Being an active reader of literature on personal-development, productivity, Buddhism, and related fields, it’s hard to avoid pieces that stray into topics that are unsubstantiated or pseudoscientific at best, through the ‘metaphysical’ middle, and down to being absolute horse-shit at worst. Even some of my favorite books will have great ideas about how to improve one’s life before throwing in some statement of fact about reality that has absolutely no evidence. Tony Robbins (who I’ve talked about before) has even gone so far as to say that it doesn’t matter whether or not something is true if it’s helpful. This is essentially a version of Pascal’s Wager and there are a lot of reasons not to buy it.

Sometimes these bits of pseudoscience are associated with good points, though, or they point at something helpful. So how can we get the most out of these texts without throwing the baby out with the metaphysical bath water?

I came to the realization recently that, through applying a healthy dose of critical diligence, one needs only to think of these bits of quackery as metaphors or analogies to get the benefits without having to lie to yourself or fall down a rabbit hole of nonsense.

Let me give a few examples. The “law of attraction” states that if you want something enough, you need only think about it intently, about your given goal, and it will naturally come to you. Books have been written and movies have been made about it. It’s obviously baloney. However, it can be a useful reminder that our minds are, at least partially, in control of the way we view things, and our perceptions, be they deeply flawed or clear as crystal (a state arguably impossible to reach, but I digress), are largely responsible for our emotional wellbeing. So even though we may not be able to simply think our way out of a financial crisis, we can find the bright side in (or through) difficult situations. If we think that everyone is out to get us, then we are going to view everyone as coming out to get us; in a way, we attract them, if only in our minds.

Karma is another difficult topic to grasp. I’ve been very interested in Buddhist thought lately, and I don’t think I’ve come to fully understand karma and its (tenuous, I think) relationship to reality. The idea is that whatever good or bad you do will come back around to you in this life or the next, and so presupposes a dogma of reincarnation. However, viewing karma as simply a rule of thumb, one can remember that most people don’t appreciate people that do unethical things, and for most people that aren’t sociopaths, people don’t particularly enjoy doing bad things. Ergo, if you do good things you’ll probably have a better time than if you do bad things. Karma!

This idea, of course, has its limits; not everything can be turned into a helpful metaphor. Recently I was listening to a podcast with a woman talking about the value of thinking about what we eat, where it comes from, the lifestyle it demands of its harvesters, and what it does to our bodies. Good stuff! Unfortunately, it very suddenly took a sharp left turn into crazy-town, and she started talking about how vegetables that are hard and grow in the ground like carrots have a grounding effect on our personalities, while potatoes start out that way but can be made soft (i.e. mashed potatoes), which will make our bodies soft and make us more emotionally sensitive. I stopped listening at this point, but I after that I can’t imagine that the rest of it had much of a resemblance to reality. So yes, let’s think about what we eat, but there’s no way carrots have a “grounding” effect on our psyches, especially not because they happen to grow in the ground. That is, again, pure baloney.

I don’t mean to just bash someone who views the world differently than me, but I think it’s crucial to be vigilantly skeptical when reading books in this field, as it’s all too easy to for an author to impart “wisdom” that proves to largely be a waste of time. However, once you’ve developed a sense for what’s bullshit, you can realize that even some gold nuggets can occasionally be found within.

(…Pardon the gross closing metaphor.)