How can one know?

If there was one thing about going to TAM7 last week, it was the opportunity to contemplate among a thousand fellow skeptics just what critical thinking and reason mean. If there’s one thing about woo, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories in all their forms, it’s not just a lack of critical thinking and a plethora of logical fallacies. More importantly, it’s the question, “How do we know what we know?” Certainly science is the primary means by which we explore the natural world and make conclusions about how it works, however imperfect they may be, but not everyone uses science, reason, and critical thinking. Arguments over what is and is not true can be cutthroat enough when it’s scientists arguing over science- and evidence-based viewpoints, but what happens when the arguments are not science- and evidence-based?

Hilarity, that’s what. PZ pointed me to this report that shows just how hilarious arguments between woo-meisters can be. What do I mean? Simple. The story is about a new editor of a New Age magazine who decided that he couldn’t abide by real woo, if you know what I mean. What? You don’t? Suffice it to say that he somehow thought he could impose some reason–such as it is–on the wild and wooly world of New Age as reported in his magazine:

As the editor, Miejan has become a New Age gatekeeper, deciding which legitimate beliefs get into the magazine and which are too far out to be included.

It’s not an easy job.

Chiropractors want out of the New Age movement. Channelers wonder if they belong at all, and pagans feel jilted. Organic farmers don’t want to be near pet psychics. And no one knows what to do with the witches.

For a movement based on peace, love and understanding, New Age looks like a battleground.

“I have customers who completely believe in fairies and will laugh at you if you believe in Bigfoot,” sighed Teisha Magee, owner of the Sacred Paths Center, which describes itself as an “organization celebrating earth-centered spirituality,” in St. Paul.

That’s right, because fairies are so much more reason- and science-based than Bigfoot. Or vice-versa. I have a hard time figuring it out.

So what happened when Miejan took over the New Age magazine? Well, Miejan, being a good New Age type, thinks that astrology is just hunky-dory. He even doesn’t have much of a trouble with “nature divas,” which is the term he uses for fairies. Life force or life energy? No problem, except that he calls it prana instead of qi. It’s all good. But even Miejan has his limits:

Channelers — people possessed by spirits of the dead — are out. So is the belief that reptile-like aliens have taken over the bodies of celebrities, including Queen Elizabeth and — according to one Web site — former Minnesota U.S. Rep. Bill Luther.

Paganism? Out.

“I am not saying that because paganism offends anyone,” Miejan said. “But it is a complete niche by itself.”

Oh, come on. Everyone knows that many world leaders are really lizard men here to rule over us and control what we do. After all, David Icke tells us so. And if Meijan has no problem with astrology and fairies, on what basis does he decide that lizard men aren’t secretly ruling over us all? Is there some sort of evidence that leads him to believe one and not the other? Inquiring minds want to know! Indeed, other New Agers are appalled and confused. They just don’t understand how Meijan’s newfound pseudo-critical thinking skills have lead him to reject even a single form of woo:

“He is excluding channeling? Yikes. Or pagans? He should not be doing that,” said Kathy McGee, editor of the Washington-state-based magazine New Age Retailer.

“New Age is an umbrella term encompassing anything on a spiritual path — Bigfoot, Jesus, Buddha. Even worshipping a frog is sort of OK,” McGee said.

She said New Age thinking is all-or-nothing — you either have an open mind to all beliefs, or you don’t. It is wrong for anyone to pick which beliefs are acceptable.

“You don’t want to say, ‘This is OK, and this is not,’ ” McGee said. “There is nothing we would exclude. We are about goodwill to men.”

As I said before, it’s all good. It doesn’t matter. Any form of woo will do. Once your mind is open to New Age woo, it’s got to be open enough that your brains fall out. Or at least so says Kathy McGee. Of course, even within New Age, skepticism seems to be without a basis. After all, if you accept astrology and fairies, really, on what possible basis can you reject channeling the dead? I can’t think of any rationale, but then, I’m one of those nasty, close-minded skeptics, aren’t I? What can I possibly know?

Of course, being so open-minded has other consequences. No matter how hard people try, they just can’t buy into everything. Organic farmers aren’t so keen on being lumped in with pet psychics and bigfoot mavens. Even more amusingly, chiropractors aren’t interested in being associated with New Age woo. Never mind that some of them are into serious, serious woo, like subluxations and the redirection of “life energy” by spinal manipulation. Bigfoot and channeling are just one woo too far.

Unfortunately, this is a completely predictable result. When one leaves science, rationality, and reason behind, there is no reliable way to differentiate one woo from another, one pseudoscience from another, one faith-based belief from another. When anything goes, nothing goes, and nothing can be included or excluded based on evidence. Everything is fair game.

That’s what happens when critical thinking and science are left behind.