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June 23, 2011

James Arthur Ray convicted of negligent homicide
Posted by Teresa at 10:05 AM *

James Arthur Ray, the New Age entrepreneur and flimflam man I wrote about at length in October 2009, after a sweat lodge at his “Spiritual Warrior” seminar in Sedona went disastrously wrong, has been convicted on three counts of negligent homicide.

Very short version: Using the come-on line “Create wealth in all areas of your life,” and teaching a mishmash of excerpted esoteric traditions and positive magical thinking, James Arthur Ray created a very profitable business selling high-priced seminars and educational materials to spiritual seekers. Attendees at his seminar in Sedona had paid at least $10,000 to be there, though many of them had probably also attended some of Ray’s preliminary seminars, bringing their total bill to around $25,000 - $30,000.

The high points of the workshop were a “spirit quest” and a sweat lodge, both fairly rigorous mind/body hacks the Newagers have swiped from Native American tribes and extensively misapplied. That weekend in Sedona, middle-aged seekers had been sent out into the high Arizona scrub desert to fast without food or water for 36 hours. Then, on the day of the sweat lodge fiasco, they got a light breakfast and a few hours of seminars before the main event.

James Arthur Ray had already been warned several times by Native American elders that he wasn’t properly trained, and shouldn’t be running sweat lodges. Participants had gotten ill during them in all the previous seminars he’d held there.

Background: traditional sweat lodges hold eight to twelve people at most. They’re made out of natural materials that “breathe”, and they don’t use airtight construction. The person in charge of the sweat lodge closely monitors the condition of the people doing it. There are four rounds of high heat, with breaks for fresh air and cooling off in between them.

James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge covered 415 square feet, was 53” high at the center and 30” around the edges, was wrapped in blankets and impermeable plastic tarps, and made no provision for light or ventilation, and didn’t have a thermometer. Ray packed 55-65 people into it for a two-hour sweat, with eight rounds of high heat, and he strongly pressured the participants to remain there for the entire procedure. The last half-hour was when things went from “way too stressful” to “multi-victim medical emergency.”

The Arizona Republic has good coverage summarizing the trial. It appears that a long string of spiritual teachers and related experts testified that Ray, who’d claimed to have studied and mastered their disciplines, had at most had a superficial exposure to them. Many of these experts had protested to Ray about what he was doing, and tried to get him to stop it.

Furthermore, the Q’ero medicine man Don Jose Luis, who supposedly initiated Ray after three years of study in Peru, is not a medicine man at all, and Ray didn’t spend a lot of time in Peru with him or anyone else. This testimony came from Denise Kinch, who has worked with the Q’ero for twenty years and is the author of a book about their traditions. She says she knows Jose Luis well, and that he’s a guide who teaches what she called an “Easy-Bake” weekend version of Q’ero rites.

That does answer some questions I had. James Arthur Ray always framed his personal narrative as “how I recovered from bankruptcy, mastered esoteric traditions, became a Spiritual Warrior, and got rich — and you can too!” Trouble is, his bankruptcy happened around 1997-2000, and he hit the national stage in 2006 as one of the sub-authors of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. During the intervening years, he was working the ‘self-publishing motivational speaker and spirituality expert’ gig. I couldn’t spot any gaps in his timeline when he could have been an apprentice studying spiritual disciplines. Even if he hadn’t been busy running his business, that period isn’t really long enough to master one traditional discipline, let alone study and re-synthesize a handful of them, especially when part of that synthesis is supposed to be secret Peruvian jungle tribe wisdom previously unknown to outsiders.

My worldview is heavily informed by the copyeditor in my head who never shuts up. It’s always asking what it would take in order for some story to be true. The longer I looked at James Arthur Ray, the less sense his story made. You can say that about a lot of people. I’m just sorry that in his case, normal safety concerns fell into the gap between what he claimed to know and what he did know, and that people died as a result.

Comments on James Arthur Ray convicted of negligent homicide:
#1 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 10:54 AM:

Seems right to me.

#2 ::: Nenad ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 10:58 AM:

I remember reading about that case when it happened. It is a sad story.

I have been to a total of two sweat lodges, and in both cases, I did not make it past the second round. The general policy always was, "if you feel like you need to get out, there is no blame attached", and nobody ever made me feel like there was anything wrong with it.

Despite my short stays, I found both of them very valuable, and I hate to see people abusing a fine tradition like this.

#3 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 11:38 AM:

Using people's guilt to drive them to their deaths makes him despicable. He's the kind of person for whom dungeons are kept around.

#4 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 11:38 AM:

I think this is another example of that pattern of doing something dumb a few times, having it work out okay for you by dumb luck, and then becoming locked-in to it as something you "know how to do," and even as something you're willing to mess around with in various ways.

Outside that, though, my impression is that "motivational speaker" is often a euphemism for a particular brand of con artist, one who sometimes even convinces himself of his rightness. (Stock market analysts tend to the same disease, mistaking "I flipped twelve heads in a row" for "my psychic powers allow me to force coins to turn up heads.")

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 12:16 PM:

Albatross, again, I have to ask: how does that pattern differ from the way we learn to do non-dumb things?

#6 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 12:30 PM:

Teresa @ #5, though I'm not albatross, I feel that one difference might be that you LISTEN when the experts tell you "Ur doin it rong, and the only reason nobody's died yet is that you've gotten lucky."

cf. Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival: "An 'expert' is someone who's gotten away with doing the wrong thing more times than you have." He was specifically speaking of people who ride snowmobiles straight up snow-covered hills. Eventually the laws of physics catch up with them, but until then they think they know what they're doing.

It is hard to know what you don't know; one possible way of tackling the problem is heavy use of outside reality-checks, especially when you're making stuff up.

Then there's thinking like a fiction writer: "What's the worse thing that could possibly happen?"

#7 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 12:42 PM:

Taleb Nassim's book Fooled by Randomness (predecessor to his more famous The Black Swan) is about the folly of assuming skill rather than dumb luck. The book is full of anecdotal kicks at stock analysts who are convinced of their own genius. Over time, the pool of geniuses decreases as they regress to the mean. In this case, the cost paid was lives and not money.

#8 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 01:15 PM:


I'm thinking about the interaction between the normal pattern of learning to do something new, and our evaluation of the material and moral consequences of it. Both our risk and moral evaluation circuitry seems to me to be damped down by habit. The first time you ski down the hill, steal money from the cash register, climb to the top of your house to work on your roof, cheat on your spouse, etc., you're probably very aware of the physical or moral risks. The tenth time, you're probably much less aware of both--the initial guilt of cheating on your spouse or fear of falling off the roof is diminished because of this damping effect.

And in morally nasty or physically dangerous actions, I think this often is associated with becoming more willing to do it, and to take bigger risks doing it or to do worse things. I think this is a pattern by which people systematically act dumber than they really are--it's how a Weiner imagines it makes sense to spam the world with revealing pictures of himself, it's how a Ray convinces himself that he's got the dangers of a sweat tent well in hand, and it's how a mugger or secret policeman gets past his moral qualms about beating and terrorizing helpless people.

IOW, I think unwise or risky or evil things are much harder to do the first or second time than the twentieth time. And I think that's largely the result of some flaws in our mental hardware, a kind of generalization of Dunning-Kruger.

I'd also say a lot of this has to do with what Talib Nassim calls black swans. As you're building up some small amount of experience with something, you also build up a kind of mental model of what can happen, what can go wrong and how. For some kinds of experience, a smallish number of trials gives you a really good idea of what can happen. For the most part, going to the same coffeeshop 20 times means you've got a pretty good intuition about what the experience is likely to be, for example.

But other events, especially ones with one or more low-probability disasters or problems attached, are misleading to someone with only a little experience. You do this thing 20 times, and you feel like you know the range of possible problems and have a good handle on what to do about them, but you have no clue about the 1/100 or 1/1000 utter, unrecoverable disaster that's lurking off in the tails of the distribution. And you *can't* know about it from your experiences--after 20 trials, you know very little about 1/1000 probability events directly. (Though you probably infer a lot about them based on an inappropriate model--human minds are subject to one set of biases in this regard, simple mathematical models are subject to a different set; nobody can really know much about 1/1000 probability events from 20 trials, though.)

I am not sure quite how to link this back to morality, and yet it seems to me that some very similar pattern is happening morally. Like someone finds a rewarding way to get a little too close to the moral event horizon, but then sort-of blinds himself to it and keeps on escalating whatever he's doing till he goes sailing on past it--the cop who starts out turning a blind eye to some small-time corruption by his partner, and ends up completely bought and paid for by the local drug gang.

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 02:00 PM:

I think there's another aspect to be taken into account in evaluating why people become habituated to doing dumb things: reaction to opposition.

Everybody told me that if I do [unsafe/unwise] $thing then $consequence would follow. But that didn't happen, so I'm right and they're wrong. Sometimes people hear "can't" when they're told "shouldn't", whether the prohibition is for moral or probabilistic reasons. Then, if they go on anyway and experience no negative effects, they can react in one of two damaging ways:

1. They discount the authority of the person who told them not to do $consequence. That's a problem if the person in authority has said other things as well, things with a more proximate relationship with undesirable consequences.

2. They perceive themselves as somehow extraordinary, lucky, or talented. This, too, can lead them to continue to do $thing until the laws of probability catch up to them, or to find entirely new instances of $thing for the next lab session in applied statistics.

These are both sub-cases of the general pattern whereby speed of learning can bias toward the stupid.

The contrarian impulse, the desire to be the guy who challenges the popular wisdom and wins, is one of the great strains of human motivation. It can lead to really great things, but it's also the motive force in a lot of spectacular failures.

(Also, Lila @6, thinking through the "worst that could possibly happen" is one of my professional skills in software testing.)

#10 ::: Pragmatic ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 02:47 PM:

Watching "The Secret" will be like watching "The Towering Inferno" with O.J. Simpson.

#11 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 03:02 PM:

abi, #39: Don't forget the way innumeracy also comes into it. If someone doesn't have even the most basic intuitive understanding of probability, telling them about bad odds won't stop them from doing anything. (Not talking about gambling here, because in gambling you know it's about beating the odds.)

This can also occur when a person has had too much exposure to authority figures with poor credibility -- the kind who scream about low-probability outcomes as though they were inevitable. Parent says "Do X and (low-probability) Y will happen to you!", kid does X anyhow, Y doesn't happen... enough of that, and some people will over-generalize and stop paying attention to warnings from any source about anything.

#12 ::: Branko Collin ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 03:31 PM:

From the AP article: "The self-help guru faces a sentence ranging from probation to nearly 12 years in prison."

Twelve years?! I shudder to think, then, what you guys did to Ray Nagin and George W. Bush after their handling of hurricane Katrina.

#13 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 03:40 PM:

The suggestions above, listing some reasons why James Arthur Ray made the choices he did, are not self-canceling. Ray, like all of us, contains multitudes. He may have chosen to do a risky/stupid thing for many reasons, including that he is a flaming narcissist, for whom other people are not entirely real, at least not in the way he is real, and therefore considering their welfare and acting in their best interest is not truly important to him.

A smarter narcissist would have perhaps seen that forcing people to stay in that unsafe tent was going to end badly for them and for him.

#14 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 03:48 PM:

>During the intervening years, he was working the ‘self-publishing motivational speaker and spirituality expert’ gig. I couldn’t spot any gaps in his timeline when he could have been an apprentice studying spiritual disciplines.
>Even if he hadn’t been busy running his business, that period isn’t really long enough to master one traditional discipline, let alone study and re-synthesize a handful of them, especially when part of that synthesis is
>supposed to be secret Peruvian jungle tribe wisdom previously unknown to outsiders.

I suppose it's possible that he studied the esoterica for a very short time that was long enough to convince him he'd learned all that there was to learn. Certain sorts of go-ahead managers and businessmen are prone to this sort of thing: the delusion that they can suck the useful marrow out of any subject whatsoever in approximately the time it takes to read a self-help book. They're the ones that put a speaking knowledge of Mandarin or Japanese on their CVs when they've had nothing more than a half-day-long executive crash course in the language, covering only greetings and ordering a room. They've Done A Course, you see.

#15 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 04:11 PM:

Pragmatic @ 10... watching "The Towering Inferno" with O.J. Simpson which he saves a kitty.

#16 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 04:21 PM:

Someday I'll have to take & post a photo of the offices of Beyond Words, the publisher of The Secret.

Every time I pass it on the way home I wonder why they haven't Visualized something more palatial.

#17 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 06:15 PM:

Ray told people:

Ray used the sweat lodge as a way for participants to break through whatever was holding them back in life. He warned participants in a recording of the event played during the trial that the sweat lodge would be "hellacious" and that participants were guaranteed to feel like they were dying but would do so only metaphorically.

"The true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear or enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear you'll ever experience is the fear of what? Death," Ray said in the recording. "You will have to get a point to where you surrender and it's OK to die."

So when they felt like they were dying, they said to themselves, "Okay, this is what he said it would be like," not suspecting that what felt to them like dying actually was dying. Not that the altered mental status that comes with heat stress would have made them more likely to recognize what was going on and say, "Screw this," or the fact that if they bailed out they would have lost the benefits they expected to get from that ten grand they'd paid to be there.

You tell someone with life-threatening injuries that it's okay to die and you know what? That's exactly what they do.

#18 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 07:05 PM:

Lee @ 11: Innumeracy may not be the only factor in beleving "those odds don't apply to me."

On Gawker, an article discussed the deadly effects of current street cocaine laced with levamisole (makes flesh necrotize = rot), and Russian "krokodil" -- gasoline, paint thinner, hydrochloric acid, iodine, red phosphorous, codeine; makes the injection site's skin green and scaly like a crocodile; Time reports: "The average user does not live longer than two or three years, and the few who manage to quit usually come away disfigured."

One comment -- later deleted -- came from a drug user who said he simply wouldn't believe any of that until it happened to him, and would go on using nevertheless.

If the comment had stayed up, I would have suggested he run for office as a Republican, since he has the talent for firm denial down pat.

#19 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 08:10 PM:

Lizzy L #13: A smarter narcissist would have perhaps seen that forcing people to stay in that unsafe tent was going to end badly for them and for him.

I dunno... one characteristic feature of a narcissist is that failures are always someone else's fault. The "man up and take it" attitude Ray showed would fit right in.

Teresa #5: how does that pattern differ from the way we learn to do non-dumb things?

I'm also not albatross★, but I have an answer for you: It doesn't, or not much. The human behavioral repertoire is is not designed, nor adapted, to maximize individual safety. Instead, we're set up to evaluate our environment for immediate threats and opportunities, then fend off the threats for the moment while exploiting the opportunity. The survivors of this process get to help raise the next generation... but they don't get complete control¢, because the environment might well be different for the next generation! As per the standard animal life cycle, not everyone's expected to survive.

Evolution doesn't actually go for the best solution, it goes for a "good-enough" solution. The most spectacular developments happen when two or more species interact in such a way that "good enough" keeps sliding away out of reach. (In some cases, the two genders of one species can take this role, for "sexual selection".)

★ "We are all individuals! We are not albatross!"
"I'm albatross!" "AUUGGH!"

¢ Arguably, the real problem here is that we've since developed "technology" that gives a leader far stronger control over other people than most parents dream of. Ray was using those methods, as does any cult leader worth his salt -- and it's such methods that let one nut take an entire crowd of people with him.

#20 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 11:57 PM:

David Harmon @19: "technology", nothing! It's that patch of lemming DNA we got transplanted into ours back in a summery lull between Ice Ages, when a huge flock of mosquitoes fed on a herd of lemmings and then our ancestors. Packs of us have been following charismatic leaders off cliffs ever since.

#21 ::: Britt ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 12:08 AM:

Well said, Teresa. Definitely catering to a hungry audience. In times of economic depression, the self-help industry always booms. His timing was perfect; the outcome tragic. I think the verdict was very fair. I'm curious on his sentencing, which happens on Tuesday.

#22 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 08:05 AM:

Pyre @ #20:

Oh, no. You don't get to pin this one on the lemmings. Lemmings don't behave like that; which perhaps indicates they're smarter than we are.

#23 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 02:58 PM:

The little I've read about the whole fiasco contains no hint that the guy isn't completely aware that he's a phony.
What unsettles me the most is that scores of people with tens of thousands of dollars to be fleeced of bought this transparent bullshit. "More money than brains" to an extreme.

#24 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 03:25 PM:

Neil in Chicago @ 23:

It's transparent to you and to me, and to a lot of people here. Not everyone has had the same experiences, upbringing, teaching, or capability to see that. Then you get into the actual group situation, where you have peer pressure to continue (peer pressure is a very strong social force), and in this case there was the sweat lodge, which does weird things to your brain.

Let me tell you something fun about heat exhaustion: you don't feel hungry, you don't feel thirsty, and you just want to slow down and take a little nap somewhere nice and warm. Now, I like to think of myself as an intelligent person, but that physical reaction to heat exhaustion? Doesn't sound very clever, does it, and yet it happened to me. (Fortunately, I recognized the symptoms in time. Unfortunately, it's because I'd done it to myself before...)

Not to mention that not everyone who buys into the various self-help scams has the money, either. Some are trying to find something, anything, that will help them improve their lot, and will spend what little money they have to get there.

So, yes, make fun of Ray's pseudospirituality. Make sure people know it's BS. Try to get critical thinking taught and taught well. But your post comes off a little too much like victim blaming for me to be comfortable with.

#25 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 03:33 PM:

Keith S, Neil in Chicago -- what neither of you are taking into account is the possibility that the perpetrator believes in everything he was saying and every act he was pushing these people to do.

After all, HE'S become rich and famous, so he must be doing something right, yes?

Now, I'm not saying he's not a con man -- but I think he bought into his own line of bull...

#26 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 04:30 PM:

Buying into one's own line of bull happens a lot in these areas. And I went through a (similar, cheaper) self-help series: while I wouldn't completely endorse it, a great deal of what was taught in it made sense and is useful (and it probably would have taken me more time and money to discover those bits without the seminar). There's a Western secular initiatory tradition that traces back (directly, by a sort of apostolic succession) to the Golden Dawn (and probably further) whose lineage these folks are a proud part of. This is a classic case of initiation-gone-wrong, too (as sometimes happens with hazing). It'd make an interesting book if someone had the time to write it. Or a sociological doctorate thesis.

#27 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 04:49 PM:

Lori Coulson @25: Now, I'm not saying he's not a con man -- but I think he bought into his own line of bull...

...and his particular derangement of the sweat lodge reeks of "If some is good, more is better."

I could very easily see someone of sufficiently willful narcissism take a good idea to this kind of extreme, in all "good faith."

Which, of course, is not to say that he doesn't need culling from the meme-pool post haste.

#28 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 06:54 PM:

Heat exhaustion does very funny things to the brain. Last week I was walking home from the library in the sun and the heat, and feeling increasingly miserable, and about halfway through the walk I started thinking, "Maybe I should just curl up on the sidewalk and stay there." There was no particular "until" or "and then" attached, but there it was in my brain. Just lie down and and stop moving. Right in the middle of the sidewalk. That's a grand plan.

I find it very easy to believe that people in a heated environment like that would be as capable of making informed decisions about their own safety as someone who's been slipped a roofie is capable of giving informed consent.

#29 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 11:43 PM:

Paul A @22: Right, lemmings don't behave like that *now* -- due to the gene swap they got via the mosquito swarm!

#30 ::: Shayne ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:59 AM:

Tom Whitmore@26: See

My Life in James Arthur Ray's Inner Circle
by Connie Joy

Follow Connie Joy inside the seminars and once-in-a-lifetime trips to Egypt and Peru for an up close look at the transformative work of a charismatic teacher — and the underlying danger of mixing up the message with the messenger!

In 2007, Connie participated in Ray's sweat lodge, a Native American ceremonial sauna meant to be a place of spiritual renewal and mental and physical healing. In reality it was just a test of human endurance for Connie and the other participants. Her prediction that someone could be seriously hurt came true in October 2009 when three people died and 18 participants were injured during a sweat lodge run by James Arthur Ray and his staff.

After injuries at his previous events, why didn't Ray get the message he was literally playing with fire? Connie and her husband attended 27 events over three years presented by James Arthur Ray, "Rock Star of Personal Transformation." As this book is released, Ray is charged with three counts of manslaughter and faces a criminal trial in Arizona as well as numerous civil suits.

#31 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 02:56 AM:

Shayne @30 -- different book entirely. The one I'm talking of (which doesn't exist AFAIK) traces the changes in teachings from the Golden Dawn through the OTO (Crowley taught by GD people) to Dntcs/Scntlgy (disemvoweled to protect the website) (Ron H. taught by Crowley) to est (Erhard taught by Ron H.) to Lifespring/Context (Revell taught by Erhard), for one simple lineage. Not quite sure where Ray branches off from this. Each of those teachings has been verified either by the recipient of the teaching or by enough evidence that Occam's Razor leads me to believe it's true. There have been other branchings (the Rosicrucians appear to have spun off somewhere early on, for example, and Crowley sued in an attempt to get their money in the same way that Motta sued to get control of Crowley's copyrights from the OTO that followed off through Germer into McMurtry). But those are just pointers into what really went on.

#32 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 01:08 PM:

Albatross @ #8:

A 1/1000 chance should, on average, occur with roughly 12% probability in 20 (independent) trials. Depending on how you interpret that, at least 1 in 10 will have a direct experience of a 1/1000 chance in 20 trials.

James D. Macdonald @ #17:

Ayup, having spent quite a while in saunas (no, not sweat lodges), I know pretty well when to get outside for a cool-down (usually a mixture of "sit in a room that's normal room temperature" and "have a tepid shower", as having cold showers, rolling in snow or jumping into freezing water is an excellent way of stressing the body quite badly indeed).

I also know that people pick up on lies, so have been trained to divert discussions about "how bad is it" and "am I gonna die" rather than answering (with either truth or lie). On the other hand, I don't have much civilian medical training, but the little I have had is pretty darned strange. Doing chest compressions sitting straight up?

#33 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 06:34 AM:

Ingvar M @32: "A 1/1000 chance should, on average, occur with roughly 12% probability in 20 (independent) trials. Depending on how you interpret that, at least 1 in 10 will have a direct experience of a 1/1000 chance in 20 trials."

"Million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten." -- Terry Pratchett.

Which insight results, within the aforesaid author's Guards! Guards!, in a small group of City Watchmen carefully making a difficult-but-vitally-necessary shot even more difficult -- increasing the handicap to bring the odds all the way down to one-in-a-million -- in order to be assured of success.

#34 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 06:55 AM:

And now suddenly I'm thinking of M. Night's movie Unbreakable, in which the villain has been causing mass-death "accidents" in order to someday find someone invulnerable; bombing buildings and planes and trains, waiting for the report of a "sole survivor, without a scratch."

That million-to-one chance.

But James Arthur Ray's sweatlodges left too many survivors for that sort of screening test. Unless they go on to other, equally unsafe and unhealthy, "spiritual" quests that will further thin out the herd....

#35 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 07:02 AM:

Pyre #33: Pratchett's guards are Genre Savvy.

Ingvar M #32: I used to run FRP games, including designing adventures for them. One thing I learned early is that double- or even triple-zeros are simply not a barrier to the players -- they will pop up, and usually in the worst possible context for somebody.

#36 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 06:56 PM:

Yes, buying into one's own bullshit is common enough, but in my experience it doesn't always happen with conmen.

When I first started working in Silicon Valley in the mid-70's, I worked for awhile for a company called IMSAI, which was run by a man who was a close friend of Werner Erhard, the founder of a "self-help" cult called EST. He made it an unbreakable rule that all managers of IMSAI must be members of EST. I am fairly sure he didn't believe in any of the EST doctrine himself; before he was done he'd stolen US $600e6 from the company he created by milking money from IMSAI, screwed over all of his EST colleagues from IMSAI in a stock swindle worth $40e6 (that's how much they sued him for), and left his best friend and his daughter to face Federal charges while he ran for the Caymans.

On my last day at IMSAI, I went into his office and said to him, "You have to understand that your Engineering Manager is incompetent." He replied, "I know, that's why I hired her. If she doesn't know the right thing to do she has to do what I tell her to." Didn't sound very sincere to me.

#37 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 07:19 PM:

Believing your own propaganda is one of the classic errors.

#38 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 11:48 PM:

What James Arthur Ray actually believes is a good question, but an unanswerable one. Personally, I don't think he knows.

The question that interests me is what he thought he was doing to the students who put themselves under his guidance. Granted, he's a documented liar as far back as we have documentation, and he hasn't hesitated to put himself forward as a teacher on subjects he unquestionably knew he hadn't mastered; but the impression I get is that he used to be more prudent. Then came the enormous success of The Secret, which broke him out as a star and showed him the size of the potential market.

What he's teaching is the same old mishmash of New Thought that's been re-synthesized and repackaged a hundred times before. It started hitting big right around the same time the Dime Novel got popular: paper prices, printing technology, distribution networks -- the usual things. Anyway, the Law of Attraction's been around since the nineteen-oughts. So has its combination with creative visualization, worldly success through spiritual enlightment, health through right thinking, and the radiant divinity of book-buying readers when seen in their true and soulful forms. The biggest difference is that back when, the Esoteric Teachings were credited to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and miscellaneous Tibetans. Since the 60s-70s, they're more often credited to indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere. None of it is actually based on spiritual traditions of other peoples. It's all straight out of New England by way of the Upper Midwest and California.

It sells a lot of copies.

#39 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 04:09 PM:


Just to nitpick a bit, I'm pretty sure that number should be about 2 percent, not 12 percent.

(0.999)**20 = the probability that we will fail to hit the 1/1000 event all 20 times = about 0.9802, so about 2 percent of the time, we will get at least one 1/1000 event in a run of 20 trials.

#40 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 04:14 PM:

The larger point here is that when you've only had 20 trials, the only thing you can say about 1/1000 events is that you've had about a 2% chance of seeing one. (But you don't know yet whether the most extreme event you've seen is a 1/1000 event.)

The way around this is that almost everyone plugs their limited observations into a probability model. And those models incorporate some extra assumptions about the distribution to allow us to say something about probabilities of events we've not yet seen. When the model used is inappropriate, we can have this fun situation in which some event which we've convinced ourselves is effectively impossible happens at some spectacularly inconvenient moment, causing (to use a recent example) a whole lot of securities that were rated as very safe to lose a lot of value very quickly.

#41 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 06:44 PM:

The biggest difference is that back when, the Esoteric Teachings were credited to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and miscellaneous Tibetans. Since the 60s-70s, they're more often credited to indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere.

I think we should get cracking on the next iteration of this, and have a manuscript and packaged lecture series prepared so we can get in on the ground floor.

Uplifted dolphins, maybe? Instead of a sweat lodge, you can require initiates to don a face mask and snorkel sit in a pool of warm seawater. At worst, they might get all pruney-skinned.

#42 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 10:40 AM:

"Capt. Credeiki's School of Keneenk Meditation"

#43 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 10:42 AM:

albatross @ #39:

You are entirely correct, I wonder if I was checking 0.99 or managed to misread the initial 0.9 as 0.8.

So, one in fifty, not nearly as dramatic, meh.

#44 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 10:51 AM:

Stefan @ 41

I'll see your school of dolphins, and raise you a regression to the traditional ways of our primitive monkey ancestors...

#45 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2011, 10:15 AM:

KayTei @ #44:

What do you mean, "regression"?

#46 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2011, 08:55 PM:

Sometimes you don't know whether that unlikely sequence of events is evidence of a problem is with your model, or just a case of the fact that even improbable things may happen more than once in close succession. The one on my mind lately is n-year weather events: the Amazon is said to have had two hundred-year droughts in the last five years.

That sounds absurd, but it's not. It also isn't clear what, if anything, it means (beyond the obvious effects of those droughts). Is our data set too short? (Can you be confident of what a hundred-year drought, or flood, or storm is without several hundred years of data?) Is this evidence of climate change, so what used to be a hundred-year drought isn't? Or is this the weather equivalent of rolling boxcars three times in a row, and less unlikely after the dice have already turned up the first pair of sixes?

We don't have the data to say that this is just chance, either.

#47 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 12:31 AM:

KayTei @ 44:

See your monkeys and raise the wisdom of the elephants. I wonder if we could get away with calling it the "Way of Babar"?

#48 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 03:25 AM:

Vicki @46

There are things that can give clues to long-term weather patterns, but how for back they reach for the Amazon basin, I don't know.

Tree rings record the tree's grown, year on year, which is certainly influenced by rainfall. The patterns are clear enough, and consistent enough over large areas, to be usable for dating.

There are plenty of buildings in England with structural timber that was felled over 400 years ago. And there are enough overlaps that you can push a composite pattern back further.

I rather doubt that there is enough old timber in the Amazon basin to be able to do that.

#49 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 04:32 AM:

#48 ::: Dave Bell

The problem with using the historical record is that you don't know whether underlying conditions are changed.

This is reminding me of a theory from The Money Game that people can have a temperament which matches the state of the stock market for a while-- they look like geniuses, but they don't have a sufficiently general theory.

#50 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 08:29 PM:

Me, I'm all over If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him. I've never met a licensed epiphany that wasn't asking for money to teach me something I already knew.

#51 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 11:03 PM:

Paul @ 45

Well, I'm not sure quite what else to call it. In contrast with our current state of degeneracy, which is clearly a corruption of their pure and unblemished natural ways, of course.

I suppose "return" might be preferable from a marketing standpoint, now that I think about it...

Bruce @ 47

Oooh, elephants. I like that. I'm thinking platypi provide a certain temptation as well.

#52 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2011, 03:31 PM:

Someone's on the elephants already. The South African Airways in-flight magazine had something about how we went through an evolutionary choke point ["one family of chimps has more genetic variety than the entire human race"] and there were elephants around during that time, so we're somehow all genetically designed to live around elephants and it's, like, deep. Be with the elephants, man, just ... be.

And if you can't get good pseudoscience from an in-flight magazine, where can you get it?

#53 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2011, 04:56 PM:

Sweat lodge leader sentenced to two years in prison

Prosecutors had sought consecutive three-year sentences for James Arthur Ray on each of the three counts of negligent homicide on which a jury convicted him. Ray and his attorneys asked for probation, but Judge Warren R. Darrow said the evidence shows "extreme negligence on the part of Mr. Ray."

"A prison sentence is just mandated in this case," he said.

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