You know what bugs the ever living hell out of me?
Pseudoscience. Pseudoscience bugs the ever living hell out of me. The fact that every single day my facebook feed is filled with stuff and nonsense for which no empirical evidence exists–vaccines cause autism! not eating gluten will cure depression! antioxidants will fix your cancer!–bugs the ever living hell out of me.
Barbara Enrenreich’s Bright-Sided, which I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read, is essentially a giant debunking of another kind of pseudoscience: the power of positive thinking.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, well, positive thinking HELPS US! It helps us to be healthier and strengthens our immune systems and that which does not kill us makes us stronger so slap a colored ribbon on your car and lets run a 5K!
God that bugs me.
Ehrenreich’s book, which I tore through in an afternoon, includes a fantastic exploration of the history of positive thinking, which rose, essentially, in objection to Calvinism–I agree constantly monitoring yourself for sin to see whether you are predestined to burn in hell seems a perfectly dreadful way to live. I am just not sure that replacing with the constant self-monitoring for negative thoughts is a whole lot better. A little better, but not a whole lot. And as Ehrenreich shows, there are a lot of parallels between Calvinist thinking that you ought to cast out the sinners from your life and the exertions of positive thinking gurus to stop associating with negative people–even if they happen to be, say, your spouse. There’s a lot of what she calls (heehee) “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” inherent in much of the guru-led nonsense, like The Secret and its ilk. Tell me “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” is not the exact phrase you have been searching for to explain your facebook feed!
I’m not even going to try to explain all of the ways in which Enrenreich disproves the various IPFs, but I will say that she provides some damn compelling evidence that America’s over-reliance on positive thinking–with its genuinely fascinating historical and religious roots–contributed significantly to the economic collapse. This is one of the more interesting chapters in a text where no chapter disappoints. For me, though, the highlight was the chapter on cancer. Enrenreich, who had breast cancer, talks about the pervasive belief that getting cancer was somehow a Good Thing: it was meant to happen! It would lead her to better things! She could get a pretty wig and a free makeover! She should look at cancer as an oppurtinity to find her true self!
Well, if you will pardon my French, bullfuckingshit. As Enrenreich discovered, this relentless focus on positivity actually meant that she, and other patients, didn’t have a chance to think critically about treatment options–which in the world of cancer, where chemo can hurt as much as heal, is pretty damn critical. It made it hard to pull out important information from malarky.
America has some weird strains running through it. One of these is our idea that if we just work hard enough we can all become President, or at least a ballerina. This is garbage and we should really stop saying it. Yes, you can achieve a lot of wonderful and amazing things with the right amount of determination–if a lot of other factors are also present. I can dream lots and lots of things. I can do very few of them. This is not a defeatist attitude. This is an attitude that reflects reality. This is part of why I think social programs can be so hard to get through politically–a strain of America believes that people don’t need the government to help them, because if they just worked hard enough, they wouldn’t need health care because they wouldn’t get sick, and they wouldn’t need federally funded early childhood education because they’d make enough money to send their kids to the 30K a year preschool down the road. Again, this entire notion is garbage. That’s not to say that having goals and sticking to them and working incredibly hard and paying your dues are not all important. They are tremendously important. It’s just that in addition we have this thing called reality, and the fact is that there are people for whom the deck is stacked right from the beginning, and for those people the traditional American dream requires more than hard work. It requires luck and help. This is true for everyone, actually, its just that its infinitely truer for some than for others.
So there’s that, and related to that I think is our idea that wishing can make it so. That if we just will ourselves to get better, or assume that we got sick or hurt or poor for a reason, we can Make Something Of It and Come Out Stronger and whatever other cliches you want to throw out there. This is nonsense. I can tell you right now that struggling with chronic depression does not make me a stronger or better person, or more in touch with reality. It makes it harder for me to do the things I want to do. That’s it. Having cancer did not make my father stronger or better or wiser. It meant that he had to go through a lot of pain. That’s it. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning.It is tantalizing to believe that there is. I get that. I wish that having had depression brought me some sort of special powers of empathy or clarity or artistic talent. But sometimes shit just happens. Oftentimes that shit does not make us stronger or better or wiser. Suffering is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to be angry about that suffering. If you have cancer, if you are dirt poor, if your parents beat you, it is okay to wake up in the morning and curse the universe. The universe can take it. The universe is not going to turn into a spiteful third-grader and smite you for cursing it. Some things are not fair and some things never will be. Sometimes there is nothing the fuck up with that.
This isn’t to say that science knows everything. It doesn’t (scientists would be the first to admit that). There are not explanations for everything. There are lots and lots of things about the universe that we don’t know and probably never will. But science is and remains the best way we have to measure actual truth. Actual truth, in the way I am thinking of it, is different from your own truth; actual truth is, say, evolution, or gravity, or the way that the earth is round. You can have all sorts of truths of your own, things that you believe way into the fabric of your gut. You should have those things. It’s just that those things are beliefs. They are not fact. And there are all sorts of things we will discover that may well change the way we currently conceive of the world; chemicals that we think are safe now may prove not to be, for example. Actually I think we can all agree that’s going to happen. But we have to do the best that we can with the science and the facts and the medicine that we have now. I am not going to try to repeat the ways in which the book refutes various studies on happiness but if you are into science I suggest it.
Ehrenreich is not suggesting that we suddenly start looking at the world with mud-colored glasses–in fact, as she points out, depressed folks tend to do just that and it is certainly no healthier than unrealistic optimism. Rather, she is suggesting that perhaps we look at the world as it really is. That we use critical thinking skills–those of us that were lucky enough to learn them in school, and I am not being remotely snarky here–and reality testing and evidence based claims to decipher our world. As she says, “the alternative to both [overly pessimistic or optimistic thinking] is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity–the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death” (Ehrenreich p.196).
So if you are diagnosed with breast cancer and it makes you feel better and more able to face the day and make informed decisions about your own health care to fill your room with pink ribbons, go for it. Just don’t expect it to cure you. It will not.