For the forth time in my life I journeyed north on Pacific Coast Highway along the ragged California coast line north of San Simeon and the Hearst Castle where the road turns twisty and the cliffs bend vertical. The Esalen Institute is nestled on the ocean side of the highway atop some bluffs dotted with buildings that include yoga rooms, Yurts, Spartan housing overlooking the ocean, a soup kitchen-like cafeteria serving spectacularly healthy food (lots of Tofu and veggies, no tri-tips or ribs), and workshops catering to just about every belief ever investigated and found wanting in the pages of Skeptic magazine.
Nevertheless, I loved my time there once again, not only for the breathtaking scenery and unprecedented views, or the invigorating cycling and hiking, or the natural hot springs pouring out of the mountain and into elegantly designed hot tubs (clothing optional, and most opt to go without), but for the apparent incongruity made congruous when we consider our mission as skeptics to take our message of science and critical thinking to those who need to hear it most.
My workshop was entitled “Science, Spirituality, and the Search for Morality and Meaning.” First, I must say that the 24 participants in my workshop were already as skeptical as one might find at one of our Sunday Caltech lecture series meetings and dinners. All were well-read in the sciences and humanities to the point that I learned as much as I taught, and the ensuing conversations both during and after the lectures, along with at the meals, were exceptional.
Thus, I needed to trek down to the hot tubs in order to really sample the population of attendees at other workshops that weekend. What I heard was most entertaining, as well as educational in terms of why people believe weird things. To be fair, the workshop on couples massage sounded thoroughly grounded in the reality of how relaxing it can be to give and receive a massage, and I have no doubt that the couples in this class were probably brought closer to one another and learned a skill they could definitely take home with them.
But there were other workshops that sounded more like the touchy feely without the touchy. This goes by the generic descriptor of “energy work.” Lots of hot tub soakers waxed enthusiastic about getting their chakras adjusted, their Chi energy re-energized, the miracles of acupuncture, acupressure, and Chiropractic, and how this and that “natural healer” could cure everything from migraines and depression to pain and bowel ailments.
(A note parenthetical on the clothing-optional hot tubs: if you’ve never opted as such it probably sounds either positively off-putting or on-turning, depending on your imagination. It is neither. It is nothing, in fact. No one cares or stares. It actually does seem natural and normal in that environment. At night it’s pretty dark so you can’t really see anything anyway, and during the day people are discrete and polite. It’s all cool.)
If there is one work that best captures how people think (or miss-think) at Esalen it is “anecdotal.” Everything is couched in anecdotes. “I tried this” — “This worked for me” — “I know someone who said he used X for his headache” — “Ever since I started doing X my headaches have disappeared” and so on. No one ever discusses studies, experiments, control v. experimental groups, epidemiological studies, and the like. I heard one guy in the hot tub proclaim “I’m a skeptic, a man of science,” which was followed by a litany of anecdotes about the amazing wonders of this acupuncturist he’s been going to. Revealingly, someone asked him if the needles hurt. He pronounced without hesitation that the needles never ever hurt. And yet five minutes later he confessed that the ones in his hand, wrist, forearm, and shins all hurt like hell.
The problem with anecdotes is that 10 anecdotes are no better than 1, and 100 anecdotes are no better than 10. As I’ve repeated numerous times in numerous books and articles, “anecdotes do not make a science.” Or as a new trope going around these days (the source of which escapes me), “the plural of anecdote is not data.” (Who first said that? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Anecdotes are fun and interesting, and they may even lead one to construct an experiment to test a hypothesis (“does sitting naked in a natural hot spring tub lead to anecdotal thinking?”), but by themselves they are often worse than nothing because they lead one to draw conclusions that are more often than not misleading or wrong.
Thus it is that in one of my hot tub sessions I brought up the famous 1990’s “Emily experiment,” in which little Emily Rosa, for her 4th grade science project, tested Therapeutic Touch (TT, or the original touchy feeling without the touchy) by observing under controlled conditions if this “healers” could even detect her “energy field” behind an opaque screen in which they slid their hands through two cut out openings at the bottom. Emily flipped a coin to determine whether she would hold her hand a few inches above the TT therapist’s left or right hand, at which point they had to declare which hand detected the energy field. As a simple coin-flip model it’s a 50/50 guess. Emily’s subjects scored less than 50%, worse than chance, even though before the experiment began they all declared that they could with 100% certainty detect her energy field standing before her. After I recounted this experiment the other people in the tub said something to the effect of “um,” and “oh, uh, okay,” and “well…uh…um.” I have no idea, of course, if they went back to their rooms and revisited their deepest held beliefs about human “energy,” but I hope to have planted a small seed that may one day grow into a skeptical tree. Who knows?
Since so much of the Esalen Institute is experiential, I’ll let my iPhone pics speak louder than my words for what it was like experiencing Esalen, one of my favorite places on the planet. (Click any image to enlarge it and view the entire image gallery.)