all, or written much about, in your book, the, sort of self help cults? Like, EST and I think Mindspring is another one, where you go beyond just peddling easy answers to really sucking people into a completely different life.

SS: Yeah. I–we do have a short treatment of EST. You know, there's a cult-ish aspect to a lot of self-help, and this is really one of the ironies of seek self. If you think about it, if you have a stadium with twelve thousand people in it, and you're all standing at exactly the same instant and chanting the same exact phrases and you learn to parrot these things. Like, if you read the Tony Robins discussion boards you see that people speak in these same Tony Robins buzzwords, how is that finding self?

S: Right.

SS: If you think about it what you're all doing is your finding this all-purpose cloned version of Tony is what you're really finding. And, I think, that is–there's definitely a cult-ish aspect to that...

S: Absolutely.

SS: Even if it isn't formally a cult.

S: Yeah, well, I mean, cults are not black and white.

SS: Right.

S: There–those who have written about cults they usually outline fifteen or twenty different characteristics that cults have and the more of those you have the more of a cult you are. Some of the ones that a lot of these self-help movements have, as you allude to, are a–an internal jargon. So, you use certain buzzwords and that's how–almost you identify each other.

SS: Right. Right.

S: And it also separates you from the rest of the world. You have your own code language.

SS: Right. Another thing I'm uncomfortable with in many of the self-help programs is that there's a multilevel aspect. A certain evangelism. Which–the idea being that you either get discounts for bringing in new people or that you're supposed to go out and spread the gospel, and that again, to me, that–that become–I get queasy when I hear that because, again, is reminiscent of the Jim Jones syndrome. Soon we'll all be drinking the Kool-Aid.


S: Right. Well, I think we're almost out of time. Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about, about your book or about the self-help movement that we didn't delve into?

SS: Well, the only real thing I would say at this point, and this sounds sorta self evident, but maybe this is a little element of hope or at least a program is to please be–I would exhort people to please be a little bit more credential conscious than we tend to be. Just the fact that somebody hangs out a shingle that says, "life coach", does not make it so. I interviewed an executive who was making six hundred thousand dollars a year who was taking life coaching and swore by it and it turned out when I followed up on it that the person he was taking life coaching from had run an ice cream business up to two months before then.

S: Right.

SS: Now, it's possible maybe that guy could have done him some good, but what are the odds? And in any case, had he known all this, which he didn't know, would he have selected that person? So, be credential conscious, and if you're going to embark on therapy, make it legitimate therapy. Even under the most controlled circumstances, you're seeing a therapist in an office setting one, two, three hours a week psychologists will admit that six months, a year down the road for some people it still doesn't take. Nothing really changes.

S: Right.

SS: But at least you gave it an honest try. You're not going to get it from Dr. Laura or Dr. Phil.

S: Right. I think, the bottom line rule of thumb is if it sounds too good to be true it probably is, and in this realm what that means is there's no easy answers.

SS: That's right.

S: Things are–People are complex. We are complex entities, and we have complex psychology and relationships and sociology, and if you have real, serious problems, I don't think there is–like you said there's no push-button solution. So...

SS: Right. And I think that when you're dealing with an uncharted realm like the mind, I think it's important to at least consider the idea that if it hasn't been shown to have a proven benefit it's probably not worth the risk of what it might do to you on the dark side.

S: These things are not harmless. So you have to consider the potential harm.

SS: Absolutely.

S: Distracting you from real solutions, the financial costs, the diversion of your time and attention.

SS: Right. Right.

S: Maybe you should spend that money taking your wife out to dinner, rather than analyzing the color of her dress.

SS: (laugh) If there is a one overriding message to the book, you just hit on it. This is not benign. This is not silly. This is serious stuff and it deserves to be treated accordingly.

P: Amen.

S: Well, Steve thank you so much for being on the Skeptics' Guide.

SS: Thank you.

S: It was a great conversation. We appreciate having you.

E: Thank you, Steve.

S: And again, for the listeners, you can go–visit Steve Salerno's website, and from your website there's a link to Amazon where you can buy your book SHAM.

SS: Right. And there's also a blog. It's a link to a blog for anybody who wants to attack me or tell me why I'm dead wrong I'd be more than happy to read what you write and respond to it.

Conclusion (1:10:36)[edit]

S: Well, thanks again. That's it for this week. Thanks again for listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes see our website at

Today I Learned:[edit]

  • A carnivorous caterpillar has been discovered in Hawaii[5]
  • Cold fusion has been performed, but it requires too much energy input for it to be beneficial [6]
  • The self-help movement sometimes encourages its followers to spread the word like evangelical Christians
  • A lot of self-help gurus got their start on Oprah Winfrey's show
  • In this episode, Steve says no evidence had been found that Neanderthals interbred with humans.
    • This issue has become very contentious in the years since. [7]


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