After today’s phrenology session I had an interesting talk with Brain Lady. I found myself explaining to her why she sounded like a postscientific wacko at first, before I learned more about her. Most of the problem is her language. She speaks Science and has been working at very technical jobs in the mental health field for 20 years, but when she’s explaining things to a client she uses analogies and metaphors that have been totally ruined by New Age bubbleheads.
For example, she will say “I’m doing this site to push the energy back over to the other side of your brain”. On further questioning, she explains that this is a thumbnail description for a poorly understood phenomenon in which treating one site causes the voltages to go down there and up in another part of the brain. She doesn’t literally believe that she is pushing the energy around. She refers to treating multiple injuries as “like peeling off layers of an onion”. This sounds like she believes in concentric spheres of some intangible substance, but again it’s a simile. Her observations show her that multiple injuries often require multiple stages of treatment, but there isn’t any proven one-to-one correspondence between the injuries and the stages of treatment. And when she’s talking about electrical activity and mental acuity increasing after treatment, she calls it “waking up the brain”; another analogy. All of these things sound like something the local Crystal Anus Delver at the Metaphysical Bookhonk would say. In Brain Lady’s case, she’s working off many years of academic study and clinical experience in developmental disability, head injuries, special education, substance abuse treatment, and psychotherapy.
The other bad news I had for her is that her stuff sounds like Scientology. Wires on your head, healing old injuries, increased states of awareness, oh dear. You’re expecting Tom Cruise to appear stage left and congratulate you for choosing the right path. Here’s the hilarious part: she knows nothing about Scientology. As I was explaining how many parallels there are, her eyes got wider and wider. “Oh no, do people think this is like Scientology? That’s just a dumb cult!” Poor thing, she’s spent 20 years in the Science Hole and working with actual patients, and hasn’t noticed some weird cultural trends.
She pointed out that she doesn’t speak in Science much to clients because communicating the statistical links between voltage differentials and affective disorders to people with head injuries can be frustrating to both parties. I think I did manage to get across that she was using language and analogies that had been poisoned, though.
For my own part, I told her I had only really started trusting her judgment the day she went off on a rant about attribution errors and the importance of knowing your independent variables and not trusting your subjective observations, with several anecdotes of failed studies that hadn’t taken these precautions.