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Why are conspiracy theories rampant in the 'wellness' industry? Welcome to conspirituality
Some purveyors of "wellness" sure are sounding like right-wing conspiracy theorists.
- The term conspirituality was coined in 2011 to represent a growing disillusionment that leads to belief in conspiracy theories.
- This particular affliction affects spiritually-minded people suspicious of anything deemed institutional.
- Conspiritual thinking is the juncture where far-left "wellness" purveyors meet right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Coronavirus got you down? No worries. A bit of oregano oil will protect you from this virus that was definitely created in a Chinese laboratory. We can attribute that information to Gabriel Cousens, a homeopathic doctor who used to run an East Village storefront selling gall bladder cleanses that required drinking a ton of olive oil. On his Facebook page, you'll also find plenty of information about the dangers of 5G and the fact that vaccinated children often get the diseases they're supposedly protected against while unvaccinated children remain healthy and free.
There are also ads for his Shaktipat workshops, a practice that usually requires that the guru touch the devotee in order to transfer psychic energy. But hey, a man has to make a living. It turns out Zoom has a feature that transmits sacred energy!
Social media leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that guides you down a trail of conspiracies. "The End Of The Vaccine Era Is Today!" claims one holistic vegan, who also states that the "Microsoft Couple" and "Facebook guy" are not that smart—posted on Facebook. Forget vaccines, a steady diet of enzymes, water fasting, higher consciousness, and rebounding (pretty sure that's not basketball) is guaranteed to cure you of this "scamdemic."
I've hung out on the edge of the "wellness community" for over 20 years. My undergraduate studies focused on Eastern religions. I started practicing yoga in 1998 and began teaching in 2004. Having been active on social media platforms for decades, I've communicated with a range of people in the so-called wellness space. While I've long been wary of many ideas circulated within this group, COVID-19 has inspired a pandemic of conspiracy I could not have foreseen.
In 2011, Charlotte Ward coined the term "conspirituality," which she defines as "a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews." In the article, published in Journal of Contemporary Religion, Ward names three first-generation charlatans that represent this toxic fusion of New Age ideology and right-wing conspiracies. One is former soccer player, David Icke, of whom she writes,
"He is notorious for alleging that a shadow government harbours the bloodlines of an ancient race of reptilian extraterrestrials."
Why conspiratorial thinking is peaking in America | Sarah Rose Cavanagh | Big Think
Icke regurgitated this factoid on an episode of "London Real," which has garnered nearly 6 million views on YouTube. He begins by claiming the world is controlled by a cult, followed by an impassioned rage against 5G towers. Nanotechnology microchips are destined to be inserted into COVID-19 vaccines. We need to recognize these truths in order to be part of a "spiritual awakening," which not-so-ironically is a dogwhistle used by wannabe cult leaders. Full circle, I suppose.
If trying to follow these plot lines confuses you, don't worry: that's part of the rhetoric. Ward continues,
"Conspirituality has spread from being a scattering of single, first-generation providers to a large chain. It is now part of the spiritual supermarket: clients shop around, settling upon the outlets whose interpretations of the two core convictions best suit their own opinions and tastes."
Which is how in recent weeks my Facebook feed has become dominated by a warning that Bill Gates wants to depopulate the world in order to microchip humans by forcibly injecting COVID-19 vaccines into everyone. This saves lives in an attempt to control the population he initially set out to destroy. 5G is in there somewhere because, I don't know, analytics?
A lack of critical thinking has long plagued the wellness community. An example: Since herbs and tinctures can be sold as dietary supplements with minimal federal oversight, companies go to great lengths to advertise their products regardless of clinical evidence. This has resulted in a multi-billion dollar alternative medicine market. If you want to achieve success in this market, you need to be alternative to something. That something happens to be vaccines, and Big Pharma in general.
Not that Big Pharma isn't an appropriate enemy. The for-profit medical model is not designed to serve our interests. A real conspiracy is the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and doctors fostered by lackluster federal oversight. We should be up in arms about a mental health crisis that has in large part been created for profit maximization. But that story is complex and our brains are not designed to process complexity. An easier target is vaccines, one of the most effective and important scientific advances in history.
A man in a face mask walks in front of graffiti reading 'Stop 5G Paranoia' which is painted on a wall in East London on April 19, 2020 in London, England.
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
If you were to tell me a year ago that a pandemic would be cause for political polarization, I would have dismissed the notion, even in the era of Trump. My hope blinded me from the reality of the situation: confusion is the point. It keeps us off our guard.
In an essay on conspirituality in the COVID-19 age, philosopher Jules Evans writes that even the term "conspiracy theory" is confusing now. "It can be a way of simply dismissing a topic without considering it." He continues,
"The pandemic has led to a breakdown in knowledge and certainty. We don't know much about the virus or the best way of dealing with it, but we know it's killing a lot of us and we're afraid. This is happening to the entire human race at the same time, and we're all connected on the internet."
In 2012, I started a now-defunct blog with four fellow yoga teachers that tackled issues in yoga and politics. While yoga has always been deeply political, the modern incarnation, which began in America in the early nineteenth century and became a marketing juggernaut in the eighties, usually eschews political talk. Yet the entire physical revolution of yoga in the early twentieth century was a response to British occupation. The only era of non-political yoga is modern, affluent America.
On our site, we strove to remind people that being a yogi means engaging as a citizen. At the most basic level, citizenry in a democracy requires that you vote. Our blog achieved some success and started a few conversations, yet we recognized that companies selling leggings will always reach a much larger audience. Humans are not built to care about things that don't directly affect them. This is especially troubling in a yoga community in which one of the most popular mantras champions the freedom of all sentient beings. How that usually translates: "I want to feel good right now," not "I'm willing to fight for livable wages so that everyone can afford their rent."
Then a pandemic rolls around and suddenly everyone is affected. Since much of this wellness community has been checked out of politics, the first thing these healers and rebels encounter are rehashed right-wing talking points couched in the language of spirituality. This is not how conspirituality starts—that's usually by men with agendas they want to monetize—but it is how it spreads. Ideas are as contagious as viruses and, as it turns out, equally dangerous.
- 7 government conspiracy theories that are true - Big Think ›
- America's 10 Most Popular Conspiracy Theories - Big Think ›
- Why your brain loves conspiracy theories - Big Think ›
- Conspiracy theories and cult dynamics - Big Think ›
- Conspiracy theories and cult dynamics - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.