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Ayahuasca: Confusing Correlation and Causation

In the last month, I've read an article about it in the New Yorker and heard a story about it on public radio. Ayahuasca is hot right now, no doubt. In this post, I look critically at a series of blog posts about ayahuasca, and discuss the problem of confusing correlation and causation.


First, let's clarify the difference between correlation and causation. For this, we'll use an unrelated topic, which is that CEOs tend to be more physically fit than the average person. In this case, it's clear that physical fitness doesn't cause CEOness. There are lots of physically fit people who are not CEOs. Likewise, CEOness doesn't cause physical fitness. I would have to do a proper study to prove this, but my guess is that most CEOs were physically fit prior to becoming CEOs. Provided that I'm right about that, we would say that CEOness and physical fitness are correlated. That is, they tend to go together. However, they are not caused by each other. They are likely caused by some other factor. In this case, the personality traits that lead one to become physically fit - good critical reasoning skills, time management, and self-discipline - are also traits that one desires in a CEO.


Now, to the point. There's quite a bit of discussion on the internet about why ayahuasca is bad, and most of it is not wrong. Ayahuasca is a powerful tool, and like all tools, it can be used incorrectly. In my opinion, ayahuasca is indeed used incorrectly much of the time, with effects varying from being downright damaging to being merely mildly enlightening (as opposed to being profoundly healing, which is its potential). Well-reasoned warnings about what can go wrong when ayahuasca is used badly are not what I have issue with.


What I do have issue with is when people draw conclusions about the goodness or badness of ayahausca (or anything else, really), without taking into account all of the information necessary to arrive at a well-considered judgment. For a taste of what I mean, please see this series of blog posts, in which a well-known energy reader dresses down a trio of ayahuasca "shamans" for having slimy energy.


The problem with this analysis (the one I'd like to talk about today, anyway) is that it doesn't distinguish between correlation and causation. Do the "shamans" mentioned in the blog have slimy, gross energy? Yes, definitely. Is that slimyenergy caused by ayahuasca, or just correlated? Is there some third thing, such as personality traits, that would lead someone to both have slimy energy and be involved with promoting ayahuasca in this way? If so, is ayahuasca inherently bad, or is it simply a powerful tool that's being used incorrectly by these individuals?


To me, the argument presented in the blog posts - that ayahuasca is dangerous because these individual users have yucky energy fields - is misguided. It would be similar to saying that because some medical doctors are overweight, all of Western medicine is bad and all health advice from doctors should be ignored. It's illogical to blame ayahuasca for the condition of these particular people's energy fields, at least without more information.


The truth is that ayahuasca tends to be a last-ditch effort for people in desperate need of major spiritual repair. Why else would someone spend a lot of time and money to change their diet for weeks, maybe fly to another country, and then spend a series of days choking down a foul-tasting brew promising hours of vomiting and weeping? Doesn't that sound like a pretty extreme solution to most normal-level troubles people have?


The people that seek out ayahuasca tend to have major problems with their energy fields to begin with, and it's the shaman's job to carefully and diligently assist with the repair work. Unfortunately, most "shamans" working with ayahuasca aren't competent at this. Some even worsen the situation, sometimes out of incompetence, and most horrifyingly, sometimes on purpose. However, I've become convinced that when used by the right person in the right way for the right reason, both Western medicine and ayahuasca have the power to transform lives for the better.

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© Amaya Urzaa

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