Signs They Just Want Your MoneyFri, 5th Nov '10, 3:05 pm::

I'm skeptical of people who talk for a living. If you wrote a self-help book and now give lectures around the world talking about your book, chances are I want nothing to do with you unless everything you say is grounded on hard science. If what you say cannot be proven or disproven, I'm not interested, even if all of it might be true. This includes alternative medicine advocates, nutritionists, personality coaches, most business / leadership coaches, NLP counsellors, and definitely the followers of pseudosciences like astrology, faith / spiritual healing, dowsing, ghost hunting, homeopathy, magnet therapy, and ESP. I know many people in my personal life believe in some of the above but it doesn't bother me. After all, I'm a fan of a time-travelling Doctor from the extraterrestrial planet Gallifrey so who am I judge what someone else believes in.

I came across an interesting video yesterday titled Your Brain At Work by a business coach. While the title, presentation format, and mention of a business coach set off red-flags, I gave the video a shot because it was presented in the Google Tech Talk series. I was pleasantly surprised to find it had many moments of insight with the presenter constantly citing case studies and medical research to back up his claims. What he said obviously seemed very true. The brain indeed has a prefrontal cortex and certainly studies have shown it is important for complex thought processes and critical analysis. And personal experience tells me that humans certainly get affected by negative stimuli much more intensely than positive stimuli. The presenter certainly knows what he's talking about.

His words reinforced my understanding of the brain's functions and capabilities and I even mentioned it to my wife that she should watch this sometime. I was so impressed with the presentation's logical reasoning, structured format, and reliance on actual reason that I let my skeptical guard down and completely ignored all the subsequent red-flags that I always watch out for. This morning I decided to go back and review some of the research he cited before I shared the video with some of my friends and that's when the house of cards came falling down. None of the original research has been published in any well-known journal in the fields of neuroscience, brain, medicine, or even psychiatry. The presenter made substantial references to studies but they were conducted by him and most of them were published in a journal founded by him. He coauthored many of these studies with researchers with impressive CVs but some of these researchers were not even in the fields they conducted the research in. None of these are deal-breakers individually but when I spot a series of them, I step back and question a validity of the primary author.

While there is an easy way to sniff out bogus science, there is no tutorial on how to spot a life coach who wants a lot of money to teach you how to live better. So having failed to identify the lack of hard science last night in the presentation, I decided to make up a list of my own. This list is not a critical analysis of the video I watched yesterday but is just a model to help me and hopefully others.

Five Easy Signs They Just Want Your Money:

  • Bold, dynamic speaker: You need two things for someone to pay you to talk: (1) Have something worthwhile to say and (2) Be an awesome speaker. Most life coaches I've seen only have the second part and they do their very best to hide the lack of actual, original content in their presentations. But that is an art in itself as you'll see below.
  • Obvious facts get repeated: This is an easy one to spot. If you catch yourself agreeing with someone talk, that's a big red flag. Knowledge doesn't work like that. You have to work hard to understand scientific methods like path integral formulation. I'm learning a new programming language using online documentation and video presentations and I keep going back and forth every few minutes to make sure I really "get" it. If something as mundane as a programming language is that difficult, what makes you think someone can explain "how the human mind works" in 45 minutes? Asking 1,000 people whether they like red or blue after seeing green and concluding that the human mind prefers red is not science, despite gratuitous use of fMRI images. At best, it is a well-designed survey. The goal here is to make you feel like they know what they're talking about so you can feel like you're learning something. If I show you that I know something, then I talk about it, instantly you'll feel like you now know it too, especially if I ask easy to answer questions that cement your beliefs.
  • Generalizations abound: Real science is very, very specific. Generalization in science is very difficult, if not impossible in some fields. For almost a century now, many scientists including Einstein have tried and failed to come up with a unified theory of how everything works in the universe and so far, this remains an open line of research. Yet the guy on stage who wrote a book on herbs can explain everything about everything? Usually, speakers with a good grasp of one field will try to apply it to every problem that the audience presents. So a guy on stage selling vitamins will say there is a vitamin tablet for every single problem in your life, including your son who keeps getting into trouble at school, your boss who doesn't appreciate your hard work, and your business partner who keeps trying to steal your share. Another guy selling meditation tapes will tell you that meditation is the solution to all of the above problems and the guy selling "mind-body control" or "neuro-linguistic programming" will say his tools will fix everything. Beware of generalizations.
  • Unique perspective on the common: This one's a doozy. I said above that most speakers don't have anything new to say yet now I say having a unique perspective on a common phenomenon is a gotcha. The reason is that this is their big sell and how they managed to get on the stage. If there is absolutely nothing new in someone's talk, it is easy to call their bluff despite their dynamic hand-waving abilities. But if during all the hand-waving, the speaker makes you wonder "huh, I never thought of it that way" even once, then you've fallen hook, line, and sinker for their act. And every act needs a setup. The speaker's unique perspective is their thesis statement, their angle, their bait. "Have you ever felt like A, B, C? Believe it or not, but A, B, and C are all because of W, which is just an upside-down M!" Surely you never thought W being an upside-down M had anything to do with A, B, and C. So this person on stage must have some insight that you don't. Right?
  • Special acronyms & mnemonics: I saved the best one for the last because it is something EVERY SINGLE life coach does. They make up really cool, action-word-laden acronyms to help you remember the bad and the good. Often they'll put up a slide saying "The real cause of stress in life is DONKEY: D for Dishes, O for Office, N for Naggers, K for Karma, E for Enemies, and Y for YOU!" Hey, that sounds about right. This guy sure is insightful. And then they say "The solution to DONKEY is NOPANTS: N for Never giving up", O for Onomatopoeia, P for Palindromes, A for Ants, N for Nts, T for Ts, and S for Seriously, I'm done making this stuff up." There. Easy as pie. Making lame acronyms doesn't make anyone deep or insightful. It simply gives them more practice at making stuff up, something they're already doing when writing the rest of their speech. Instead of cheap acronyms, I prefer Steganography, "the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message." You want an example? Scroll up and read the first-letter of all five of these paragraphs :)

I really don't have a problem with experienced people teaching others how to do anything, including living a good life. Most of what I've learned is from others. However, I do have a problem with people who claim to have done SCIENCE and then when you dig in, turn out to have done no such thing. I don't expect a hair-dresser teaching an apprentice on how to curl hair to cite a dermatological journal. But if you talk about neuroscience, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, or any hard science, you better be standing on firm ground. Quantum Thermodynamics is a wonderful field but you can't use it to explain why sometimes you feel like aliens are watching your every move.

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