Complementary and alternative medicine Friday Woo Medicine Pseudoscience Skepticism/critical thinking

Your Friday Dose of Woo: The Alchemy of Woo

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You know, I really wish I could have made it to The Amazing Meeting this year. It would have been really cool to have a chance to hear in person such skeptical luminaries, such as The Amazing Randi, Penn and Teller (although I do concede that Penn’s Libertarianism does occasionally border on credulity for some dubious propositions), and Phil Plait. And who wouldn’t want to meet the purveyors of what’s become my favorite skeptical podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, such as Steve Novella and The Skepchick? And, of course, it’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to visit Las Vegas, a.k.a. Sin City (“what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”).

Oddly enough, though, there’s one more chance this year to make it to Vegas for a meeting if I wanted to. All I’d have to do is to go with the flow and agree to feel the woo. And who knows? As shown to me by Stupid Evil Bastard and pointed out to me by John Lynch, if I attended this other meeting, maybe it would be the start of a beautiful new career as an alchemist. Yes, I mean it. We’re talking about the International Alchemy Conference in October:


Don’t miss this rare opportunity to meet and work with practicing alchemists from around the world! Practitioners will share both practical and spiritual techniques in this intensive, multimedia event. The emphasis is on real alchemy, and the goal is to inform and empower individuals with the ancient wisdom. Practical methods of transformation in both laboratory and inner work will be featured throughout the event. There will be lots of opportunities for informal meetings, plus free prizes, entertainment, and other fun surprises.

Learn ancient wisdom and get free prizes? Who could resist? Surely not me. So I delved deeper into the website to see what they’re offering. After all, I had no idea that alchemists still even existed? Did you? Well, read on as we learn of what is billed as the largest meeting of alchemists in 500 years:


  • Discover the secret history of alchemy and how it is practiced today.
  • Learn the secret formulae and processes of the alchemists.
  • Learn how to set up an alchemical laboratory in your own home.
  • Be able to recognize hidden “signatures” of people and events.
  • Learn to make tinctures and elixirs that capture spiritual energy.


  • Resonate with the magical power of alchemists’ symbols and drawings.
  • Awaken powerful energies to fuel your continuing transformation.
  • Understand how the ancient principles work in your own life.
  • Learn how to transmute emotions and thoughts into purified consciousness.
  • Take part in meditations and experiments demonstrating esoteric principles.


  • Discover ways to harness the life force for alternative healthcare and continuing rejuvenation.
  • Exchange the latest research in such diverse areas as the history of science and quantum chemistry.
  • Learn to make alchemical tinctures, oils, elixirs, and other products in the privacy of your own kitchen.
  • Become a certified alchemical practitioner or apply the principles in your present career.
  • Turn lead of everyday life into the gold of health, wealth, and new opportunities.

I really love the last part about turning the “lead of everyday life into the gold of health, wealth, and new opportunities,” don’t you? It’s just so perfect. I’m also amazed that alchemists have discovered quantum theory. Maybe I shouldn’t be. Quantum theory and alchemy, two great tastes that go great together–if you’re into woo. Of course, if you recall, alchemy is the ancient science/philosophy that combined chemistry, metallurgy, medicine, mysticism, spiritualism, and astrology, among other things. It was actually a precursor to modern science, but modern science has supplanted it completely, and for good reason. Even so, I really like the idea of learnign to make tinctures, oils, elixirs, and other products in the privacy of my own kitchen. Of course, I have an advantage over most of these guys in that I actually have my very own real laboratory. Imagine what I could accomplish! I wonder if I could get NIH funding for this. Hey, there’s always NCCAM.

Things like this:

As Carl Jung discovered, the energies of alchemy are universal principles that find their expression in the human mind and imagination. In this fascinating presentation, a respected alchemical researcher and Jungian psychoanalyst explores the deep inner work of alchemy and relates the sol niger (Black Sun) and the nigredo (Black Phase) to the Philosophers’ Stone. The lecturer will also address the fundamental split in the alchemical imagination between spiritual and laboratory work. Dr. Stanton Marlan.

Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick! Why didn’t I think of combining Jungian psychology with the energies of alchemy? Think of the possibilities! If you think the human mind can be messed up using relatively simple methods, just think of what could be accomplished combining analytical psychology with alchemy. Maybe I could learn to analyze dreams and transmute lead into gold at the same time–true multitasking!

But, of course, that’s not all. There’s the Spagyrics Workshop:

Spagyrics (spa-gîr-iks) is a Greek word meaning to separate and recombine. Spagyrics was the basis of Paracelsus’ work, and he is often considered its father. The spagyric process is a three-fold process of separation, purification, and cohobation (reunion of the purified parts). During the process, the essences of the substance are exposed and reborn under planetary influences. The spagyric product is considered to be at a higher level of potency able to effect not only the physical body but also the underlying or spiritual cause of disease. This class will meet twice during the conference. Certificates of completion and credit in the Alchemy Home Study Program will be provided by Flamel College. Taught by Robert Allen Bartlett, chief chemist at the Paracelsus Research Institute.

The Paracelus Research Institute? Shades of Don Lemmon, may he rest in peace! In any case, this stuff kind of reminds me of homeopathy. Consider: Suposedly the “essences” of substances are “exposed and reoborn under planetary influences” to produce a product that is at a “higher level of potency” to effect both the physical and spiritual cause of disease. I had no idea that homeopathy was rooted in alchemist thought, but maybe it was. Certainly this whole “spagyrics” thing makes me think this to be the case. Truly, woo goes back many centuries. Of course, hundreds of years ago, one could understand why alchemy was considered science and some of the most learned scholars considered it to be high learning, given the primitive state of understanding of chemistry, physics, and biology. In the year 2007, it’s pretty hard to understand how anyone could take this stuff seriously anymore. Certainly, until I heard of this conference, even I had no idea that there were still people calling themselves alchemists out there. Maybe I shouldn’t be, given how much woo appeals to vitalism, invoking a life “energy” like qi. I mean, look at this workshop offered in the alchemy conference, The Life Force: Universal Agent of Transformation:

This lecture explores the nature and operation of that mysterious alchemical agent, the Universal Life-Force. The outpouring of this primal force serves at both the cosmic and personal levels as the connection between “spirit” and “matter,” cause and effect, subjective inner self and objective outer world. As such, it is the power that is brought to bear in all alchemical transmutations…These transmutations are applied to our subtle bodies (or energy fields of vitality), emotions and desires, and analytical or concrete thought…The final goal is to develop and perfect the Causal Body: our immortal vehicle of abstract thought and gateway to the Spirit. Also known as the Karana Sarira, Augoeides, and Robe of Glory, it represents our Inner Gold — the true Holy Grail, the only vehicle which can contain the “Holy Spirit.” Finally, depictions of the crude and perfected stages of our astral, mental, and causal bodies that develop in the course of the Great Work of Inner Transformation will be shown. Dr. Bruce Fisher.

i-3ff0a073043e3ce8be69ff70aaed16f5-amcl83.jpgNow, I’m all for the Great Work of Inner Transformation just as much as the next person, but I had something different in mind. For me, the inner transformation that I’d like to see people undergoing is learning to embrace the scientific method and skepticism–particularly towards claims about “subtle bodies,” “alchemical transmutations,” and “astral, mental, and causal bodies.” But, hey, that’s just me. Your mileage may vary.

One thing that amused me about this whole Alchemy Conference was that they actually hired a magician, Jeff McBride (official website), and he’s hosting an alchemical fire circle. And, of course, this begs the question of whether McBride actually believes this woo, or whether he’s just doing his act, and the “alchemists” are lapping it up. Calling The Amazing Randi STAT! I think we need an intervention here. Either that, or he needs to show up at this conference; maybe he could go in disguise. That’d be really cool.

In the end, it’s hard to understand why there could be people still calling themselves alchemists in the world. Alchemy may have made observations that eventually formed the core of modern chemistry, but it got so much wrong. As our understanding of the physical world grew through observation and experimentation, it became clear that alchemy could not stand, even though it may have taken hundreds of years to fall. Modern chemistry supplanted alchemy long ago for very good reason: the amazing level of understanding science has achieved answering the very questions about the physical world that alchemists were interested in and providing a logical framework for continuing to answer the questions that we do not yet understand. That framework, of course, is the scientific method.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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