Hearing a news story this morning from BBC’s science correspondent Tom Feilden, apologetically reporting a study finding value in Neuro-Linguistic-Programming (NLP) behind treatment for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME) …

Here the BBC R4 Today clip.
Here the actual Lancet-published paper here.
Grauniad story here (doesn’t mention NLP).

NLP suffers from confusion with natural language programming in the AI / Technology space, but is in fact a thoroughly discredited marketing packaging of 1970’s life-style neuro-bollox. At least that’s the story you’d get from Wikipedia.

Scientifically discredited in the lack of repeatable objective evidence to support it, that is. That doesn’t mean it’s not real or true or valuable to careful practitioners. Let’s face it science is prepared to discredit the reality of human consciousness itself, so it’s unlikely to support a method of psycho-talking-therapy that targets behaviour modification through choice of language subconsciously affecting conscious action. CFS/ME as an illness has always suffered from scepticism as essentially a psycho-somatic condition, the subjective feeling of a disease with little causal explanation of any physical condition. So much “mental illness” and explanations of the sub-conscious relationships with physical behaviour and competence could be considered scientifically doubtful.

Frankly, at the common sense level, NLP is simply a talking therapy. However it works, it’s good to talk. Better to understand limitations to the science of using it, with care.

One problem is the packaging as a “thing” with a name, as if it is objectively well-defined. A recurring theme here. The other problem is that however well or badly defined, the model can have metaphorical and analytical value, often a checklist or taxonomy of issues, but will obviously fail if its values are codified prescriptively – like some magic recipe.

NLP suffers all of these problems. What’s in a name?

  • Neuro? Definitely a neuro-bollox prefix for anything “mental” these days, irrespective of how brain stuff supports mental stuff. But of course it does, unless you’re a consciousness-denying scientist that is. No-one using NLP needs to explain how the brain works, simply show that careful use of language in talking therapies can subconsciously and positively influence physical behaviour. (In that sense, nudge depends on similar thinking. The whole of psycho-therapy suffering problems trying to satisfy its own demands to be scientific, to be treated as a science.)
  • Linguistic? Well OK, we’re dealing with the language of communication. One out of three ain’t great.
  • Programming? Hmmm. This is a consequence of the will-to-systematise (and sell) the magic TLA recipe. Psycho-therapeutic modification of feelings and behaviour – mind-games – are never going to be programming when dealing with real humans and not machines.

I see Castaneda is cited as being an influence on NLP – guaranteed to attract the hippy-new-age-alt-lifestyle-bollox reaction. He he.

Also interesting that lack of “NICE” accreditation for NLP is also cited. Another symptom of overly scientific management expectations in public organisations.

Listening to the news item on BBC R4 Today. Both critics and practitioners acknowledging “flakey” nature of NLP basis. An obvious scientific issue is the discounting the credibility of subject testimony when dealing with any “mental” condition, but use it we must with care when we’re dealing with how people “feel”. Science is almost by definition in denial of the subjective. You need to expert on the subtleties to understand what makes good science in this domain.

The real bollox is the expectation of shoe-horning all aspects of human life into some mechanistic scientific mould. We humans are flakey and science does have its limits.


[Post Notes:

Expert reactions here.

All I’m adding to this debate is it whilst it is pseudoscience, that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable or useful, especially if you’re open minded, understand how to treat the myriad of subtleties, and the procedure is not being spun simplistically for dishonest commercial reasons. See @DeeVeeBee contribution.

And as well as the original discrediting of NLP – commercially interested pseudoscience – LP itself has been debunked and challenged recently. Some of these are referred to in the expert reactions above, but provided here thanks to @ssppeerroo

Skeptics Dictionary debunking of LP
Advertising standards adjudication.
Original promotional material (since taken down from the web).

My own points unchanged. About Pseudoscience / NLP / LP / CFS / ME generally, not about LP & ME specifically.]

Over the course of the last couple of days BBCFour TV showed:

Tilda Swinton (June 2017) as Gertrude Bell in Letters from Baghdad

@RoryStewartUK (2010) Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia Episode 1 and Episode 2

These caught my attention because apart from her association with T E Lawrence, Bell is of local interest and I’m guessing showing the one provided an opportunity to re-show the other, older documentary. The significance of “the Middle East” as a ubiquitous issue for UK, US & European politics is reason enough to take the lessons of Bell and Lawrence seriously. Like Rory I’ve been fascinated by TEL since childhood, read just about everything by or about him and visited UK and Jordanian locations of his life. Bell I’ve only known by association and general knowledge until recently moving back to living not far from her Redcar home.

In fact it was that moving around, US and Norway and back to the UK that meant I missed Rory’s documentary first time around. It was 2012/2013 before I picked-up on Alan Little’s Lawrence Man & Myth and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia and the fact that US-led operations in Iraq were drawing on TEL’s contributions to working with Arabs, and perhaps taking them perhaps too prescriptively rather than simply learning his lessons.

Somehow since then I also managed to miss the critically panned Werner Herzog / Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert

Anyway, this is just a link-gathering post for now. The Asymptote to Asymptote title is a quote from TEL used by Rory illustrating TEL’s overly flowery classical language in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He was a classics scholar of course, and I still find his poetic writing very relevant – both content and style – to my epistemological and humanist agendas, despite the original interest like everyone else in the flawed visionary hero.  It was also instrumental in my seeing barriers broken between the practical military engineering and a man of letters – in some small way not unlike C P Snow’s Third Culture.

Full on-line copy of Seven Pillars here.

The irony is that the choice of the word asymptote in the quote is self-deprecating in a later quote where he admits he’s using it inaccurately in its true mathematical sense. He is of course talking about the perennial swing between binary extremes that dominates any more subtle discourse. More truth in literature than scientific fact.

Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes.

They inhabited superlatives by choice.

Mentioned a few posts ago that pretty much everything posted by the EES (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) project seemed to be valuable to my own research agenda. I also noted at that point that I wasn’t really sure who they were, simply a large collection of like-minded thinkers posting under the one on-line banner. I realised pretty quickly the reason I am plugged into EES is because some of the individuals I follow (including eg @MassimoPigliucci and @DanielDennett) were amongst them.

Today Massimo’s post on his own Footnotes to Plato blog was specifically about the distinction between epi-genetics and Lamarckian inheritance in the EES sphere. Biologically, clearly, only materials present in the gametes (sperm or egg) can be inherited at conception (or in the cells that divide-off in asexual reproduction). However it gets replicated into all (relevant) cells of the new adult and offspring of the new adult, if it does, it’s inherited. If it can be systemically modified by environmental exposure of the individual, that can be over and above random mutation in the DNA-based gene. The bit that’s Darwinian either way is the mechanism by which divergent populations eventually turn-out (with hindsight) to be distinct species.

Genes / genetic have suffered the same evolution in meaning as atoms / atomic – conceptually the smallest units, or simply the first such units so named? Really the smallest particles of heritable reproduction are genetic, whether in the stuff we now call “genes” or elsewhere in the reproducing cell structures of the new individual.

What is clear is that what is inherited “genetically” is particulate / digital at the cellular level – even if modifications can be acquired by environmental exposure – they are not acquired qualitatively by degrees between whole individuals. In that sense there is no Lamarckian (biological) inheritance of acquired “traits” per se – where a cell is the smallest unit of identity and cells don’t have traits as properties.

The reason I’m more relaxed about hanging on to Lamarckism is because I’m interested (like Dennett) in the whole human evolutionary design space (0,0,0 to 1,1,1 Darwinian) which includes mental / cultural evolution as well as cellular / biological. In that space memes (and patterns / memeplexes) are even less objective than genes (in the generic non-DNA sense) and as I say even genes are not that well defined objectively. Epi-genetic, like “sub-atomic” is a somewhat artificial category, simply a consequence of what has previously been defined as genetic / atomic.

Need to re-read Pigliucci more closely – using the genotype / phenotype language around species and populations of individuals – and see if this digital distinction is apparent.

[Hold – epigenetics beyond cell contents – post-fertilisation development environment?]
[Hold – systemic bio-DNA-gene modification beyond random mutation?]

Guess I’m reacting to the hard statement – implying no such thing as Lamarckism. Quite happy with questioning how much use is left in the word, and where. (I already inhabit a physical world where the fundamentals are digital information, so no suggestion that the Lamarckian / non-Darwinian end of the scale is about traits acquired by an individual being “somehow, to some extent” inherited by future offspring as a whole.)


Post Note: After rambling around the issues in my doubts above, I read again focussing on the genotype phenotype distinctions, and the whole question was made clear in this Twitter exchange.

“Only genotypes are inherited.
Phenotype is always indirect.”

Mary’s point says it clearly, Darwinian or Lamarckian, inheritance is genetic (DNA-genetic or generic / epi-genetic). Phenotypic properties – however developed / acquired – are never inherited directly between individuals.

Mary goes on to make a further important point, although it doesn’t yet seem signigicant to my own agenda:

The point is neither Lamarck, nor Darwin, was really saying anything about the mechanism of inheritance. Darwin’s key point was that the population divergence and speciation was “natural selection”. Neither even imagined the underlying digital significance; inheritance at the information level.

Massimo’s headline claim is true – “Epigenetics is not Lamarckism” – but the rant against Lamarck per se (almost nobody writing today has actually read Lamarck) seems unwarranted?

What is (relatively) new and important in the work behind Massimo’s essay is not what it says about Lamarck, but what it says about the enormous possibilities for acquired mutations in reproductive development lifecycles, beyond simply DNA (mis)replication. Epigenetics. Genetic biology is more than “genes” in the same sense that atomic physics is more than “atoms”. Biology or physics, what matters is information.

[Aside – Even Crick knew we were talking about information.

Terry, Let’s unpick this one, so we can actually “walk our talk”. You asked “What is?”

(1) Wherever possible criticism in private. Praise and support in public. Wherever possible dialogue instead of conflicting argument.

(2) You said it yourself the other night, has anyone ever changed anyone’s mind – who wasn’t already a friend or held in “good faith” – by telling them they were wrong in public? What we need is good-faith dialogue.

  • Me and you.
  • Us and “Atheists Against Pseudoscientific Nonsense (AAPN)”.
  • Antivaxers and the rational skeptics community generally.

(3) In this case the original Mercury / Aluminium video was already a viral meme – amongst people who appreciate fascination with science – very basic, elemental physical science 101. (I shared / liked it myself a couple of weeks ago.)

(4) Some (mischievous) person at Vaxxed saw a delicious opportunity to wind-up the Skeptical crowd by inventing a counter-meme that they knew would just make the “scientistic” types blood boil. And it worked. AAPN fell for it. John Richards fell for it …. all typical behaviour fully predicted by Vaxxed. No-one at Vaxxed and no-one at AAPN believed it was anything but nonsense – the clue is in the name and Snopes had already debunked it for anyone (!) who actually needed to check, without spreading it over all their would-be friends FB & Twitter feeds. No-one who subscribes to anti-vax conspiracy theories is going to check, are they? – except for their mission to debunk the debunking and stoke the conspiracy and/or have some fun on social media. No (good-faith) “friend” following AAPN’s page – or your Skeptcs page – is going to disagree that it’s nonsense. What has been achieved? Except Vaxxed successfully winding up a certain kind of Skeptic and wasting the time of many more, and generating hundreds more clicks, the large majority of which will be (trigger / keyword) bots even if they’re actually human.

(5) This is not about “ignoring” the nonsense meme – we’re well past that – it’s about deciding the most rational action and most productive expression. Not a knee-jerk “against” response – that’s a tit-for-tat “war” – exactly what some / they want. We’re well past doing the dumbest responses too. As you said any number of Skeptic responses will not make any difference numerically. The clue again is in AAPN’s name – “against” – they’re just looking for a war too – an arms race pushing up the numbers and stakes. Just because something is wrong, a lie, is not a good reason to say so, outside a controlled scientific environment. Life is not science.

(6) The rational response is to seek good faith and continue the dialogue. To move us on from two parties – with no mutual respect – screaming and hurling insults at each other. Let’s walk the talk?

[Meta (7) Your suggestion that I had suggested ignoring it was the personal “insult” in public – but it’s OK because we happen to be friends 😉 ]

[Meta (8) And as I’m sure we’ve agreed before anti-vaxxing has nothing to do with the science of vaccines, it’s everything to do with the politics of anti-establishment freedoms.]


[Post Note – a comment / response exchange cut and past across from the Medium version of this blog:

To which I responded:

Good point — I agree on two counts.
(1) Same risk even with Snopes, only advantage is it not not attached to any particular campaigning issue or ideology so far as I have been able to tell over many years — even if it is sometimes wrong. (Was using the pejorative “antivaxxer” terminology because that was the default line already in the context of the Skeptics facebook thread in which the comment was made. Should have used scare quotes — as I often do.)
And (2) “scientific atheists” are not just part of the problem, but the worst half of the problem IMHO — turning into caricatures of the ideologies they claim to oppose. (Pretty sure you’ve agreed with me on this before.)
(PS will copy this Comment & Response into the WordPress version of the blog too, where I often add post-notes that don’t show up in Medium.)

Apart from passing references, I’ve never made this the focal issue of any post or tweet, but it is a pet hate of mine in the way Twitter works.

The baying mob is easy to see in the trolls that inhabit comment threads of pretty much all on-line content these days, so much so that it’s a meme to simply refer to them as trolls, and practically discount or disable all such un-moderated threads. Twitter is of course almost all thread and little content.

My particular pet-hate is the immediate “like” of a put-down response. Disagreeing is always easier than constructive dialogue and shared disagreement is made instant by the like facility. Almost invariably an immediate put-down is at minimum a straw-man that misrepresents the point, a thinly disguised ad-hominem or more often a blatant insult like “silly” or something even less polite. Before any dialogue is possible disagree’ers pile-in on the put-down. Some people’s timelines in blogs and social media have their “numbers” swollen by hoards of people who share a common basis for disagreement, whatever the specific point at issue and its worthiness of dialogue.

It’s mob rule. Populism. Tyranny of a (numerical) majority.

[Worse still, many such trolls are of course key-word-triggered bots
– but few people keep their Twitter following clear of such dross


[Post Note: As I say, I’ve mentioned this “baying-mob” effect many times before, and it is very much part of the right to offend with satirical humour story – The Court Jester.

This morning, following the Parson’s Green incident:

Everyone has their own agenda, and all agendas are ultimately political – even naming the topic and naming any opposing views are political. Great (political) care is taken in the first tweet from the mayor, in how the word “terrorist” is confirmed. However as Bob points out as soon as “the baying mob” pile into the thread, everyone else’s agendas are piled on the original point. A nexus of ideologies.(*)

The problem is not so much “offence” as disrespect – opportunistically diverting the thread to competing agendas, with the help of wise-cracks, as if attempted humour makes it OK to do so. I’ve not even read the thread, but I already know the “part & parcel of Parsons Green” meme. Leave offensive satirical humour to the professionals we can respect (eg Frankie Boyle) in the meantime respect the people and motives in the original thread by not hijacking it.

Competing agendas is a key point in this – with maximum clamour for attention in the streams of media – competitions get binary between the no-brainer extremes, nuance is trampled over. A mob all toeing the line with short-sharp versions of their chosen party line – an echo-chamber of competing echo-chambers. The odd funny crack or meme may result, but the chances they add anything to solving the original problem is miniscule – much more likely to add to one or both competing echo-chambers.

The problem is disrespect of other parties’ positions – not least the person that started the conversation. No one has the right not to be offended, but no-one has the right to disrespect another’s position with attempts to divert the conversation towards your own ideology with (or without) spurious humour. That disrespect is the offense.]

[Post Post Note (*) That nexus of ideologies is the point I am making to SitP (Skeptics in the Pub) – that, whatever the topic, all debates / presentations / Q&A converge on this same clash of conflicting ideologies, UNLESS it is dialogue conducted with respect.]

Sam Harris conversation with Thomas Metzinger in the Waking Up Podcast.

Hat tip to Terry Waites for the link as a conversation starter:

Brain dump only whilst listening (few sentences / little editing) :

In usual “naive” Sam Harris way the conversation skips superficially across many topics, and Metzinger is himself highly politically motivated. These days (ie post-psychedelics) Harris mode is naivety, he’s learning with his listeners – see his most recent Dan Dennett and Maajid Nawaz conversations – he’s learning how little he knows, chastened in fact I said (though the first time I noticed this change I wasn’t aware of his psychedelic experience). And Metzinger I’ve noted before – part of the Tucson & ASSC movements – much good stuff on taking the subjective seriously in the science of consciousness. Metzinger does also cite Dennett – the latter being the hook on which I hang my own position, there are so many moving parts in a conversation like this.

On consciousness:

Consciousness not a problem any more. Neural correlates will solve the problem – future. [Despite saying this nothing Kitzinger says seems to impinge on neuro-science?]
Hard problem not the problem and zombie conceivability is a thought experiment only.
Nagel’s bat too is good thought experiment [for bringing the subjective into focus].

“Because Complexity” is not the answer to why and how consciousness, even though complexity is part of the problem and processes we’re dealing with and will need to be part of “full” explanations. Kitzinger’s strategy is to focus on the things we can think about most simply [see his 2012 Edge response]

[Now we’re talking] – The value of intuition? Are brute – logical, mathematical – facts of physics meaningful if entirely counter-intuitive. [Not if they remain so – still useful as part of the process – I say. Like Dennett most new knowledge starts as counter-intuitive, almost by definition.]

As with life, so with consciousness [See Seth earlier]. It only seems like magic dust sprinkled on the physical, eventually the explanations become intuitive.

Knowing means something even without recall of the why – without knowing actual evidence and logical explanation. Much intuitive knowledge is a fantastically powerful and useful condensation of earlier social knowledge.

Supervenience and reductionism … [Harris still sounds “greedy” reductive to me, can’t tell with Metzinger yet … seems he’s not.] … Integrated Information ? [Mentioned but not discussed further.]

Sense of self – and how “illusory” is it … this is distinctive Metzinger question.

Anti-reductionist perspective (*) – top-down – to focus on subjective intuition and experience. But meaningless to call self illusory, it IS our subjective perspective. It’s conceptual, not physically real, we will never find “it”. (Zen Buddhist) [Apart from encouraging us not to focus on self, I can’t really get what Metzinger is particularly saying about “no self”. Defining self is not an important part of the problem. Self is not an issue, unless we let it get in the way. (I already get this?)] Beyond “armchair” thought experiments – proper ego-dissolution with Buddhist practice with or without the aid of psychedelics.

Metzinger’s – Self Model Theory of Subjectivity (Section H2 – there is no “self” but we do have a self-model as part of how we experience the world.) [Simplicity is a Metzinger driver – See his Edge Question response.] Self as “attention”? Embodied and/or disembodied experience through ego-dissolution / mindfulness practices.

[(*) Does Metzinger also have a bottom-up view?] All about phenomenology of experience – no neuroscience at all yet? There IS a “sense-of-self” – we know because the control case is that we can dissolve it and experience the difference. No explanations of “how” from the physical and biological?

Ah “affordances” – [see Dennett’s most recent Edge response]. It’s all about our model of the world – we see “things” even tangible physical things, in terms of what they “can do” in the world. An affordance landscape – a model of the world of possibilities relative to ourselves. [Agreed]

[Peak and Flow experiences. Ramchandran and Sacks stories.] Product of evolution – therefore good and bad – physical and cultural – evolutionary optimisation is not “in our best interest” necessarily. [See Sabine’s 2017 Edge response] eg Eastern experience of freedoms not necessarily good, despite enlightened Eastern consciousness. Good life. Honesty in rationality. Buddhism good without its religious doctrines.

[This is all non-contentious to me. Not seeing anything novel?]

Introspective neglect maybe [the unexamined mind]? What about normal people and/or intellectual athletes? [This is a dig at Dennett – unnamed – he’s never gonna live-down that misunderstood remark – See Dennett and the Little People]. It’s mostly about training and habit, not simply innate potential “competence”.

AI debate has become stale already. Agreed! Kitzinger’s novelty is Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN) – really a thought experiment on epistemic authority in ethics of AI – a best possible case, where AI knows best (see optimisation above). Point being even this is a danger to humans. We have an “existence” bias, an AI needn’t. This is Buddhist / suffering / after-life parable. [Don’t actually believe much of the thought-experiment reasoning – as I say Kitzinger is politically motivated – but it’s a thought. It’s possible to believe in significance of life, but not be in denial of death. The rationality of (deluded) religious dogma is spurious here, surely?]

Progress cannot depend on rational argument – much secular atheist pro-science humanism is embarrassingly superficial and not in our interest. We need a secularised virtual tradition and values, we should not be ridiculing religious traditions. Harris says / agrees (!) – [Harris fans take note.]

[Summary – Lots of interesting ground covered, too much, too superficially, to be coherent in one conversation. Only a couple of thoughts new to me. Some strongly reinforced. Real novelty is the continuing story of Harris education – and his actual learning. Real novelty and real value is the dialogue space. Fascinating. [Dialogue > Find agreement > Plan next dialogue. Neither debate nor logical argument. Critical thinking need not be about finding fault with the arguments of others.]

Just a bookmarking post again, but a developing and recurring theme, the myth that so many things are myths when they’re not.

Just today “Learning Styles” mocked as a fashionable myth, but they’re real, not mythical. What is wrong is their prescriptive application by people with only noddy level of understanding.

Same with Maslow motivation, Gender differences, Left-Right brain differences and so on. Even consciousness and free-will themselves!

Particularly scary example here

Oh dear, even people with neuroscience training believe an awful lot of brain myths

That “Oh dear” headline says it all about how dismissive popular science is of real science – disappointed with the BPS here. Most of what is there is not mythical just badly explained and understood. (Notice the same contributor did the same a year ago.)

Just last week a list of mis-used word pairs, where I’d also have to say, the mis-used case is often correct, but being used at a meta level, simply misunderstood by the unwise who are enslaved by rules. Ironic and Coincidental being a case in point: Often coincidental situations are ironic, the irony wouldn’t be significant – worth mentioning – if it weren’t also coincidental. The irony is usually in the context where the coincidence arises. I tend to use the word “spooky” to avoid being accused of misuse but often simply use ironic and be damned. Several other misuses in there that I would defend as meta-uses.

Many more in there. Begging the question – a question-begging assertion often begs (demands) a question. The difference between begging “the” question (already posed) and begging “a” question (that may be asked).