Unbelievable woo from the NYT: the touting of reincarnation (as well as astrology and oracle cards) by an editor

August 5, 2021 • 9:15 am

Lately the New York Times went soft on dowsing, and of course they’ve been perpetually soft on astrology. Nobody seems to bring up the paper’s penchant for woo when they’re praising it for “fact-based journalism.” Even in the op-eds or “personal” stories—stories that, like today’s—give credence to woo, the Times fails to call attention to the lack of evidence for these phenomena. The result is that some readers, perhaps open to “spiritual” things that don’t involve goda, get sucked into the black hole of confirmation bias.

Today’s story is particularly invidious because it’s about reincarnation, and author Sara Aridi basically endorses her own sister’s belief in the phenomenon—a belief so strong that her sister eventually became a “past-life regression therapist” herself.

Click to read and weep; author Sara Aridi is actually a NYT employee, described as “a staff editor on the Home team, where she produces the home screen and mobile app. She joined The Times in 2016.”

To summarize, author Aridi and her family are Druze (a Middle Eastern religion), and one Druze belief is that “every human being is reincarnated. Your body is a shell, and your spirit can claim another life form to live on indefinitely.” Some Druze also think that people can remember parts of their previous lives.

One of these was Aridi’s sister Heba, who was only three years old in Lebanon when she claimed that her real name was Nada (and began making sandwiches for her “husband” Amin) It turns out that a woman named Nada lived half an hour away, but had died, and did have a husband named Amin.  It’s not at all clear that the putative soul of Heba, that of Nada, left Nada’s body before or after Heba “recovered” her memories.

At any rate, Nada’s relatives came to visit Heba because they’d heard of this remarkable reincarnation. (Tellingly, Aridi says “word gets around in small villages”.) They allowed Heba to visit their home, and when she did so Heba coughed up a few unconvincing “memories” about an old lady and a garden that jibed with the past.

Eventually Heba gave up all the reincarnation stuff. But then, after moving to Los Angeles, Heba discovered “past-life regression therapy”, one of those forms of therapy that convinces you that you’ve repressed important parts of your memories or life, and whose practitioners aren’t objective but tendentious. (They resemble the “recovered-memory therapists” who make their living convincing people that they were abused when they were children, and have simply “repressed” the memory.)

Heba was so taken by this therapy that she became certified in the practice herself and started treating others. And so the termites dined further.

I’ll simply reproduce the rest of the article in which author Sara Aridi gives considerable credence to her sister’s beliefs and practices. But wait! There’s more! She touts not only reincarnation, but also astrology AND “oracle cards”, which I suppose are like tarot cards. I’ve put some “reincarnation might be real” bits in bold.

On the other side of the country, I was starting a career in journalism, and was ambivalent about Heba’s new profession. I wondered why I had accepted her experience with Nada so matter-of-factly without looking into it further. Questions nagged at me: How do I explain something I don’t understand? Are someone else’s memories enough evidence of them having a reincarnated soul? It wasn’t until this past year, while my sister and I were living under the same roof again, that I started to truly reconcile our worldviews.

Before that, living on my own over the past several years meant I could carefully curate my life, and engage only with people who shared my beliefs, mainly journalism colleagues who prioritized evidence-based facts. I thought I was open-minded — until I had to discuss politics and spirituality with my family around the dinner table.

Note the half derogatory phrase “evidence-based facts”. What other kinds of facts are there? But Aridi continues:

Last December, during the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the first time in 800 years the two planets aligned incredibly close to each other and were visible in the sky, I joined Heba and our pandemic pod for a ceremony at a friend’s house. We sat in a circle, drew cards from an oracle deck and wrote down our reflections and hopes in an attempt to manifest our goals for 2021.

It was new and refreshing for me; it felt like much-needed talk therapy after an isolating year. And, my oracle cards were freakishly on point. The first said “Growth,” and mentioned leaving behind antiquated relationships, beliefs or systems. The beliefs I needed to let go of were not the spiritual ones though.

No, Sara clearly needed to let go of the “evidence-based facts” and retain her view that there’s something to reincarnation. But of course these generalized statements like “growth” can apply to anyone. There’s more:

I still have questions — many questions — about past-life regression therapy, but I support Heba and her work. Some of my closest friends have become her clients. She has repeatedly offered to conduct a session with me, but I don’t think I believe in the therapy enough to go under. And if I do, I’m afraid of what I would discover. This life has been challenging enough at times, I don’t know that I could bear the memories of another one.

That, of course, assumes that “going under” might give her evidence of a previous life.  There’s more:

I also drew a second card that night: “Boundaries.” Heba and I glanced at each other. The card displayed a symbol of a red jaguar, its fangs out. As my friend read the card aloud, I was amazed by how elegantly it spoke to my struggle to be independent from my family while accepting them. The jaguar “has a healthy sense of boundaries and respects magic and the unknown,” it said. I may not be ready to confront my past lives, but at least I’m more open to having fuller experiences in this one.

Well, the last sentence sounds good, but what does it mean? Why would accepting past lives, which the author explicitly does in the last sentence, make her more open to having fuller experiences now? Wasn’t it the “oracle cards” that woke her up?

No matter, it’s all a bunch of hooey. One could of course do controlled tests of people who have claimed past lives rather than the usual anecdotal “matching” of feelings with data, but so far as I know, the whole schmear rests on these kinds of anecdotes.  And if you claim a memory of a past life in which, for example, you were of a different language group, you should be able to speak that language fluently. The evidence doesn’t support that.

Psychologist Ian Stevenson has claimed to find convincing evidence for reincarnation, but it’s largely anecdotal (that of course doesn’t completely invalidate it), but has also been criticized by others.

But the strongest evidence against reincarnation is that there is neither evidence for a soul that can move between bodies, nor any known physical mechanism that someone’s personality and memories can leave the body and somehow enter another body (and when does the latter happen?). In my view, it’s all wish-thinking, based on the desire to be immortal in the face of the fact that we’re not immortal. So we simply posit that our soul lives on my making itself at home in someone else’s body. (In fact, the observation that people have a strong motivation for wanting to live on after death should make us even more cautious about accepting reincarnation.)

Like all claimed spiritual or psychic phenomena, we can’t say for certain that reincarnation doesn’t occur, but the lack of a mechanism for the process, or rigorous testing by skeptics, certainly doesn’t give the phenomenon much credibility. As Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And we certainly don’t have that kind of evidence in Heba’s testimony. All we have are a bunch of half-baked assertions that don’t survive even slightly rigorous scrutiny.

For reasons that defy me, the New York Times evinces a weakness for these spiritual and numinous phenomena. Is the paper catering to the large fraction of Americans who believe in reincarnation? For, according to a 2018 Pew Survey, fully a third of American adults accept reincarnation. Have a look at the depressing first line of this table from the survey, which is somewhat mitigated by the “atheist” line lower down.

So be it. Those who argue that the NYT remains the newspaper of record must also explain why it shows such a weakness for woo.

Oh, and I’ll add my usual beef here. People tend to valorize the Dalai Lama because he’s written a book saying that science and Buddhism are compatible. Yet it’s clear that the Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation, and I suspect he accept the related principle of karma. These are not supported by science.

I’ll finish with some humor. Several decades back, the Washington Post had a contest in which readers were asked to alter familiar words and then redefine them. Here’s one entry I remember:

Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

h/t: David

42 thoughts on “Unbelievable woo from the NYT: the touting of reincarnation (as well as astrology and oracle cards) by an editor

  1. No matter, it’s all a bunch of hooey.

    Reckless and dangerous hooey, IMO, if the therapist is either causing feelings of trauma or treating a current trauma by attributing it to a non-cause.

    I’m not surprised about the author’s decision. I literally just finished posting on your daily thread, PCC, how people tend to come to a psychological justification for the actions they do. The more of her personal time and focus she invests in her sister’s business, the more she will come to believe the theory behind it must be true. It doesn’t have to follow the logical path of belief -> investment, it can go the other way around where just spending the time causes the belief to grow. In her mind, she’s a good smart person, and one trait of good smart people is that they don’t mistakenly waste their lives on useless or harmful ideas. So if she’s spending her time on her sister’s business, that must mean it has value.

  2. For reasons that defy me, the New York Times evinces a weakness for these spiritual and numinous phenomena.

    I think it’s consistent with several other positions they hold in which:

    1.) The primary evidence is an individual’s subjective experience

    2.) Deep-seated internal belief based on a sense of self is a trustworthy Way of Knowing.

    3.) Trusting what others know to be true about themselves and what happens(ed) to them is a sign of openness and love.

    4.) The best way to approach these beliefs is through listening to and/or living with the believer, so that you develop sympathy and empathy.

    1. Yes. All four of those positions were evident in the reader comments on that article (the comments were even more dire than the article itself).

  3. Jesus Christ, these people shouldn’t venture out of the house without a chaperone, someone to ensure they don’t get lost or conned out of their lunch money.

    1. If you want some truly ‘fit to print’ reincarnation woo, I recommend Dream Theater’s Scenes from a Memory as at least fit to hear. But I doubt the band takes their album premise seriously, and in any event, musical taste is YMMV.

  4. If population is increasing, how do believers account for that? People die, there souls move onto someone just conceived, but then there are people who would not have a soul because there was not enough people in the past! Are there some kind of reserve souls out there in the ether, waiting to occupy a body? But then, those bodies would have no past lives.

    Belief in reincarnation often seems to be an exercise in ego, a way of pumping up their otherwise pedestrian life. When people claim past lives, it is often someone famous. “I was Queen Elizabeth in a past life”. “Oh yeah, I was Napoleon.”

    It’s never “I was Ruprecht, the stable boy…”

    1. I don’t know, “Ruprecht, the Stable Boy” might still carry some Dickensian glamor with it. “Clyde, Who Didn’t Get The Stable Boy Job,” not so much.

      I was mugwort.

    2. Surely when people say ‘I am the reincarnation of x’, then x is almost always rather famous. And surely it axiomatic that you cannot have two distinct reincarnations of the same bod alive simultaneously.
      But any truly famous bod surely is claimed to be the reincarnation of lots of these dummies simultaneously. Does this inconsistency cause any chagrin among the dummies?

      1. And surely it axiomatic that you cannot have two distinct reincarnations of the same bod alive simultaneously.

        You might find that awkward, but the True Believer (aka “mark”) does not worry about such trivialities.

        But any truly famous bod surely is claimed to be the reincarnation of lots of these dummies simultaneously. Does this inconsistency cause any chagrin among the dummies?

        The apocryphal evidence from the “Ward of The Multiple Napoleons” is that they blame it on the malign actions of [their famous nemesis in history] ; so for Napoleons. there’s a Wellington about ; for a Christ-a-like there’s a Judas hanging around in the trees ; and don’t ask the wrong Tsar Nicholas how he gets on with Rasputin – one will smile about his song-famed lover, and the other Tsar will attack you for mentioning that philanderer.

  5. The new woke style in cultural anthropology is never, never to confront primitive religious fantasies
    with even the concept of “evidence-based facts”. No, that would be “colonialism”, “white supremacy” and so on. This trend can also be detected in some “Global Health” literature, where it is frowned on to suggest that modern scientific medicine is in any way more useful than shamanistic rites. Some NYT staffers are simply extending this indulgence to reincarnation, and will soon enlighten us with breathless stories about poltergeists, psychokinesis, and knowledge through Tarot cards.

    Another obvious source of this particular delusion is, of course, woke transgenderism. If the claim to be “born in the wrong body” is respectable—indeed, sanctified— then equal respect should be accorded claims to have once inhabited the body of Napoleon or Cleopatra. It is disappointing, however, that these “past lives” specialists never inhabited the bodies of tigers, elephants, oysters, or trees. This glaring speciesism calls for investigation by a Diversity/Inclusion subcommittee.

    1. Several commenters on that NYT story anticipated your critique, and claimed that lots of humans formerly were animals. Not sure about oysters though – who wants to be an animal without a head 🙁

  6. This discussion reminds me of another variety of hooey that is commonplace in one branch of academia and in the corporate world: Business Woo. My own university boasts a Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking, which periodically issues deep thoughts like the following: “In both the Olympics and in broader organizational contexts, it takes a lot of discipline, focus, self-sacrifice, support, feedback, mentoring, failure, resiliency, persistence and intrinsic motivation to be successful. It takes those same qualities to build a team where the people on that team have a common mission and objectives and are aligned, focused, supportive, challenging, inspiring, empathetic, inclusive, clear in their expectations, and willing to step up or step down.”
    The language of Deep Thoughts like this one is rather similar to the administrese used in bulletins issued by D/E/I offices and committees. That, as we used to say in the Daily Worker many years ago, is no coincidence.

    1. “My own university boasts a Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking”

      We have a Centre for Teaching Excellence, which certainly does some good things, but some not quite that. I enjoy joshing a few of them occasionally by saying that I am happy we don’t have a ‘Centre for Teaching Mediocrity’, misunderstanding “Teaching” as a verb, not an adjective.

      I’d like to think Orwell would have preferred ‘Centre for Excellent Teaching’.

    2. Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking

      Typo for the “Centre for extraction of Fees from the Credulous Over-moneyed”.
      How are their plans to replace students with bitcoin miners going?

  7. If the NYT is going to publish this dreck, presumably because readers like it and pay money to read it, they should segregate it from their factual content and/or mark it with a prominent label: “Non-factual Content”. But I know this is never going to happen.

  8. That article was both funny and desperately sad. We do know what memories are. Or at least people have taken the first baby steps in knowing what memories are. Carlsson, Greengard, & Kandel got a Nobel Prize >20 years ago for that work. Those molecules in synapses can’t be transferred from one organisms to another. Or at least not by a mechanism that humans would want to emulate.


    1. I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave to Robert under no.5 a few moments ago.

  9. I have never set foot in a church in my life, however it’s maddening how the Woke and the left have waged an all-out war on Christianity, yet somehow are accommodating and supportive of every other religion and spirituality on the planet (as long as it’s not European or American). So… Christian Jesus is the “spaghetti monster in the sky”, but reincarnation and tarot cards are legitimate “lived experiences” that we should fully support and prop up as truth. Okay…

    1. The Revelation of the Spaghetti Monster did, it is granted, take place to Saint Bobby during a bout of acute indigestion brought on by US Bible-Beltian Christian Creationists, but the Revelation of the One True Spaghettification (May Sauce Be Upon Her Mighty Meaty Balls) is contrary to all established religions with equal disfavour to all. But we Pastafarianans tend to get more practice on Xtians simply because there are more of them. Their Jewish and Islamic co-religionists get basted with the same brush – we just turn the roast up to expose a different aspect of their Trinity.
      Why do the monotheists go in for schisming so much? After all, by definition they are all worshipping the same god, just in different ways. Some nail him to a tree, others gird him about their belts or stick her on their heads – comme-ci, comme-ca : equal respect for them all.

  10. I remember my past too; big deal. (Although people say I need to get a life, so maybe that doesn’t count as remembering past life.) The real trick would be to remember the future. Take that, Ludwig Boltzmann and Claude Shannon!

  11. The NYT should be ashamed of itself. But on the subject of reincarnation, it looks like a struggle lies ahead over the Dalai Lama:

    The Dalai Lama, who recently turned 86, has insisted that discussions of his death are premature (according to his own visions, he will live to 113). But a power struggle for who will choose his reincarnation after he dies has already begun.

    “We are looking at the highly likely situation that when the 14th Dalai Lama dies, there will be two Dalai Lamas named in his place,” said Robert Barnett, a Tibetan expert. “One selected on the basis of instructions left behind by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and one chosen by the Chinese Communist party.”


    1. Yes, I’d say this is a case where religion comes out ahead; the negative social consequences arising from the original Tibetan religious procedure << the negative social consequences arising from the modern Chinese political goal. It may be irrational to select a spiritual leader from kids using semi-random arbitrary tests. But it's probably not as harmful as selecting and training a spiritual leader from kids based on their perceived ability to be a despot-supporting puppet.

  12. Where are memories stored? A quick look online finds this description:
    “Memories aren’t stored in just one part of the brain. Different types are stored across different, interconnected brain regions. For explicit memories – which are about events that happened to you (episodic), as well as general facts and information (semantic) – there are three important areas of the brain: the hippocampus, the neocortex and the amygdala. Implicit memories, such as motor memories, rely on the basal ganglia and cerebellum. Short-term working memory relies most heavily on the prefrontal cortex.”

    Well, that seems pretty dispersed. But if we can assay how brain activity is different when we remember something from the past, versus when we just make up stuff, then we can maybe test if Heba is full of it or not.

    1. But if we can assay how brain activity is different when we remember something from the past, versus when we just make up stuff,

      Sadly, the current state of the art (involving invasive brain surgery to implant micro-machined electrode arrays) can get to measure the activity of the average of about a cubic millimetre of brain. But to measure the individual neuron (let alone it’s axons and the hundreds or thousands of other neurons it interacts with) we need to reduce that volume around a billion-fold.
      Someone mentioned Shannon up-thread. What, I wonder would be the error rate for transmission of a femtoamp signal through 4mm of bone, several meninges, skin and (optional) hair totalling to O(megaohm), into a detector with a noise floor in the microvolts? To be comparable to, say, floppy disc fidelity, you’d need to get the error rate down to O(10^-10).
      There was quite a bit of thought behind Douglas Adams use of the word “diced” in describing how DentArthurDent’s brain needed to be prepared to readout the Earth-Computer. I suspect he was making a joke, but with him, you never can be entirely sure that he hadn’t already thought it through.

      Why, after typing “thought it through”, is my mind noy filled with thoughts of Elon Musk?

  13. There’s a very nice line in “The Fellowship of the Ring”: “If that’s where you get your news, you’ll never want for moonshine.” Alas that it should come to apply, at least a little, to so many formerly reliable outlets.

  14. I saw the headline on the front page, I decided to skip the article. What one believes is not the same as what there is true.

    In regards to the Dalai Lama and the compatibilism of Buddhism and science, I suspect it’s the same as Christians who claim the compatibility between their beliefs and science. They are compatible so long as you ignore the aspects that go against a scientific understanding because those elements aren’t disproved by science so they don’t have to abandon them. Science can’t disruptive that Jesus wasn’t God-incarnate or that the resurrection didn’t happen since those were by definition miracles and thus beyond science. It’s a good line for believers, and utterly vacuous to anyone who isn’t.

    1. The irony of it all is if you apply scientific rigour to their beliefs, you’re accused of scientism. Seems at odds with the claim of compatibility…

        1. More that they think it’s an accusation of irrationality. i.e. “it’s an unwarranted philosophical move that overextends the application of science beyond what it is epistemically warranted”.

          The boundaries of science are always conveniently where their beliefs begin, rather than where the demarcation problem suggests it is. They’ve taken a legitimate academic concern and turned it into a shield for their nonsense beliefs through dubious application.

          1. “philosophical” … well if philosophy is raising it’s entropy-rich head, I am really glad I just got another big bag of bog roll. I think I’m ready for the onslaught of philosophy and it’s hordes of paper tigers mounted on five-legged unicorns.

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