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On the January 1, 2010 episode of the show, the featured topic was Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I’m a fan of Ehrenreich’s work, and she used to live in Charlottesville, so I tuned in while I was driving somewhere or another. Ehrenreich’s thesis was that a lack of critical thinking was part of what led to the collapse of Countrywide and companies like it, touching off the recession. That the people who advance and do well in those businesses were the people saying “nothing can go wrong with bundling sub-prime mortgages,” not the people saying “I think this is a bad idea, because it could end disastrously.” Olney had a few different guests on the show alongside Ehrenreich, and one of them was John Assaraf.
I’d never heard of John Assaraf before, but a mere glance at his website makes obvious that he’s a shyster. He’s in the business of taking money from suckers by selling them the message that they simply need to imagine themselves rich, and then they will be rich. Of course, somebody listening to the show wouldn’t know this about the guy. They’d only know that he’s a “business growth expert and motivational speaker,” as Olney introduced him.
So Assaraf spends a minute making outlandish, utterly unsupportable medical claims, with absolutely no education or experience that would allow him to evaluate them—sheer bullshit—all about how disease can be stopped on a cellular level by thinking happy thoughts, and that’s when we discover that Ehrenreich has a doctorate in cellular immunology. Who saw that coming? Nobody! Nobody could have! It’s astounding! But you know who doesn’t care? Olney. Not in the least. He continues his “so what’s your response?” back-and-forth between the two, never acknowledging that Assaraf has been hopeless owned by Ehrenreich, or that Olney or his produce have erred enormously in matching up a motivational speaker with a cellular immunologist to debate cellular immunology. Olney, presumably not having just fallen off the turnip truck, surely knew he was being bullshitted by Assaraf and that, by extension, his listeners were being bullshitted by Assaraf. But instead he followed his lousy script where he just has two people say their piece, and lets the listeners sort out who they agree with. But that requires honest actors, it requires evenly matched debaters, and it requires that the topic be something on which intelligent minds may disagree. This was not such a topic.
Which begs the opposite question: Why should I take Waldo’s word for it? Why should you take my word that Waldo’s word might be suspect?
This week’s UK Economist flips the issue of trust into something called affinity fraud, where otherwise sensible people are led to believe things by people whom they inherently trust… only to be fleeced in the end:
The increase is partly a result of better detection, post-Madoff. The SEC filed more than twice as many Ponzi cases in 2010 as in 2008. The number of Ponzis exposed each month began to climb just as the financial crisis struck in 2007 (see chart). Frauds are more prone to collapse in a weak economy as investors try to pull money out to cover shortfalls elsewhere.
Bad times also make get-rich-quick schemes more tempting. Desperation breeds gullibility. The median annual return offered by scammers in the Marquet study was 38%. In a case in Montana, victims were promised 800% back in a week.
Mistrust of mainstream finance helps the scammers. The big guys on Wall Street have shown they can’t be trusted, they say; better to go with someone you know. This was part of Mr Taylor’s pitch in Georgia.
This “Mr. Taylor” would walk into a church, promise the folks in the pews that God wanted them to be rich so they could do God’s work, then sold them on a profit-making scheme… and disappeared with the cash. Taylor is still on the run.
I’ve opined on this in the past regarding how readers should filter their information. The blogosphere, sadly, has not improved one iota as baser instincts seem to run roughshod over information, culture, and learning. At the end of the day, we’re all at the mercy of our prejudices, experiences, and what we know.